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Emails with Marcus Borg
By: Erick Nelson
Last Updated: January 30, 2002
First Set 1995-97
1. Borg Reply to Question #1: Willing to correspond 8. General 2. Intended to portray, understood metaphorically? 9. J200 debate and L.T. Johnson 3. Clarify answer 10. Metaphorical Gospels paper, summaries 4. Meta-Gospel evidence 11. Then what IS your position? 5. Background info, replies to Borg 12. Another ask for clarification 6. Response and attempt to see possible reasoning 13. Borg's position (finally) affirmed 7. Response to previous reply
Second Set - 2002
14. The Apostolic Fathers and Literalization 15. Clarification, with Example - "Didn't Matter" 16. Justin and Irenaeus? - Doesn't Know
November 20, 1995
(Reconstructured from quote in Erick email)
(I had sent him a couple of emails asking him if he would be willing to answer some New Testament questions)
Thank you for your note - always good to hear that people are reading and appreciating my work.
I would be willing to make brief responses to questions. However, I will be away from my E-Mail most of the summer. The next time I will be checking it is July 17, and then perhaps not again until after August. So, depending upon your timing, a response could be slow in coming.
November 20, 1995
I did send you a couple of emails, asking a fairly straightforward question, but they obvious came at a bad time, so I would like to try to ask again.
I just finished Bp. Spong's "Resurrection: Reality or Myth" book, and recently read "Born of a Woman." In these books, Bp. Spong clearly says that the New Testament redactors/writers used a midrash technique for describing their spiritual experience by creating (non-factual) stories. I believe that Rev. Raymond Brown calls this "didactic historical fictions." I also believe that his position is (1) these writers INTENDED TO PORTRAY the material as midrash creations (not factual accounts), and (2) the first audiences UNDERSTOOD the material as midrash creations (not factual accounts).
I your book you seemed to be saying the same thing (without as much emphasis on "midrash" as Spong). Is this correct in your view? And if so, is this the "state of the art" view of NT scholarship, or are there several competing frameworks?
If you failed to reply earlier because you thought the question inappropriate, or the way posed it unworthy of reply, I sincerely apologize, and would appreciate hearing your view about this. Otherwise, I'll just assume that you are extremely busy - as are we all! - and wait to hear from you.
December 8, 1995
And since last I wrote, I've been in South Africa for a month and on a sabbatical fall term. So after a long absence, I'm back at my E-Mail.
Your questions are well-phrased and good ones. A quick response: Spong probably over-uses the category of midrash. Yet his basic claim - that the birth stories are not historical narratives but metaphorical/symbolic narratives - is widely-accepted by mainline scholars. My own way of puttting it: the virgin birth didn't happen, but the stories of the virgin birth are powerfully true.
In haste, but with best wishes.
December 11, 1995
Thanks so much for replying to my earlier emails. You pointed out that:
>Yet his basic claim - that the birth stories are not historical
>narratives but metaphorical/symbolic narratives - is widely-accepted
>by mainline scholars.
I take this mean that not only the birth narratives, but the deity of Jesus, miracles, resurrection, and several other stories were:
(a) PORTRAYED by the writers as metaphorically (not factually) true,
(b) UNDERSTOOD by the original readers as such.
January 2, 1996
Generally speaking, yes (with the exception of healings and exorcisms--we think Jesus did those). And then I would want to emphasize what might be called "the truth of metaphor." In short, to label something metaphorical doesn't mean that it need not be taken seriously.
January 3, 1996
[Meta-Gospel Discourse as exegetical technique]
Bishop John Shelby Spong in "Resurrection - Reality or Myth" and "Born of a Woman" puts forth the thesis that the gospels were originally "midrash", and were intended (and interpreted by their first audiences)
as true metaphorically, spiritually, and theologically, but not factually true accouts. By this he means that the original gospel writers did not intend to convey that Jesus' resurrection was a physical event involving an empty tomb and a transformation of a dead body; they did not mean by the "Son of God" or other deity statements that he was actually the Creator of the Universe who became a human; etc.
This more "literal" interpretation of the gospel occurred by the time of Irenaeus (180) (and presumably earlier).
This conclusion is apparently reached through:
(1) the internal evidence found in the gospels themselves (an exegetical task)
(2) the world-view or mind-set of the Christians in the 70-100 period in the Jewish/Hellenistic world as opposed to that of the "next" period (at least by the 150-200 period) (historical thesis)
(3) the natural connection between Old Testament stories and images and those found in the New Testament.
Bishop Spong is not asserting any new view, but sets forth the view of a significant portion of current New Testament scholarship. Bishop Spong, and others, address point #3 at length. I have asked several
knowledgeable people about #2, and that is not my question here.
The most interesting question is a purely exegetical one (#1). How do we tell from a writing whether the author intends it to be construed factually or figuratively? It is easy to see that saying that "Jesus is the door" does not mean he is made of wood, or saying "I am the True Vine" does not mean Jesus is green. But how about statements that appear to be plain factual claims, such as "Thomas touched Jesus' hands" and "They walked to Jerusalem"? If the authors intended a great deal of the material to be midrash as Spong maintains, they would include a lot of stories that appear on the surface to be simple straightforward accounts but are not.
So, how can one do the proper exegesis? How do we know that Irenaeus was a "literalist"? Because he uses meta-gospel discourse. He talks ABOUT the gospel. He explicitly says that the miracles, deity, suffering, teaching, and resurrection of Jesus are factual - not myths, not appearances, not stories that were made up.
Whether the gospels are indeed midrash, or essentially factual accounts can perhaps be decided by the META-GOSPEL statements that are found in the New Testament itself.
The surprising thing is that we do not find (to my knowledge) any clear meta-gospel statement verifying midrash ("this is figuratively true, not factually true - these are spiritual creations - remember that the man Jesus and the Christ of Faith are not the same ...") [perhaps you could point out some I have missed].
What we do find are some surprising direct and explicit meta-gospel statements that support the "factual" view. I will present the two strongest examples:
(1) The prologue to Luke could not be clearer in stating the author's purpose: many people had endeavored to write accounts of what had happened in Jesus' ministry; Luke knew what the eyewitness disciples had declared; he investigated these things thoroughly and set down the accounts.
(2) "Deutero"-epistles. It is held that 1-2 Timothy, 2 Peter, and possibily 1-2 John were written by disciples of the apostles Paul, Peter, and John, respectively, addressing current community issues
"as if" their apostles were writing. He we have a double-metaphor theory: not only is the content of the gospels metaphorical, but the authorship is metaphorical as well! We have therein meta-gospel
(a) explicitly say five times that the good news does NOT consist of myths or "stories that were made up" (1 Tim 1.3, 4.7, 2 Tim 4.4, 2 Peter 1.16, 2.3), but were things the the authors' "eyes have seen, hands have touched" (1 John prologue)
(b) explicitly say that there should be no division between the Jesus of History and the Christ of Faith: the "Liar" is the one who denies that Jesus IS the Christ (1 John 2.22) and the one who denies that Christ has come in the flesh (1 John 4.2, 2 John 1.7).
