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Definiteness of Articulation
By: Erick Nelson
Last Updated: December 29, 2001
The student who wishes to get to the bottom of this issue must, unfortunately, be prepared to navigate a rather daunting maze of words. The most basic requirement of any good theory is that it should be clearly defined. Yet this is often not what we see.
This may be due in part to the fact that scholars disagree with each other, especially on details. But even among those scholars who most actively promote the MG Theory, we sometimes find confusing statements that appear to point in other directions. In fact, when I tried to focus on three representative scholars, it became more difficult in some cases to actually pin them down to a specific view than it did to evaluate the view itself!
General Lack of Clarity
Ultimate Value vs Intent
Sometimes scholars are making a point about the ultimate value of the New Testament writings. But we can't easily tell how this relates to the original intent of the New Testament authors. For instance, when I specifically asked Borg in an email about the intent of the authors, he talked about the ultimate value:
"To use an example, I regularly say, 'I don't think the virgin birth happened, but I think the stories of the virgin birth are powerfully true.'" (email)
Ambiguities Due to Euphemisms and Religious Language
Some statements seem to affirm traditional Christianity when they say that the first Christians believed the stories were true of Jesus, or when they suggest a rather tight continuity between the historical Jesus and the Christ of Faith:
"They therefore tell us what these early Christian communities had come to believe about Jesus by the last third of the first century." (Borg, Meeting Jesus p 10)
"they express what Jesus became in the experience and tradition of his followers in the decades after Easter" (Borg, email debate Mar 4)
"Jesus-then becomes Jesus-now. No, better: Jesus-then is Jesus-now. They are always talking about and from the 20s of that first common-era century. But they are also talking about and to the 70s with Mark, or the 80s with Matthew and Luke, or the 90s with John." (Crossan, email debate)
Quite often, it is abundantly clear that the scholar has simply continued to use the traditional religious language we've always heard in church. He has nicely fit the rhythms and images into a completely different point of view. Spong is an excellent example of such "faith-speak", as he actually manages to fit in a reference to almost every important Christian doctrine in the space of a few sentences. He speaks the language of "popular Christianity" in the very books in which he attempts to refute it.
Note, in the revealing quote below, that Spong says he believes in Easter and reveres the biblical texts. He presents Jesus of Nazareth as the Christ of God, our way, our truth, and our life, now a timeless being, our mediator with God.
"I seek now to enter the experience of Easter. I believe that this experience is both real and true but that the details that describe it cannot be literalized. My journey will carry me first deep into the biblical texts, but then ultimately it must carry me beyond those texts into a dimension of timelessness in which a presence I call God ultimately resides. My access to that presence is through a life referred to in history as Jesus of Nazareth but called, by faith and in the language of midrash and mythology, the Christ of God. I believe that this Jesus journeyed through time into timelessness and through finitude into infinity. Beyond that, I believe that those of us who have found our lives inside his life can also make that journey and can know this Christ as our way, our truth, and our life, through whom we too can approach the presence of God, and in that presence we also may know the timelessness of eternity." (Resurrection: Reality or Myth?, p 21)
Adding the third person of the Trinity, the new birth, and joyful worship, and you appear to have traditional, Historic Christianity.
"But if by asking 'Is it true?" one intends to inquire into the meaning of Jesus' life that accepts symbols, myths, and romantic imagination, that breaks the limitation of human words when employed to make rational sense out of the mystery of the divine, then the answer is yes. Yes, these narratives capture truth to the eyes of faith; truth that mere prose cannot capture. . . . The Holy Spirit hovers over each of us to assist in the process of the Christ being born in us. So we too can sing glory to God in the highest, and we too can journey to those places that become Bethlehem for us, the places where God is experienced as dwelling in our midst and inviting us to come, worship, and adore." (Born of a Woman 158-9)
Historic Christianity is, of course, the last thing that Spong would endorse, but many innocent readers might be hard-pressed to know it from the smooth language he uses.
Statements that look like Option 2 ("Believed True, but Mistaken")
Many statements seem to affirm the view that the New Testament writers believed the stories and claims about Jesus were factually true, but were wrong. They do this by emphasizing how far removed the writers were from the facts and how gullible they were in the olden days.
What kind of statements would affirm Option 2? The kind of statements that said, for instance, that the gospels were written long after the eyewitnesses had died, by people who were, in addition, far removed from the events geographically. They would emphasize the distortions that naturally occur (the "telephone" game is a popular example) with a long line of oral tradition. In short, they would point out that the writers didn't know the truth.
