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Six Options

By:  Erick Nelson
Last Updated:  December 29, 2001

The Question

Proponents of the MG Theory often tell us that we need to read the Bible stories as true metaphors rather than as historical events.  Marcus Borg, for instance, tells us in his newest book:

"As we enter the twenty-first century, we need a new set of lenses through which to read the Bible.  The older set, ground and polished by modernity, no longer works for millions of people.  These lenses need to be replaced.  The older way of seeing and reading the Bible, which I will soon describe, has made the Bible incredible and irrelevant for vast numbers of people."  (Reading the Bible Again, p 3-4)

The assertion that we may regard the gospels as "metaphorically" true while doubting their value as factual truth is surely an unexceptional statement.  In fact, it is almost trivially true.  A statement of this kind can be cheerfully made about almost any document or story.

I may, for instance, think that Mormonism or Islam have many true and insightful things to say about our spiritual life without believing that Joseph Smith or Mohammed were actually prophets or that the events relayed in the Book of Mormon really occurred.

I may admire Bertrand Russell's personal moral stands and his clarity of thought as spiritual examples worthy of emulation, without accepting the atheism he taught.  

And anyone who wishes may, in the same way, think that the gospels include profound and insightful spiritual or moral truths - even if they doubt Jesus' very existence.

But is there more to this contention than that?  Do the authors sometimes slide, almost unconsciously, from the statement "I think that there are metaphorical truths in the material" to the very different proposition, "The original authors and their audiences believed the material to be only metaphorically true"?

The Question we want to answer here is not:

Our question is:

Did the New Testament writers INTEND TO PORTRAY their material as metaphorically, not factually, true?

As the reader scans the theological works for a confirmation of this conclusion, it is not always clear what the scholars think, because sometimes they seem to say one thing, sometimes quite another. The more we read, in fact, the more likely we are to become confused.

We will spell out the basic possible interpretations.  We will take this step by step in our attempt to clarify the issue.

Six Basic Options

Option 1. The NT writers truly believed that these stories and claims were factually (as well as metaphorically and spiritually) true, and they were correct.  This is, of course, the position of Historic Christianity.

This option says that the stories and claims were indeed factually true and understood as such by the first audience. Since this view is explicitly rejected by these New Testament scholars, it is quite obvious that this is not what they mean.  No confusion on this point.  We won't consider it further.

Option 2. The NT writers truly believed that these stories and claims were factually true (the "creative" changes having occurred earlier in the process), portrayed them as such, but were mistaken.

This says that the gospel writers or "redactors" (compilers and editors) believed the factuality of the stories, but were simply mistaken.  This view would presume of course that they didn't themselves make up those stories, but that these "creative" activities had been accomplished earlier, by others.  The gospel writers would be seen merely as the innocent compilers of the (invented) traditions handed down to them.  Whatever the reason, in this view, the New Testament writers honestly thought that the deity and resurrection were factual, not metaphorical, and their audiences accepted the material in the common sense manner.

This is a view which seems to have been held several decades ago by some scholars who emphasized the likelihood of distortions with oral tradition, and emphasized that the gospel writers stood generations removed from the events they tried to describe.  With the introduction of redaction criticism, which is the concentration on the editing functions of the gospel writers, these writers were seen as authors in their own right, rather than mere compilers.  And so, within the circles that would question the authenticity of the gospel accounts, this option has largely fallen out of favor.

Option 3. The NT writers knew that many of these stories and claims were not factually true (they believed them to be either metaphorically true or simply false), but they portrayed them as factually true in order to engender faith in their audience.  Their original readers, by and large, (mistakenly) accepted the stories as factually true.

This says that the New Testament writers did not believe their stories were factually true, but presented them as if they were. There are two very different "flavors" of this view.

The Nice Version.  First, we might say that they understood the stories metaphorically (having invented many of the them), and the claims about Jesus as well, but engaged in a sort of (benevolent) "pious fraud", trying to give Christians something to believe in.  I have seen arguments and statements by scholars that give the impression that they affirm this kind of scenario, especially when they talk about gospel writers inventing stories about Jesus in order to bolster certain claims about him.