I am not proof-texting here. I am not saying here that what the authors claim is TRUE, only that these constitute clear meta-gospel statements which support the "factual" interpretation.
I am certain that any mature theory would have addressed these small and quite obvious points long ago. I do not flatter myself by thinking that I am saying anything really new or decisive. I am sure that are stock responses to these stock questions.
I would greatly like to hear what the responses are, and to be directed to books or articles which deal with this issue in more depth.
Any help you can give is greatly appreciated.
January 9, 1996
First, a bibliographical comment: I don't know of any particular reading which treats the questions in the form in which you are posing them.
Second, one or two "mega-thoughts." Perhaps most crucial is what we think the Bible/NT is. Is it a human product (the product of ancient cultures/communities) which therefore reflects the way these (limited) ancient writers saw things? So that when the author of II peter, for example, says "These are not myths," we then would say,"This particular author, apparently responding to charges that these were myths, denies that they are" (which would also involve us in carefully discerning what II Peter means by "myths" - does he mean what a modern scholar of religion means when he calls something a myth? Or does "myth" for II Peter mean "falsehood," "idle tale," etc.) Or does one say, either because one sees the Bible as a divine product, or because one sees the Bible as having a "unified author," that II peter's statement can be used as a "mega-claim" which should then govern the reading of Scripture as whole?
Your broader question is fascinating, I think: to what extent were the biblical authors themselves consciously aware of using metaphorical or symbolic (i.e., non-literal) language? Obviously, many in their communities would have taken this material quite literally (that's only natural in a state of pre-critical thinking) - but I wonder if the creator of the story of the empty tomb took it
literally, or whether he understood it as "a parable of the resurrection" (and not as the resurrection itself).
Sorry I cannot give a more thoughtful or extended response. Feel free to respond - my future responses are likely to be brief, but I find this interesting. Best wishes.
January 15, 1996
>Sorry I cannot give a more thoughtful or extended response. Feel
>free to respond - my future responses are likely to be brief, but I
>find this interesting. Best wishes.
I'm glad that you are interested in this subject. I will try to respond to your points, and of course ask follow-up questions!
>First, a bibliographical comment: I don't know of any particular
>reading which treats the questions in the form in which you are
I'll tell you the two shockers that have resulted from my little investigations.
(1) I tried to start small, with the basics, and my goal was to get background info from pastors and professors - I would wait until I had made sure I was current and that the obvious questions had been answered before attempted to contact any of the leading scholars in the field. Pastors were easily stumped, and one professor declined to talk with me, questioning my motives ("Is this a crisis of faith, or merely an academic exercise?" - what a great example of a false dilemma). I got much better results from you, Karen Jo Torjesen, and Spong (all brief, but helpful). Go figure.
(2) Even with the leading people (and a church history discussion group on the Internet, 800+ members, called elenchus), I haven't even asked any sophisticated questions yet. I thought I'd start out really easy, just to cover the bases, and asked the two questions that any child would ask:
(a) But what about the places where it says the gospel consists of things that really happened, reported by eyewitnesses, and not made-up stories (no matter how spiritually true)?
(b) Tell me how these metaphorically-true stories got literalized by the time of Irenaeus - were Clement, Ignatius, and Polycarp literalizers?
And the result is: No one has written a book explaining either one of these things. Amazing.
>Second, one or two "mega-thoughts." Perhaps most crucial is what we
>think the Bible/NT is. Is it a human product (the product of
>ancient cultures/communities) which therefore reflects the way these
>(limited) ancient writers saw things?
Yes, it is crucial to get these assumptions clear. To ASSUME that the work is of divine authorship is to beg the question, in my book. My assumption is that the NT is the work of human authors. I don't demand inerrancy from them. I don't demand a more rigorous approach to explanation from them than I do from other authors. For instance, I believe that they mean what they appear to mean, on the face of it, unless compelling evidence exists to suggest otherwise.
>Or does one say, either because one sees the Bible as a divine
>product, or because one sees the Bible as having a "unified author,"
>that II peter's statement can be used as a "mega-claim" which should
>then govern the reading of Scripture as whole?
Don't misunderstand my point about these epistles. I'm not thinking in proof-texting terms at all. I'll try to explain more carefully:
Ok, we have a later "disciple of Peter", writing, say, 90 CE. He lives in a Christian community where the deity and resurrection of Jesus are understood metaphorically. In this community, it is commonly understood that gospel authors had expanded Jesus sayings to incorporate their own spiritual insights. etc.
This community is so hip, in fact, that they all understand that "2nd Peter", when first read aloud in churches and ciruclated amongst them, is NOT an letter from Peter himself, but a contemporary work addressing current needs from (in some sense) what might have been Peter's perspective.
This writer supposedly believes that the "gospel" is composed of spiritual stories, and if someone were to ask him "But wasn't the man Jesus REALLY God in the flesh, and didn't his body come back to life again, and didn't he say the Sermon on the Mount?" he would answer, "No, the
gospel does not consist in things that happened in ordinary history (which profits nothing for the spirit) but in the spiritual experience of the community, and the rich, life-giving stories that we have created, through the Spirit."
This writer (and his contemporaries) would BELIEVE:
(a) Peter and the apostles were not actually eyewitnesses, as such, of Transfiguration and other instances of Jesus majesty, or hear a voice from heaven - these accounts are, rather, spiritual, insightful, and rather clever stories designed to get a point across. And the writer SAYS: (not-a) We did not follow cleverly invented stores (muthoi) when we told you about the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty ... We ourselves heard this voice that came from heaven when we were with him on the sacred
mountain." and later "teachers will exploit you with stories they have made up."
Now, what can he possibily mean by this? Is this not a contradiction? Scholars who find any difference in gospel accounts to be contradictory (even when they are merely complementary) ought to be sensitive to THIS situation. And this is not an isolated example.
>So that when the author of II
>peter, for example, says "These are not myths," we then would say,
>"This particular author, apparently responding to charges that these
>were myths, denies that they are" (which would also involve us in
>carefully discerning what II Peter means by "myths" - does he mean
>what a modern scholar of religion means when he calls something a
>myth? Or does "myth" for II Peter mean "falsehood," "idle tale,"
For my point, I assume that "myth" - since it is contrasted with eyewitness reports of actual events - means AT LEAST something asserted that does not report a factual occurrence. It is a "made-up story", whether of benign or malignant intent, whether of archetypal significance (modern meaning) or not.
