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Don’t Take the Bible Literally

Hugh Houghton
Dr. Hugh Houghton

The recent translation of a fourth-century document by African-born Italian bishop Fortunatianus of Aquileia has resulted in a lot of internet (and non-internet) – I’m going to say – confusion.

This link leads you to that translation of Fortunatianus of Aquileia, Commentary on the Gospels. Read Fortunatianus here.

Dr Hugh Houghton, of the University of Birmingham, made the translation. He is quoted in the Telegraph (this is repeated in the Evening Standard and elsewhere):

for people teaching the Bible in the fourth century, it’s not the literal meaning which is important, it’s how it’s read allegorically.

In these articles (here and here, for example) “literal” is contrasted with “allegorical” and “symbolic”.

In those articles, this contrasting gives the impression that a lot of contemporary Christians assume that all the Bible is history and science, and that this was not the case, say, in the fourth century.

I find this an unhelpful oversimplification. I have enjoyed looking at the work by Fortunatianus, particularly his reflections on the early material in Matthew’s Gospel that I have been working on in reading Matthew in Slow Motion. But in my reading of Fortunatianus, I often find that he certainly saw an event written in the Gospels as historical – he is simply reinterpreting what he thinks is historical in an allegorical manner.

That’s quite a different situation to what is being reported: the reporters are suggesting that, in the fourth century, people saw these as stories invented to present truth allegorically. Certainly, allegory does occur in the Scriptures – but allegory is not very widespread. And the suggestion that the Scriptures are allegory – full stop – is totally mistaken. I would be very surprised if the conclusion that the reporters came to was what Dr Hugh Houghton himself would claim.

Part of the problem is our use of words such as “literal”, “allegorical”, “symbolic” – and, especially, “true”.

I find that thinking more deeply about metaphor is far more fruitful. Metaphor is the primary way the we humans communicate – and the more significant a truth, the more we use metaphor. Science, in the way it speaks about particles and waves and forces and so on, is generally deeply metaphorical.

Truth, deep truth, is often best described metaphorically – and the Bible, hence, is not only full of metaphors, it often has metaphors told in story form.

The powerful way we express truth metaphorically recently hit home to me (“hit home” is a metaphor!) watching a video of a legal presentation by Richard Fowler, a Queen’s Counsel. In his brief presentation, these were some of the metaphors he used:

Put consents into separate boxes… There is a linkage between the boxes… You are home and hosed if you satisfy the resource consent authority… Put that to one side… I won’t drill into the consent required too much… A suite of three resource consents… There is a loose sort of a bridge between the two… You’ve got the wind behind you… You would have to mark that… Could tick that box (Note – this is a different box metaphor to the first box metaphor)… (And to conclude the short presentation, a mixture of metaphors came in quick succession)
…an easier run home than if you look at the flip side of the coin; there is a trumping factor… putting that completely to one side…

No one would suggest that Richard Fowler’s use of metaphors diminished the truth or historical value of his presentation.

We do need to be clear, however, that just as 2,000 years from now, we would expect our current metaphors could be misunderstood, and there will be some uncertainty, debate and misunderstanding of when a phrase or story was metaphorical and when it was not, so we need to have some humility when dealing with the Scriptures – texts from 2,000 years ago and older.

To conclude this post, I adjure you to not use the words “just”, “only”, or “merely” – don’t say: just a metaphor, only a story, merely a symbol.

What do you think?

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image source: Dr. Hugh Houghton, Reader on New Testament Textual Scholarship, in his office at Birmingham University. CREDIT: ANDREW FOX

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20 Responses to Don’t Take the Bible Literally

  1. Dear Bosco,

    as you know the oldest surviving documents related to the Bible are from the Dark Ages, I seem to remember the oldest surviving interpretation/translation of a current Bible Gospel, Mark, is in a Dublin museum? Long time since I looked at it but it was different and short as I recall. A fragment and in Latin not aramaic or greek?

