Taking the Bible Seriously But Not Literally
by Marcus Borg, HarperCollins: New York, NY. 2001.
History and Metaphor
- The Historical-Metaphorical Approach
By “historical approach,” I mean all the methods that are relevant to discerning the ancient historical meanings of biblical texts. The chief concern of the historical approach is the past‑tense question, “What did this text mean in the ancient historical setting in which it was written?” By “metaphorical approach,” I mean most broadly a nonliteral way of reading biblical texts. A metaphorical reading does not confine itself to the literal, factual, and historical meanings of a text. It moves beyond to the question, “What does this story mean as a story, independent of its historical factuality?” p. 37f.
How do we distinguish between fiction and non-fiction?
May truth be presented in fiction?
May falsehood be presented in non-fiction?
How can metaphor move beyond factuality?
How is Truth recognized as metaphor?
The focus of a historical approach is twofold: the historical meaning of a text in its historical context. The context in which words are spoken or written, or deeds are done, pervasively shapes their meaning. p. 38
Historical context provides one anchor in what Peter Gomes describes as the interpretive triangle.
A second anchor is the pen of the scribe or evangelist.
What would the third anchor be in this triangle?
What is the creative tension of interpretation?
- Metaphorical language is intrinsically nonliteral. It simultaneously affirms and negates: x is y, and x is not y.
- This realization leads to a second characteristic of metaphorical language: it has more than one nuance or resonance of meaning. In terms of its Greek roots, “metaphor” means “to carry with,” and what metaphor carries or bears is resonances or associations of meaning. … In short, metaphorical language is intrinsically multivalent, with a plurality of associations.
- “Metaphor” also means “to see as”: to see something as something else. Metaphor is linguistic art or verbal art. … [T]o use a biblical example, we can see the story of the exodus as a metaphorical narrative of the divine‑human relationship, depicting both the human predicament and the means of deliverance.
- A metaphorical approach to the Bible thus emphasizes … seeing, not believing. The point is not to believe in a metaphor, but to see in light of it.
- Finally, metaphors can be profoundly true, even though they are not literally true. Metaphor is poetry plus, not factuality minus. That is, metaphor is not less than fact, but more. p. 41
Can you illustrate these five points with scriptural examples?
How does the use of metaphor advance or hinder the example cited?
- The Bible History and Metaphor
Narratives That Metaphorize History
The way the author of Mark’s gospel tells the stories of two blind men to whom Jesus gave sight provides an illuminating example. The two stories frame the great central section of that gospel‑a section that describes Jesus’ final journey to Jerusalem, contains three solemn sayings about his impending death and resurrection, and speaks of discipleship as following Jesus on this journey.
At the beginning of this section, Mark places the story of the blind man of Bethsaida. Jesus restores his sight in two stages. After the first, the blind man sees people, but not clearly: “They look like trees, walking.” After Jesus lays his hands on him a second time, the blind man sees “everything clearly.”
Mark 8:22 They came to Bethsaida. Some people brought a blind man to him and begged him to touch him. 23 He took the blind man by the hand and led him out of the village; and when he had put saliva on his eyes and laid his hands on him, he asked him, “Can you see anything?” 24 And the man looked up and said, “I can see people, but they look like trees, walking.” 25 Then Jesus laid his hands on his eyes again; and he looked intently and his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly. 26 Then he sent him away to his home, saying, “Do not even go into the village.” New Revised Standard Version
At the end of the section is the story of a blind beggar named Bartimaeus. He cries out to Jesus, “Have compassion on me!” Jesus asks, “What do you want me to do for you?” In superbly evocative language, Bartimaeus expresses his deepest desire: “Let me see again.” Then, we are told, “Bartimaeus regained his sight and followed Jesus on the way.”
Mark 10:46 They came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. 47 When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” 48 Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” 49 Jesus stood still and said, “Call him here.” And they called the blind man, saying to him, “Take heart; get up, he is calling you.” 50 So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. 51 Then Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?” The blind man said to him, “My teacher, let me see again.” 52Jesus said to him, “Go; your faith has made you well.” Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way. New Revised Standard Version
By placing these stories where he does, the author of Mark gives them a metaphorical meaning, even as one or both of them may reflect history remembered. Namely, gaining one’s sight – seeing again ‑ is seeing the way of Jesus. That way, that path, involves journeying with him from Galilee to Jerusalem, the place of death and resurrection, of endings and beginnings. To see that is to have one’s eyes opened. p. 45f.
