Mainstream scholars struggle trying to explain why the Gospel authors included clearly symbolic — nonhistorical — tales about Jesus in their gospel narratives.
Marcus J. Borg, Mark Allan Powell, Dale C. Allison, Roger David Aus, John Dominic Crossan, John Shelby Spong and Robert Gundry are some of the scholars who acknowledge tales such as the virgin birth, Jesus walking on water, the transfiguration, the miracles of the loaves, the resurrection appearances are fabrications, metaphors.
(So much for that argument that there were enough surviving eyewitnesses or people who knew eyewitnesses to keep the evangelists honest!)
Marcus J. Borg writes of stories like Jesus and Peter walking on water, the turning the water into wine at the Cana wedding, and the virgin birth:
Purely metaphorical narratives . . . are not based on the memory of particular events, but are symbolic narratives created for their metaphorical meaning. As such, they are not meant as historical reports. (p. 57, Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary)
Dale C. Allison informs us that Borg is not alone in this view. He names Robert Gundry and John Dominic Crossan as two scholars on opposite sides of an ideological continuum sharing it. (I have linked their names to their Wikipedia entries where some examples are cited.) Allison quotes Crossan flatly rejecting the nature miracles as historical reports and insisting they were originally intended to be read as parables to illustrate the spiritual power of Jesus in believers’ lives.
Allison also quotes Roger David Aus arguing a point very similar to what we read in Spong’s books, that the Gospels contain much haggadah whose metaphorical meanings were lost when the church became predominantly gentile. And far from ridiculing Spong’s status as a scholar when he argues the same point as some scholars do, Allison epitomizes his arguments in a lengthy footnote in the same context here. Before I address a reviewer of Spong whom Allison also cites, note Allison’s own acceptance of the fact that the Gospels contain unhistorical details:
So even though I concur with Borg that there are unhistorical stories in the Gospels, he has not, in my judgment, established that the evangelists were, on this matter, of the same mind. I am still left asking, What reasons might one have for supposing that, on this or that occasion, the authors of the canonical Gospels knew themselves to be writing a sort of edifying fiction, to be recounting things that never really happened? (p. 441 of Constructing Jesus: Memory, Imagination, and History)
Mark Allan Powell in his review of Spong’s thesis accepts that many of the Gospel narrative details had metaphorical meanings, but he does not accept Spong’s argument that the first readers of the gospels knew they were symbolic tales. He sees the gospels written in such a way as to indicate that readers were expected to believe the stories they contained as true events. The scriptural references attached to the stories were added to reassure readers that God was acting in familiar ways, Powell reasons.
This poses a problem and Powell raises it bluntly. If the authors told metaphorical tales in a way that they expected them to be believed as historical, knowing they were not historical, then the authors were lying or foolishly self-deceived and guilty of encouraging many others to believe things that cost them dearly.
Why would the authors do such things? Powell’s suggestion is that they must have felt that it would be easier for audiences to accept the deeper spiritual or metaphorical meanings of the “Easter event” if they could first believe in “simpler” events like a literal series of miracles such as raising the dead and walking on water.
In short, I believe that the poetic, metaphorical function of the biblical stories may indeed have expressed the evangelist’s primary and ultimate intent (as Spong, Borg, and others insist). Nevertheless, a referential, historical function was also deemed significant precisely because it was the means to that ultimate end. Why did Matthew tell the story of Jesus (and Peter) walking on water (Mt. 14.22-33)? Was it his intention to convince people that these two historical persons literally did walk on water at a specific place and time? Yes, but getting people to accept that historical fact was surely not his ultimate intent. He wanted to persuade people to believe that faith in Jesus would help them to rise above the storms in their life and keep them form being subdued by that which they feared. Matthew hopes that his readers will be assisted in believing that the post-Easter [Jesus] will do this for them by believing that the pre-Easter Jesus did something analogous to this (but in an observable, literal way) for Peter. Mere acceptance of the historical, referential sense of these narratives is only part of what the evangelists wanted; it is, however, part of what they wanted, if only because it is what they assumed would facilitate the fuller acceptance. (pp. 244-45, Authorial Intent and Historical Reporting: Putting Spong’s Literalization Thesis to the Test. JSHJ 1.2 (2003), 225-249, my emphasis)
I can’t think of a more apt example of the “noble lie“. “Pious fiction” has such a tawdry ring to it.
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