The Mean Version.  On the other hand, we might say that the intention of such a fraud was not really so pious and benevolent, and that the writers simply were attempting to buttress their religion with stories and claims they knew to be false, having just made them up.  This is certainly a view held by some authors wishing to discredit or refute Christianity.  Such people have contended that the first Christians intentionally deceived their neighbors, and view Christianity as something of an early cult.

Option 4:  The MG Theory.  The NT writers believed that many of these stories and claims were metaphorically, not factually true, and portrayed them as such. Their original audience on the whole understood that they were metaphorically, not factually, true. Later generations came to interpret these literally.

This says that the New Testament writers understood the stories and claims to be true metaphorically, and false factually, that this is how they intended to portray their material, and that their original audience also understood them metaphorically, is what I call the Metaphorical Gospel theory. 

Option 5. The NT writers and their audience simply were not able to make the distinction between "metaphorically" true and "factually" true.

This view says that the New Testament writers and earliest Christians simply were not able to distinguish between fact and fiction, at least in this arena.  Scholars who advocate such a view tell us that the people of the first century experienced a different mode of consciousness.  Their world view entailed such a twilight zone of thought that they were actually unable to distinguish between things that occurred and imaginary events; that "fact" and "fiction" as we know it was not a clear distinction for them; that they were pre-critical and pre-scientific people operating existing within entirely different categories of thought.  I have even read excerpts from a book about the "bicameral mind" which attributes this hazy outlook to physical/electrical differences in their brains (left and right side were not quite hooked up yet).

I won't even comment on the statement I ran across assuring us that the "brilliance" of the Easter experience "dazzled" the disciples to such an extent that their memories were confused and they forgot what Jesus actually had taught them.

We can even use this option as sort of a catch-all option. If we wish to say that the mind-set of the New Testament writers and their first readers was not as clear-cut as Options 1, 2, 3, and 4 would claim, we can select Option 5 and say that the distinctions themselves were a bit blurry to the gospel writers. And so here we even have an Option for those who don't like the Options! - for those who think that choosing between such discrete options is inappropriate.

Option 6.  The NT writers and their audience simply didn't care as much about the distinction between fact and metaphor as we moderns do.

There are two flavors of this view:  (a) Factuality was not as important to them as to us, and (b) Factuality was completely irrelevant to them. 

This is so close to Option 5 that until recently I included it as a sub-view.  However, I've read things lately that convince me I need to address this possibility explicitly.

Charting the Options

There may be, of course, other formal possibilities - and we could consider each of them - but these six seem to be the most likely alternatives.  Let me say here that these options, while not exhaustive, are mutually exclusive.  I don't see how anyone can affirm more than one of these at a time.  Oh, I suppose you could say that Matthew was working under Option 3, and Mark under Option 4, and John was so confused by his visions that he fell under Option 5, but I think that's a stretch.

To make these alternatives even clearer, imagine them as a grid or table.

Factually True?
Stories were NT Writers NT Writers Original
Really Believed Intended to Audience
Portray Believed
Option 1 Y Y Y Y
Option 2 - Y Y Y
Option 3 - - Y Y
Option 4 - - - -
Option 5 ? ? ? ?
Option 6 ? ? ? ?

A Metaphorical Gospel Scenario

What does the Metaphorical Gospel Theory mean in concrete, everyday terms?  How can we flesh out the meaning so that we can clearly understand what the Metaphorical Gospel theory is telling us?  I tried to faithfully create an imaginative scenario to do this. 

Then I wrote to Bishop Spong (see his chapter), asking him if this is something like the scenario he envisions. He kindly replied, and affirmed that this was indeed, generally, what he means.  (I do not know what Borg and Crossan would think of it, but I think they'd agree in the essentials.)

