Rescuing the Bible from Literalism
“The world,” wrote the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, “is the totality of facts, not of things.” So it is, but facts take many forms. The hard-edged events of ordinary reality are only one form, and not always the most important.
This insight can be hard to accept in the positivist world of mainstream Western thought. In these terms, either an event took place or it did not. Truth and falsehood are judged by this criterion alone. And yet such a stance has only a limited value. It is indispensable in history and journalism and perhaps in science (although the anomalous discoveries of twentieth-century physics have blurred the picture somewhat). But in the spiritual dimension, even though there are facts here as well, they are not of this kind. To overlook this truth is to mistake one reality for another.
Conventional Christianity has often made this mistake. Practically from the start, it has presented its case in literalistic terms: the Bible is true; moreover it is literally true. Its facts must be historical facts, and its record of the past must be a true one. At first these claims fostered Christianity’s rapid success in the ancient world. By the early centuries of the Common Era, Greco-Roman civilisation could no longer take its own myths seriously, so it was persuaded to adopt the Scriptures of the Jews and Christians on the grounds that these presented not only sacred truths but an accurate record of the past.
Since the Enlightenment, such claims have been more of an embarrassment than an advertisement for the faith. Over the last 250 years, scholars in many fields have taken Christianity at its word and investigated in great depth just how much the Bible jibes with science and history. The findings have not exactly vindicated the Good Book. Indeed the trend over time has been to call more and more of the Bible into question as a historical record.
From a scientific point of view, the tide began to turn in the early nineteenth century. In 1830–32, the British scientist Charles Lyell published his classic Principles of Geology, arguing that geological changes that are recorded in rocks could not possibly have taken place in the mere 6,000 years that Genesis assigned to the earth’s lifetime, but had occurred over a much longer period. A generation later, another, even more famous scientist, Charles Darwin, suggested that animal species had not been created by the Almighty on a single day of creation in 4004 BCE, but had evolved over much longer periods by what he called “natural selection.” (In fact, when Darwin had finished his magnum opus, The Origin of Species, he sent it to Lyell for comments.)
Historicity of the Bible Questioned
In recent decades, archaeology has cast doubt even on parts of the Bible that had seemed more or less factual, such as the history of Israel in the Old Testament. To take one example, a generation ago most scholars accepted the historicity of the Exodus from Egypt, believing at least that some migration of this kind happened, even if the narrative had to be stripped of its miraculous festoonings. Since then, the picture has changed considerably. Summarising recent findings in their 2001 book The Bible Unearthed, Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman contend that the Exodus did not happen in any form that is recognisable from the archaeological record. The first mention of Israel in any known inscription, they note, dates from the reign of the Egyptian Pharaoh Merneptah in 1207 BCE. While this is around the time traditionally assigned to the Exodus, the inscription speaks not of a flight of Israelites (or even an expulsion), but of Merneptah’s successful incursion into Canaan, where Israel is reckoned among the peoples subdued. In any case, the Israelites could not have escaped to Canaan out of the hands of the Egyptians, because Canaan was part of Egyptian territory at the time; Merneptah’s invasion would have been to quiet a troublesome province.
Instead, Finkelstein and Silberman suggest that the biblical account of the Exodus is a composite of folk memories of the Hyksos – a Semitic people who ruled Egypt from c.1670 to c.1570 BCE before being expelled by the Egyptians. The Exodus story as we know it was framed in the seventh century BCE, when the national ideology of Jerusalem and the nation of Judah was beginning to crystallise – and Egypt was a powerful and aggressive neighbour.
Other scholars have come up with equally revolutionary insights. In her work The Great Angel, the British biblical scholar Margaret Barker points out that originally the Israelites worshipped a female goddess, known as Asherah (or sometimes as Hokhmah or “Wisdom”), as the consort of Yahweh, alongside El, the Most High God, and Yahweh himself, who was essentially a national deity allocated to Israel alone. Barker suggests that the famous Deuteronomic reform under the Judahite King Josiah – in which Josiah purges the Temple of these other gods and restores the worship of Yahweh alone (2 Kings 22-23) – was not a reform but an innovation, a purge of time-honoured traditions in an attempt to create a “Yahweh-alone movement.” This movement eventually took over Judaism after the Babylonian Exile and imposed its own agenda on the past.