>Your broader question is fascinating, I think: to what extent were
>the biblical authors themselves consciously aware of using
>metaphorical or symbolic (i.e., non-literal) language? Obviously,
>many in their communities would have taken this material quite
>literally (that's only natural in a state of pre-critical thinking)
>- but I wonder if the creator of the story of the empty tomb took it
>literally, or whether he understood it as "a parable of the
>resurrection" (and not as the resurrection itself).
Oops, have to go back to work. I have thought about this a great deal by now, and this deserves a thoughtful reply.
January 16, 1996
I look forward to your next installment.
January 17, 1996
>Your broader question is fascinating, I think: to what extent were
>the biblical authors themselves consciously aware of using
>metaphorical or symbolic (i.e., non-literal) language? Obviously,
>many in their communities would have taken this material quite
>literally (that's only natural in a state of pre-critical thinking)
(1) Pre-critical thinking. I don't think it is fair to characterize first century people as "pre-critical", depending, I suppose, on what you mean by the term. If by pre-critical you mean "unable to distinguish between things that happened and things that are imagined", I would say that they could indeed routinely make this distinction.
If you mean pre-scientific, so was Aquinas - but you would say that he was pre-critical; for that matter, try Augustine. Go all the way back to Aristotle and beyond to Plato - from what I can see, none of them was "un-critical" (and therefore not "pre-critical"). Or look at the Jewish scholars who invented the check-digit (the sum of the number equivalents for characters was put at the end of each row, to ensure more accurate copies), and the Jewish arguments and minute distinctions regarding the Torah.
If you mean "primitive" (in Bultmann's sense), because they supposedly held a 3-story world-view, you yourself have (at least partially) refuted that idea when you point out that in the Jewish tradition of "mediators" between God and man, God is not spatially located ("in him we live and move and have our being").
In fact, in Bultmann's view (for instance), one of the indicators that these people were pre-critical was precisely their belief that miracles could happen, that there existed a spirit world, and that God could interact with man. To Bultmann, you and I would count, therefore, as pre-critical!
If you mean "not reflective about theological distinctions", consider Justin and Irenaeus, who are sufficient to disabuse us of our own "un-critical" assumption that people "a long time ago" were not as smart as we are. Was there really such an intellectual gap between the Roman cities of the late first and mid-2nd centuries?
(2) The Broader Question. This was indeed my "first" question. There are several possibilities (assuming that the basic assertions of the gospels are factually false):
(a) The writers simply received the traditions handed down (exaggerations, distortions, and all) and recorded them, honestly believing that they were true.
(b) The writers changed their material and creatively added new material, for theological reasons. In doing so, I think it is inescapable that they KNEW the difference between the material they had received and what they had themselves invented. They MUST have known that these stories were not factually true. There
are two major sets of possibilities within this framework:
(i) They intended to portray the material as metaphorically true.
(This is the view we are discussing) Spong has written to me that this is very definitely his view, and explicitly said that the other options are NOT his view. I take this to be your view as well?
(ii) They intended to portray the material as factually true, knowing that it wasn't, either as a benign "pious fraud" or as a scheme for promoting their religion. Under this scheme, we have a 2-tier world-view: the elite, with the midrash approach; and the masses, with the literal view.
(I suppose another formal possibility comes out of #i, that they failed to portray what they intended: the masses mistakenly, at the time, understood the gospels literally.)
The claim that the writers freely invented stories is taking as an assumption in most academic NT work, I believe. I think the reasoning goes as follows:
- "Matthew" and "Luke" had Mark in front of them as they wrote; "John" probably had them all in front of him.
- Differences are due to intentional deviations from the sources.
- These differences are theologically motivated.
- If they were doing this in good faith, they weren't trying to actually distort the story; they were trying to do something else.
- What they must have been doing was to present "spiritual" truths.
The next step is:
- Jews did midrash, Jews and Gentiles alike invented spiritual stories. Maybe it was the norm for the culture in the first century.
- If so, THAT would explain why the gospel writers were so free in their creativity - they knew that this was normal, and that the stories would be understood spiritually, and would not be literalized.
If this is the reasoning, I could understand that the theory would not have resulted from methods of actual exegesis, but would be rather a way of explaining this puzzling fact.
My earlier question was: which is the predominent view? I assumed from what I had gathered from you, Spong, and Torjesen, and that #bi was the only way to travel. I see great problems with the view myself.
>but I wonder if the creator of the story of the empty tomb took it
>literally, or whether he understood it as "a parable of the
>resurrection" (and not as the resurrection itself).
I wonder if you are genuinely "wondering", or only putting forth your view in a soft manner. I thought the whole point of the "new theology" was that this matter was settled! I would welcome a statement from you that "nobody knows" which of the above scenarios is the right one! I certainly have never gotten THAT impression from your books, or Spong's, or other related works.
Please let me know what you think,
January 18, 1996
[Original lost: reconstructed from quoted text]
What bothers me about the conservative or literalist position is that it claims to know too much. It claims to know that Jesus' physical body came out of the tomb; or if it doesn't claim exactly that, it claims that the truth of Christianity rises or falls on whether Easter involved something happening to a physical corpse.
I am very happy to say "I don't know" in regard to a number of foundational issues. I don't know whether Mark thought he was providing a "videocam" kind of report of what happened on Easter, or whether he thought/knew his story was a parable of Easter. I don't know whether the resurrection of Jesus involved something happening to his corpse (my hunch is that it didn't, and if I had to bet one way or the other, I would say, ""Probably not." Acknowledging our "not knowing" is, it seems to me, part of recognizing and
"protecting" the mystery of God.
That is, it is the ontological/spiritual truth of Easter that is the heart of the Easter affirmation, it seems to me - and about what happened or didn't happen to the corpse of Jesus, one can quite happily be an agnostic (which, of course, means "a not-knower").
...but it is views like this which are the backdrop for understanding why many modern scholars say, "Easter is not primariuly (if at all) about something happening to a corpse (which then proves that God can intervene, or that Jesus really was the Son of God, or that death has been conquered, or whatever)."
Such an understanding turns Easter into a past event to be believed in, rather than a present experience. Moreover, it presupposes an interventionist model of God that I find very difficult theologically - namely, that God acted in this event like God has never acted anywhere else. I affirm instead "divine consistency" that God acts now as God did in the past, and versa.
So, rather than seeing Easter as a unique event in the that "proves" something about God, Jesus, or death, I see see Easter as being about the fact that the followers of Jesus continued to experience him after his death, but in a radically new way - no longer as a finite being of flesh and blood, but as a spiritual
reality/presence who had the qualities of God."
So, are we connecting? Or are our points missing each other like ships in the night?
