The Bible contains several different types of literature- historical narrative, poetry and songs, wisdom (proverbs), letters (epistles), prophecy, apocalyptic, etc. Dr. Terry Mortenson notes that “the correct conclusion on genre of literature is foundational to the question of the correct interpretation.”
A disturbing, yet increasingly popular trend in Christianity today is to categorize many of the extraordinary events detailed in the Old Testament as allegory or symbolic literature. Unfortunately this includes some extremely popular and well-respected Christian scholars, apologists, philosophers, and pastors. These Christians are embarrassed to express belief in the miraculous Creation account, the existence of a literal Adam and Eve from which all of humanity is descended and through which (in the case of Adam) sin entered the world, a global flood survived by only 8 people and the animals that they loaded into a massive ark, a man spending 3 days in the belly of a fish until he was spit out onto land, and many, many more. The preference of re-categorizing historical narrative is largely due to the fact that modern science claims to have proven the biblical creation account, the origin of humanity, and the global flood to be demonstrably false.
To believe these Biblical accounts as literal history opens the door to ridicule. Christians who advocate for an allegorical or symbolic interpretation of selected, difficult to embrace, Old Testament events claim that one can do so without damaging the historicity of the Bible as a whole or the reliability of the Gospel message. But is this the case?
We could (and creation scientists do) effectively challenge the secular scientific explanations for the origin of the universe (the Big Bang) and humanity (evolution), and the flood- but the questions I’d like to pose today are: How did Jesus treat these extraordinary Old Testament events- as literal history or allegory; and is allegorical interpretation of these events harmful?
What do Jesus’ references say about how He viewed the Old Testament events in question?
Mike Matthews writes, “The debate about the Bible’s accuracy is not a secondary, theoretical concern. The integrity of Jesus Christ Himself is at stake. He accepted the Old Testament’s historical accounts as real, and He built His teachings on those facts of history.”
In both Mark 10:6-9 and Matthew 19:4-5, the authors record Jesus’ affirmation of the Genesis creation account as well as the Biblical origin of humanity when He answered a question posed to Him by a group of Pharisees. In the first passage, “6 But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made the male and female.‘; and in the second, “4 He answered, “Have you not read that He who created them from the beginning made them male and female”. (emphasis mine)
Matthew 23:35 and Luke 11:51 each record Jesus’ recognition of Abel (Adam and Eve’s son) as a literal, historical person.
Jesus confirms the historicity of a literal global flood, ark, and the literal existence of Noah in Matthew 24:37-39 and Luke 17:26. The first passage reads, “37 For as were the days of Noah, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 38 For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, 39 and they were unaware until the flood came and swept them all away, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.” The latter reads, “26 Just as it was in the days of Noah, so will it be in the days of the Son of Man.” (emphasis mine)
Jesus affirms the historicity of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah by divine judgment, the literal existence of Lot and his wife, as well as the extraordinary account of the demise of Lot’s wife in Luke 28:28-30, 32-33: “28 Likewise, just as it was in the days of Lot– they were eating and drinking, buying and selling, planting and building, 29 but on the day when Lot went out from Sodom, fire and sulfur rained from heaven and destroyed them all- 30 so will it be on the day when the Son of Man is revealed… “Remember Lot’s wife. 33 Whoever seeks to preserve his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will keep it.” (emphasis mine)
Mark records Jesus’ affirmation of the historicity of God speaking to Moses from a burning bush when He refers to this event while answering the Sadducees question regarding resurrection. Mark 12:26 reads, “26 And as for the dead being raised, have you not read in the book of Moses, in the passage about the bush, how God spoke to him saying, ‘I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’?” (emphasis mine)
In John chapter 6, John records the story of Jesus feeding 5,000 with 5 loaves and 2 fish after which Jesus and His disciples left and went across the sea to Capernaum. The following day, the people went to Capernaum looking for Jesus. In the exchange that follows, both the crowd and Jesus refer to the manna that God rained down on the Israelites in the wilderness as literal history. John 6:30-34, “30 So they said to Him, ‘Then what sign do You do, that we may see and believe You? What work do You perform? 31 Our fathers ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, “He gave them bread from heaven to eat.‘” 32 Jesus then said to them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, it was not Moses who gave you bread from heaven, but my Father gives you the true bread from heaven. 33 For the bread of God is He who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.’ 34 They said to Him, ‘Sir, give us this bread always.’” (emphasis mine)
In Matthew 12:39-41, Jesus confirms the historicity of the Old Testament story of Jonah and the fish, and that Jonah literally preached in the city of Nineveh resulting in the repentance of the people, when He addresses the scribes and Pharisees who ask Him to give them a sign. The passage reads, “39 But He answered them, ‘An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. 40 For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. 41 The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here.” (emphasis mine)
Perhaps Jesus’ most indicative statements regarding the historicity of the miraculous Old Testament events recorded by Moses and which He Himself referenced comes in John 3:12 and John 5:46-47. The first reads, “12 If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things.” The latter reads, “46 For if you believed Moses, you would believe Me, for he wrote of Me. 47 But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe My words?”
