The Bible Can Be True Without Being Literally True

alex atkins bookshelf booksMarcus Borg is a leading theologian, Biblical scholar, and former professor of Religion and Culture at Oregon State University. He is the author of several best-selling books on Christianity and the Bible, including: Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, Reading the Bible Again of the First Time, and The Heart of Christianity. Upon turning 70, Borg had an epiphany: why not write about his convictions — “foundational ways of seeing things that are not easily shaken” that have shaped his life. The result is a brilliant and insightful work, titled Convictions: How I Learned What Matters Most. At the core of Christianity, of course, is the Bible. Consider that it is the world’s best-selling book — close to 5 billion copies have been sold since 1815 — however it is one of the most misunderstood and misinterpreted books (although Jame Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake is certainly a worthy contender). Having studied and taught about the Bible for almost half a century, Borg shares his insight about the true meaning of the Bible in a chapter entitled “The Bible Can Be True Without Being Literally True.” True that, brother. Here is an excerpt from that chapter:

“My Christian journey has led to the conviction that the truth of the Bible and its importance for Christians do not depend upon its being literally true. Though sometimes… the Bible is wrong even when understood correctly, I have become convinced that its major stories and themes are true regardless of their literal-factual truth. The process whereby I became convinced of this is the… journey from precritical naivete through critical thinking to postcritical conviction.

I grew up with a soft form of biblical literalism, taking it for granted that the stories in the Bible happened. Then I began to wonder whether they really did. Were Adam and Eve real people, and was there really a Garden of Eden? Did God really send ten plagues on Egypt in the time of the exodus? Did God really make the sun stand still in the time of Joshua? And did God cause the walls of Jericho to fall down as the ancient Israelites marched around the city blowing rams’ horns with their ear-splitting sound? There are many more examples, including in the gospels. 

During this stage, I encountered naturalistic explanations: that the plagues on Egypt were regularly reoccurring events that the ancient Israelites interpreted as divinely caused; that the walls of Jericho collapsed because of intense vibrations caused by the shrill sound of the rams’ horns; that the star of Bethlehem was really a comet or supernova or conjunction of three planets. Note that these explanations rationalized the texts as mistaken perceptions of natural phenomena. The texts preserved memories of “what happened” but erroneously attributed the causation to God. Such explanations never seemed persuasive or even interesting to me. 

Then I began to realize that the truth of religious stories—including the stories in the Bible—does not de­pend upon their factuality. This does not mean that reli­gions in general, or Christianity in particular, are based on fable or fantasy (often seen as the alternative to factuality in modern Western cultures). Rather, it means that the truth of the Bible is its “more than literal” meanings, its “more than factual” meanings. 

The more-than-literal meanings of religious texts are their metaphorical meanings. “Metaphorical meaning” refers to “the surplus of meaning” that stories can carry. An approximate synonym of “sym­bolic” meaning—what the story points to. Many—perhaps most—of the biblical stories are metaphorical or symbolic in this sense. Our biblical ancestors told the stories they told not for the sake of providing a reliable factual account of what happened, as if their concern were like that of mod­ern newspaper reporters or historians. Rather, they told the stories they told because of the meanings they saw in them.

A less familiar approximate synonym for the “metaphor” or “symbolic” meaning of a biblical text is its “parabolic” meaning. The model for this meaning is the parables that Jesus told. He was a master of the genre: more parables are attributed to Jesus than to any other ancient figure in the Jewish tradition.

Jesus’s parables were “made up” stories. Their purpose was not to report something that really happened. To cite his best-known parables as examples: I do not know any Christian who insists that the parable of the good Samaritan sim­ply reports something that happened as a priest and Levite encountered and passed by a man who had been beaten up by robbers on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho, even as a Samaritan (a despised class) stopped to help. Nor do I know any Christian who insists that there really was a father who acted as the father in the parable of the prodigal son did. We all get the point: parables are about meaning; they are not intended as factual reports. Parabolic meaning is both less-than-factual and more-than-factual meaning. 

So it is with the stories, the narratives, of the Bible. Their purpose is meaning, not factual veracity.” [emphasis added]

Can I get an “Amen!”, brothers and sisters?

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