One could make similar points about much of the rest of the Bible. The “quest of the historical Jesus,” as Albert Schweitzer so famously dubbed it, has gone on for over two centuries now without any really conclusive results. Most scholars are convinced that there is some admixture of myth and legend in the life of Christ as portrayed in the New Testament, but they differ enormously about just what was legend and what was not. The panel of liberal New Testament scholars known as the Jesus Seminar has won some notoriety for contending that Jesus neither said nor did most of the things attributed to him in the Gospels. As shocking as some may find this claim, it is hardly new: an array of German New Testament scholars reached much the same conclusions in the nineteenth century. A still more radical view holds that Jesus never existed at all: his story was merely a Jewish equivalent of the numerous death-and-resurrection myths circulating in the ancient world. Since there is no archaeological evidence for Christ’s life, and the textual evidence is elusive (none of the Gospels, canonical or apocryphal, even claims to be an eyewitness account), this position, as extreme as it is, is hard to definitively refute.
Biblical Stories as Allegory, Not History
What, then, are we to do with the Bible as history? Some will no doubt cling to it. The literary critic Harold Bloom has noted that in evangelical Christianity, the “limp leather Bible,” waved at the audience by the preacher, has itself become a totem. But others are unlikely to find refuge in a simplistic bibliolatry. They may be drawn to another approach – one that is equally ancient, and possibly more profound. It is that the Bible is not, and never was, meant to be taken literally, but has deeper meanings that are to be unearthed by those are capable of doing so.
This idea goes back to the very beginnings of Christianity and has always existed side by side with narrow literalism. Ironically, it was a major impetus for the creation of Christianity as a separate religion from Judaism. The nascent Christian movement often had to allegorise the Hebrew Scriptures to make use of them for its own purposes. The Apostle Paul writes about one biblical passage:
It is written, that Abraham had two sons, the one by a bondmaid, the other by a freewoman.
But he who was of the bondwoman was born after the flesh; but he of the freewoman was by promise.
Which things are an allegory: for these are the two covenants; the one from the mount Sinai, which gendereth to bondage, which is Agar.
For this Agar is mount Sinai in Arabia, and answereth to Jerusalem which now is, and is in bondage with her children.
But Jerusalem which is above is free, which is the mother of us all (Gal. 4:22–26).
Paul is saying that the real meaning of the story of Abraham and his two sons lies in the relationship of the Jews and the Christians. Ishmael, the older son, born to Hagar (or Agar), “the bondwoman,” is the Jews, who are in “bondage” to the Law of Moses. Isaac, the younger, born to Sarah, the “freewoman,” represents the Christians, who are freed from having to follow the Law. The story is an “allegory.”
The first authority to use the word “allegory” in this sense (the Greek is allegoria) – and the first to expound the Hebrew Bible in this way – was a philosopher who lived at the same time as both Jesus and Paul: Philo of Alexandria (c.20 BCE–c.50 CE). Although there is no reference to Jesus or Paul in his works or to Philo in the New Testament, it would be hard to overstate Philo’s influence on Christianity. To take one example, it was he who first used the Greek word logos (often translated as “word”) to mean the creative, structuring element in consciousness and to contend that this principle had engendered the world. Philo’s view was prevalent in the Judaism of the first century CE, in which the logos was often seen as a kind of deuteros theos or “second god.” The Christians appropriated this theology, especially in the Gospel of John, whose prologue “In the beginning was the Word” etc. is almost a programmatic statement of Philo’s thought. Philo, of course, never equated this logos with Jesus, as the Christians did, and once the Christian view had spread throughout the ancient world, the Jews dropped the concept of the logosentirely.
In any event, Philo viewed the Hebrew Bible through the lens of allegory. Here is Philo on Genesis:
“And on the sixth day God finished his work which he made.” It would be a sign of great simplicity to think that the world was created in six days, or indeed all in time…. But… it would be correctly said that the world was not created in time, but that time had its existence as a consequence of the world….. When, therefore, Moses says, “God completed his works on the sixth day,” we must understand that he is speaking not of a number of days, but that he takes six as a perfect number.
Philo goes on to explain what he means by a perfect number. Obviously this is a far richer and more sophisticated understanding of a sacred text than the simplistic idea that the world was made in six literal days.
The Christian theologian who is most indebted to Philo was the third-century Church Father Origen. Origen went further than Philo, however, in being much more eager to discard the literal truth of passages that seemed contrary to reason. Here is Origen on Genesis:
Who is so silly as to believe that God, after the manner of a farmer, “planted a paradise eastward in Eden,” and set in it a visible and palpable “tree of life,” of such a sort that anyone who tasted its fruit with his bodily teeth would gain life: and again that one could partake of “good and evil” by masticating the fruit taken from the tree of that name? And when God is said to “walk in the paradise in the cool of the day” and Adam to hide himself behind a tree, I do not think anyone will doubt that these are figurative expressions which indicate certain mysteries through a semblance of history and not through actual events.
Origen does not spare the Gospels or the writings of the Apostles, “for,” he writes, “the history even of these is not everywhere pure, events being woven together in the bodily sense without having actually happened; nor do the law and the commandments contained therein entirely declare what is reasonable.”
