Last week it was reported that Dr Hugh Houghton of the University of Birmingham had translated a long-lost fourth-century Latin commentary on the gospels by African-born Italian bishop Fortunatianus of Aquileia, which Jerome had described as ‘a gem’, but which was thought to have been lost, either having perished or having been destroyed. But it turns out to have been preserved in an ninth-century copy which became public once the manuscript was digitised. Can you see why this has hit the headlines? No?
Because it was packaged under the headline:
‘Don’t take the Bible literally’ says scholar who brought to light earliest Latin analysis of the Gospels.
which several people posted to me on Facebook. The article goes on to contrast the (enlightened) view of Fortunatianus with the ignorance of ‘evangelicals’:
The approach differs from the trend of biblical literalism adopted by modern evangelical and fundamentalist Christians, which interprets the Bible as the literal word of God which is not open to interpretation.
The linked article is a 2008 piece, which quotes George W Bush as saying that he thinks there is some merit in theories of evolution, which it translates as meaning that GWB doesn’t believe in literalism, which then translates into the headline of ‘Bible probably not true, says George Bush’. This article is remarkable in making the Telegraph actually look less intelligent that George W Bush, which is quite a feat.
But before returning to the question of reporting, we need to consider the language of ‘literal’ truth. The first problem is that no-one can agree what ‘literal’ literally means. If you dig around, you will usually end up with something like ‘not symbolic’. But it you then look up what it means to be ‘symbolic’, you will find the definition ‘not literal’—which doesn’t help much. This is made all the more complex when you find that people who do claim to interpret ‘literally’ (and there are plenty of them) actually often end up interpreting allegorically. This is particularly evident in reading the Book of Revelation, which some interpret as a prediction of ‘end-times’ political and military conflict—which is an allegorical, not literal interpretation. The literal meaning of the crowned scorpions with women’s hair and breastplates of iron is…crowned scorpions with women’s hair and breastplates of iron. To interpret these as armoured attack helicopters (as some do) is allegorical.
When in conversation with people who claim to be literal readers, I usually turn to Is 43. What does it mean to read that ‘When you pass through the waters, I will be with you…When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned’? Again, there are some Christians who undertake fire walking to prove this is true—but most ‘literalists’ will recognise that this is poetry, and we need to take seriously its poetic symbolism. This, then, gets to the heart of the origins of the word ‘literal’: to read ‘literally’ should really be understood as reading something taking into account its literary form and context. This is actually touched on by Hugh Houghton in his observations:
He said that the Bible had to be “understood in the context that the authors were working in.”
To help us through this debate, we need to look at what allegorical reading is all about. The word ‘allegory’ is derived from the Greek words allos and agoria meaning ‘other speaking’. In theory, this is just another way of listening to what God might be saying in the text of Scripture, and some would defend its use within the mediaeval development of the ‘four meanings’ of a text—the literal (plain or surface meaning), the allegorical, the moral sense and the anagogical or spiritual sense. The Reformers did not, in general, accept anything other than the ‘literal’ as meanings of the text of Scripture, precisely because they bring ‘other speaking’ into the text. If the allegorical meaning is not concerned with what the author in context could have meant, it ends up becoming a way of projecting our own ideas onto the text, and thereby actually silencing what God might be saying to us. If we think that the story of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10 is an allegory of the spiritual journey from sinfulness to salvation, we might miss the main point of the story that Jesus told: ‘Go thou and do likewise’. Projection of our own meanings and thereby silencing the text is also a concern for reader-response approaches to Scripture, which put the contemporary reader at the centre of the interpretive process and don’t pay sufficient attention to the intention and context of the original text.
Allegorical interpretation needs to be distinguished from two other aspects of reading, both of which allow the Scriptures to have their full depth and texture, but which are quite distinct. The first is to pay attention to the figural or symbolic significance of the text, both in its own right and in its context within the canonical story of God’s dealing with his people. When Jesus sends the blind man to wash in the pool of Siloam, it reinforces the symbolic significance of Jesus’ command to note that the root meaning of ‘Siloam’ means ‘sent’—as indeed John informs us (John 9.7). It is even more profound to note that in John’s gospel Jesus repeatedly uses the language of him being ‘sent’ by the Father to bring salvation and healing (the Greek term sozo has both meanings). There is no reason here to think that the symbolic significance has any negative impact on the historicity of the story; why could Jesus not have acted symbolically?