January 18, 1996
I took quite a bit of time to think over you latest email, and maybe I over-analyzed it, interpreting a few innocent comments as if they were a stand-alone position! And I try to pack in as much as I can, because I don't count on a frequent back-and-forth conversation.
So, thanks for your response - I appreciate your candor and interest in pursuing the topic.
>So, are we connecting? Or are our points missing each other like
>ships in the night?
Both. Our points are passing each other, but that's not bad, because your new points are of great interest. What you said adds a new dimension to the discussion.
>What bothers me about the conservative or literalist position is
>that it claims to know too much. It claims to know that Jesus'
>physical body came out of the tomb; or if it doesn't claim exactly
>that, it claims that the truth of Christianity rises or falls on
>whether Easter involved something happening to a physical corpse.
>I am very happy to say "I don't know" in regard to a number of
>foundational issues. I don't know whether Mark thought he was
>providing a "videocam" kind of report of what happened on Easter, or
>whether he thought/knew his story was a parable of Easter. I don't
>know whether the resurrection of Jesus involved something happening
>to his corpse (my hunch is that it didn't, and if I had to bet one
>way or the other, I would say, ""Probably not." Acknowledging our
>"not knowing" is, it seems to me, part of recognizing and
>"protecting" the mystery of God.
You could have knocked me over with a feather. I recently re-read the beginning parts of two of your books, to get a feel for the foundations and basic argument. I will try to recapitulate the argument here (you can tell me if I'm wrong):
(1) "Popular Christianity" (what we're calling the literalist view) says that gospel writers (for instance) recorded what actually happened.
(2) Discrepancies between the gospels are so great and pervasive as to constitute contradictory accounts (Mark vs. John is a prominent example: they couldn't possibly both be true accounts of what happened).
(3) (implicit, but widely understood) It has been established that the gospels are not independent accounts, but have a literary dependency (Matthew and Luke used Mark as the basis for their gospels, etc.): therefore, many of the divergence from earlier accounts must have been intentional.
(4) A close analysis of the texts reveals "theological motives", the fitting of the accounts into the needs of the church, etc.
(5) So, Popular Christianity has been shown to be untrue (because of the presence of discrepencies, and the results of rigorous investigation, etc.)
(5) The question then is, "If THIS isn't true about Jesus, then WHAT IS?" - which leads to various theories (such as eschatological prophet).
(6) However, many of the leading theories (example, esch. prophet) have fallen out of favor, have been refuted, whatever. Therefore, the question is, "If the other theories aren't true either, then WHAT IS?"
(7) Enter Borg's theory. MB says: "Look, let's not deny the possibility of supernatural (miraculous) events just because we live in a scientific age (as Bultmann wished to do). There are plenty of reasons why we should not rule them out (the new physics, personal experiences of the supernatural, philosophical reasons, etc.).
"Accepting this, now think of all the religious prophets, healers, sages, teachers who have lived. Their contemporaries thought they were channels of spiritual power and wisdom, and they probably were. Well, if they were "mediators" between the physical world and the supernatural, then why not Jesus? Hasn't he been the most influential of all? Let's look at him in those terms." Perfectly reasonable, it seems to me.
However, what comes out loud and clear is, not only that you have a way of bringing the supernatural power back to our conception of Jesus, but also that "Popular Christianity has been refuted." Lest you think that I have gone overboard with this interpetation, let me give you a real-life example that shows I'm in good company!
I attend a United Methodist in Seattle, which has a general "liberal" orientation. There are lots of smart
people: professors, doctors, writers, PhDs, etc. In the Adult Ed class, a couple of facilitators read two of your books and two of Spong's, and presented what they had discovered for general round-table discussion.
[Ok, it wasn't fair to confuse your position with Spong's, but the positions seemed to be pretty close in the general scheme of things, so that's what they did.]
The things we learned from this discussion were:
(1) The gospels are so full of contradictions that they can't be relied upon to tell us what happened, period.
(2) The best minds in New Testament scholarship have analyzed this material, and have concluded - without caveat - that the "claims" of the gospels are metaphorically, not literally, intended. They must be spiritually understood.
(3) those who DISAGREE with this conclusion do so because, either they:
(a) are out of touch with current research, or
(b) are so biased by their religious convictions that they are unable to see the facts before them, or
(c) lack intelligence to such a degree that they are unable to think rationally and to recognize valid arguments, or
(d) simply want the gospels to be literally true so badly that they believe it at all costs, or
(e) some combination of the above.
(4) and those who DISREGARD this conclusion, and go on simple-mindedly believing the "old, old story", and, refusing to consider the "facts" and persist in ignoring the "truth", are religious simpletons.
So, those who do not accept these scholarly conclusions are either old-fashioned, stricken with "metaphasia" (the inability to recognize metaphor), living in wish-fulfillment, and/or are simply stupid. Being one of those people (skeptic that I am), I was not quick to raise my hand and ask questions, or to bring such scorn upon MYSELF! Nosiree.
* Note * that the conclusions were accepted, NOT on the basis of a special spiritual insight that the authors possessed, or on the basis of any kind of revelation which might or might not be acknowledged, but on the basis of AUTHORITY, that is, the current "scholarly findings" of the best minds in the field.
And that authority is qualified to make pronouncements on these matters specifically because this knowledge was gained through rigorous, rational, impartial investigation of the relevant evidence by those most qualified to do so.
And that's why I am surprised by your agnosticism. The impression we get from the books is that certain things (fatal indeed to "popular Christianity") about the original authors, audience, world-view, and writings of the first century have been discovered, established as true.
And now the knowledge claims that intimidated me before my peers have been reduced to a modest "When it really comes down to it, I don't know. But that's a good thing, because it protects the mystery of God."
IT DOESN'T MATTER:
>That is, it is the ontological/spiritual truth of Easter
>that is the heart of the Easter affirmation, it seems to me -
>and about what happened or didn't happen to the corpse of Jesus,
>one can quite happily be an agnostic (which, of course, means "a
There are at least two flavors of the "don't care" or "it isn't important" viewpoint. The first one I will call the St. Francis model.
I admire St. Francis a lot. Since he didn't much believe in books and scholarship, he would think that any inquiries into the "historical facts" - much less debates about them - are pretty much a waste of time. His way (in my opinion) was a simple one: "pray a lot, listen to God a lot, don't burden yourself with extraneous concerns, preach the gospel, heal the sick of soul and body, tend to the lepers and outcasts, and do what Jesus says. Anything else is a needless complication."
I'm perfectly happy with this model, and was actually in a sense trying to follow it when I encountered those two authors, Borg and Spong, who introduced all sorts of objections to my naive "Popular Christianity". Ironic, don't you think?