A further step would be to emphasize how easy it was for the New Testament writers to believe things that weren't true. Such statements might emphasize that the people in the ancient world believed that miracles could happen, and so naively believe reports of such events. And these scholars would continue by saying that, of course, now that we know that these events are scientifically impossible, they could not have occurred.
When you add in the assumption that these writers acted in good faith, you get the conclusion that they honestly believed in the factual truth of what they wrote, but were simply wrong.
A recap of these statements is:
- Writers removed from the events: second- or third-hand.
- Stories easily distorted through oral tradition.
- Writers prone to believe stories of the miraculous.
- Such events are impossible, therefore not true.
- Writers acted in good faith.
So, the writers believed the miracle stories, although they were not true.
We will remember, then, when we see these kinds of statements (especially the one about miracles), that the author is affirming Option 2.
Real Life Examples
Spong himself, in an early work, Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism, seems to present a somewhat different view than the one spelled out in his later books. In this earlier book, he emphasizes the point that the earliest Christians lived in a pre-scientific age with an unacceptable world-view. He says they believed that miracles could occur, and were so literal-minded that they saw the universe as a three-story affair (heaven above, earth in the middle, hell below). In his more recent works, he appears to shift the view a bit, and relegates this superstitious world-view to the later literalizers of the gospels, not the original Christians at all.
It is interesting to note that the "miracles and three-story universe" argument goes all the way back to Rudolph Bultmann, one of the fathers of modern New Testament criticism, and even then represented a contradiction within a single scholar's viewpoint.
For Bultmann clearly affirms the Metaphorical Gospel view whenever he emphasizes how the earliest Christians were indifferent to the real facts, because they cared only about their present spiritual experiences and problems. He says:
"I do indeed think that we can now know almost nothing concerning the life and personality of Jesus, since the early Christian sources show no interest in either, are moreover fragmentary and often legendary, and other sources about Jesus do not exist." (Jesus Christ and Mythology, p 15)
Bultmann here is saying that the early Christians presumably did not care about the historical Jesus because they were concerned only with the "spiritual" story. Bultmann was one who wanted to "de-mythologize" the gospels, retaining the spiritual essence, and because of this often seems to imply that this spiritual essence, rather than a straightforward factual account, was what the writers original meant to convey.
On the other hand, he appears to affirm Option 2 ("believed it was factually true, but were mistaken") when he argues that people in those days (a) believed that miracles could happen, and so believed that the miracle stories actually occurred, and (b) were so non-metaphorical that they even interpreted obviously figurative statements about the physical location of heaven and hell, God's throne, etc. as literally, factually true.
"The whole conception of the world which is presupposed in the preaching of Jesus as in the New Testament generally is mythological; i.e., the conception of the world as being structured in three stories, heaven, earth, and hell; the conception of the intervention of supernatural powers in the course of events; and the conception of miracles, especially the conception of the intervention of supernatural powers in the inner life of the soul, the conception that men can be tempted and corrupted by the devil and possessed by evil spirits. This conception of the world we call mythological because it is different from the conception of the world which has been formed and developed by science since its inception in ancient Greece and which has been accepted by all modern men. In this modern conception of the world the cause-and-effect nexus is fundamental. . . . modern science does not believe that the course of nature can be interrupted or, so to speak, perforated, by supernatural powers." (R. Bultmann, Jesus Christ and Mythology, New York, Scribener, 1958 - p 15)
This is simply perplexing. In statements like this one, Bultmann says that first century people were gullible, pre-scientific, and superstitious - believing every account of a miracle, no matter how impossible - and that we (being scientific people) can't believe those stories in the way that they did. What is the point of saying this if he says in the next breath that they did not believe these miracle accounts, but that they understood the miracles only metaphorically? Since Bultmann seems to support incompatible views on this issue, it is simply not clear to me which position he holds. This is sometimes true of other scholars as well.
Statements that look like Option 3 ("Knew False, but Presented as True")
This view has two parts: (1) the New Testament writers didn't believe the stories and claims about Jesus factually, but (2) portrayed them as fact. The presence of these two kinds of statements will clearly identify a view as Option 3.
1. The kind of statements that would affirm this view, then, would of course not emphasize how the writers were easily deceived - rather, they would say that the New Testament writers invented stories. And surely, if one makes up a story, it is impossible for a sane person to believe that the event he made up actually happened. And so, when we run across a statement that says the authors embellished their work, or invented stories, we'll start to look for the second part of the view.
