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Should we read the Bible literally?

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.”

And this is, of course, where we get into all sorts of debate: what was the context of the authors of Scripture? What assumptions did they make? Can we make the same ones—and are their assumptions determinative of how we should interpret them?

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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39 Responses to Should we read the Bible literally?

  1. Henry Neufeld August 26, 2017 at 2:41 pm #

    It’s also interesting that the news tends to treat this as a sudden discovery that the ancients knew about allegorical interpretation, something hardly surprising. It’s great to have the commentary, of course, but that part of it isn’t news, really.

  2. Ian H August 26, 2017 at 3:21 pm #

    Thank you Ian.

    Interpretation of scripture aside…. I loved “This article is remarkable in making the Telegraph actually look less intelligent that George W Bush, which is quite a feat.”

    • Chris August 26, 2017 at 10:57 pm #

      As an American, I didn’t think your crack about Bush was funny. Actually thought it was in very poor taste. Bush has come to be seen in hindsight as much more intelligent than he was portrayed. Inarticulate yes, stupid no. It also tremendously undermines your credibility. Christians especially should be the last people throwing insults in this mean world of ours.

      • Ian Paul August 28, 2017 at 7:40 am #

        Thanks for the comment Chris. Rebuke taken. I will bear this in mind in future. I ought also to say though that we Brits find it quite hard to make sense of how Americans view their President. You appear to want to offer the deference we give to royalty—yet these are elected politicians, and our natural sense is that they ought to be subject to the same scrutiny as others.

  3. Brian August 26, 2017 at 3:55 pm #

    “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.”

    I fear you are right. The secular press doesn’t take religious stories seriously now, and too many ‘journalists’ don’t know the boundaries between reporting and opinionating.

    I glance at the text released by Dr Houghton (it’s freely and generously available on the net) and saw that Fortunatianus mixes allegory and factual statement easily, e.g. in passages that purport to show the Church superseding the Synagogue (‘when it says ‘Christ came out of the house, the house stands for the synagogue, which is left behind’ – I paraphrase from memory). I don’t think anybody today (except some anti-Semite) would think that very good exegesis. What we may forget is that in the earliest centuries the Church was considerably outnumbered by the Jews and there was therefore a pressing need 1. to establish that Christ truly was the prophesied Messiah of Israel and 2. that the ‘Old’ Testament was really a Christian book and not the possession of the Jews. Hence the drive to allegorise (an impulse already found in the NT) and to see within it foreshadowings of Jesus and his crucifixion and resurrection.

    As for GWB: we shouldn’t take cheap shots at him. He’s a self-effacing person (unlike other ex-Presidents), and a good deal smarter than the rabidly hostile press made him out to be. Not a few Republicans (and others) today look back more kindly on those days.

  4. Michael Fugate August 26, 2017 at 6:02 pm #

    Are you implying that the Good Samaritan story is an historical account? Did Jesus witness this event or did he hear it from 1st-hand sources? Or is it a fictional narrative developed to impart a moral?

    • Ian Paul August 28, 2017 at 7:42 am #

      No, I am implying that we have a reliable record of what Jesus said, including his interpretation of the point of the story—and that a ‘literal’ reading will pay attention to that, rather than allegorising it.

      • Clive August 28, 2017 at 10:52 am #

        Michael,

        Many of us remember the cartoon image of Margaret Thatcher with the incredibly big nose and we all realised it was a caricature in which we can recognise the character even though the image is exaggerated.

        When Jesus spoke of the Good Samaritan Jewish people could always come to the aid of someone hurt on the Sabbath and Jesus would have known that but there is a degree of caricature in the stories because we all recognise the people Jesus spoke about, even now. People who don’t want their lives to be disturbed and people who don’t want to get their hands dirty. Thus it is an important of Jesus’ teaching.

        The Good Samaritan is an important part of Jesus’ teaching but I have no idea of whether it is a true event of not and whether it is or isn’t doesn’t change the teaching.

  5. Will Jones August 26, 2017 at 6:42 pm #

    Do we need to distinguish between the allegorical reading of the fathers and medieval church, which was not instead of but as well as the plain meaning, and the modern allegorical reading, which appears to want to replace the historical reading?