But your point is a little different. It is more of an argument. I will try to put what you said in a standard argument form (I include your text at the bottom of the email):
(1) To understand Easter as the raising of a corpse is to view it as a past event to be believed in, RATHER than a present experience (they are mutually exclusive).
(2) To understand Easter as the raising of a corpse presupposes a "unique intervention by God" model.
(1a) (implicit) It is preferable (to MB) to view his faith as a present experience rather than to believe in a past event (since a choice between the two is forced).
(2a) The unique intervention by God is not as plausible (to MB) as "divine consistency".
So, - I'm not quite sure what the conclusion ought to say. Maybe:
(3) The MEANING of Easter (to MB), that is, the ontological/spiritual truth (to MB), is the present expererience (which was also the experience of the first disciples), and
(4) This interpretation is in some sense philosophically superior to the alternative, in that it includes "divine consistency".
 Surely, point #1 is a false dilemma. To say that one is forced to choose between believing in a past event or to undergo a present experience simply has no validity. I have not noticed any deterioration in the quality of my own personal relationship with God from the time when I first thought that 'Jesus' resurrection was a fact that
involved the transformation of his body'. In fact, I think my personal experience took a turn for the better exactly at that time!
There's only one way I can think of where it might pose a conflict. For example, I could imagine that concentrating on historical issues ("what happened 'way back then") could divert our attention away from the "present experience", but that would be an equally good argument for abandoning ALL historical NT inquiry on ALL sides - thus hastening the retirement of all New Testament historically-minded scholars!
This false dilemma is also, I think, based upon a false analogy, I could just as easily say "It doesn't matter whether the car has gas, just so long as it gets me where I want to go." Sure, the quantity of gas in my car, IN ITSELF, is of no concern to me - however, since it turns out that my getting where I want to go DEPENDS on the gas in my tank, I am creating a false dilemma when I say this.
I could give several other examples, as well (it doesn't matter whether my company has money in the bank, just so long as I get paid; it doesn't matter whether I smoke or not, just so long as my health holds up; etc.)
And so, my view is that this is not only a false choice between two things that can coexist, but a choice between one thing that is the foundation for another.
There are interesting methodological issues that may (or may not) be implied by your statements, that we can take up or leave alone. They have to do with letting philosophical positions rule our interpretation of the evidence. Let me know if you want to discuss that.
So, is your bottom line the position that you can't claim to have discovered what really happened in the first century (a historical question) and don't know what the authors intended to convey (an exegetical question)?
And that, even if you did know, that it is unimportant?
For Spong, who wrote me that what counts is the faith of the church, not the historical Jesus, I could MAYBE see such a position. But for one who is trying to find out what Jesus was REALLY like, this is really a new twist.
January 23, 1996
Your recent message deserves a much longer reply than I can presently give (for a variety of reasons, including the imminent Advent of "Jesus at 2000," for which I am the chief organizer).
Concerning "not knowing" and historical judgments about the gospels. All historical judgments are "probability judgments," of course, ranging from "as certain asa one can be" through "very probably" to "more likely so than not" to (you get the drift). Now, about a number of things in the gospels, I think we can say "almost certainly" or "very probably" (e.g., that Jesus did not speak as he is reported to have in John's gospel). Thus, except in a formal sense, I am not "agnostic" about much that is in the gospels. But
when it comes to "paranormal events" (esp. the resurrection), my "not-knowing" increases - the ways the authors tell the stories suggest that they are dealing with something on the edge of the ineffable. And today I will content myself with that clarification - namely, I do not think we are in a state of "not knowing" about everything in the gospels, but can make judgments of less and greater probability about many things.
All for now.
January 24, 1996
Thanks for your reply.
>Your recent message deserves a much longer reply than I can
>presently give (for a variety of reasons, including the imminent
>Advent of "Jesus at 2000," for which I am the chief organizer).
Yes, I'm aware of your leadership in the Jesus 2000 seminar. Several people from our church will be attending. I saw on the brochure that your personal email address was listed as the contact for the event, so I can picture what you're going through! Best wishes for the event as a whole, and your part of it in particular.
As you know, I'm just looking for clarification of issues and my dilemma has been that either people simply don't know, or if they do they are professionals in the field and very busy (your case). I have only pursued these email conversations with you this far because of your comments that the issues are interesting to you, and by asking questions.
So, if after things have settled down you wish to elaborate on your reply, feel free. Otherwise, I understand. Thanks for the help.
February 27, 1996
There's no need to respond to this, as you're undoubtedly deluged by email and even busier than before!
I was a bit surprised at Luke Johnson's brief critique of your works in that he ignored what I take to be one of your central points. You argue that the category of the miraculous should not be denied a priori, and point out that our "modern" world-view (or at least the "modern world-view" of the early 20th c) has skewed the results of "liberal scholarship."
As Spong was engaged in "Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism", so I think you were doing the same, but also trying to "Rescue the Bible from the Old Liberalism."
I appreciated your first offering in the debate. You started on a kind note, and had good questions for Crossan (which keeps it from becoming a two-against-one situation).
After reading the debate postings, I tried to read the "crosstalk" discussion, and was disappointed. If I have EVER come across to you like these emails do to me, I sincerely apologize.
Best wishes for the ongoing discussion, and I'll be looking forward to your Jesus2000 postings.
February 27, 1996
Thanks for your note. I agree with you that Johnson does not accurately represent me. He puts "all the rest of us" in a single group, and what is wrong with one of us is then attributed to all of us. He is not a responsible critic of other's positions (at least not in his new book).
April 11, 1996
First, sympathies for having to put up with Johnson! He seemed to get even more testy as the email debate proceeded. I was glad to see that you had the restraint not to mention anything about his mother in your reply.
I have been asked to write an article for a Web page called the "Metaphorical Gospel", which will try to explain the prevalent NT position represented by you, Crossan, and Bishop Spong - and then will try to evaluate the view. You never know how many people will be looking at a Web page, so there is a possibility that more people will see this than would have bought a book. So I want to get it right.
[I am quite aware that you three cannot be completely lumped together, for your views on the historical Jesus are somewhat different. However, I do think it's fair to say that there is a strong thread of common view between you three (and others).]
I've been told that I need your permission to quote emails you sent me, and so I'm asking for that permission now (exact text is below). I only quoted two things you said, in order to identify your basic view - so I don't anticipate any problems getting your approval.
I have made a concentrated effort to try to represent the views I analyze as fairly as possible. In this effort (especially because you had asked Johnson why he had never contacted any Jesus Seminar fellows for their perspective), I want to do two things. First, I would like to get your impression of the "Five Alternatives" I list below. (To be fair, in anticipating any criticism that these distinctions would be invalid for first-century people, I even included #5 - they couldn't distinguish.)
