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Conclusion:  The Metaphorical Gospel Theory is False

By:  Erick Nelson
Last Updated: 
September 11, 2002

Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson go camping and pitch their tent under the stars. During the night, Holmes wakes his companion and says: "Watson, look up at the stars, and tell me what you deduce."

Watson says enthusiastically: "I see millions of stars, and even if a few of those have planets, it's quite likely there are some planets like Earth, and if there are a few planets like Earth out there, there might also be life."

Holmes replies: "Watson, you idiot. Somebody stole our tent." 

(University of Hertfordshire search for the world's funniest joke, reported by Chicago Tribune 3/4/02)

I have pointed out that that the Metaphorical Gospel theory is affirmed (sometimes implicitly, or sometimes explicitly) by Borg, Crossan, and Spong, and is presented by them as being as the result of decades of careful modern scholarship.  It is thought to be a mature, established theory.   

Burden of Proof

It is not sufficient for the advocates of the MG Theory to present merely a plausible case, or even a probably case, as if the burden of proof was on their opponents.  Those who affirm the Metaphorical Gospel Theory must rightfully bear the burden of proof, because:

  1. They claim that the "plain" meaning of the text is not the true meaning
  2. They claim special knowledge of the facts (being specialist scholars in the field)
  3. They claim that a tragic exegetical mistake was made by early Christians which has been perpetuated throughout most of the existence of Christianity
  4. Their view attempts to overturn the traditional view

Earlier in this work I set out the criteria I expect a sound theory (and especially a mature theory) to satisfy.  Let's see whether the MG Theory was able to meet these criteria.


Definiteness of Articulation

Even before we can gather and evaluate evidence, we must first know what the theory actually says - and what it doesn't say. This is called the "Definiteness of Articulation" requirement.  How can I believe a theory if I don't know what it claims?  How can I evaluate a theory which sometimes appears in one guise and sometimes appears in another? 

One of the difficult things about addressing the view we're trying to consider is that some of the language is not particularly precise. The other problem is, not so much that scholars differ, but that the same scholars will sometimes contradict themselves.

The scholars I examine fail this first basic test.  

  1. The language used to describe their views is sometimes so vague, imprecise, or positively misleading that it's hard to tell what they're really saying, especially when they use religious words in new ways.
  2. They appear, sometimes, to make statements that would logically support other, competing views, rather than the Metaphorical Gospel view.  
  3. All three scholars, surprisingly, lack a coherent account of the Literalization process logically entailed by the theory.

Vague and Illogical Statements

One way you can tell that this theory lacks articulation is that Dr. Borg and I had to send no less than 13 emails back and forth before I got him to agree that he affirmed that view.  Another way to is to notice that several people I consulted thought that I was simply wrong ("too simplistic") in ascribing this view to these three scholars.  A third example is that even one of Borg's colleagues, Mark Allan Powell, had difficulty when trying to interpret his views.

The attempt to make this theory explicit was more difficult than evaluating it.

One possible reaction to this finding is to say that the MG scholars work with concepts that are highly nuanced, subtle, sophisticated, and thus there is a Burden of Discovery (rather than Burden of Proof) which should be borne by the reader.  

I disagree, in principle and in application.  Certainly, in specialized fields such as mathematics, one can only proof one's thesis by using specialized - even highly sophisticated - concepts and terminology.  However, within those constraints, the proponent of the theory much still speak clearly and precisely.  It is just a matter of reality that only those equipped to evaluate such theories are fitting judges.


1.  I don't see that this issue is that highly specialized.  It seems to me that the concepts involved are fairly intuitive and that specialized constructs (such as higher math) are not necessary to discuss the issues.  It is true that some knowledge of the ancient world may be presumed, but the essential elements even of this are not hidden from the discerning reader.

2.  I also don't see that clear, simple, logical language is inadequate to put forth this thesis.  In fact, Spong (at times) manages to come right out and say what he thinks.  And I, in my way, have tried to paraphrase the claims so that they are as clear and precise as possible.

Lack of Account of Literalization

At least Bishop Spong tries to give such an account.  As I said before, the burden of proof is squarely on the person who claims "all Christians first believed X, and then they all later on believed ~X" to give us an account regarding how that came about, or at least how it might have come about.

However, Spong's account is provably untenable.  And I haven't gotten anything out of Borg or Crossan.  

Definiteness of Warrant

The proponents of the MG Theory should tell us exactly which kinds of events or facts count for and against the theory - with clear, valid reasoning from evidence to conclusion.

One of the most interesting part of this study was the lack of a clear, solid case.  I was forced to try to gather the best and most representative arguments out of a great deal of rhetoric.  The arguments were these:

Historical Criticism has Proven It

One of the reasons that cogent arguments were not forthcoming was the assumption that Historical Criticism has already established this as fact.  However, when I asked Borg for some references regarding this specific issue, he was unable to recommend anything.