The stories of healing are interesting in themselves. How do they touch us when they become more than simply sight restored?
“What do you want me to do for you?” asked Jesus of Bartimaeus.
Gilbert K. Chesterton cautions with a metaphor: “Do not free a camel of the burden of his hump; you may be freeing him from being a camel.”
Why do you think Jesus pressed the question?
Purely Metaphorical Narratives
“The limits of the spectacular.”
I am even willing to consider that spectacular phenomena such as levitation perhaps happen. But do virgin births, multiplying loaves and fish, and changing water into wine ever happen anywhere? If I became persuaded that they do, then I would entertain the possibility that the stories about Jesus reporting such events also contain history remembered. But what I cannot do as a historian is to say that Jesus could do such things even though nobody else has ever been able to. Thus I regard these as purely metaphorical narratives.
The recognition that the Bible contains both history and metaphor has an immediate implication: the ancient communities that produced the Bible often metaphorized their history. Indeed, this is the way they invested their stories with meaning. But we, especially in the modern period, have often historicized their metaphors. To make the same point only slightly differently: they often mythologized their history (again, for the sake of expressing meaning), while we have tended to literalize their mythology. And when one literalizes metaphor or myth, the result is nonsense. p. 47
“[T]hey often mythologized their history (again, for the sake of expressing meaning), while we have tended to literalize their mythology. And when one literalizes metaphor or myth, the result is nonsense.” Reflect and discuss, giving examples.
- The Bible as Stories about the Divine‑Human Relationship
In the liturgy accompanying the Passover meal, the following words (slightly paraphrased) are spoken:
It was not just our fathers and our mothers who were Pharaoh’s slaves in Egypt, but we, all of us gathered here tonight, were Pharaoh’s slaves in Egypt. And it was not just our fathers and mothers who were led out of Egypt by the great and mighty hand of God, but we, all of us gathered here tonight, were led out of Egypt by the great and mighty hand of God.
What does it mean to say that “we” (and not just our ancient ancestors) were slaves in Egypt and that “we” were led out of the land of slavery by God? It does not mean that we were there in the loins of our ancestors, as if our genes or DNA were present. Rather, the exodus story is understood to be true in every generation. It portrays bondage as a perennial human problem and proclaims God’s will that we be liberated from bondage. The story of Israel’s bondage in Egypt and her liberation by God is thus a perennially true story about the divine‑human relationship. It is about us and God. p. 48f.
How is our remembering limited if we do not recognize the role of the metaphor in the telling of the story?
With the story of the Passover? In recalling the Eucharist?
- Reading the Bible in a State of Postcritical Naivete
In modern Western culture, as mentioned in chapter 1, critical thinking is very much concerned with factuality and is thus deeply corrosive of religion in general and Christianity and the Bible in particular. As critical thinkers in that culture, most of us no longer hear the biblical stories as true stories ‑ or at the least their truth has become suspect. Now it takes faith to believe them, and faith becomes believing things that one would normally reject.
Postcritical naivete is the ability to hear the biblical stories once again as true stories, even as one knows that they may not be factually true and that their truth does not depend upon their factuality.
This way of hearing sacred stories is widespread in premodern cultures. In Arabia, traditional storytellers begin their stories with “This was, and this was not.” In Georgia (the country, not the state), similar words are spoken to introduce a traditional story: “There was, there was, and yet there was not.” A favorite of mine is the way a Native American storyteller begins telling his tribe’s story of creation: “Now I don’t know if it happened this way or not, but I know this story is true.” If you can get your mind around that statement, then you know what postcritical naivete is. p. 50
Postcritical naivete is not a call to cynicism.
Native American storytellers use the phrase, “Now I don’t know if it happened this way or not, but I know this story is true.”
What do you understand is meant by this phrase?
How does it help us in presenting Truth as we tell the story?