Second, I try to nail down what we all MEAN by metaphorical and factual, when it comes to Jesus' deity and resurrection (it doesn't do anyone any good to say 'this is meant metaphorically, not factually' if we don't know what this distinction means. So, I'd like your feedback on this as well.
Third, I would like to send you a printed copy of my article (it will be about 40 pages single spaced) before it gets to the final draft stage, to get any comments or corrections you'd like to make. This is, of course, entirely up to you. I realize how busy you must be, and do this as much as a courtesy to you as for my own edification.
Fourth, if you're in the mood, I copied a "scenario" (below) I had created several months ago. I sent this scenario in a letter to Bishop Spong, and he agreed that YES, this is basically what he's talking about.
Thanks for any help you can give.
Option 1. The NT writers believed that these stories and claims were factually (as well as spiritually) true, and they were correct.
Option 2. The NT writers 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.
Option 3. The NT writers knew that these stories and claims were not factually true (they believed them to be either metaphorically true or simply false) , but 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.
Option 4. The NT writers believed that 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.
Option 5. The NT writers and their audience simply were not able to make the distinction between 'metaphorically' true and 'factually' true.
MARCUS BORG'S QUOTED EMAILS:
To make sure that I understood him correctly, I directly asked Dr. Borg whether he was a proponent of Option 4, the Metaphorical Gospel view. His reply:
'Your questions are well-phrased and good ones. A quick response: Spong probably over-uses the category of midrash. Yet his basic claim - that the birth stories are not historical narratives but metaphorical/symbolic narratives - is widely-accepted by mainline scholars. My own way of puttting it: the virgin birth didn't happen, but the stories of the virgin birth are powerfully true.' (Dec 8, 1995)
To further clarify, I asked him (1) Did the gospel writers intend to portray their material as metaphorical, and (2) Did their original audience understand the gospels in this way? His reply:
'Generally speaking, yes (with the exception of healings and exorcisms--we think Jesus did those). And then I would want to emphasize what might be called "the truth of metaphor. In short, to label something metaphorical doesn't mean that it need not be taken seriously.' (Jan 2, 1996)
FACTUAL / METAPHORICAL: A DEFINITION
When it comes to stories, it is easy to see what someone would mean by being metaphorically true - the event never took place as described, but there is still an important point to the story.
But what do the proponents mean by 'metaphorically true' when it comes to Jesus' deity and resurrection? Although a formal definition is not given, I think the following is faithful to the viewpoint they present, and is a valid distinction.
Deity. First, you could find out whether someone believes in the deity of Jesus factually if you ask some follow-up questions. They would answer 'yes' to:
Did Jesus exist before he was born?
Do you contrast his pre-incarnation existence with his incarnational existence?
Was he the agent of God's creation?
Is he the rightful Judge of the universe?
Did he truly accept worship when he was a man?
Did he forgive the sins of those who had never sinned against him?
Do you identify him in some sense with God, by virtue of his nature,
in a way that cannot be said of any mere human?
The person who understands Jesus' deity metaphorically would say 'no' to these questions, and would probably clarify by adding, 'No, Jesus himself was just a man, but lived in communion with God to such an extent that we see him as representative of God, as embodying what we mean by God's love' - perhaps also 'We see him as the life-giving experience within the community of faith, and, therefore, as God's way of communicating truth to us.' And, 'Jesus is the Judge of the world is indeed true in the sense that the moral truths he embraced are valid for us as well.'
Resurrection. The person who understands Jesus' resurrection factually would say 'yes' to these questions:
Was the body indeed gone from the tomb?
Was this same body transformed into a resurrection body?
Did it have some resemblance to the old body but a difference as well, in that it had taken on new properties and abilities and would never die again?
Will the bodies of believers really be raised in a similar way at the last day?
The person who understands Jesus' resurrection metaphorically would say that nothing special happened to the body (it remained dead), but might say, 'Jesus' presence was experienced by his followers to such a degree and in such a way that they believed he was still alive and dealing with them, and that he had passed beyond mere mortal limitations.'
Note that the defining characteristic of a Metaphorical Gospel theory is in what it denies, rather than what it affirms. By this I mean that it denies the factuality of Jesus' deity and resurrection in favor of their metaphorical truths, while 'popular Christianity' affirms them both.
In the position that Borg termed 'popular Christianity', John Warwick Montgomery has called 'Historic Christianity', and C.S. Lewis referred to as 'Mere Christianity', the believer assents both to the factual message and the spiritual
significance of those facts. And, therefore, the 'popular' Christian is - even while asserting factuality - quite happy to agree with the statements affirmed by those who interpret the message metaphorically (for instance, 'We see him as the life-giving experience, ...', and 'Jesus' presence was felt by his followers to such a degree that they believed he was still alive ...', etc.).
AN IMAGINARY SCENARIO:
(a) I can imagine myself being born (say) in 70 C.E., 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) But now (75 C.E), 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 C.E.), 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 isabout.
(d) During this time (85 C.E.) 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 C.E., 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 allow 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 offending to the Jews), and so you won't give Caesar his due respect (offending 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 doingthe 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 C.E. 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.
(I) 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 orvision 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!
April 12, 1996
A very quick response, necessitated by the fact that this is my first day in the office in three weeks, and this weekend I leave for Israel (back in office on May 8).
I have not had time to read the whole of your message (though I have printed it and will take it home with me). One quick comment: the second quotation of mine was not said in response to the question you
list it under. Thus I think it might be confusing.
One further thought: I think that understanding what midrash is enables us to postulate quite strongly that the NT authors (and at least Jewish heaers/readers) were often aware that something WAS
midrash (and not historical). And midrash is a metaphorical language.
I apologize for my necessary haste. Best wishes.
April 12, 1996
Thanks for the reply.
> the second quotation of mine was not said in response to the question >
> you list it under. Thus I think it might be confusing.
I guess so! It was NOT intentional, I assure you. I thought that you were replying to that question. My mistake.
Spong is easy, because he is so blatant about many of the things he says. And he confirmed it with me, so I'm pretty sure about his view. On the other hand, this is your chance to clarify your view to me, if you have the time. By now, I'm embarrassed to think that I still don't know what your view is!
I have gathered that the prevailing view is that the gospel writers did NOT intend to portray the deity and resurrection of Jesus as factually true, but rather intended to portray them as metaphorically, spiritually true. (And a corrollary is that their original audience understood them as intended.) And this goes for some/most of the
stories related about him as well.
It seems obvious to me that you would agree with this, but if you disagree, I would be very interested in hearing about that. Please let me know.
November 20, 1996
Dear Dr. Borg,
You may remember that we corresponded occasionally by email regarding your views about the intention of the gospel writers - whether theyintended the stories to be understood "factually" or "metaphorically."