Does Allegorical Interpretation of Key Old Testament Passages Harm the Overall Historicity of the Bible As Well As the Gospel Message?
A literal or allegorical interpretation of Old Testament Scripture have no bearing on an individual’s salvation (and I’ve never heard anyone claim that it does). However, allegorically interpreting Old Testament events is extremely damaging to the argument that the many extraordinary events of the New Testament are literal and historical. David Platt follows this interpretation to its logical conclusion in his series Scripture and Authority in an Age of Skepticism, “If historical details and scientific facts in the Old Testament are untrue, then the teachings of Jesus and the writers of the New Testament are untrustworthy…If controversial stories in the Bible are untrue, then spiritual, redemptive assertions in the Bible are untrustworthy.”
A real life example of this is illustrated in a question that an individual describing himself as “a non religious theist” wrote to renowned Christian philosopher William Lane Craig, of Reasonable Faith.
This individual states that numerous fantastical Old Testament events which are recorded as history (creation of the world and man, Noah’s ark and flood, references to giants, etc) prevent him from accepting Christianity. Regarding an allegorical explanation of these passages he correctly ascertains, “These accounts incorporate very specific language and do not seem to lend themselves to figurative interpretation.” He then follows that argument along its logical and troubling track, “…if I concede that the book of Genesis as a whole (or a significant portion thereof) is not true, then that leaves me with the awkward fact that Jesus Christ- the deity to whom I would owe my allegiance- on more than one occasion affirmed these errors as truths.” This leads to the only logical (yet devastating) conclusion, “The only way it seems to me one can resolve this problem is by saying Christ affirmed these truths in a ‘metaphorical sense,’ but I find this justification unsatisfying, mainly because the reasonable interpretation of Jesus’ words is that he really did believe these events were literally true. If you say that the gospel writers misquoted Jesus on all of these counts, then that raises the question of what else they may have got wrong. Needless to say, that strikes right at the heart of the Bible as a whole.”
And just like that, the authority of the entire Bible is undermined and the Gospel message rendered an utterly empty promise.
The response of William Lane Craig, a giant on the front lines of Christian apologetics and philosophy, can only be described as distressing, grievous, and ultimately disappointing. He opens by stating, “When people ask me what unanswered questions I still have, I tell them, ‘I don’t know what to do with these Old Testament stories about Noah and the ark, the Tower of Babel, and so on,’ So I find myself in the same boat as you, Jon.” Despite this admission, he boldly claims that the “central truths of a Christian worldview” do not “stand or fall with such questions.”
While falling short of explicitly advocating the view that troublesome Old Testament “stories” shouldn’t be interpreted literally, Craig offers the following alternative “Christological implications”:
“Your claim is that since Jesus evidently believed in the historicity of these stories, then if we allow that these narratives are not historical, we allow that Christ has erred. […] Now that’s a really good question that theologians need to explore! Did Jesus hold false beliefs in his human consciousness? […] Did God stoop so low in condescending to become a man that he took on such cognitive limitations that Jesus shared false beliefs typically held by other ordinary first century Jews? Since I have good reason to believe in his deity…I would sooner admit that Jesus could hold false beliefs (that ultimately don’t matter) rather than deny his divinity.”
One stands in sheer dumbfounded amazement at even the suggestion of the idea that an apparently fallible, non-omniscient Jesus could be deluded in His understanding of Old Testament history, yet considered an unquestionable authority on all things New Testament including prophetic insight.
Craig’s easy to overlook parenthetical assertion that the historicity of these Old Testament events “ultimately don’t matter” may be attributable to his second argument, which is that Jesus’ assertions in Luke 17:26-27 (reference to Noah and the flood) and Matthew 12:39-41 (reference to Jonah and the fish) are “compatible with citing a story to make one’s point.” As corroboration of this theory, Craig ineffectively uses the following two examples:
- “For example, Jude 9 mentions an incident in The Assumption of Moses, an apocryphal work which was never part of the Jewish canon of Scripture. 1 Timothy 3:8 makes a comparison to a couple of characters named in Jewish targums, Dead Sea scrolls, and rabbinic traditions, which were similarly never part of the Jewish canon. Such comparisons do not commit the authors to the historicity of the characters or events.”
Craig’s conclusion that the citation of information from extra-biblical, non-canonical sources, used within the canon of Scripture, doesn’t ascribe historicity of the characters or events is faulty logic. The more rational assumption would be that nuggets of truth as well as actual historical people and events can be found in sources that are not wholly reliable or divinely inspired. The portions cited in the canon are true, the remainder of the information in these works may not be.
