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By: Erick Nelson
Last Updated: December 31, 2001
"A dead thing can go with the stream, but only a living thing can go against it." – G.K. Chesterton, Everlasting Man, 1925
It is surprisingly easy to misunderstand what the point of this article is. My scope is actually pretty narrowly defined.
I want to take a prominent New Testament theory and make it very explicit, lay out the evidence which is relevant to its confirmation or refutation, and show that the evidence refutes the theory - in the clearest possible step-by-step argument. That's it.
Some people have assumed that I'm trying to prove in this article that "Historic Christianity" is true. I'm not. Actually, the contention of this article is perfectly compatible with people who say (a) the gospel writers made everything up in an attempt to fool people, or (b) the gospel writers innocently passed along legends, thinking they were factual accounts, or (c) other scenarios.
Some people have gotten the impression that I'm trying to discredit the scholars I discuss. That's not my purpose, and if I've been less than charitable towards them I apologize. Let me know what you think I ought to change and I will try to do so.
Some people have objected that I'm engaging in a religious debate which cannot be settled because it is in the realm of "faith." That is not the case. The issue of the meaning of the New Testament writers, although theological aspects are involved, is primarily an exegetical issue. The issue of the beliefs or common world-view of the early Christians between 70 and 110 AD is both an exegetical and historical issue. As such, there is plenty of reason to think that these issues are decidable.
Statement of Intention
What I am trying to do
- I am trying to clarify an issue in New Testament studies that very much needs clarification. This analysis uncovers the theory or view which claims that the New Testament writers intended to portray their material as metaphorically, not factually true. I call this the Metaphorical Gospel theory.
- I am trying to describe a theory which is often only implicitly held. In doing so, I gather the statements from three prominent scholars (Borg, Spong, and Crossan) who affirm the theory.
- I am trying to evaluate this theory solely on the basic of the appropriate evidence. And, therefore, I (a) specify what kinds of evidence ought to be examined, (b) present the evidence and explain its credentials, and (c) directly compare what the evidence says with what the theory says.
- I am trying to show exactly why I think the Metaphorical Gospel theory is false. I am tying to present a step-by-step, detailed argument, so that you can decide for yourself whether my conclusion is correct. The intent of my approach is, therefore, purely as a straightforward, rational analysis of publicly available evidence.
What I am Not trying to do
- I am not trying to say that there is no metaphor in the New Testament, or that metaphor is bad or that metaphorical statements can't be true in and of themselves.
- I am not trying to conduct a detailed critique of any particular scholar's writings. I only include these three particular authors so that they can act as real-life examples of influential scholars who hold the theory. I could easily have concentrated on other writers and professors.
- I am not trying to misrepresent, distort, or exaggerate the views of the scholars I do discuss. I have gone to great lengths to try to really understand their positions. I corresponded with Bishop Spong and Dr. Borg, who have confirmed with me that they do indeed hold this position. Since Dr. Crossan did not return my emails, I judge his position solely by his published comments.
- I am not trying to argue from an evangelical Christian's "perspective", or assumptions, as has sometimes been the case when Christians have critiqued these scholars. Instead, I am consciously trying to take a purely evidential approach to the subject matter. And therefore, in a very real sense, I am not taking part in a religious debate. I am taking part in an examination of evidence.
- I am not trying to prove that "Historic Christianity" is true (although I think it is). Since I outline six Options, or alternative ways of understanding the meaning of the gospels, it is clear that refuting one of the six only reduces the number of Options by one. Simple math tells us that there are five left.
- I am not trying to address the issue, held by modern theologians, as to whether the real meaning of the gospel stories ought to be understood metaphorically or factually. I only address the issue of the intent of the gospels writers, not the ultimate value of the material. That would be another, probably longer, paper.
- I am not trying to rely on fancy phrasing or clever rhetoric to establish my points. I want the argument to convince the reader. I think that the evidence is so strong, and the reasoning so direct, that I want nothing to get in the way and obscure the force of the case.