Such an attitude seems strikingly modern – and yet these are the words of a third-century Church Father. Origen spoke of three levels of meaning to Scripture (body, soul, and spirit, in accordance with the tripartite division of human nature accepted by early Christianity). This view would be tremendously influential. The scholar Beryl Smalley has written that “to write a history of Origenist influence on the West would be tantamount to writing a history of Western [biblical] exegesis.”
By the Middle Ages, Origen’s three levels of meaning for Scripture would be expanded to four. They were called the literal, allegorical, moral, and “anagogical” or mystical senses. Dante, writing in the early fourteenth century, refers to them in his Letter to Can Grande, where he says of the Exodus:
If we look at it from the letter alone it means to us the exit of the Children of Israel from Egypt at the time of Moses; if from allegory, it means for us our redemption done by Christ; if from the moral sense, it means to us the conversion of the soul from the struggle and misery of sin to the status of grace; if from the anagogical, it means the leavetaking of the blessed soul from the slavery of this corruption to the freedom of eternal glory. And though these mystical senses are called by various names, in general all can be called allegorical, because they are different from the literal or the historical.
Origen, who is evasive about actually setting out the hidden meaning of Scripture (“it was the method of the Holy Spirit rather to conceal these truths and to hide them deeply,” he writes), makes reference to Egypt as well. He speaks of “the descent of the holy fathers into Egypt, that is, into this world.” For Origen as for Dante, then, the Exodus ultimately presents an allegory of spiritual liberation.
Origen died around 253 CE, crippled by torture during the persecution of the Christians by the Roman Emperor Decius. Since then, Origen has had an ambiguous destiny in the mainstream church. Revered in his own day, in later centuries he fell into disrepute among the orthodox. This happened for a number of reasons, but it was largely because his views on the relationship between the Father and the Son did not jibe with the doctrine of the Trinity as it would evolve in the fourth and fifth centuries. Furthermore, later theologians did not feel entirely comfortable with Origen’s assertion that much of Scripture was not meant to be taken as literally true. Although the churchmen were generally content to accept his idea that there were other meanings in addition to the literal one, they did not like to think the literal sense was wrong or even (as we’ve seen Origen say about the myth of Eden) ridiculous.
Protestantism and Literalism
If the Catholic and Orthodox churches were always comfortable with a symbolic meaning to the Bible, where did today’s excruciating biblical literalism come from? Partly from Protestantism. Catholicism and Orthodoxy always regarded the Bible as an authority, but never as the authority: the teachings and practices of the Church itself were held to be of at least equal weight. The Catholic Church always insisted that the Bible could be easily misunderstood by those who lacked the proper training; this was why the Church discouraged Bible reading by laypeople until comparatively recently.
By the early modern era, however, the Catholic Church had become so corrupt that some Christian leaders (and many of the ordinary faithful) realised that the church was keeping an exclusive monopoly on spiritual power largely to suit its own worldly ends. In breaking with the church, these leaders – the Protestant Reformers – decided to return to the Bible as the only proper authority: sola scriptura, “Scripture only,” as the formula had it.
This in itself might not have been so problematic, but the Protestantism that reached the American frontier in the nineteenth century was dominated by men who had little education and little idea of any other literature than the Bible. Such people have always existed: Thomas Aquinas, the medieval Catholic theologian, was alluding to them when he said, “Timeo hominem unius libri”: “I fear a man of one book.” In the United States, and, I suspect, in much of the rest of the English-speaking world, evangelical Christianity has become co-opted by these “men of one book.” Today in many parts of the US, it is possible to go into people’s houses and see no other book than the Bible. It is this element in Christianity that has made its presence felt in the rise of fundamentalism.
As a result, the Bible’s inner meaning has increasingly become the province of esotericism. Regarding the story of Christ, in her book Esoteric Christianity the Theosophist Annie Besant speaks of “the Christ of the human Spirit, the Christ who is in every one of us, is born and lives, is crucified, rises from the dead, and ascends into heaven, in every suffering and triumphant ‘Son of Man.’” The story of Christ is thus the story of each of us; the Incarnation symbolises our own descent into the world of materiality, where we pass across the stage for a short while before being crucified on the cross of time and space. But this suffering and death is only transitory or even illusory, since the Logos – the principle of consciousness – in ourselves cannot die. It will be resurrected again in other forms, recognisable or otherwise. (In the Gospels the risen Christ is sometimes recognised by his disciples, sometimes not.)