    • Brian August 27, 2017 at 7:28 am #

      What examples do you have in mind of ‘the modern allegorical meaning’? I thought modern liberalism just used the Bible as a mine of general principles and hung very loose to questions of historicity. For the Patristic and Medieval periods, whatever else they did with the text, there was no doubt that these purported events, conversations and sayings actually happened in the real world.

      • Will Jones August 27, 2017 at 9:46 am #

        I was referring to this:

        ‘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)… 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.’

        This, unlike the traditional allegorical reading, seems to dismiss the plain or historical reading rather than sit alongside it.

        • Brian August 27, 2017 at 10:07 am #

          I said that trend – which is really mythologizing – in David Strauss. Older liberalism explained away miracles, giving a naturalistic explanation (e.g. the swoon theory of the resurrection – von Paulus).

          Gunther Bornkamm in creating redaction criticism seemed to be saying Matthew was retrojecting late first century church issues into the Gospels.

  6. James Byron August 26, 2017 at 10:20 pm #

    “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.”

    Is there? (At least, outside evangelical circles.)

    As you know, the historicity of much gospel material has been set aside much more recently than in the work of Victorian higher critics. Perhaps the greatest biblical scholar of the late 20th century, E.P. Sanders, went so far as to focus on what events we could be reasonably sure happened, omitting major pieces of the Passion narrative such as Jesus entering Jerusalem on a donkey & his public trial before Pilate.

    We don’t know what the gospel authors thought, of course, but they do appear to be prioritizing theological proofs, not historical record.

    • Brian August 27, 2017 at 7:39 am #

      1. The thesis that the Gospels are comparable in content and intent to first century ‘bioi’ is in fact widely accepted and not just be evangelicals.

      2. Your estimate of E. P. Sanders would be considered a bit extravagant, and not just by evangelicals. A seminal and ground-breaking thinker, yes – but one whose naturalistic and historicist assumptions hamper as well.

      N. T. Wright, for all his prolixity, is a fine historical critic who turns these ideas on their head. But the best ‘biblical scholar of the late 20th century’ and certainly the most creative is Richard Bauckham. Read his ‘Jesus and his Eyewitnesses’ for a revolutionary take on old ‘settled’ questions of form criticism.
      Remember that there was a time – in the 1950s? – when Bultmann was unassailable and had said the final word – until Qumran came along. And even John Robinson came up with surprises.

    • Brian August 27, 2017 at 7:43 am #

      1. Richard Burridge’s ‘What are the Gospels?’ set thinking in a new direction, and not just among evangelicals.

      2. Sanders was seminal and ground-breaking but still an old-style historicist with naturalist assumptions. N. T. Wright., for all his prolixity, turned the questions on their head.

      But the most innovative NT scholar of the period is surely Richard Bauckham. Scholars haven’t yet ingested the significance of ‘Jesus and his Eyewitnesses’ Remember, there was a time when Bultmann had said ‘the last word’ – until Qumran came along …

      • Brian August 27, 2017 at 7:44 am #

        Please excuse the repetition of material – I posted this, thinking I had lost my previous post.

      • James Byron August 27, 2017 at 5:26 pm #

        As ever, if an author’s biases are manifested in their work, it undermines their conclusions.

        I doubt it’s any coincidence that Wright and Bauckham are evangelicals who’re bound by biblical authority. Fiercely clever as both are, their work reads like high-end apologetics. I’ve browsed Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, and throughout, was reminded that its conclusions would, like Wright’s, just happen to uphold doctrine. (I admit, I’m not a fan: comparing questioning the apostles’ status as eyewitness to the evil of Holocaust denial left a bad taste.)

        By contrast, Sanders’ Jesus is alien to his author’s beliefs, and declarations against personal interest are a lot more convincing.

        • Will Jones August 27, 2017 at 7:01 pm #

          That is true, if someone’s research leads them to conclusions contrary to their own assumptions those conclusions do seem especially compelling. But it doesn’t make them necessarily right. Furthermore, you could hardly say Sanders hasn’t benefited from his striking conclusions, so the question of interest hasn’t gone away.

