Guest post: Did Church fathers and Jesus see the Bible as metaphor?

March 21, 2012 • 4:54 am

Keeping his usual watch on BioLogos, reader Sigmund has spotted an interesting conundrum: if the Bible is read as a metaphor, then why did Church fathers like Paul and St. Augustine—and even Jesus himself—take the tale of Adam and Eve as literally true?


Pastor Keller and the Historicity Problem

by Sigmund

Over on BioLogos, Pastor Tim Keller is continuing his series of guest posts “Creation, Evolution and Christian laypeople part 4”, answering questions about the integration of evolution and evangelical theology. The current post is particularly interesting because of the light it throws upon what might be described as the major problem faced by the BioLogos Foundation.

If it is indeed possible to interpret the Genesis story as an example of figurative language, a poetic story illuminating a deeper truth, then what exactly underlies the resistance from the evangelical community?  Why do evangelicals reject the scientific explanation of natural history of the universe and biological development and instead insist that the biblical description is truly historical?

As can be expected from BioLogos these days, all bets are hedged when it comes to Adam and Eve and the Fall.

Question #3: If biological evolution is true and there was no historical Adam and Eve how can we know where sin and suffering came from?

Answer: Belief in evolution can be compatible with a belief in an historical fall and a literal Adam and Eve. There are many unanswered questions around this issue and so Christians who believe God used evolution must be open to one another’s views.”

While refusing to admit that the historicity of Adam and Eve as progenitors of humanity is disproven by modern discoveries in population genetics, Keller does raise a useful point of biblical criticism.

Keller, quotes the commentary by N.T. Wright on the New Testament ‘Epistle to the Romans’, generally ascribed to the Apostle Paul:

“Paul clearly believed that there had been a single first pair, whose male, Adam, had been given a commandment and had broken it. Paul was, we may be sure, aware of what we would call mythical or metaphorical dimensions to the story, but he would not have regarded these as throwing doubt on the existence, and primal sin, of the first historical pair.”

This argument and its implications for the church is taken seriously by Keller:

“I am not arguing something so crude as “if you don’t believe in a literal Adam and Eve, then you don’t believe in the authority of the Bible!” I contended above that we cannot take every text in the Bible literally. But the key for interpretation is the Bible itself. I don’t believe Genesis 1 can be taken literally because I don’t think the author expected us to. But Paul is different. He most definitely wanted to teach us that Adam and Eve were real historical figures. When you refuse to take a Biblical author literally when he clearly wants you to do so, you have moved away from the traditional understanding of the Biblical authority. As I said above, that doesn’t mean you can’t have a strong, vital faith yourself, but I believe such a move can be bad for the church as a whole, and it certainly can lead to confusion on the part of laypeople.”

In other words, whether you think Genesis was allegorical or not, Paul, the architect of much of modern Christianity, clearly thought it was historical. Since a great deal of the Christian religion is based on the authority of noted church fathers, the denial or contradiction of these figures can only lead to problems with the lay community. For if you say Paul was wrong about this part of the bible, on what basis can you claim he was correct about the rest?

In fact, the point raised by Keller in this post extends far beyond the writings of Paul.

Saint Augustine of Hippo, who commented extensively on Genesis was quite explicit in stating that the book was based on historical events.

“The narrative indeed in these books is not cast in the figurative kind of language you find in the Song of Songs, but quite simply tells of things that happened, as in the books of the Kingdoms and others like them.”

Modern investigation indicates that both Paul and Augustine were simply wrong about history. But they were human. They lived almost two thousand years ago. Devoid of the benefits of modern science, they clearly have little credibility about events that occurred thousands (or indeed billions) of years before they were born.

Jesus, on the other hand, is different.

If you accept Jesus as God (or part of the Holy Trinity) then you are forced to hold him to a higher standard of historical knowledge than either Paul or Augustine.

So what does Jesus say about the historicity question? For the most part, very little, but what he does say is telling. In the gospel of Luke, for instance, he mentions Abel, the son of Adam and Eve, in historical terms:

So the people of this time will be punished for the murder of all the prophets killed since the creation of the world, from the murder of Abel to the murder of Zechariah, who was killed between the altar and the holy place” (Luke 11:50-51).”

Despite some desperate attempts at apologetic explanations for these words, it remains clear that many in the early church, including Jesus, thought that Genesis was based on historical events and real individuals.