Another fascinating example of the difference between allegorical and figurative readings of the story is shown in our understanding of the story of Rahab in Joshua 2. What is the meaning of the crimson thread that Rahab hangs outside her house? Allegorical reading says that this is the blood of Christ—projecting a meaning which the writers and first readers would not have understood. But paying attention to the symbolism of the story (and the fact that the thread has an unusual prominence), we see that readers of this story would have seen a parallel with the blood of the lamb on the doorposts at the Exodus passover. The historical sense is simply that this episode happened; a proper literal reading explores why the story has been told that way it has, and what the writer communicated in that by emphasising some aspects. (Interestingly, there is then a connection between the thread and Jesus because of the New Testament understanding of Jesus as the Passover sacrifice—but that is very different from turning the episode into an allegory.)
Allegorical reading also needs to be distinguished from discerning the implications of a text, or its meaning in our context, usually by means of metaphorical extension. This is illustrated perfectly by Hugh Houghton’s example from Fortunatianus himself:
This sheds new light on the way the Gospels were read and understood in the early Church, in particular the reading of the text known as “allegorical exegesis” in which elements in the stories are interpreted as symbols. So, for example, when Jesus climbs into a boat on the Sea of Galilee, Fortunatianus explains that the sea which is sometimes rough and dangerous stands for the world, while the boat corresponds to the Church in which Jesus is present and carries people to safety.
If Fortunatianus is suggesting that this event did not happen, and that it is simply a creation by the gospel writer to communicate this truth, then we have an allegorical interpretation. But most contemporary readings of this kind are not doing this. Consider this modern ‘allegorical’ reading to which I was introduced on Scripture Union Beach Mission:
With Christ in the vessel we can smile at the storm, smile at the storm, smile at the storm
With Christ in the vessel we can smile at the storm as we go sailing by…
The boat has become my life; the sea has become the arena in which we live out our lives; the storm at sea the troubles life brings; and Jesus in the boat is my invitation to him to lead my life as a disciple. But again, this says nothing negative about the historicity of the story—indeed, if this is not to become mythological wishful thinking, for most singing this song the reason that I can be confident of the metaphorical meaning in my life is because the events in the gospel narrative really did happen. There was a fashion in biblical studies 100 years ago and more to see the gospels as creatively contrived stories about Jesus’ spiritual significance by inventing episodes that clearly could not have happened (not least because they included the miraculous). But there is now widespread agreement that the gospels are very similar to other ancient ‘lives’ about famous men, and the writers appear to have thought that they were writing what would have been considered in their day to be reliable history. (Such change is a sobering reminder not to take the ‘assured results of modern scholarship’ too seriously without some critical reflection…!).
Seeing symbolism in the stories and understanding symbolic significance from the stories in Scripture are both quite distinct from ‘allegorical’ reading which sees the stories not as accounts of significant historical events, but as containers of ‘codes’ which need to be unravelled. And the relation between symbol and history is complex, with neither excluding the other.
But to return to the reporting of the story in the Telegraph (and the version which, with the application of a little source criticism, appears to have been copied from it in the Standard)—I suspect that Hugh Houghton is well aware of all the above. So why does the report present him as moving from a Latin manuscript to tell us we cannot think of the Bible as the word of God? I suppose that might be his view (I don’t know Hugh Houghton, though I have friends who do), but there is another possibility. A reporter looking for a story that will make headlines asks a series of leading questions. ‘What is significant in this text?How is this way of reading different from fundamentalists? Could modern Christians learn from this?’ And voila, we have a story. (The strangest and most wonderful element of it was the idea that for God to speak, he must be a literalist—as if God was incapable of being poetic, imaginative or creative in speech, something of an ironic for anyone wanting to defend the creation accounts!)
This is particularly likely if the reporter herself has no understanding of the issues at stake here, or even the proper meaning of the term ‘literal’. This was the same person who reported on my arguments about bishops wearing mitres. I was grateful for her piece, since it drew attention to the issue and gave opportunities to talk about what Christian faith is all about. But in conversation about it, I asked her if she had heard of the Oxford Movement or the Tractarians. ‘No’. So someone was writing about the C of E’s debate about vestments, without having the slightest understanding of any of the debates about ritualism. And I suspect we have here a story about allegorical and literal readings by someone with no understanding of the basics of reading and interpretation.
If the unhelpful polarities and artificial simplifications here are indeed a sign of the growing religious illiteracy of the press, I suspect we have more of this to come.
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