Since the beginning of the century a certain peculiar, even somewhat counter-intuitive, view has been put forth by certain (but not all) New Testament scholars. This view says that the gospel writers adapted or created many of the sayings and activities attributed to Jesus without being guilty of actually lying about these matters. The view is usually stated in terms of the gospel writers' desire to address the "needs" of the church within it's "life situation" (although they used German words, which seemed much more sophisticated).
I have long been puzzled by this view, because I wasn't sure exactly what was meant by this assertion. It seemed as if the writers were saying that
- many of the stories were factually false
- they were written in good faith, so
- the writers must have intended to portray their material as being true spiritually, theologically, metaphorically, and not factually.
However, this was usually implied rather than explicitly spelled out. This didn't worry me a great deal, because I thought that I had read enough about the authorship and dating of the gospels to form my own opinion. In brief, I was convinced by arguments presented by such scholars John Warwick Montgomery (History and Christianity), F.F. Bruce (The New Testament Documents, Are They Reliable?), Donald Guthrie (New Testament Introduction), and Bishop John Robinson (Redating the New Testament), which seemed to me to be superior in clarity and logical precision to those of the "old guard" liberal scholars (e.g. Bultmann, Dibelius, V. Taylor, etc.), or to their more modern counterparts (e.g. Morton Smith, Norman Perrin, etc.) I was fortunate enough to have personally met with Montgomery, Bruce, and Guthrie to discuss these issues. I also had the chance to write a paper for John Hick which described my view at the time, and he thought that it represented sound scholarship (even though it was diametrically opposed to his own views).
However, many years have passed since I last looked into this subject. I attended small group meetings with people who were interested in theology and discovered that there were new scholars who were all the rage. Among these were Marcus Borg, Bishop John Shelby Spong, and John Dominic Crossan. As the group discussed these writers, it became clear that the issue I had previously wondered about (the "metaphorical" intent of the gospels) had been somewhat clarified, especially by Spong. The "Metaphorical Gospel Theory", as I call it, was presented to me as the definitive scholarly truth of 1995. Anyone who was doubted this theory surely did so out of blind ignorance and theological prejudice.
This got my attention. I thought to myself, "Ok, let's see what these guys have to say. I'll take time out from my career pursuits and let them give me their best shot. I will be willing to re-think everything that I've lived for, be willing to modify my own Christian beliefs, if they can really prove their case." And I bought some of their books and tried to understand their positions and arguments.
Not being content to merely read their books, I endeavored to correspond with them. Dr. Borg and Bishop Spong were kind enough to (all too) briefly discuss my questions via email (Borg) and regular mail (Spong). So I had a pretty good chance both to understand their positions and to probe these positions a little bit. (See Borg emails and Spong letters.)
When doing background research on this topic, I attempted to ask questions of some seminary professors. One of them questioned my motivation. So, I'll try to give an honest answer here. I think my motivation changed over time. At first, it was the direct challenge of letting those who advocate this view "give it their best shot." Later, I was asked to do an article and post it on the web site of some friends - so my motivation was to write a good article. They were so enthusiastic that I started thinking that this analysis might help somebody else to think through the topic. Still later, when few or no people were interested in the topic, I realized that this is still a good exercise for me - even if nobody else ever reads it. That's because I'm interested in "modeling arguments", and this gave me an interesting, complex, and definite argument with which to practice.
The result is also that my belief that truth will stand up under scrutiny was rewarded. Having examined the arguments pro and con, and after considering the evidence myself, including these scholars' replies to my questions, I will not be easily intimidated into assenting to a view which is simply a mistaken view. It doesn't matter who teaches it, or how many people believe it, or how popular the theory becomes. As long as the evidence refutes the theory, I will reject it.
I believe that the Metaphorical Gospel Theory should be spelled out and examined. This theory is an important and influential one, even though often held only implicitly and confusedly. It is a bedrock assumption for much of university and seminary New Testament studies. It is accepted uncritically by thousands of students, pastors, and lay church members.
In this article I consider the relevant evidence and - on the basis of this investigation - conclude that the Metaphorical Gospel theory is false. I also conclude that it is not only false, but provably so.