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The "Metaphorical Gospel Theory" - Abstract

By:  Erick Nelson
Last Updated:  September 11, 2002

There is an important and influential theory held by some contemporary Historical Jesus scholars such as Marcus Borg, John Dominic Crossan, and Bishop John Shelby Spong, which I call the Metaphorical Gospel theory.  This book argues that this theory is false.

The Metaphorical Gospel view is typically found as an underlying assumption in writings that are concerned with proving other things.  For instance, Borg and Spong are eager to "re-vision" and  redefine Christianity in terms that would be more acceptable to the modern mind, based in part on the premise that the MG theory is true.  

At times they give reasons for this premise, but nowhere do they mount a sustained argument for it.  Thus, the burden is on the researcher (that's me) to make the argument plain.  That's one of the things I attempt to do in this work.

The Metaphorical Gospel theory states, in a nutshell:

  1. The New Testament writers did not intend to portray many of the stories, and the claims about Jesus' deity and resurrection, as "factually" true.  Instead, they intended to portray them as (only) metaphorically true.
  2. This way of telling stories was common practice at the time, and the original readers and hearers of the New Testament typically understood the stories and claims to be metaphorically, but not factually, true.
  3. It was only a later generation that "literalized" the gospel.

Since Christianity, as commonly understood throughout the ages, has always taught both the factual basis and the metaphorical value of these things, it is clear that the MG theory is defined not so much by what it asserts (the metaphorical truth) but by what it denies (the grounding in fact).

Evaluating the Theory

First:  to forestall possible misunderstanding (and to proactively avoid being labeled "Nelson, the Literalist"), (a) I set aside space to reassure the reader that I do indeed understand metaphor, can spot one when I run into it, and think that metaphor is good.  (b) I simply follow the scholars' established usage of the terms "factual", "literal", "historical" to mean, more or less interchangeably, "events which occurred" - and do not intend to imply that metaphorical statements aren't true.

To be clear on intent:  I do not consider this to be, fundamentally, an issue of "faith", but of historical exegesis:  what did the New Testament authors intend to convey?  I try not to approach this from a partisan viewpoint.  I do make a sincere attempt to be fair to the theory.  This should not be an issue of good guys vs. bad guys, but simply:  "What is the truth in this matter?"  

Even though I effectively take on the burden of proof here in this work, I believe that the burden of proof really should lie with those who wish to affirm the MG theory.  I identify five requirements of any sound theory:

The following is a summary of what I found concerning these five requirements:

Definiteness of Articulation and Warrant

This principle says that, to be a good theory, the position must be clearly stated and some definite rational support must be offered. 

In researching these authors, I was surprised by the fact that I failed to find clear, straightforward explanations of what the position really was and why they think it is true.  Instead, I found three things:  (a) general claims, bolstered by appeal to authority, (b) passages that seemed to simply muddy the issue, and (c) even some statements that seemed to support some other, competing view.

Thus, I conclude that - at least for the scholars I studied - this requirement has not been satisfied.

Internal Evidence

If the Metaphorical Gospel theory is true, we would expect statements in the New Testament which address this issue to confirm it.  We simply do not find direct statements supporting the view.

The justifications I did encounter typically appeal to indirect evidence.  I contend in this work that these appeals are fundamentally flawed, not so much because they appeal to indirect evidence, but because they are invalid arguments.  

All of the direct internal evidence that can be brought to bear on the theory actually refutes the theory.  A summary list of this evidence has to do with:

External Evidence

If the Metaphorical Gospel theory is true, we would expect the major church leaders who lived during the time period in question (70 -110 AD) to affirm this view, since they were among the very people who supposedly interpreted the gospel metaphorically.  Instead they contradict it.

Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, and Polycarp of Smyrna (the "Apostolic Fathers), bishops of their respective churches, not only lived during the era under question, but were in an excellent position to have first-hand knowledge regarding the meaning and intent of the gospel writers.  (They also were martyred for their views, which shows they were serious about what they said.)

[For argument's sake, throughout this work I have used the gospel composition dates, 70-100 AD, accepted by the MG proponents.]

Clement, Ignatius, and Polycarp say that:

Answers to Common Objections

I was able to correspond with Dr. Borg and Bishop Spong, which gave me the opportunity to ask follow-up questions.  I understood that it was unreasonable to expect full replies from these busy men, and was gratified that they responded at all. 

Dr. Borg confirmed in 1997 that my basic understanding of his view is correct.  He later responded briefly to emails in 2002 which attempted to confirm his position, and especially clarify his views about literalization.  I was surprised that he was not able to easily deal with Internal Evidence I presented, nor did he have a sufficient understanding of the Apostolic Fathers or the Apologists. 

Bishop Spong also confirmed that my basic understanding of his view is correct.  He was silent about the Internal Evidence, although we exchanged several emails and he commented on several topics.  Even though he has vehemently argued in his books that the (Jewish) gospel had been literalized by a later Gentiles, when pressed about details he confessed that he did not know much about Clement, Ignatius, and Polycarp, did not know whether the first-century Gentiles understood the gospel literally or metaphorical - nor does he care.  He therefore had no reply to the evidence.

John Dominic Crossan did not respond to my emails, and so I simply don't know how he would have answered my points.


I have tried to understand exactly what this theory claims and to set this out fairly.  I have tried to reveal the underlying arguments, which wasn't always easy, and to consider them closely.  

I looked for "meta-gospel" (statements in the gospel writings about the gospel) that would either support or contradict the theory.  All of them contradict it; none of them support it.

I looked for statements by people who were part of the original audience and were in such positions of leadership (including even geographical commonality with the gospels) that they couldn't help but know what the New Testament writers meant.  I found that all of the statements that can be marshaled on the subject contradict the MG theory, and none support it.

Finally, I found no answers to this evidence either in the MG scholars' books, or by asking them directly.  It appears (and I can't bring myself to believe that this is actually the case) that they have not considered the most obvious objections to their theory.

The very evidence which ought to support the Metaphorical Gospel theory actually refutes it.  Therefore, I find that the Metaphorical Gospel Theory is not only false, but provably so.