          In any case though, it is unsustainable to write off all scholarly conclusions which align with the scholars’ own prior views. Followed consistently, such a method would write off almost all of the world’s scholarship.

          • James Byron August 28, 2017 at 10:07 am #

            It would, Will: which is why it must be combined with other factors, such as the plausibility of the claims, the author’s motives for making them, and their ability to think differently.

            As shown by Wright’s high-end apologetics, Sanders could’ve made just as good a career saying something else. He was a least capable of saying something else. If Bauckham believes in biblical accuracy and authority, he’s constitutionally incapable of saying that the gospels are historically inaccurate. He’s undoubtedly sincere in his views, and undoubtedly skilled at his task, but that bias is insurmountable when it comes to assessing his conclusions.

        • Brian August 27, 2017 at 7:04 pm #

          “As ever, if an author’s biases are manifested in their work, it undermines their conclusions.”

          Tu quoque.

          – An anti-supernaturalist in principle will necessarily reject the miracles of the Gospel, including the bodily resurrection of Christ.

          – One who rejects in principle that Christ is God Incarnate (and has at best, say, an adoptionist view) will not agree with what Jesus says about the Scriptures – not least that he is the fulfilment of them, that he is prefigured in Jonah and in the words of David. (Even more, such a person will have to say that Jesus was wrong about the authorship of the Psalms.)

          Remember, James – ‘apologetic’ cuts both ways. If you already ‘know’ the answer, then the confirmation bias will kick in.

          For my part, the evidence that Jesus thought he was divine and came from the Father and that he taught with supreme authority is everywhere in the canonical Gospels, not just John. If you think Jesus was deluded about this – or that he never said these things and was an early victim of Fake News – you should say so.

          You should also be ready to take apart Bauckham’s and Wright’s arguments one by one – as they have done to the Form Critics.

          I’m not sure what your last sentence means.

          • James Byron August 28, 2017 at 9:52 am #

            Sanders is a believing Christian, Brian, as are Dale Allison and plenty others. This is missing the point: it’s not a question of whether they believe that the supernatural exists, but whether they believe that historical research is equipped to assess miracle claims. Wright believes that it is, but that’s hardly the normative position in the discipline.

            Taking apart arguments one-by-one also misses the point: if their author’s not only constitutionally incapable of shifting their position, but if that prejudice shaped the arguments to begin with, it’s a road to nowhere. As shown by the long, fruitless “debates” with advocates of Intelligent Design.

            As for the gospels, yes, of course they’re filled with evidence that Jesus thought he was divine and said so. Their authors (whoever they were) were devout believers in those things, and were writing apologetics to advance their claims. Whether it goes back to the historical Jesus is a judgment call. Personally, given his background in Judaism, I’m not convinced.

    • Ian Paul August 28, 2017 at 7:41 am #

      James, I think there is plenty of evidence that the gospel writers are evidently constrained by something, and I have posted on this before. You might say they are constrained by their sources, but the most obvious ‘source’ is the historical events themselves. Why else would Matthew offer such contorted readings of the OT to support his account?

      • James Byron August 28, 2017 at 10:02 am #

        Of course the gospel authors were constrained, and SFAIK, no major form critic’s arguing that they invented the gospel narratives from whole cloth.

        In an age long before mass literacy and easy travel, what was commonly believed about historical events could diverge markedly from the events themselves. Even if witnesses were available, as any appeal judge will tell you, eyewitness testimony’s notoriously unreliable even in an impartial courtroom setting, let alone in the hands of a devout believer advocating for their cause.

        • David Shepherd August 28, 2017 at 4:17 pm #

          Yep, eyewitness testimony, which you describe as notoriously unreliable, has sent people to prison and execution without the hue and cry of public outrage. Or as John put: ‘we receive the witness of men, the witness of God is greater’ (1 John 5:9)

          The spiritual encounters of others may be corroborative and conducive to faith, but they not the origin of one’s own experience of Christ.