Some may find themselves impatient with these ideas, insisting that they are nothing more than a way of skirting the issue of historical factuality that must supposedly serve as the bedrock of faith. But what, might one ask, is being dismissed as mere allegory? Viewed in the way sketched out above, the stories of the Exodus and the passion of Christ are not mere edifying tales of the past. Nor are they creeds for blind belief or flags around which to rally the faithful. Rather they are deep expressions of what is going on inside us now. To know from inner experience what it is to be spiritually in “the land of Egypt, the house of bondage,” to see the Logos in ourselves crucified on the cross of time and space, is not evasion but among the most profound insights a human being can have.
I would even take the argument a step further. An allegorical reading of the Bible can actually be more demanding than merely dwelling on the meaning of the letter. Acknowledging “Pharaoh,” “Moses,” the “scribes and Pharisees,” even Christ as parts of ourselves can be unsettling. Few are eager to come to grips with their inner tyrants and hypocrites, and there are possibly even fewer who can bear to see their own higher natures. After all, to know that Moses the lawgiver exists in oneself is already a step out of the house of bondage. To see the Christ within is already to experience a resurrection. Such realisations confer a responsibility upon us that we are not always delighted to face.
As a result, it is often easier to keep these things at the safe remove of antiquity – to follow the disputes about who was the Pharaoh of Exodus; to pore over accounts of recent excavations in Biblical Archaeology Review; to thrill over the latest news feature that breathlessly proffers some allegedly new fact about the historical Jesus. In such a way we can keep these issues alive, but at a comfortable distance: they remain ineluctably “other,” about people who lived long ago. I suspect that this dynamic helps explain the unshakable thirst for biblical archaeology among the American public.
All this said, there is admittedly a problem with leaning too heavily on allegorical readings of Scripture. To be no longer able to take one’s own myths literally – even while accepting them in a figurative sense – does strip them of their power. This is due to the limits of our own understanding; we as a civilisation seem unable to hear the message “Blessed are they that have not seen, and yet believed” (John 20:29). This is not a call to blind, stupid faith; it is an appeal to recognise realities that do not present themselves to our physical eyes and hands – the “evidence of things unseen.” But, trusting as we do in the Gradgrindian world of cold, hard facts, we put more trust in texts than in our own inner experience. We discover that the texts are not telling the exact truth about history, and we lose our faith.
Despite the noise (much of it overstated) about rising fundamentalism in the Western world, this loss of faith is likely to accelerate. What will happen when the news sinks in and we collectively understand that much, perhaps most, of the Bible is not literally true? We may continue to see their beauty and power as myths, just as we do with the tales of the Olympian gods, but they will have lost their numinous force for us. We will see the old gods mocked and derided, as they were in antiquity in the satyr plays of the classical Athenian stage and the satires of Lucian, and as we see today in films like Dogma and Jesus Christ Superstar.
In such instances, new myths, new versions of eternal truths arise. What these will be in the future remains to be seen; it is hard to imagine that they will come from any religion now existing. Of the models of reality now available, it is above all the one provided by science that has most captured the imagination of the thinking public. Like Christianity in ancient times, it seems to offer truth in place of myth, actualities in place of legend. And then we are left with a question that, I suspect, will not be answered in the lifetime of anyone reading these pages now: what will happen when the facts of science, implacably hard and substantial as they now seem, are proved to be myths in turn?
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About the Author
RICHARD SMOLEY is author of Inner Christianity: A Guide to the Esoteric Tradition; Hidden Wisdom: A Guide to the Western Inner Traditions (with Jay Kinney); and The Essential Nostradamus. His latest book is Conscious Love: Insights from Mystical Christianity. He is editor of Quest Books and is executive editor of Quest magazine. His web site is www.innerchristianity.com.
Dante Alighieri, Letter to Can Grande della Scala, Translated by James Marchand, http://medieval.ucdavis.edu/20B/Can.Grande.html
Margaret Barker, The Great Angel: A Study of Israel’s Second God, Louisville, Ky.: Westminster/John Knox, 1992.
Annie Besant, Esoteric Christianity, or the Lesser Mysteries, Reprint, Wheaton, Ill.: Quest, 2006.
Harold Bloom, The American Religion, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992.
Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman, The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology’s New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts, New York: Touchstone, 2001.
Susan A. Handelman, The Slayers of Moses: The Emergence of Rabbinic Interpretation in Modern Literary Theory, Albany: State University of New York Press, 1982.
Origen, On First Principles, Translated by G.W. Butterworth, Reprint, New York: Harper & Row, 1966.
Philo, The Works of Philo, Translated by C.D. Yonge, Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1993.
Albert Schweitzer, The Quest of the Historical Jesus: A Critical Study of Its Progress from Reimarus to Wrede, Translated by W. Montgomery, Reprint, New York: Macmillan, 1961.
Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Translated by D.F. Pears and B.F. McGuinness, 2nd edition, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1971.
The above article appeared in New Dawn No. 110 (September-October 2008).
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