Several people have asked me about your views on this, as described in our email conversations. I'd like to know if I may share the text of these emails with them, via a web site, or if you'd prefer that I keep them confidential.
The reason for this, and some background, follows:
Bishop Spong's books were very clear about HIS position on this, and I called his view the Metaphorical Gospel theory (because he didn't give it a name himself). His view, as I understood it, was:
1. The gospel writers were doing midrash.
2. The original audience understood the material as midrash, not as factual accounts.
3. A later generation "literalized" the gospel stories, misunderstanding them as factual accounts.
I asked you for your views on this, and we sent several emails back and forth. I thought that you agreed with this basic view, except to say that he overemphasized midrash as the mechanism for story-telling.
In the Email Debates, it became clear to me that your view was more that the object of reference of Christian stories was (often) the Risen Christ, and that they were thus transferred to the Pre-Easter Jesus. When understood in this light, they are true. When taken to be about factual events in Jesus' life, they are misunderstood.
You got busy with Jesus 2000 and other work, and that was the end of it.
When I sent you your first quote to verify that you basically agreed with Spong (as qualified above), you said that this was NOT what you meant. When I asked for clarification, you did not respond, so I have to judge your position by the other emails as well.
Please let me know. Thanks for the time you spent with me on these issues. I wish that you had had more time to clarify your views, because I believe you are trying to be faithful to Christ while being true to intellectual integrity.
You may or may not remember that we exchanged emails some time ago regarding your views. The last email I received from you caused me to doubt whether I understand your basic view at all. At the time you were heavily burdened by your duties and weren't really able to clear this up for me. I hope that things have settled down for you a bit.
I'd like to try to state what I think your position is on the following central NT exegetical issue. Please tell me
if I'm right, or even close.
1. Regarding the deity of Jesus, you believe that the earliest disciples and Christians attributed some form
of divine nature to the post-Easter Jesus, based upon their experiences of him. The NT writers did not think
that the pre-Easter Jesus was divine, but wrote of him AS IF he were, because of the their understanding of
the post-Easter Jesus.
2. Regarding the resurrection of Jesus, the NT writers did not mean to say that Jesus' body literally came alive; they used these stories, however, to convey a message that he was indeed alive in the experience of his followers (which you think goes beyond a mere psychological reality).
3. And so, the object of discourse of the gospels (at least in these cases) is the post-Easter Jesus rather than the pre-Easter Jesus.
4. You would also take many of the stories about Jesus to be spiritual, symbolic accounts of the meaning Jesus, and were not intended to be taken factually. For instance, the raising of Lazarus, the feeding of the 5,000, etc.
5. Where Jesus is said to have fulfilled Jewish prophecy, you would probably see this as midrash, where the gospel authors are honoring Jesus by creating stories tying him to the prophets and their prophecies.
These points are examples of what I have called the "metaphorical gospel" view, namely that the deity and resurrection of Jesus, and many/most of the accounts about him, were INTENDED as symbolic, spiritual accounts rather than factual accounts - with the corrollaries that (a) the original audience understood them in this spiritual way, and (b) later generations literalized these accounts.
I think that this general viewpoint is widely held, and is in fact entailed or implied by modern NT criticism. I am trying to state your view on this matter as clearly as I can, and hope that you can take the time to confirm that you do indeed hold these views. At least then I will be regain my confidence that I can read and interpret the written word!
Thanks for any help you can give.
July 6, 1997
Once again, I apologize for the haste with which I must reply (I leave in a few minutes on a month-trip).
Yes, you have understood my position correctly, and have stated it with significant clarity. I would enter a caveat or two - for example, I would certainly not take the midrashic interpretation as far as Spong does. But I accept/ follow the "principles" you outline. Well done.
And best wishes.
December 26, 2001
I corresponded briefly with you, and with and Bishop Spong in 1996-97, about a view which I call "The Metaphorical Gospel Theory." I just finished your new book ("Reading the Bible Again ...") and today read a nice autobio on the web ("Me & Jesus"). They only confirm in more detail that you indeed hold this view.
I should say that, while I disagree with the premise of the book, I did profit from your comments about the prophets and several other things. Beyond that, I thought your bio was insightful, honest, and sort of vulnerable, which I appreciated. (My own journey was much like yours, except backwards! I started in a (Scandinavian) Lutheran church singing the same hymns you sang, except our church was a "liberal" one. My religious experiences and studies moved me in exactly the opposite direction!)
The crux of the Metaphorical Gospel Theory, of course, is the contention that the N.T. authors/redactors included or wrote many stories that they knew were not factually (historically) true, and they did not portray them as factually true - but the meaning of the stories is powerfully true. In addition, you make a fairly clear distinction between the Jesus of History (pre-Easter) and the Christ of Faith (post-Easter). In your view, the man Jesus did not claim to be God in any real sense; he did not rise bodily from the grave, although his followers did experience him as a real life-changing presence after Easter.
Bishop Spong differs from you in some of the details, but also affirms the general MG view. (Actually, I believe that this view is logical entailed by the results of Form Criticism and Redaction Criticism, but is made available now to a larger public through works such as yours.) Anyway, Spong supplements his treatment with an explicit claim - that there was a period of literalization such that, by 200 C.E. or so, the Christian writers were unaware of the original intention of the N.T. authors.
This "literalization process" is especially of interest to me. Here is the problem:
(1) By c. 150 C.E., Justin Martyr obviously holds a "literal" view of the N.T. By c. 180-190, Irenaeus likewise.
(2) The Apostolic Fathers. Clement of Rome (writing c. 90-100), Ignatius of Antioch (writing c 115), and Polycarp of Smyrna (writing c 130) all appear to agree with Justin and Irenaeus and disagree with the M.G. view. Dr. Charles Hill, a respected church history scholar, confirmed with me that this is true. Spong himself names Polycarp (and implies Ignatius) as literalizer. I could give you details if you like.
(3) Now the question is: If Clement, Ignatius, and Polycarp indeed were literalizers, and thus unintentionally changed the meaning of the N.T. authors, then how can this be? How could they NOT HAVE KNOWN what the gospel writers meant? Let's go with the typically-accepted dates and places for the gospels:
- Mark - Rome c. 70
- Matthew - Antioch c. 80
- John - Ephesus c 100
Notice the specific connection with the three Apostolic Fathers:
- Clement - Bishop of Rome in the 90's, co-presbyter with Linus c. 70, clearly an adult, in Rome, when Mark was written
- Ignatius - Bishop of Antioch c 100 or so, clearly an adult and presumably in Antioch when Matthew was written
- Polycarp - Bishop of Smyrna c 120 or 130 - 156, clearly an adult and presumably in Smyrna (within walking distance of Ephesus) when John was written.