          As a case in point, the woman at the well exhorted: ‘Come, see a man, which told me all things that ever I did: is not this the Christ?’ (John 4:29)

          Instead of reliance upon her eye-witness testimony, the Samaritans encountered Christ’s wisdom for themselves: ‘They said to the woman, “We no longer believe just because of what you said; now we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this man really is the Saviour of the world.” (John 4:42)

          This selective disclosure of Christ through revelation vs. self-affirming intellectual self-effort is presented through the gospels as part of the combined outworking of divine grace and judgement: ‘For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe.’ (1 Cor. 1:21)

          As Jesus told the exactingly studious, but relentlessly sceptical Pharisees (John 7:45-52): ‘ “If you were blind, you would have no guilt; but now that you say, ‘We see,’ your guilt remains.’ (John 9:41)

        • Clive August 28, 2017 at 4:25 pm #

          James,

          This isn’t right. People in at the time of the Gospels were able to recount what they had heard and what they had seen far, far better than anyone these days because we have come to rely on writing when they certainly didn’t and couldn’t.
          Hence your example from an appeal court judge today just doesn’t work when you said: “as any appeal judge will tell you, eyewitness testimony’s notoriously unreliable ….” No, witnesses at the time of the Gospels were much more reliable than they are now.

          If you were inaccurate then others would say so and your word would never be believed.

  7. Justin August 27, 2017 at 7:40 am #

    The quip I often hear is that we should take the Bible seriously but not literally, which is to say that demanding literalism from (for example) the creation story or the flood story–regardless of what we know about social function, historical context, or literary form–seems like a failure to consider the text in earnest, which can produce farcical interpretations and/or dogmas.

    But by the same token expecting everyone to process and appreciate literary nuance or parabolic hermeneutics seems unrealistic–some people just want one fixed, plainspoken meaning and seem to get frustrated with ambiguity and potentiality.

    • Brian August 27, 2017 at 7:47 am #

      Interestingly, Augustine believed in a literal Adam and Eve but held that Genesis 1 was ‘parabolic’ because he thought (on philosophical grounds) that creation was instantaneous.

  8. Eric August 28, 2017 at 3:09 am #

    “. . . within having the slightest understanding of any of the debates about ritualism.” Don’t you mean, “without having the slightest understanding”?

    • Ian Paul August 28, 2017 at 7:34 am #

      I do indeed. The perils of autocorrect on a typo!

  9. Clive August 28, 2017 at 11:12 am #

    “How is this way of reading different from fundamentalists? Could modern Christians learn from this?”

    I have noticed how the term “literalist” has been thoughtlessly used as a way of dismissing opinions and yet, truth be told, I have never, ever met anyone who takes Scriptures literally.
    All too often dismissing somebody’s view as being from a literalist is actually a shallow and thoughtless way of simply saying they don’t agree.

    Similarly calling someone “fundamentalist” is the same.

    We are now faced with the reality of events like Manchester bombings out of which politicians tell us that Islam is a religion of peace whilst themselves being dismissive and hateful of Christians.

    We have the killing at the Houses of Parliament out of which politicians tell us that Islam is a religion of peace whilst themselves being dismissive and hateful of Christians.

    We now have the attach outside Buckingham Palace out of which politicians tell us that Islam is a religion of peace whilst themselves being dismissive and hateful of Christians.

    how many more killings in Germany, France, Belgium and here in Britain does it take?

    So there comes talk of “fundamentalist” Christians as if Christians kill people in the same way. So we similarly have talk of “fundamentalist” when talking of wars.
    So which religion was the Napoleonic wars fought over?
    Which religion was the Crimean war fought over?
    Which religion was the Boer war fought over?
    Which religion was the First World War fought over?
    Which religion was the Second World War fought over?
    Which religion was Stalin’s killings about?
    Which religion was the Korean war fought over?

    ….and so on. You then see that 99.9% of all deaths in war have little or nothing to religion – any religion. You do have the partition of India between Muslims and Hindus (but not “fundamentalist” Christians) yet we have a media, a politicial class, a judiciary and police class that is discriminating against Christians and calling Christians words like “homophobic” whilst celebrating Islam – we have arrived at a very, very silly thoughtless situation in which so-called intelligent people in the elite obviously aren’t intelligent at all.

