How Is the Bible True? between History and Metaphor

By Garvey, John | Commonweal, March 27, 1998 | Go to article overview

How Is the Bible True? between History and Metaphor


Garvey, John, Commonweal


In a good op-ed page piece in the New York Times (February 26), Joyce Carol Oates makes a statement with which I have to disagree, at least in part: "The truth of one era becomes, as if by an artist's sleight of hand, the mythology of subsequent eras. What was sacred becomes secular. Our impassioned ancestors must have intended books like the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament to be historical documents, bearing the literal truth, not the metaphorical truth they embody today."

I am not sure that this is true or it is at least not nearly so simple. For example, when the church compiled the New Testament it knowingly included some contradictory accounts. (The church determined which biblical books would be considered canonical largely in reaction to Marcion, who wanted to exclude all of the Old Testament and much of what we regard as the New Testament.) The genealogies of Christ offered by Matthew and Luke, for example, are different; the chronologies of John and the synoptic Gospels differ, and these and other differences (how many angels were at the tomb after the Resurrection, and what did they say?) were noted early on.

The compilers of the Hebrew Bible also had no problem with contradiction: the two creation accounts in Genesis differ, to take only one example. And you can read Jonah as a wonderful (and funny) fable, and the account of the three young men in the fiery furnace, in Daniel, was plainly something to be recited aloud. The episode in Daniel may or may not have had its roots in some royal wickedness, but it is so charged, as something to be recited, that you have to see that something more than history is involved here. And what could history have to do with the Song of Songs?

My problem is not with the idea that our ancestors may have had a different approach to these things than we do, nor do I deny that they may have thought Jonah was really swallowed by a huge fish. My problem is with the too simple distinction between "literal truth" and "metaphorical truth." Our modern idea of history is relatively recent, and limited: just the facts, please. A radical cleavage is made between the idea of the objective and the subjective. One of the points Oates wanted to make in her piece is that it isn't that simple, and she is right. But was the Bible ever intended primarily as "history" or "literal truth," and can this be separated from "metaphorical truth"?

When Jesus spoke of the prodigal son and his merciful father, or of the Pharisee and the tax collector, he was telling stories. Not even a fundamentalist would deny that there was no historical prodigal son - but Jesus says, "There was a man who had two sons. …

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