Faithful to our ‘God is still speaking’ faith, we read with the Bible in one hand and our smartphone in the other. This week, news on the phone practically screams with agony; multiple shootings, a presidential candidate blaming an entire religion, and—a poignant twist—a Dutch video in which people read from the Bible, claiming it’s the Quran, and listeners hearing the violent verses are fooled. In the midst of such troubling times, I’ve been working hard to complete The Celtic Study Bible: Gospels. Curiously, that work does intersect with the headlines. If believers in the modern and postmodern eras had followed ancient principles of Bible reading, we might be better off in 2015. The following is excerpt from the (unpublished) Celtic Study Bible.
Eucherius (380-449) of Gaul wrote a book titled Formula for a Spiritual Understanding which influenced Celtic Christianity. Eucherius invites readers “to see through the surface (historical) level of Scripture to its ‘higher’ spiritual meaning.” The Apostle Paul can be cited to support this view “for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (2 Cor.3:6). Such a metaphorical reading of Scripture is indeed pervasive in the Bible.
For some Early Christians there was a pressing reason to adopt this method of interpretation—they were trying to save the Old Testament. Marcion (85-160) a Christian living in what is today Turkey, noted that the Old Testament God did things which seem unworthy of the God revealed in Christ. Could God who demanded genocide of unbelievers (1 Samuel 15) be the same as God who loves the world (John 3:16) and is love (John 4:8)? Could the same Divine Spirit command “Do not leave alive anything that breathes” (Deuteronomy 20:16) and then speak through Jesus’ lips saying “Love your enemies” (Matthew 5:44)? Marcion had a simple answer—do away with the Old Testament.
Origen (184-254) a Christian scholar living in Alexandria Egypt agreed with Marcion that some Old Testament portrayals of God are unworthy of God. But Origen defended the Old Testament by interpreting the genocide passages symbolically. Origen wrote: “If the horrible wars related in the Old Testament were not to be interpreted in a spiritual sense, the apostles would never have transmitted the Jewish books for reading in the church to followers of Christ.” A century later, Augustine likewise used symbolic interpretation to deal with troubling Old Testament passages. How could God say to smash the heads of Babylonian infants (Psalm 137:9)? Augustine explains “the ‘infants’ of Babylon were not literal children but rather the vices of the Babylonians.”
In our time, Marcus Borg was an important recent scholar in the field of Jesus and the New Testament, and a defender of symbolic Bible interpretation. Borg called metaphor the more-than-literal meaning of language. John Dominic Crossan, another major figure in contemporary Jesus scholarship, likewise says, “My point, once again, is not that those ancient people told literal stories and we are now smart enough to take them symbolically, but that they told them symbolically and we are now dumb enough to take them literally.”1
The Bible is critiqued today for the same reason that it was questioned in the second century—the malingering shadow of its violent passages. At a time when the world is reeling from religious terrorism, it is tempting to dismiss all religious Scriptures that portray God as demanding the slaughter of innocents.
Philip Jenkins, Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor University, questions whether the Quran endorses violence more than the Bible? He answers in the negative: “If the founding text shapes the whole religion, then Judaism and Christianity deserve the utmost condemnation as religions of savagery.” He goes on, however, to note, “Of course, they are no such thing; nor is Islam.”2 As Jenkins points out, Abrahamic religions each have Scriptures that can be used to promote violence or peace, and if they are to result in peace then the teachers of religion must learn to talk about violent passages constructively.
Jenkins reminds us that in the accounts of Old Testament Genocide “we have a constructed narrative in which particular authors and editors have taken a story and framed it in ways that made sense to them. It is a story with a point or theme, and one that is aimed at a particular audience.”3
Investigating the conquest of Canaan, archaeologists find evidence that differs from the Bible tales. “Archaeologist William Dever concludes that … evidence ‘supports almost nothing of the biblical account of a large scale concerted Israelite military invasion of Canaan.’”4 So why would the Bible writers exaggerate tales of how they exterminated their enemies, down to the noncombatants? The Bible was mostly written after the Babylonian exile and Jews were wondering: how can we make sure history does not repeat for us? To ensure Israel’s future purity, the Bible writers portrayed a golden age of Israel, before they fell into God’s disfavor. This golden age was marked by absolute loyalty to God’s commandments. The wars in Canaan were portrayed as the utter extermination of everything that did not faithfully worship God, as an illustration of the way that faithful Israel should expunge everything ungodly from their midst.
The Bible stories of genocide were composed to point to a larger truth—the need to utterly eradicate idolatry—rather than a straightforward recounting of history. Thus, the best current scholarship supports the instincts of the ancient interpreters; the Bible stories of genocide were intended to be understood for their spiritual meaning rather than taken as literal history.
So there are compelling reasons—both the symbolic nature of many Bible passages, and the continuing need to properly interpret violent passages—that commend the ‘more-than-literal’ reading of Scripture. An ancient form of Bible reading could help us create a less-violent future.
1 James F. McGrath, John Dominic Crossan on Literalism, Patheos, June 14, 2014,
2 Philip Jenkins, Laying Down the Sword: Why We Can’t ignore the Bible’s Violent Verses (New York, Harper Collins, 2011), 13.
image credit: Ken McIntosh