Part I- New Testament: Literal or Metaphorical ?
Flourishing Without Indoctrination
Words like “God-breathed” and “God inspired” are inventions of the Enlightenment that were constructed from a defensive posture in order to protect “the faith” from the bourgeoning skepticism of the Renaissance. Despite the growth of humanism in the 16th century, New Testament is nevertheless a precious work of literature that ought to be treasured for two reasons. First, it gives us insight into the quest for meaning, understanding and purpose within a first century Palestinian context. Second, it can help us today, especially if we read it from a metaphorical perspective. Metaphorical meaning can often give us more meaning and insight into our world.
Once upon a time there was a guy on his horse darting through the forest uncontrollably, when he spotted his brother up ahead whom he was quickly approaching. As he got closer, his brother yelled out, “Where are you going!” To which the man on the horse replied, “I don’t know, ask the horse!” So you see, the man lost control of the horse and was dashing through the woods erratically.
This Buddhist tale has a deeper ethical point. Often we become overcome with our emotions [i.e. anger, jealousy, bliss] that we lose our focus on the where we’re going in life. Thus, we must pull the reins on our emotions and gain control of ourselves. This Buddhist parable is always tucked in the back of my mind when I contemplate life balance in this hectic life.
Life lessons can help us understand life more clearly. But what if I became overly inquisitive with other aspects of this parable. Such as, did this literally happen? Was there a literal horse? The answer: who cares! With life lessons, it shouldn’t matter if it was a literal horse or if the serpent in the garden in the Bible was a literal talking snake. Rather, it’s about what the lesson means to the hearer. It’s about finding meaning.
When we look back at the history of religious persecution, it is hard not to see how the idea of literal interpretation of ancient texts has justified brutality, oppression and the marginalization of mass groups of people. Even today, for instance, Christian churches who are considered more “liberal” continue to have multitudes of ardent anti-homosexual protestors based solely on ancient writ from their scriptures. The ridged method of interpreting holy writings spills over to a literal Hell for unbelievers and a literal end times where Jesus comes back on a horse to save his followers. According to a 2013 OmniPoll study, 41% of all people in the United States believe we are living in the end times. Furthermore, 42% continue to believe in the creationist view of human origins according to a Gallup poll. This is fascinating given how far science has brought us as children of the Enlightenment era.
But were these texts meant to be understood literally? Moreover, should be approach the Quran, the Bible and Mormon writ the same way we would as if we were reading todays New York Times? My concern is primarily with one the most read documents known as the New Testament within the bible.
This begs several questions:
Were ancient texts meant to be taken literally?
Would a metaphorical approach lead to the same brutal results?
Christianity is a development. The key word is “development”; and cultures develop within a historical context. The gospels, for instance, are products of early Christian communities in the last third of the first century. Rather than being divinely inspired, the gospels are written from a thoroughly Jewish apocalyptic perspective while embedded in Roman imperial hegemony that focused on military, economic, political and ideological power – all through conquest. To ignore this historical matrix is to completely miss what was going on. Ignoring the context leaves us with the Cliff Notes version of only a few biased Jewish perspectives.
Part of the 1st century historical matrix is that concepts such as “Son of God,” “Savior” and “Christ” were already woven into the fabric of Roman culture prior to Jesus. Furthermore, miraculous births and resurrections were already in progress, and more importantly, with many eyewitnesses. I want to stress, again, that these titles and wonders all pre-date Jesus. Octavian, the adopted son of Julius Caesar, carried the title “Son of God” (40 BCE). After the death of Octavian, the historian Suetonius writes that a high ranking official “saw Augustus’s image ascending to the sky.”
During the same time as Jesus roamed ancient Palestine, another miracle working itinerant preacher had already beat him to the scene. Apollonius of Tyana was his name. Allow me to quickly bullet point his divine similarities to Jesus:
- His mother received a vision from heaven that informed her that her son would be divine.
- His birth was accompanied by unusual divine signs in the heavens.
- As an adult, he went from town to town teaching that the spiritual and material should be what humanity lives for.
- He had a number of followers that were convinced that he was the Son of God.
- He did miracles: healed the sick, casted demons out, and raised the dead.
- His followers witnessed his ascension to heaven.
- Recordings of his life was written down by Philostratus in which he did considerable research for the book using accounts recorded by eyewitnesses and companions of Apollonius.
Divinity was embedded into the culture at that time. And storytellers within this non-literary culture were more concerned about what the stories meant to their subjective life rather than fact checking for objective truth. Whether it involved Zeus, Apollonius or Jesus, it was a meaningful reflection of that particular ancient cultural milieu – not something that was meant to transcend all cultures all the way to the 21st century. After all, Jesus thought that the world was going to end within his generation. Mark 13:30 states, “Truly I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place.” While this blunder is quite embarrassing for Jesus, his apocalyptic prophecy never had the 21st century reader in mind.
I don’t write this to discount Christianity. I only wish to call a spade a spade. I wish to affirm that even though Christianity developed through human manufacturing, we can still treasure the Bible and glean moral lessons that help us flourish. This is my contention: indoctrination using God inspired texts fosters an “us/them” mentality with non-negotiable bronzed age ethics. In the end, I think this world would be better off if we trade the “absolute truth” of holy writ for absolute compassion for all people.
It is usually at this point when the Christian apologist will unleash his arsenal defending the authors and scribes of the Bible and the validity of the ancient manuscripts. Thus, Part II will address these anticipated questions.