(a) I can imagine myself being born (say) in 70 AD, in Ephesus of Christian parents. There is an ever-growing Christian community there. By the time I am five or so, I have learned that we pray, that my parents meet with others on the First Day for worship, that there is one God, etc. My parents have heard Paul's letters to churches read aloud (especially the one to our church!) at their worship gatherings for many years.

(b) When I am five years old (75 AD), we have a new reading at our gatherings: new and exciting stories about Jesus and the disciples. It came to us from the church in Rome [gospel of Mark, presumably took five years to get distributed]. These stories teach us about who God is, and who we are, and how we are to live.

(c) By the time I am a questioning teenager (85 AD), another work has come to us [Matthew] which goes beyond the gospel which we've heard read in our church, but reflects many of the things that the adults are talking about! It is full of wondrous miracle stories, including one about Jesus' birth. But I wonder why we don't have miracles like that now, and ask my parents. They explain, "No, you don't understand. You're missing the point of the stories if you think they are accounts of things that happened before you were born. Jesus didn't really walk on water, for example - we all know that - but we can overcome great obstacles if we follow him." And I begin to understand what Christianity is about.

(d) During this time (85 AD) I become aware of a small group of people who are followers of the Apostle John, who lived here in Ephesus for a time. They meet daily to pore over the scriptures and to pray. They are sometimes called upon to read the scriptures at our First Day meetings and to provide commentary. I am very impressed with them.

(e) By 95 AD, I am an adult, twenty-five years old. I have by now learned a trade, and am known in Ephesus as a Christian. The gospel of Luke has recently become available to our church, and I am sometimes allowed to read it myself (in my native Greek). As I am semi-literate, I skip over the words I don't understand, and ask someone later - and my reading improves as I pore over Luke.

(f) Some of my co-workers, being Jews of the Dispersion or Greek worshippers of Diana, are offended by my Christian faith. They mock me, saying: "You Christians are so stupid, even evil. You have secret meals where we suspect you eat babies, you believe that your Leader's dead body came back to life (I don't see him anywhere!), you think that he did other impossible things like walk on water and who knows what else, you worship a human being (especially offensive to the Jews), and so you won't give Caesar his due respect (offensive to the Greeks), and you falsely claim that he fulfilled prophecies (another stickler for Jews).

(g) I reply "You could not be further from the truth. We don't eat babies - you're mixed up because we celebrate Christ with a meal of bread and wine, and because we talk about a "new birth"! We have never said that Jesus' body came back to life - in fact, we believe just the opposite, that his spirit went to heaven, as will ours. Stories of Jesus doing miracles aren't to be taken literally - they are stories that express how we can overcome, how we must forgive, and so on. We don't worship the man Jesus - we worship God alone by seeking fellowship with God through the Risen Christ. In fact, there is nothing to prevent true Christians from burning incense to Caesar, because a human leader (although metaphorically called a "god") can never be in competition with the Creator!

"And last, we don't pretend that Jesus actually fulfilled prophecies, we are re-using the Old Testament accounts and prophecies to honor him. We are doing the same thing that the Jews did in reworking their stories to glorify God! And so, your objections to The Way amount to nothing."

(h) By 100 AD I am thirty years old, and have become a deacon in the Ephesian church. Not only that, I am now part of the Johannine circle, and meet with them as often as I can to pray and discuss the scriptures. This First Day, there is a new gospel to be read to the church for the first time. (We are by now accustomed to new midrash appearing every so often, and are eager to see what this new product is about.) But there's a difference. This midrash creation is home-grown - the Johannine group has written it. Of course, this comes as no surprise to the church, since the effort has been a long and exciting one.

The reading dramatically opens with a discourse about the Word. The story of the Word first came to us when one of the Johannine circle had a dream or vision of God's Reason, or Logos, flying through the sky, slowly taking human form, and becoming flesh. Pretty soon we get to my contribution. Over years of discussion with unbelievers, I have often had to explain the "new birth", and wrote up a conversation between Jesus and one of the Jewish rulers explaining the "birth from above", which is now part of the gospel!