- “We may have something similar in Romans 5.7, where Paul says, ‘Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person- though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die.’ Simon Gathercole, a fine New Testament scholar, points out that Paul is appealing to a common motif in Greco-Roman culture of someone’s stepping forward to die in the place of another. The most famous example in antiquity was Alcestis in Euripides’ play by that name, who volunteered to die in the place of her husband King Admetus. Alcestis was celebrated for centuries, and her name is to be found even in epitaphs on Christian graves. Gathercole thinks that in Romans 5.7 Paul may actually be thinking of Alcestis. He says, in effect, ‘Alcestis was willing to die for her beloved husband, but Christ died for his enemies.’ So saying would not commit Paul to the historicity of this purely literary figure.”
This in an embarrassingly inadequate argument indeed. First, it is complete speculation as to whether or not Paul was referencing this play in any way in his Romans 5.7 statement. Second, even if he had this reference in his mind, he did not literally use the statement “Alcestis was willing to die for her beloved husband, but Christ died for his enemies,” which is what would be required for this comparison to be applicable to Christ using allegory to support His teachings.
Dr. Terry Mortenson points out a more accurate comparison of what the practical implications of Craig’s theory would be if indeed Jesus was using fictional stories to impart knowledge and assurance of literally occurring events in the impending future, “No one would believe in the Second Coming of Christ if the promise of it (as recorded in Matthew 24:37-39) was given as, ‘Just as Santa Claus comes from the North Pole in his sleigh pulled by reindeer on Christmas Eve and puts presents for the whole family under the Christmas tree in each home, so Jesus is coming again as the Kings of kings and the Lord of lords.’ In fact, the analogy would convince people that the Second Coming is a myth.” Indeed, this is the logical conclusion that Jon (the non-religious theist) comes to in his question to Craig.
A final theory posited by some Christians is that Jesus was merely accommodating the erroneous beliefs held by the people in His day. Mortenson supplies a four fold refutation of this assertion, “First, Jesus was the truth (John 14:6), and therefore He always spoke truth. No deceitful or misleading words ever came from His mouth (1 Peter 2:22). Even his enemies said, ‘Teacher, we know that You are truthful and defer to no one; for You are not partial to any, but teach the way of God in truth” (Mark 12:14; NASB). Second, Jesus taught with authority on the basis of God’s word, which He called ‘truth’ (John 17:17), not as the scribes and Pharisees taught based on their traditions (Matthew 7:28-29). Third, Jesus repeatedly and boldly confronted all kinds of wrong thinking and behavior in his listeners’ lives in spite of the threat of persecution for doing so (Matthew 22:29; John 2:15-16, 3:10, 4:3-4, 9; Mark 7:9-13). And finally, Jesus emphasized the foundational importance of believing what Moses wrote in a straightforward way (John 5:45, Luke 16:31, 24:25-27, 24:44-45; John 3:12, Matthew 17:5).”
In an effort to win Bible skeptics over to Christianity, to make the Bible more palatable, and to avoid the ridicule of those who equate the Bible with a book of fables, Craig, like so many others, has offered explanations which compromise Scripture in order to conform to more realistic expectations. These individuals illogically assert that compromising extraordinary Old Testament events in no way hinders the equally extraordinary events of the New Testament such as the virgin birth, the numerous miracles that Christ performed, or His death and resurrection.
Craig posits, “It wouldn’t follow from the non-historicity of certain Old Testament narratives that God’s ‘repository for truth is in effect fundamentally tainted and therefore can’t be trusted.’” Yet, that is exactly what logically follows if extraordinary Old Testament events, which Jesus, the apostles, and other authors of the Bible refer to as literal events are not, in fact, literal history. Craig’s questioner reveals the heart of the conundrum when he asks what reference he is left with to discern what aspects of his faith are true, “Am I to be left with only the voice of conscience? If so, this does not seem to be a position too different than the one I am in now.” Craig’s answer is a non-answer, “The great literature of the world shows us that works which are non-historical, like the plays of Shakespeare or the novels of Dostoyevsky or the fables of Aesop, have important truths to teach us. […] Just use good principles of biblical interpretation and follow the evidence where it leads, while retaining an attitude of humility.”
Though Craig stops short of denying Biblical inerrancy himself, he certainly fails to champion it. The Bible is not simply a piece of “great literature” from which we can glean “important truths” amid fantastical tales. In fact, Proverbs 3:5 specifically instructs us not to, “lean on our own understanding,” which is exactly what one is left to do if the historicity of Old Testament events depends on what seems plausible by today’s standards. The inescapable truth is that if large swathes of the Old Testament are indeed allegory, it is impossible to distinguish where the allegory ends and the literal history begins. The damage to Bible history is extensive and it undermines the words of Jesus, the apostles, and the Gospel. We, as Christians, should have the fortitude to stand for the historicity of the Old Testament, just as Jesus did.