    • David Shepherd August 28, 2017 at 4:38 pm #

      Well said, Clive!

  10. Brian August 28, 2017 at 3:14 pm #

    “Sanders is a believing Christian, Brian, as are Dale Allison and plenty others. This is missing the point: it’s not a question of whether they believe that the supernatural exists, but whether they believe that historical research is equipped to assess miracle claims. Wright believes that it is, but that’s hardly the normative position in the discipline.”

    – I made no comment on Sanders’ religious beliefs, of which I know little other than that somewhere he has described himself as a ‘secularized liberal Protestant’, which could mean a lot or not all that much. I suspect he’s a modern Unitarian. From what I’ve read of his work, he thinks Jesus was a charismatic and eschatological prophet and healer who was ‘divinized’ by his followers. A ‘Third Quester’ in the line of Kaesemann. I don’t find any hint in his writings that he thinks Jesus actually rose form the dead, let alone that he was pre-eixistent and divine. As for ‘the normative position in the discipline’ (which discipline? history? theology? philosophy?), unless one is, say, a Troeltschian (and why should one be?), I’m not too concerned. If Newton was all there was to physics, there would be no quantum mechanics.

    “Taking apart arguments one-by-one also misses the point: if their author’s not only constitutionally incapable of shifting their position, but if that prejudice shaped the arguments to begin with, it’s a road to nowhere. As shown by the long, fruitless “debates” with advocates of Intelligent Design.”

    – No, it’s called refutation. If you can show that at point after point a claim is mistaken, the edifice will collapse. The Third Questers set to mitigate the extreme scepticism of Bultmann on what could be known about Jesus and they gradually expanded the amount they would accept – until the wild boys of the ‘Jesus Seminar’ arrived on the left. Sanders wants to affirm more than the ‘Jesus Seminar’ but less than historic orthodoxy. He thinks historic Christology in unhistorical nonsense and (AFAIK) that Jesus made no claim to divinity. So far, so conventional liberal “Protestantism”, such that Geza Vermes would hardly disagree. ID is a question for another blog.

    “As for the gospels, yes, of course they’re filled with evidence that Jesus thought he was divine and said so.Their authors (whoever they were) were devout believers in those things, and were writing apologetics to advance their claims. Whether it goes back to the historical Jesus is a judgment call. Personally, given his background in Judaism, I’m not convinced.”

    – So what I think you are saying is: not so much ‘evidence’ as *statements claims and words to that effect put into his mouth by the gospel writers’. Is that what you are saying? And if they did not go back to Jesus himself, why did his followers invent and attribute these radical, nay, blasphemous sayings to him?

    • James Byron August 29, 2017 at 9:19 pm #

      Sanders doesn’t take a position on the supernatural: as he put it in The Historical Figure of Jesus, “That Jesus’ followers (and later Paul) had resurrection experiences is, in my judgment, a fact. What the reality was that gave rise to the experiences I do not know.”

      To view the third (or is it fourth by now?) questers as working to debunk supernaturalism’s a fundamental misunderstanding: they’re working to reconstruct the history behind the gospels as best they’re able, leaving theological claims to the theologians. The Jesus Seminar and their absurd Jesus of California hippy sage are just doing what many conservative scholars do from a left-wing perspective.

      As for refutation of a particular point taking down the edifice, that only works if the author’s willing to abandon it. If they’re not — if, instead, it’s been created to serve a larger framework — then however convincing the argument, it’ll just be sidestepped or ignored. We saw this process at work when William Lane Craig debated the great popularizer Bart Ehrman on the historicity of the resurrection, and Ehrman (being wise to WLC’s evangelical perspective) finally got his opponent to admit that, ultimately, he was driven by personal experience of the Holy Spirit, and arguments were simply dragooned to that cause.

