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All the Bible is True – Some of it Happened

John Dominic Crossan

One of the strange experiences of being online is that you spend hours putting together a very thoughtful piece and a few people read it. Then you stick up a joke (a few seconds’ effort) and tens of thousands of people read it, like it, and share it. I’ve had over a million views on something that I put up on the facebook liturgy page for just a bit of fun.

One quote this week was a bit different. It was thoughtful, thought-provoking, and it has so far been viewed by 84,000 people. Clearly this touched people. Here is the quote.

John Dominic Crossan said:

My point, once again, is not that those ancient people told literal stories and we are now smart enough to take them symbolically, but that they told them symbolically and we are now dumb enough to take them literally.Who Is Jesus?: Answers to Your Questions about the Historical Jesus

Most reactions were appreciative, but they included responses like, “Crossan is a heretic who doesn’t even believe the Gospels are literal accounts.” Well, if that is heretical, then the majority of scholars including the most devout, are heretical, because the understanding that the Gospels, and the Bible generally, aren’t some sort of video-like recordings of history is a pretty normal Christian position.

Even videos, just as an aside, are understood now as presenting a perspective. Whatever you think of post-modernism, no one of significance is denying that a point of view influences what we see. Where you stand determines what you see.

We are separated from the biblical texts by 2-3,000 years. There are huge differences in language, culture, and understanding. We need to have some humility to acknowledge that when they heard a story they were much more agile in understanding that this was a joke, or a poem, or a metaphor, or an exaggeration.

We know exactly what we mean when we say

  • Jim was flogging a dead horse at the meeting.
  • Mary sold her a pup.
  • Bob kept going over and over the same old ground.
  • I’ve told you a million times – that’s not going to happen.

Some people are clearly disconcerted that some things in the Bible may not be describing literally history as it happened. They seem to fear that if they acknowledge one thing in the Bible may not have happened exactly as described, that the whole Bible will unravel and all that they will have left is a lot of confetti lying around their feet.

But no one is claiming that there are no historical events, no historical anchors holding the Biblical texts to the ground of history. Jesus was a historical person who was baptised by John the Baptist, gathered disciples, preached the Kingdom of God, was executed by crucifixion, and so on.

Yes, we may judge something in the Bible to be metaphorical when it might have literally happened, and we might judge something to be historical when it was actually intended to be a clever metaphor.

Allow the story to impact you – as story. Hear God’s Word in and through through the words of the Bible. An atheist can accept the historicity of a particular Bible story and not be affected by God addressing him or her through the story. It is not the historicity of the Bible that is the essence of it being God’s Word.

And let’s have the humility to accept that we might be wrong.

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18 Responses to All the Bible is True – Some of it Happened

    • Certainly, Br David. I was talking about exactly this to a group this morning. Some of the creeds is clearly history, some clearly metaphorical, and some I don’t think I can be clear if we are in metaphor or literal. Blessings.

  1. Hmm, Bosco, isn’t Crossan a bit tricky to walk very far with as we read the Bible? He is a bit picky and choosy about what is “literal” and what is “symbolic”. He does seem to think that Jesus died on the cross but then thinks he was as likely eaten by dogs as buried, and as for the resurrection.

    It is cheesy to read (e.g.) the feeding of the 5000 and assert that was a story the first Christians told symbolically but us dummies 2000 years later take it literally, because if we do that to all the miracle stories (including the resurrection) then we are left with Jesus the remarkable aphorist but not much more. In which case, why did those extraordinary symbolic stories arise? I cannot think of another contemporary rabbi of his time who gained such imaginative attention by his followers!

    In general terms, Crossan’s approach to the historical Jesus insufficiently explains the “smoke” of the gospels because the approach keeps denying there was any “fire” to cause the smoke!

    • Thanks for encouraging clarification, Peter.

      I am not a devotee of Crossan (in fact I would struggle to think of anyone I am a total devotee of). So, just because I like this quote and find it helpful that doesn’t mean I agree with other things that Crossan writes/says. I think that answers the “how far to walk with him” question – from my perspective anyway.

      I find some of the historical tools helpful – when Jesus’ words depart from the usual, we are most probably at historical Jesus bedrock. I cannot follow to the flip side: “when Jesus sounds like others in his context that is unhistorical”. I think there are real issues with this bead-voting Jesus Seminar approach.

      I think if we cut the miracle stories out of the Gospels, as you indicate, we just end up with a story that makes no sense.

      I do not list The Resurrection of Jesus as (“merely” – my word) a miracle. The Resurrection, in my view, is not merely on a miracle continuum. Miracles may point to the Resurrection, but the Resurrection is in a unique category from my perspective.

      Blessings.

      • Not even a devotee of me?
        A messianic complex is hard to feed with 0 followers and 12 to be found 🙂
        Good point about the Resurrection!

    • The usual answer to that is that the author was trying to make Jesus a better Moses than Moses, or a better Elijah than Elijah, etc; or to appeal to the Jews (particularly at times of conflict whether incoming gentiles needed to approach Christianity through Judaism or not).

      How and where you adopt this approach, if at all, is of course subject to Bosco’s sanity above.

  2. Just because “a majority of ‘scholars'” hold an opinion about the Scriptures not to be taken too literally doesn’t carry any weight with me whatsoever. It also means that there are a significant sum, even though they may be a minority, who believe otherwise. A majority of Republicans right now may be following Trump but that does not mean that they know what they are doing.

    • Thanks, Micah. No one is talking about “the Scriptures not to be taken too literally” – we are talking about individual stories. Let’s take one example: do you think that the Good Samaritan in Jesus’ parable (Luke 10:25-37) is a historical person or not? Blessings.

    • Just because “a majority of ‘scholars’” hold an opinion about the Scriptures not to be taken too literally doesn’t carry any weight with me whatsoever. It also means that there are a significant sum, even though they may be a minority, who believe otherwise.
      I’m thinking that you borrowed that argument from the climate change deniers!

  3. I sometimes refer to the Biblical creation stories as ‘true myths’.
    As a modern historian I am very aware of the cultural disconnect between even the 19C and 21C. The historical Jesus is removed from us by not only time, but language and culture. There has to be times when we say ‘I don’t get it, I don’t understand the nuances of the Scriptures as they are written.’

  4. I strikes me that, if everything in the bible has to be taken literally (which is against the teaching of the Catholic Church on how to interpret the bible), that would imply a very small God and a very small literary ability of the human authors, which contradicts both what we know of God and what we know of the ancient authors use of many different literary genre’s.

    I agree with Crossan’s point in the quote, but I do think Crossan goes rather overboard at times, making wild claims based on what seems to be very flimsy evidence.

    Blessings

  5. Thank you for this posting. While I do not claim to have any special revelation i cannot deny that I believe I have experienced the presence of Someone, whose body was not eaten by dogs! My life as a Christian, who is an Anglican bishop has been blessed by many scholars and think this particular piece is very thought provoking.

  6. Who (and when) first said, “All the Bible is true and some of it happened”? Some think Marcus Borg but I haven’t found a specific quote and reference.
    thanks
    Joe

  7. Thanks for your reply. When and Where in “print”? I’m also looking for my own “original” but maybe too obvious and so no one can claim it quote- “God gave you a brain so use it” I want that one approved as the Methodist Church motto.

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