2. The second part of Option 3 is that the writers portrayed the stories as if they were factually true. The kind of statement that would fit this would be one which says that the writer wanted his readers to believe the events took place.
Putting these two parts together, an excellent example would be a statement that said a New Testament writer embellished his account by creating stories emphasizing Jesus' power, in order to convince readers that Jesus was indeed truly powerful.
Another example would the statement that a New Testament writer invented a situation that would seem to give Jesus credentials he didn't really have - such as being a descendent of David - so as to impress the readers with his genuine Messianic claim.
In trying to flesh out this Metaphorical Gospel theory, and in trying to discover who affirms it and who doesn't, I ran up against such a strange inconsistency that I sometimes wondered what the authors really thought. Here's what I mean. One type of argument that puzzles me is that early Christians developed stories to answer critics and to defend Christianity.
It seems to me that stories that were invented to show that Christianity is true could only have a positive impact if they are presented as factually true. Think of it this way. If I write stories that have Jesus performing great miracles, and present these stories as spiritual accounts that have no direct relation to anything the man Jesus ever actually did, the most it can do is to inspire others in a certain way.
These stories actually reveal more about my imaginative and story-telling abilities than they do about Jesus. Some other "spiritual" writer who followed another teacher could also write amazing stories about that man.
However, if these stories are presented as factually based claims, then (and only then) can they be useful as a "reply to critics" and as a "defense" of Christianity.
Real Life Examples
For instance, Spong mentions "claims" about Jesus:
"In order to protect their fragile tradition from erosion, Jews began to attack Christian claims about Jesus. In rebuttal Jewish Christians began to defend their claims. Between 70 and 85 the polemical defenses of Jewish Christians against their Jewish attackers began to change the way the Christians told the stories of their faith, and these defenses came to be written down and incorporated into the developing Christian tradition." (Resurrection: Reality or Myth? p66)
I wil list three examples of this puzzling logic. First, regarding Matthew's addition of miracles.
"Mark's Gospel had left far too many unanswered questions to be of great use in this battle, so the author of Matthew ... adapted the text to heighten the power of the miraculous." (Resurrection: Reality or Myth? p 67)
What good would inventing additional miraculous stories be in defending Christianity if everyone understood that these were only to be understood metaphorically, and that nobody was suggesting that such miracles ever actually happened? The whole point of the miracle stories is presumably to make Jesus appear more powerful - really more powerful. Matthew could have only been effective if he made his readers think that the events he describes really took place and really were quite miraculous. He could have piled on as many metaphorical miracles as he liked and never strengthen his case.
The second example is inventing genealogical authority for Jesus:
[re Hebrews] "Since Jesus was not of the authentic priestly line, however, a valid claim to priesthood had to be developed for him by the early Jewish Christians." (Resurrection: Reality or Myth? p 125)
Similarly, if the claim to priesthood was intended only metaphorically, how would introducing that metaphor do anything to answer the charge that Jesus was not really of the authentic priestly line? Such a claim is only valid if it is factual.
A third example is the claim for priority of the apostle John in the community of believers:
"...the Johannine community from which the individuals emerged who authored the gospel, the Epistles, and the Book of Revelation, all of which bear John's name, gave their beloved mentor the honor of being first in faith, though that faith seems never to have moved from the beloved disciple to anyone else ...When this Gospel portrayed John as the first believer, ... it supplied the final coup de grace for the Johannine tradition. In the same vein this school of thought also portrayed John alone of the twelve as present at the foot of the cross ..." (Resurrection: Reality or Myth? p91)
"Portraying" John as the "first believer", etc., would only have been effective if people who read the gospel believed that he was the first believer."
What makes these two examples so puzzling is that Bishop Spong in the one person in the world I am sure wholeheartedly the Metaphorical Gospel theory. He told me this himself. These statements seem to represent an inconsistency or confusion in his position.
Statements that look like Option 5 ("Couldn't Tell the Difference")
There were times when the scholars I read seemed to be saying that the New Testament writers were of such a confused mind-set (living so long ago and all) that they could not tell the difference between a story that relates what really happened and a metaphorical story.
In corresponding with Dr. Borg via email, he cautioned me at one point that first century people were "pre-critical" people, and mentioned another time that "fact" and "fiction" were not understood exactly in the way we understand them. This is a remarkably peculiar view for one who holds the Metaphorical Gospel theory - for, as we have seen - this theory explicitly claims that the New Testament writers did not intend to provide factual information! I don't see, logically, how they can have it both ways.