This is really an umbrella argument.  When you think about it, it is really an Appeal to Authority.  It is a deferral or deflection of the issue.  

General Arguments

The MG scholars do however, from time to time, try to make a case for the theory. 

Spong tries to build a case based upon the presence of Old Testament themes in the New Testament.  However, he commits the fallacy of appealing to "Theory Intersection", without showing how his theory better fits the facts. 

Crossan points out how different Mark and John are, and presents his view that they are in such conflict that neither could possibly be true - and that this is evidence that they are intended (only) metaphorically.  However, he commits several logical fallacies in the process, and depends on rhetoric alone (good rhetoric, too) to convince the reader.


There are two basic kinds of internal evidence: direct "meta-gospel" statements, and indirect statements. "Meta-gospel" statements (statements in the New Testament about the meaning of the gospel message) are the best evidence.

Supporting the MG Theory

Spiritual Christ.  The proponents of the Metaphorical Gospel theory attempt to make three points which are used to deny the bodily resurrection of Jesus and to create a wedge between the Jesus of History and the Christ of Faith: 

  1. Paul talks about no longer knowing Christ "after the flesh"
  2. "Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God." 
  3. Paul teaches a spiritual, not a bodily, resurrection of Jesus

We have carefully examined these passages and find that the Internal Evidence simply does not indicate this.

Internal Evidence

There are, however, several statements, from a variety of sources, which are ignored or simply missed by the proponents of the Metaphorical Gospel theory.  These statements directly contradict the theory.  A few examples are:

  1. Luke explicitly tells us that he is providing a collection of eyewitness accounts regarding what happened. 
  2. Matthew, in an editorial aside, tells us that the story about the disciples stealing the body was still current in his day - thus, we know that the empty tomb was construed literally.
  3. John places an interesting stress on the eye-witness nature of the Fourth Gospel, 
  4. Paul teaches Jesus' true deity and describes his 'form', pre-existence, and 'emptying'
  5. Paul teaches Jesus' bodily resurrection; he not only teaches it, he explains and defends it.
  6. In Acts, the model of gospel presentation is an appeal to fulfilled prophecy - the reverse of midrash - especially as it relates to the real, physical resurrection of Jesus.
  7. In the "deutero" epistles, the writers warn us to reject stories that are made up and instead believe the eyewitness accounts of what happened.
  8. 1 John emphasizes that Jesus and The Christ are not to be separated.

These are incontrovertible statements which prove that the New Testament writers intended the gospel accounts to be construed as events which actually took place.

The end result is an impressive list of statements in the New Testament itself which are difficult, if not impossible, to explain away.  Every meta-gospel statement contradicts the MG theory. The surprise is that these scholars, whose business it is to be experts in the New Testament, appeared to be unaware that these statements contradicted their theory.  As C.S. Lewis once observed, those who claim to be able to read between lines appear to be unable to read the lines themselves.

External Evidence

The Metaphorical Gospel is a thesis about the intent of the New Testament authors.  Do we have any writings of people who were in a position to know the intent of these authors? We do (Clement, Ignatius, and Polycarp). What do they say? Do they affirm the theory or contradict it?

The Metaphorical Gospel is a thesis not only of the intent of the original New Testament authors, but is also a thesis about how the New Testament writings were originally understood.  (The claim is that Christians living in the 70-110 period understood the gospels metaphorically, and that only a later generation literalized it.)  This is easy to check out. Do we have writings of Christians who lived during this time?  We do (The same people:  Clement, Ignatius, and Polycarp).  What do they say? Do they affirm the theory or contradict it?

Surprisingly enough, Borg, Spong, and Crossan completely ignore this primary source evidence. Clement, Ignatius, and Polycarp explicitly contradict the Metaphorical Gospel theory.  These church leaders, universally acknowledged to be representative of the church world-view of that day, and presumably in touch with at least some of the gospel writers (if not the disciples themselves), stand as a powerful direct refutation of the theory.

Answers to Common Objections

I had the good fortune of being able to correspond with Dr. Borg (by email) and Bishop Spong (by regular mail). I was able to confirm that I understood their positions. I also presented the Internal and External evidence to them on several occasions, in one form or another. Although I understand it's not realistic to expect a full reply or discussion from them on these issues, I thought that they would have some stock responses to my rather elementary questions. I was wrong.  They did not even pass the "Prospective Mother-in-Law Test" (see Responses) - they couldn't answer even the simplest questions.


The Metaphorical Gospel Theory, as I have defined it, has simply not passed the tests.  It lacks Definiteness of Articulation and Definiteness of Warrant.  The Internal Evidence and External Evidence are squarely against it. T he proponents of this theory seem to have no good answers to common objections.

The Metaphorical Gospel Theory might be an attractive theory, it is certainly a popular and sophisticated theory - but it is also a false theory.  We should not be intimidated into accepting it on the basis of authority or under the pressures of intellectual fashion.  As long as the evidence stands, the theory must be rejected.