    Too exhausted to look today, Texas is munted as you guys would say, so much flood ( so much for Bible literacy?! )

    But yes, ‘just as 2,000 years from now, we would expect our current metaphors could be misunderstood, and there will be some uncertainty, debate and misunderstanding of when a phrase or story was metaphorical and when it was not, so we need to have some humility when dealing with the Scriptures – texts from 2,000 years ago and older.’

    You used a phrase once ‘the flattening of the narrative’ which has always stuck with me, and I have seen it everywhere from the most supposedly progressive liberalism to the most supposedly traditional interpretations of ‘truth’.

    People view from such a personal perspective, even within the cult, then bend the truth again and again to try and make sense of it.

    Flatten the narrative….I love that.

    Any attempt to absolute an allegory flattens the narrative. I liked that as I wrote it and made it a poem:

    attempting absolute allegory
    flattens narrative,
    breaks to bits a story
    will not let it live,
    chokes the breath from every word and line.
    Instinctively from poetry
    we know what really works,
    but impetuous mental hurry
    makes the best of scholars jerks-
    now beauty is not fine?
    All understanding- finite,
    just like archaeology:
    don’t jack hammer your ammonite,
    be gentle,
    let her ( the larger ) be.
    Both yours and mine.

    *

    Sending love, even though I am such a grump with pain these days!

  2. To conclude this post, I adjure you to not use the words “just”, “only”, or “merely” – don’t say: just a metaphor, only a story, merely a symbol.

    When I write something, say a comment to someone’s blogpost, when I have finished with my 1st draft, the first thing that I do is look it over and remove any abosolutes that I may have used. The secong thing that I do is to go back through and take out any hedging I may have done.

  3. I think the overall impression given by this piece of news is very helpful – that the ancient Church did not read sacred scripture literalistically, as modern day protestant fundamentalists do. The literal meaning, what the human author was trying to express, is a deeper mystery, which allegory and metaphor and historical memory are only expressions of. The Word of God, that mysterious expression of divine grace.

    Many Blessings

    • Yes, Chris. On the facebook page associated with this site, someone pointed to Augustine of Hippo’s interpretation of the Scriptures – the wooden selective biblical literalism is indeed a very new approach. Sadly, it is the one that has got the most airtime for many, so that a lot of my own energy (in real life) is expended in arguing that the approach you and I follow is not radical – it is the majority approach (currently and historically). Blessings.

  4. I’ll be honest Bosco, I don’t understand why some people go to church or attempt to lead others, it takes so so much self-discipline to be compassionate and thoughtful.

    I fail daily and it’s not for want of trying or faith in kindness.

    There is indeed nothing radical about ‘do unto others…’ it is the only way societies evolve through cooperation and inclusiveness, through treating power as responsibility.

    I got angry with someone this week for an act of extreme pettiness during the natural disaster in Texas, I used the phrase, ‘show some compassion’. Her response ‘I’m a good Catholic!’ I don’t even know what that means any more, but I am pretty sure it’s not being ‘holier than thou’ gives the right to be cruel or vindictive.

    But it set off a train of inquiry as to who this person is, after another young woman told me ‘she has made our lives a misery’ and sure enough- there were other people encouraging the obnoxious behavior behind the scenes.

    ‘Where two or three gather in my name I am with them’. But what if they gather together to be horrible in Jesus’ name?

    Matthew 25 is Jesus’ explicit instruction about who belongs in his kingdom, ‘inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.’

    When I grew up in church in England there was an admonition ‘repent daily’. ‘ I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.’

    ‘All those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.’

    I like to think on Jesus’ quotes as you know, go straight to the source as it were.

    But it’s St Augustine quote also:

    Humility must accompany all our actions, must be with us everywhere; for as soon as we glory in our good works they are of no further value to our advancement in virtue.

    • Thanks, Tracy. I’ve done quite a bit of thinking (even resulting in some blog posts) about “in my name”. In the Bible, “in my name” means what it does now – “on my behalf” – but it also has a deeper understanding of “name” as “nature”. So, when two or three gather together to be “horrible in Jesus’ name”, I wonder if they are gathering in his name at all. And when two or three gather in Jesus’ nature – even if the name, “Jesus”, is never uttered, might they not be fulfilling what Jesus’ said, and might Jesus not be present in them, with them, through them? And I hope I’ve done more than thinking about this – I hope I’ve lived it a bit. Blessings.