      • Brian August 30, 2017 at 12:04 am #

        “Sanders doesn’t take a position on the supernatural: as he put it in The Historical Figure of Jesus, “That Jesus’ followers (and later Paul) had resurrection experiences is, in my judgment, a fact. What the reality was that gave rise to the experiences I do not know.””

        – That sounds like a copout to me. What is a ‘resurrection experience’? A subjective vision? A dream? This has all been psychologised away since the days of D.F. Strauss. The resurrection isn’t first of all a psychological or mental experience of Paul and his fellows. It is first of all something that happened to the *body* of Jesus. If Sanders thinks Jesus’ body decayed in the grave (as Crossan, Mack et al believe), he should say so. Otherwise this just sounds like evasion.

        “To view the third (or is it fourth by now?) questers as working to debunk supernaturalism’s a fundamental misunderstanding: they’re working to reconstruct the history behind the gospels as best they’re able, leaving theological claims to the theologians.”

        No, that doesn’t convince either. Third Questers like Sanders work with non-miraculous presuppositions (as historicism has since before the days of Troeltsch). To say ‘I’m less sceptical than Bultmann or even Kaesemann’ isn’t really much of an advance: he is still using their conceptual assumptions of a closed world of physical cause and effect. To which I reply again: Newton – and quantum.

        “The Jesus Seminar and their absurd Jesus of California hippy sage are just doing what many conservative scholars do from a left-wing perspective.”

        – No, that throwaway line doesn’t work. a. The Jesus Seminar uses the same methodology of secular historical scepticism as Sanders but it uses the industrial strength version. Conservatives don’t do anything of the sort. We believe: a. in the possibility and actuality of the supernatural in the world; b. in the uniqueness of Jesus Christ the incarnate Son; c. in the earliness of the NT documents and their provenance from the actual apostolic circle. The Jesus Seminar doesn’t accept any of these ideas – and it has a special place for the ‘Gospel’ of Thomas.

        “As for refutation of a particular point taking down the edifice, that only works if the author’s willing to abandon it.”

        – No, I meant that *you* – as a critic of Wright and Bauckham – have to take apart their arguments, not wave them away.

        “If they’re not — if, instead, it’s been created to serve a larger framework — then however convincing the argument, it’ll just be sidestepped or ignored. We saw this process at work when William Lane Craig debated the great popularizer Bart Ehrman on the historicity of the resurrection, and Ehrman (being wise to WLC’s evangelical perspective) finally got his opponent to admit that, ultimately, he was driven by personal experience of the Holy Spirit, and arguments were simply dragooned to that cause”

        – I haven’t yet heard this debate (maybe it’s on a website somewhere), so I cannot comment in particular. But being fairly familiar with Craig’s work, I imagine what he said or meant was this: 1. As an Arminian believer, Craig holds that God does not ‘impose’ belief on people but provides enough rational information about God’s existence and Christ’s resurrection to show the honest enquirer that these are rational things to believe; b. Why then do some believe and others not? This is in the proper sense of the word a mystery; but all the NT witnesses to the secret operation of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of men and women, convicting of sin and awakening faith in Christ. This, I suppose, it was Craig was saying – and if reason provides grounds for faith (which is what all of Craig’s ministry is about), faith can also look back on the reasons and see how they cohere: Fides quarens intellectum.

        Now turn the question on its head. Ehrman was once a believer, now he is very much a sceptic. Was he driven to this conclusion by “honest enquiry” – or did he multiply the aporias and difficulties in the NT so that he could exit a demanding faith? A question can cut two ways, you know – and the trajectory of liberalism is always into scepticism and atheism – which Richard Holloway, Gerd Ludemann and others have ended up. Caveat lector.

        • Brian August 30, 2017 at 7:50 am #

          James: ““To view the third (or is it fourth by now?) questers as working to debunk supernaturalism’s a fundamental misunderstanding: they’re working to reconstruct the history behind the gospels as best they’re able, leaving theological claims to the theologians.””

          “Leaving theological claims to the theologians” sounds like affecting modesty (‘I’m just a simple jobbing historian’) but in reality it misconstrues the nature of the Christian theological task. Christian theology doesn’t exist in a separate box from history. It is all about the Logos becoming flesh (that’s what distinguishes Christianity from Platonism and its theological or religious postulates). If it is concluded that there are no good reasons for believing that event X happened in the world, then it can hardly be the datum of Christian dogma.