Crossan sometimes appears to blur the distinction between Jesus-then and Jesus-now to such a degree that he seems to affirm Option 5 (italics mine):
"But those quite divergent and extremely creative interactions do not differentiate between then and now by saying, for example, Jesus said or did this then BUT here is what it means for us now." (email debate)
"My main point, however, is to note how each evangelist goes back to moments in the life of the historical Jesus, be it arrest or death, and builds a dialectical process of past/present and then/now in which those twin elements interpenetrate and interweave totally together." (email debate).
Option 5 is certainly a formal possibility. However, even though scholars sometimes flirt with the notion that first-century people could not make the necessary intellectual distinctions (we will see cases later), I can't quite believe that they seriously buy it.
Even a cursory reading of Paul's letters (for instance) would demonstrate his ability not only to distinguish between fact and fiction, but to draw sophisticated philosophical and theological distinctions.
Dozens of other examples could be produced, as well. When one considers the Jewish rabbis' meticulous detailed arguments about the Law, the Greek lovers of philosophy who met at the Acropolis, the worldly Roman leaders and their complicated and eminently practical military strategies - even the homespun crafty bartering techniques of the common person in the public marketplace - we see the obvious ability to distinguish between fact and fiction, truth and falsehood, literal expressions and figures of speech. This degree of clear thinking would be impossible in the world described by those who propose Option 5.
Statements that look like Option 6 ("Didn't Care About Facts")
One explanation was posted to an internet discussion group in answer to my questions (emphasis mine):
"Most scholars are not trying to guess the intentions of the writers. It may be clearer to say (and may be what Borg and Spong are actually saying -- I don't have the books here with menow) that the question of "whether or not these things took place" was simply not as important to the gospel writers as it has been for many of us."
I recently received an email from Mark Allan Powell regarding Borg's view. Dr. Powell had, up until Borg's latest book, seen his view as being more like Option 6 than like the MG Theory. He said:
"My perception of Borg--based on his writings, lectures, and just personal contacts--was that he had moved away from this [the MG Theory]. He has started with it, based on ideas of NT colleagues from the Jesus Seminar, but had really come to a different way of thinking, which I tried to describe for you previously. I think I would have summarized his position this way: 'Although the Gospel writers might have assumed the reports to be literal, they did not find essential meaning in the literalness--so it wouldn't have really mattered to them if the reports were not literal, as we now know they (probably weren't).'
But in Reading the Bible Again he definitely seems to revert to the Spongian concept." (email Dec 27, 2001)
Imagine this. The "Definiteness of Articulation" in this case is so poor that even the head of the Historical Jesus section of the SBL, a trained professional, can't tell what his close colleague thinks about this important matter!
There are two flavors of this view, and I think that they resolve either to Option 4 (the MG Theory) or possibly Option 5 ("Couldn't Tell the Difference"), depending on the degree of indifference to factuality.
- Weaker Thesis: factuality was not as important to them as to us
- Stronger Thesis: factuality was completely irrelevant to them
The first is a thesis about relative importance. It says that facts were indeed somewhat important, which logically entails that the people in the ancient world could indeed distinguish between fact and fiction (so this leaves out Option 5). This would seem to fit in the MG bucket the best, since the meaning of the accounts is what is important. The authors would probably not be presenting their tales as fact, since they factuality is not very important.
The second is a thesis about the complete indifference regarding fact and fiction. This extreme case possibly fits within Option 5 ("They couldn't tell the difference").
Another possibility is that this stronger these, too, most fits within the MG Theory. An example: If my wife says, "Would you like to go to see this movie or that movie?", I might reply "I don't care", but that doesn't mean I can't tell the difference between them! Presumably, the indifference to fact is only symptomatic of interest in the metaphorical meaning.
We have seen statements in writers who clearly affirm the Metaphorical Gospel theory, which appear to support other options.
- We are first told (2) the first Christians believed in miracles and thus construed the miracle accounts literally.
- We are then told (3) the writers invented details that would only be persuasive if their readers accepted them factually.
- We are then presented with statements which seem to say: (5) these people couldn't tell the difference.
- Finally, we're told (6) they didn't care about the distinction.
There appears to be a haziness or inconsistency in the views of people who hold the theory, which makes it difficult for them to clearly articulate it. In fact, a certain amount of detective work is necessary to bring the theory to the surface. This is often because the theory exists more as an implicit assumption that an explicitly stated assertion.