At Pastor Keller’s BioLogos post, the idea that Jesus was wrong about history is troubling a few people in the comment section. Commenter KevinR sums up the implications nicely:

“The point should be clear – if you do not belief in a literal Genesis 1 and Adam and Eve, you are calling Jesus a person who does not know history. This would be a really strange phenomenom for someone who was there in the beginning, and through whom (sic) everthing was made. If that is the case then Jesus cannot be God either and thus is unable to be your Saviour.”

This is the essential dilemma faced by BioLogos. Modern science doesn’t just show that creationism is wrong about history. It shows that Jesus was wrong too.

27 thoughts on “Guest post: Did Church fathers and Jesus see the Bible as metaphor?

  1. I just can’t get past the likely hood that a supernatural Jesus never existed and the bible is just a cobbled, edited, copied, mistake ridden, fairy tale. If people today believe in the supernatural, then surely Iron Age folk did as well. All the unverified assumptions of who wrote this or that make further study a waste of time and an excuse to get a pay check and be called a theologian. It’s all just fun and games for believers and for us.

    A historical Jesus, may have existed, although I understand Jesus was a common name and there were many so called messiahs.

  2. Isn’t this already a well-known creationist argument? God couldn’t have done the evolution because Jesus and Paul were creationists themselves, and we know they couldn’t be wrong.

    On the other hand, according to Feser et al. Adam and Eve (and original sin and the rest) are “logically compatible” even with current genetic evidence, but it requires positing thousands of unensouled zombies that were physiologically identical to modern humans but which were incapable of rational thought until god decided to give a soul to two of them. They’re right in the sense that there would not have needed to have been a genetic bottleneck, but A&E’s progeny would have to have mated with the “subhuman animals.” Hopefully nobody actually takes this seriously.

    1. I’m fairly sure that Ken Ham makes a similar argument, at least in regards to quotes from Jesus. I think there’s another passage in Luke where Jesus seems to refer to the Flood as a historical event.
      The difference being that BioLogos seem to accept that scientific evidence can be used to determine which parts of the bible were real and which are metaphors. Science shows evolution is true, therefore Genesis is metaphorical, although they reserve the right to claim Adam and Eve were real. The trouble for BioLogos is that applying that principle results in a picture where Jesus is mistaken about history (which is hard to explain if you consider Him to be the author of history itself.)

  3. No, Jesus was not wrong about history if you accept the new and improved theological exegesis “Scare Quote” Theory.

    “Scare Quote” Theory posits that, in conversations of the time, Jesus (and other Biblical personages) would put two forefingers into the air to signify to their audience that they were speaking metaphorically. Since there was no way to indicate this in Hebrew, Coptic Greek, or any other ancient written language, the use of such indicators was lost in translation from oral history to scripture.

    There are many unanswered questions around this issue and so Christians who believe God used evolution and Jesus surely knew that He did so must be open to the “Scare Quote” Theory.

    1. This is related to the “Jesus was speaking in terms the people around him could understand” argument: people would not have been able to understand the intricacies of evolution, much in the same way Adam and Eve were not ready for the tree-of-knowledge knowledge.

      See also the “and anyway Jesus spoke spiritual truths not scientific truths” argument.

  4. oy, more magic decoder ring nonsense. genesis is ridiculous so it’s “metaphor” but golly gee, the cruxifiction has just *has* to be real so special snowflakes get their magic prize.

  5. There is good evidence that the people who actually wrote the bible knew they were compiling fiction.

    There are two creation accounts in Genesis. They conflict notably.

    Of course the early composers saw it. They weren’t stupid. They put them both in because there were fans of both versions without mcu caring which one was right. They might well have known it was borrowed from the Babylonians because they were the ones who borrowed it.

    Same thing with the Big Boat Genocide.

    There are up to three or four versions of some bible stories. Seems like every time someone wanted to advance a political point, they dusted off an old story and rewrote it.

  6. if the Bible is read as a metaphor, then why did Church fathers like Paul and St. Augustine—and even Jesus himself—take the tale of Adam and Eve as literally true?

    But did they take those tales as literally true? Not being able to read minds, I find it hard to tell.

    People routinely talk of Sherlock Holmes, as if he existed. It is just the way that people talk. You cannot thereby conclude that they actually believe he was a real person.

  7. Great piece, Sigmund.

    I am just reading Charles Freeman’s A New History of Early Christianity, and that raises two points for me.