The connection is uncanny. Even if some of the details don't pan out (e.g. Ignatius traveled around a lot, and didn't come to Antioch until late in the game), there is still the general time-line overlap in the lives of C, I, and P with the time of gospel composition. If the original gospel audience knew that many of the stories and claims about Jesus were intended metaphorically, as Spong maintains, how could it be that these three leaders did not? They were definitely part of the original audience. (Even more interesting, if these three gospels had indeed been composed by "communities", these three were likely members of those communities! )
Mark Allan Powell happened across an article about this I had on the web, and has corresponded with me via email. He also directly asked Spong about this (and related questions) when they were together in Berkeley, and Spong simply had no reply.
I would very much like to know if you have ever thought about this important counter-example, and if you have an answer for it. If you have not thought about it, I believe you should. And I would very much like to hear your reply.
I realize you are extremely busy and probably have mountains of email to deal with. If you could get back to me, I would appreciate it.
Erick Nelson, Seattle
M.A. Philosophy, Claremont Graduate School
Jan 9, 2002
Dear Erick (if I may),
I apologize for my delayed response. I have just returned from a
Christmas-New Year holiday with my family, and I did not do e-mail while I
was gone. And so I must also be brief, as I am responding to the over 200
e-mails that accumulated in my absence.
1. I do not wish to defend Jack Spong's understanding of the gospels. I
think his midrash theory is simply wrong. So I will comment only on how I
2. A specific example. Should we think that Luke when he wrote the infancy
stories thought that he was writing literal factual history? That, for
example, he though that his characters burst spontaneously into song and sung
those magnificent hymns (the Benedictus, Magnificat, Nunc Dimitis)? I would
be very surprised if he thought he was. My probability judgment is that Luke
knew that he was using early Christian hymns, or possibly composed them
3. I don't think the early church writers were "concerned" to defend the
literal factuality of the Bible and the gospels. I think that "concern" is
modern (post-Enlightenment). I think many (most?) of them took the literal
meaning for granted, for they had little or no reason not to (this is
"natural literalism"). And for most of them, what they emphasized was not
the literal meaning, but the "spiritual meaning" (which is very much like
what we mean by metaphorical meaning).
Hope this is helpful. With best wishes as your own journey continues to
January 24, 2002
Thanks for the email. I realize you've got a lot of emails to answer, and appreciate your response. I want to see if I can get your view crystal clear. The reason I am so eager to understand your views is that I have inadvertently attracted the attention of at least one book publisher, and what was a simple web article seems to be turning into a book.
One of my concerns is that I'm not at all sure that I understand your position on what I call the "Metaphorical Gospel Theory." It would be silly to try to critique a position that doesn't exist.
First, I realize that you don't agree with Spong's midrash approach, and I agree that I want to know what YOU think, on your own terms. I'll try not to read you with Spongian lenses.
2. Intention of the NT writers
Insofar as you have touched on this subject in your recent email, it seems that you do reaffirm the view that the NT writers intended to portray many of the stories metaphorically, etc. (Not every story, of course, but many)
You didn't indicate in any way (at least from the Luke example) that (a) they tried to pass their material off as fact, (b) they couldn't tell the difference between fact and metaphor, or even (c) they didn't care whether it was factual or not. In your example, Luke consciously included or authored these hymns. And, reading between the lines a bit in your books, you imply that the first readers also understood the metaphorical nature of this stuff.
If that's not what you're saying, I would very much appreciate a correction (even if the bottom line is "I have no idea").
3. "Concern" of the Apostolic Fathers
The "church fathers" I asked about were specifically Clement, Ignatius, and Polycarp. I asked whether they knew that the material was intended (only) metaphorically.
You reply that they were not aware that the stories were intended metaphorically, that they were "natural literalists" in mind-set, but add that they weren't especially concerned with this distinction. For instance, I infer from your statements that if someone had actually explained to them that these stories were only metaphorically true, they'd say "fine, the meaning is what's important."
To clarify if possible, let me try a real-life example.
It so happens that Dr. Robert Schuller wrote a book in which he include a chapter about my brother, David Nelson. He talked about David's high school graduation, and said in the book that several guys carried him in his wheelchair up to the stage in the auditorium, and he received a standing ovation when he graduated. The actual truth was that he graduated out doors, not in an auditorium; that he was confined to a wheelchair only after graduation - but he did get a standing ovation.
Schuller based this story on conversations with my parents and my brother. I believe that he actually tried to get the facts straight, but innocently got caught up in his imaginative reconstruction, and just forgot what the facts really were.
Now, the point of the story was the standing ovation, and that was correct. As a reader who knew what the facts were, I didn't (very much) care. If he had messed up the standing ovation, on the other hand, which was the point of the story - then I might have cared.
Readers at large would of course be unaware that Schuller had goofed up his facts, and I presume that they wouldn't especially care. It was the inspiration of the story that was important.
Now, what if Schuller had actually fudged the details on purpose, in order to get a better story - clearer meaning, if you will?
Then we'd have a situation similar to the one I think you're describing. The author's attitude:
The author knew that his portrayal of the facts was inaccurate
he author didn't especially care whether he got the facts right or not
That's because the author wanted to convey a message, a meaning
The readers' attitude:
The readers would naively assume (incorrectly) that the stories were factually accurate
They wouldn't much care if they were to find out that they the stories were really embellished
The author's attitude:
1. The author would expect the readers' attitudes to be just as described.
Now, is this what you're saying about the NT authors and the Apostolic Fathers, who were among the first readers? (given 70-100 dates for the gospels)
I'm not trying to put words in your mouth. I'm just trying to get clear what you mean regarding this very foundational issue. Please let me know. Thanks.
M.A. Philosophy, Claremont Graduate School
Jan 28, 2002
I apologize for my somewhat delayed response. I have been "on the road" and
as a result I am responding today to about 200 accumulated e-mails, and so I
must be brief. And I leave on Wednesday for a quick trip to Europe,
returning on Feb. 4 (I will not be doing e-mail while I am gone).
I don't know how much you have read in my books. If you want to know more
fully what I mean, I suggest that you read "Reading the Bible Again for the
My point there is that it has always been the metaphorical (the "more than
literal") meaning of the Bible that has mattered - including the early
fathers, most of whom were natural literalists. Thus I would say that some
biblical narratives include "historical memory," but even when they do, the
primary concern is the "more than literal-factual" meaning. The
"happenedness" of the events did not become a major concern until after the
With best wishes,
January 29, 2002
Quick question - do the "early fathers" you cite
below include Justin
Martyr and Irenaeus?
January 30, 2002
I don't know. I would have to re-read Justin and Irenaeus to have an