        • James Byron August 30, 2017 at 5:45 pm #

          There’s a ton of projection here, casting biblical scholars as the materialist flipside of apologetics.

          They’re not out to debunk the supernatural: they’re simply recognizing that historiography’s ill-equipped to assess theology and supernaturall claims. How could it, since, as miracles overturn the natural order, doing so would render probability judgments impossible. Are we to give credence to pagan miracle claims too?

          Bauckham’s claims about gospel eyewitnesses can be rebutted in a narrow sense only by experts in Koine Greek, which I don’t claim to be, and even if I were, would take journal-length back-and-forth. Discussion of the underlying paradigms, and the issues with them, is both more productive, and likelier to get to the heart of the matter.

  11. Brian August 28, 2017 at 3:16 pm #

    Correction: ‘He thinks historic Christology IS unhistorical nonsense’

  12. Mat Sheffield August 29, 2017 at 11:36 am #

    I agree with Brian.

    I have read the majority of Wright’s work, and a good portion of Sanders’, and I too find the former more convincing; not because Wright’s case for the historicity of the gospels is somehow ‘better’ (they are both at the pinnacle of NT scholarship, and consummate writers), but because Wright’s case;

    A: seems more willing and able to take into account the limitations of the writers when articulating (or trying to) something outside the realms of normal human experience, or something for which they lacked an immediate frame of reference; this without making the conclusion that the lack of clarity predetermines a lack of objective fact/truth (the mistake of Borg,Crossan and others). The closing chapters of RSoG are excellent in this regard, making the case that the abrupt and often disparate accounts of the resurrection are a better seal of their authenticity than a fuller cohearance between writers would have been…though this too, is a weak summary….

    and B: Wright seems to hold a much more accurate, and more positive view of Judaism; in direct contrast to the negativity of Kaesemann and others (Dunn? I am bad with names). Whatever we may say about Wright’s conclusions, I think he starts on far more solid historical ground in regards 1st century Judaism, which is the presenting wider context/filter for the gospels.

    Sanders, respectably I feel, sits with some discomfort on the historical fence, unwilling to be drawn either way. He is not an easy ally of Wright, but they are not always opponents and share much common interpretative ground.

    As an aside, unless I am mistaken the next book in Wright’s ‘Christian Origins’ series, following on from ‘Paul and the faithfulness of God’, will focus on “the Gospels as theology in their own right”, and be an extended discussion of their historicity and integrity; and likely a polemic against the Seminar, and other ‘Questers’ too. Certainly “Paul and his recent interpreters” spends a good deal of time discussing Sander’s work, and that is unlikely to change.

    That aside, and to offer an opinion on the ‘literal’ discussion, i would simply add that I think the word is used too easily to mean ‘dogmatic’, or ‘fundamentalist’. We have moved the word out of the context of interpretive methodologies, and into one of polemic, and argument-by-label. Throw someone into a group, or camp, and condemn/dismiss them all with equal abandon! The same, incidentally, is true of the word ‘Liberal’ when used among evangelical circles, and I have been guilty of this myself, being too ready to slap a label on someone I disagree with as a substitute for addressing the substance of their complaint…

    Much as current affairs news recently has a tendency to label anything it disagrees with “far-right”, so we too the church is reduced to being imprecise (or worse, lazy) with it’s language.

    To his credit, Dr Hougton’s interview on Radio 4 presented a much better description of what he meant. He used the words ‘literal’ and ‘allegorical’, but was also given time to define those terms as he used them, leaving little room for generalization.

    mat

  13. Christopher Shell August 29, 2017 at 5:29 pm #

    The shortcomings of the traditional literal (bad) vs metaphorical (good) stereotype are as the sand of the sea. I counted 18.

    I have published on this recently (part of the only thing I have ever published). If anyone is interested, it is 277-9 (and notes 80-85) of ‘What Are They Teaching The Children?’ [Wilberforce]).

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