    First, when we look at how Paul and the Gospel writers, among others, and Jesus looked at Genesis, we need to look at how Jews of the time looked at it. Since they were all Jews familiar with the lessons from temple, and were talking to a mostly Jewish audience, I would think it’s reasonable to assume their opinions were orthodox, unless they make it clear otherwise. I know that one of the persistent questions for early Christians was the extent to which the Law was still in effect. I think that if Paul et al. felt that Genesis was metaphor, they would have said so.

    Second, although we cannot expect Paul and Augustine to know modern science, Paul was certainly Greek-educated (says Freeman), and would probably have been familiar with Herodotus and Thucydides (and other historians now lost to us). Augustine probably was as well (it’s been a long time since I’ve read him or about him). I wouldn’t give them a miss on being less conscious of issues involving sources than we might be. We can expect them to have a blind spot about religion, though.

    By the way Freeman’s book is very interesting so far, but I am only 80 pages in, so I can’t say whether it will be worth recommending (although you should check out the Amazon reviews). It is refered to as a successor to Chadwick’s history, which was excellent. I do recommend Freeman’s Egypt, Greece, and Rome: Civilizations of the Ancient Mediterranean.

  8. So what does Jesus say about the historicity question? […] Luke 11:50-51

    Squeeze me?

    We’re supposed to take seriously millennia-old self-described hearsay about what a zombie thought happened in an enchanted garden yet more millennia prior?

    <blockquote Luke 1:1 Forasmuch as many have taken in hand to set forth in order a declaration of those things which are most surely believed among us,

    2 Even as they delivered them unto us, which from the beginning were eyewitnesses, and ministers of the word;

    3 It seemed good to me also, having had perfect understanding of all things from the very first, to write unto thee in order, most excellent Theophilus,

    4 That thou mightest know the certainty of those things, wherein thou hast been instructed.

    So we have centuries-late copies-of-copies-of-copies of a lengthy letter of unknown provenance addressed to Theophilus (literally, “god-lover”) by an unknown author who recorded the collected wisdom of an unnamed multitude who got their information at least second-hand from anonymous eyewitnesses.

    How on Earth can anybody read those four verses and then somehow take away from it that anything that follows even vaguely resembles reality — even assuming every link in the chain was totally honest?

    Really. If you think that the logical conclusion is that somebody named, “Jesus,” pontificated on Adam and Eve and had some authority to do so…well, I’ve got some fresh intestines to sell you, Jesus’s very own, miraculously preserved all these centuries, for the low introductory price of only $1,000 per linear inch!*



    * Limited time offer; certain restrictions apply; not valid in all jurisdictions; your frottage may vary.

  9. Not only was Paul a believer in the literal existence of Adam, but it plays a crucial part in his theology.

    According to Paul, Jesus is the second Adam. The first Adam sinned and after the Fall all of his descendants suffer the consequences. The second Adam comes to save humanity from sin. While there are people who haven’t personally sinned in their lives, they still need Jesus as their saviour, because they inherit the sin of Adam.

    The relevant Bible passages are 1 Corinthians 15:20-28 and Romans 5:12-21

    Note also that in this passage – 1 Corinthians 15:42-49 – Paul suggests that Adam existed as a physical person (“The first man was from the earth, a man of dust”, ESV).

    Of course, one can assume that Paul refers to Adam in a metaphorical way, and to Jesus as a historical figure. Some Christians are trying to argue exactly for this. See, for example here:
    But their position does not sound very convincing to me from the reading of the relevant Bible texts.

  10. This is unbelievably stupid. Paul also supported slavery and Jesus told parables about slavery. Does that mean slavery should be supported as well?

  11. To do this issue justice one must admit that there are two fundamental issues here: (1) The belief of first century figures and their followers during the next couple of centuries, and (2) what we know of the actual first century figures.

    On the latter it is questionable if the actual comment on marriage attributed to Jesus of Nazareth was actually uttered by him, or if the Gospel writer(s) inserted that story.

    Now, that may be moot if one’s intention is to show that Tim Keller’s argument is weak, as Pastor Keller no doubt accepts the story in the Gospel as accurate (to some measure) reporting.

    As for the first issue: some contemporary “evangelical” thinkers are adopting the (more mainline Christian denomination belief) that Jesus and Paul obviously were first century thinkers and that included ideas we now know not to be true about the Earth and biology. However, that doesn’t deter from the moral imperatives in the religious teachings.

    1. Thing is, almost everybody, even Bible-totin’ Evangelicals, assess “the moral imperatives in the religious teachings” on the basis of post-Enlightenment, secular values. If we agree that there are good bits and bad bits in the Bible, it follows that we don’t, and can’t, use the Bible to tell them apart.

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