      • You should come visit Texas some time ( I will put you up ) It can be unfortunate the way Christians hate for Jesus here.

        America is a young country with immature people leading. We don’t even have health care yet!

          • You are always welcome.

            Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE America and was hoping to stay here and retire, but it does worry me the idea of growing old in a country with no decent health care, especially when I have a British passport.

            It looks like the North Koreans are trying to start a world war now, which also makes me yearn for England and my family there.

            You quoted St Augustine and then I did, but cultures like North Korea are the opposite of him, they have no cognitive cultural reason or values, no history of great thought.

            I make this point because I am glad I come from a tradition of Christian reasoning, even where it was a bit off, it’s still better than nihilism or empty egotism.

  5. Great response, Bosco. Spreading the narrative that, “Oh, well, everyone thousands of years ago thought the Bible was pure allegory” is certainly harmful. Where I live there are two conflicting and erroneous views on the spectrum of hermeneutics: the Bible was meant for another time and we can get buts of truth from it, and the Bible is a rule book to be followed to a T. Neither effectively captures, and adding this “allegorical” confusion could simply anger one side and cause the other to say, “see! I told you so!”

    • Yes, John. Both of the views you present treat the Bible as a single book. Almost daily, I work with people trying to help them see the Bible is a library of books (scrolls) written over about a millennium, with the books varying in genre, and within the books often a variety of genres. And sometimes we cannot even tell what the genre is. Often, we don’t know who the author is. And there are many things we are certain of. I was horrified to read an article recently that 40% of people in England do not think Jesus is a historical person! For them, I effectively haven’t grown out of putting my trust in the Tooth Fairy. Blessings.

  6. “And sometimes we cannot even tell what the genre is.”

    YES, and that particularly applies to some of the disputed passages which are weaponised today against the LGTB community.

    Genre people, genre.

    Many blessings.

  7. It’s getting hard to be a Christian for those of us who like actually following Christ’s example as opposed to putting words into his mouth.
    Steven Ing, MFT*

    About the recent Nashville Statement+

    *Master’s in Family Therapy
    +More anti-LGBTQ from fundamentalist Evangelical Chistianists

  8. Keep the faith, which I believe is kindness.

    Lots of church leaders have encouraged the development of church as businesses and they are raking in six figure salaries, and I don’t think that helps anyone including themselves. God or Mammon, that’s what it says in the Bible?

    Another big storm on the way here, it breaks my heart Bosco, because we can’t handle any more in Texas but I don’t want people to suffer in the Caribbean or Florida either.

    All makes me realize how lucky I was to be born English, in peace time, personally inure to the evils of the world.

    I don’t know if you saw the news but Nashville Mayor Megan Barry, who spoke out against the Nashville prejudice, her son died a few days ago of an overdose.

    Nashville was at the centre of the civil rights movement and Mrs Barry is their first female mayor- the city has come a long way despite the appearance of a few zealots.

    The phrase which jumps out at me is ‘reaffirm traditional Christian values on sexuality.’ Er, doesn’t that mean men own women and have multiple wives or concubines…this is what gets to me most Bosco, I have read that book cover to cover again and again in various translations, Jesus did not say this stuff, where has it come from?

    • Yes, Tracy, I agree: Jesus said a LOT about money, and very little about sex. Alarm bells should be going off whenever that weighting is reversed. Blessings.

  9. Bosco I often wonder if my grandmother who provided me this John Brown Self-Interpreting Bible ( 1778 ) which I still have, I often wonder if she realised it would get me so stirred up about interpretation and translation.

    As a child I found it fascinating. It’s why I studied Greek and Latin. I wasn’t very good at it but I did once translate the New Testament words of Jesus from the greek, took me about three years!

    But the biggest lesson it taught me was- don’t accept what is not in front of you. Some of this stuff that is accepted as ‘gospel’ isn’t in the scriptures.

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About This Site Welcome to this ecumenical website of resources and reflections on liturgy, spirituality, and worship for individuals and communities. It is run by Rev. Bosco Peters.

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