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Defining Characteristics of the MG Theory

By:  Erick Nelson
Last Updated:  December 27, 2001


Bishop John Shelby Spong has given us a little scene from his life that serves as an excellent introduction to the theory.

"As I sought to explain this biblical background, my friends around the room looked increasingly incredulous. 'You mean', one of them said, 'that maybe these things did not actually happen?'

'No', I suggested. 'What we have in the Gospels is an interpretive narrative based on an earlier part of the tradition and designed to enable the reader to see the reality of God in Jesus and to be drawn to this reality in faith.'

'This means', my questioner continued, 'that you are saying that Luke was lying. He told these things as if they were true when he knew they were not!'

The luncheon would not be long enough to address these issues, I thought to myself in despair. This woman believed that the Gospels were something like a television documentary or a researched biography. She knew nothing about the style of writing that was in vogue in the Jewish world when the Gospels were written." (Born of a Woman p 17-18)

According to Spong, the writer of Luke knew that many of the stories he wrote weren't factually true, but wasn't lying, because he was practicing a style of writing "in vogue" at the time. Spong says,

This is the beginning of a theory of interpretation that I call the Metaphorical Gospel theory.

Defining Characteristics

I want to start out by offering a definition of this theory. Then we can fill in the background.  The first important thing to note is that the MG Theory is not defined so much by what it affirms, but by what it denies.  These are the essential elements:

Stories intended metaphorically, not factually

According to the Metaphorical Gospel Theory, the New Testament writers did not intend to portray many of the stories, sayings, and claims about Jesus as factually true (that is, as events which happened, things he said, etc.), but as metaphorically true (spiritually, theologically, even archetypally true).

For instance, the Metaphorical Gospel theory might say that the author/redactor of the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead didn't at all mean to imply that there was really a dead man named Lazarus who came back to life, but that the author was trying to express how our lives can be transformed ("brought back to life") by faith.

In another example, the gospel author would be the first to point out that Jesus didn't literally walk on water, or do anything that looked like he did, but that he, the author, wrote this story to illustrate that we can rise above our troubles and circumstances as we trust God.

Since MG scholars agree with each other that layers or strata of actual history are embedded in the gospel accounts, they do not suggest that none of the stories are historical.  They sometimes differ with each other, though, about details concerning which are historical and which are metaphorical.

The deity and resurrection of Jesus not intended "literally"

According to the Metaphorical Gospel Theory, the gospel writers did not believe, or mean to imply, that Jesus was the physical incarnation of God on earth, nor that his body came back to life.  They meant to convey Jesus' close connection with God, and continued presence, through powerful imagery.

For instance, one scholar (Borg) tells us that the "I am the Way"-type claims put in Jesus' mouth in the gospel of John were not intended to make Christianity into an exclusivist religion.  Rather, the "way" of Christ refers to his teaching - specifically, his teaching about the path of death and resurrection.

The "resurrection of Christ" does not, according to the MG Theory, imply that Jesus' body came back to life out of the grave.  What it does mean is that Jesus' disciples experienced something after his death that radically changed their lives.  That "something" is variously thought to be a real spiritual experience, or a more general insight or awakening.

The Historical Jesus distinguished from the Christ of Faith

According to at least some flavors of the MG Theory, the New Testament writers were often actually writing about the "Christ of Faith" rather than the historical man Jesus, writing as if the man Jesus had said and done these things.  Jesus and the Christ are separate. 

The actual "object of discourse" or "object of reference" in many gospel passages thus was the "present" Christ of the community's experience, not the "fleshly" man Jesus.  For instance, the author of the Lazarus story was trying to express how "Christ's" continued presence changed lives, and so he wrote a story as if the man Jesus had done these things.

Original audience understood metaphorically, not factually.

According to the Metaphorical Gospel theory, the congregations of those churches at the time the gospels were written (and especially the leaders) were "in tune" to the spiritual or metaphorical nature of the gospel accounts and the claims about Jesus.

This kind metaphorical writing was common practice at the time - so common and pervasive, in fact, that the original readers and hearers of the gospels easily and naturally understood that the material was presented metaphorically rather than factually.

Later, the gospel was literalized.

It is clear, and even universally acknowledged, that by the mid-second-century Christian leaders such as Justin Martyr and Irenaeus did not hold the MG view.  They interpreted the gospel stories as accounts of things which really happened; they believed in the deity and resurrection of Jesus in their plain sense; and they saw a complete continuity between the man Jesus and the Christ they experienced as a present reality.  

Therefore, it is clear that, if the MG Theory is true, there must have been some process of literalization.  Some scholars address this more directly than others.  Those who do take this on (such as Spong) stress that it was only a later generation, removed by time, culture, and location, which started to misinterpret the New Testament, literalizing it.  Mid-second-century Christians, such as Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, did not know how the material was intended, and so naively interpreted the stories and claims literally, factually.  This mistaken interpretation became the foundation of Historic Christianity throughout the centuries.