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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