Sometimes a report is so uninformative, inaccurate, vague and generally fatuous that it’s not worth the paper it’s written on. In most such cases we can simply pay the report no attention, grimace frustrated and toss it into the wastepaper basket. But when the subject under the report’s review is as important as the interpretation of Scripture, as a priest I feel I owe it as a matter of pastoral care to spell out what’s wrong . In today’s Daily Telegraph there is such a report and it begins thus:
“The earliest Latin interpretation of the Gospels has been brought to light by a British academic – and it suggests that readers should not take the Bible literally.”
So this has only very recently been “brought to light” has it by, as the article goes on to mention, Dr Hugh Houghton of the University of Birmingham? Well, I have news for Dr Houghton and for Olivia Rudgard who wrote that Telegraph article:
Throughout the centuries there have actually been only a very few scholars and ordinary readers who have taken the Bible literally – and for a very good (and obvious) reason: most of the Bible does not consist of propositions of fact.
Much of the Bible is poetry and hymns. How, for example, would anyone go about taking a line such as “The Lord’s my shepherd” literally? Or “I am a worm and no man”?
No one has ever believed that when the Bible says God made the world in six days and on the seventh day he rested means that God formed the universe in six days of twenty-four hours and on the following day he took to his pipe and slippers and sat back in an easy chair.
Or that one of Solomon’s lovers really had a neck that was “a tower of ivory.”
Or that “the stars of heaven fell to the earth.”
To continue to enumerate examples would be the exploit of an imbecile. Besides, there are other aspects of this dismal tale to consider….
Dr Houghton says, “There’s been an assumption that the Bible is a literal record of truth – a lot of the early scholars got very worried about inconsistencies between Matthew and Luke for example.”
No, they didn’t get very worried. They were scholars, not idiots. They noticed differences between Matthew and Luke – that Matthew has wise men visiting the manger while Luke mentions only shepherds – and they concluded that these variations didn’t evidence contradictoriness but two different theological perspectives. Similarly, no one in his right mind would conclude that because the synoptic Gospels declare that the crucifixion happened on one particular day while John says it happened on a different day that therefore the crucifixion never happened.
That may be how dumb literalists and contemporary theological academics think but it is not how the early biblical commentators and the Church Fathers thought.
The fact is – and it has been well-recognised by scholars and general readers for a thousand years and more – that much of the Bible is in the similes and metaphors of poetic expression; and that the biblical narrative lends itself to allegorical interpretation. The masters of that craft were such as Origen and Augustine in the earliest centuries of Christian history.
And they didn’t need to wait for Dr Houghton to come along and explain to them their own method!