John Dominic Crossan on Literalism

John Dominic Crossan on Literalism June 15, 2014

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  • Anonymous coward

    How do we know the flood story or creation story were originally understood by audiences a symbolic? How about historical narrative from kings and chronicles?

    • Michael Wilson

      I suspect by and large these stories were taken literally by their audience. But the authors were probably aware they were not writting what they witnessed. The writings are effectively speculation on how the order of the word came about with best understanding of what was likely and what is. It thus becomes a sort of unitentional allegory. Regarding King I don’t see how a genre like a chronicle would be symbolic. Made up histories tend to be propaganda but not allegory

      • TomS

        Examples of the ways that people approached the text, in the couple of centuries BCE/CE:

        James L. Kugel
        The Bible As It Was
        Cambridge, Mass. : Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1997.

        • Anonymous Coward

          How they were taken after 200BCE isn’t really relevant to the Crossan quote, though. He’s claiming in that quotation that passages were originally intended allegorically though some today take them literally.

          The quote doesn’t make it clear what the scope of his claim is. I am not sure whether he’s saying it’s basically _all_ intended allegorically, or if he’s talking about specific parts of the Bible.

          But if it’s a pretty narrow claim he’s making, it’s not a very powerful or interesting one. Meanwhile, if it’s the broader claim that he’s making, I’m interested in seeing what the evidence is for it.

          • GakuseiDon

            Origen wrote about some passages in the Gospels holding allegorical rather than literal meanings around 220CE. In De Principiis Book 4:

            “How could it literally come to pass, either that Jesus should be led up by the devil into a high mountain, or that the latter should show him all the kingdoms of the world…? And many other instances similar to this will be found in the Gospels by any one who will read them with attention, and will observe that in those narratives which appear to be literally recorded, there are inserted and interwoven things which cannot be admitted historically, but which may be accepted in a spiritual signification.”

          • Anonymous Coward

            In fact I’ll say I had no idea that writers were saying that about the gospel accounts that early. I wonder how controversial this was at Origin’s time.

          • Oskarsson

            Crossan is not claiming that the original readers took the passages allegorically, Allegory is a very specific kind of symbolic reading, and I’m not sure it was a concept that would have occurred to the ancients. But he is speaking of understanding passages in ways other than literally.

          • Anonymous Coward

            Crossan says the stories “were told symbolically.” If he means to exclude the original readers from the meaning of that, i.e. means the authors meant it symbolically while the original readers misunderstood this, then the meaning of his claim seems at odds with the force of the quotation and the subsequent discussion here.

      • shepherdguy

        I think the genre of chronicle actually lends itself well to allegory…we have only to look to the stories of “I cannot tell a lie” George Washington to see how that could be…or the Knights of the Round Table. I think most propaganda has an allegorical bent to it, in that it creates larger-than-life or more-evil-than-life characters who serve a purpose in the telling of a national myth….

        • Anonymous Coward

          I agree it lends itself to allegory. My question is what evidence there is that these stories were originally “told symbolically.” To me, what it would mean that a story is told symbolically is that the writers meant it that way. And to “mean” something is to expect your readers to understand it that way as well.

  • Jerome

    And the symbolism of some is really, really easy to understand. Like the story of Jesus walking on the water. Why assume it literally happened? The story works perfectly as an allegory.

    • Michael Wilson

      Jerome, good point. I think the more interesting examples of Crossan’s symbolic stories being taken literally is many of the gospels miracle stories.

  • Mike K.

    James, what are your thoughts on this quote? I find Crossan’s point useful in challenging uncritical literalism in fundamentalist circles, but the last chapter in Dale Alison’s “Constructing Jesus” gives me pause about whether the evangelist’s intended for anything in the Gospels to be taken purely metaphorically. So to take the example of Mark’s feeding narratives: there is all kinds of symbolism in Jesus as a shepherd of the people with the miraculous provision of food, organizing them in groups of hundreds and fifties, and having twelve baskets for the first feeding and seven baskets for the second (Israel, the nations), but did Mark also believe that Jesus had multiplied food as the Israelites had eaten Manna in the wilderness under Moses’ leadership? I think that the author probably did.

    • Anonymous Coward

      How can we tell whether a particular detail was intended literally or not?

      • Many who study literature would say that we cannot tell what was intended by an author. The most we can hope to do is apply the methods of literary interpretation to deduce as well as we can which of the many possible ways of reading a given text does the best justice to what the text actually says and implies.

      • james warren

        Intentions don’t matter, except as a generalized goal of a speaker.
        What DOES matter is results.

        The meaning of our messages is found in the response they get.
        And if we don’t get the response we want, then we have to change what WE are doing–not blame the listener for “not getting it.”

    • I often go back and forth on this. When I read the Emmaus story, in which Jesus is made known in the breaking of the bread, I feel that the story is “really about” the Lord’s Supper. Whether Luke thought of it as primarily or only that is harder to answer. The story of the Gerasene demoniac is clearly a bit of political satire. But did the author also think it was a description of an actual event? How do we decide? And even if we conclude that the author didn’t think it was a historical event, does that mean that he didn’t want his readers to think that it was?

      • Anonymous Coward

        If I can be permitted to share something brief I wrote that’s inspired by the Emmaus story and its relation to Eucharist (and by the Gateless Gate):




        A teacher conspired to walk among his students in disguise. Together they all sat to partake of a meal. Not knowing he was there to hear them, his students mocked him mercilessly. He chuckled, for he recognized himself in their caricatures. Then, as the bread came to him, he lunged to a standing position and yanked off his disguise, shouted “Here I am!” with a giant’s laugh and tore a great chunk free from the loaf with his teeth. His students were terrified, but he merely passed the bread along.


        Only now do the teacher and his students share in fellowship.

        Prior to this they must have been great enemies.

      • arcseconds

        It strikes me that people approached texts (including oral material) quite differently than we do. We have made a thorough split between symbolism and history, so we expect things to either be fables or to be literal truth (or at least an attempt to write literal truth).

        (We are also pretty tone-deaf when it comes to symbols, and it doesn’t help that we don’t necessarily understand the context)

        But it seems to me that this just isn’t the case in pre-modern times, and probably in many contemporary cultures, too. If your perspective is pretty thoroughly ‘magical’, what is symbolically appropriate might not be actually be distinct from what is literally true. If you think the subject of your biography was great, then of course the gods had singled them out for greatness, and of course there were signs and portents at their birth. The fact that you’ve never heard of any until now you’ve just thought of it simply doesn’t come into it.

        I’m not explaining this very well, but then it’s difficult to explain an alien perspective, and I don’t think I understand it very well either.

        (I think there are people around even today who do think in a similar fashion, but we tend to think of them in fairly dismissive terms)

        • I think your overall point is clear, and am important one. We have no real way of studying how most people thought about some of the self-contradictory stories that they told, and so we may not be able to determine from our distance in time whether they were capable of nuanced mythical thought, or even sloppier thinkers than we have sometimes suspected, or whether even that choice is simply an anachronistic false antithesis.

    • Andrew Dowling

      I think given Mark’s literary flair it’s doubtful he believed every single miracle in his gospel was historical in the modern sense . .

      Just like today, many people (probably a majority) of Mark’s time would’ve taken the stories literally for the most part; folk religion of all types is almost always the most popular across epochs, because most people are not well educated and its the easiest to understand and preach; the more educated/discerning would’ve recognized the symbolic and metaphorical more and been less superstitious. Why it seems a lot of the more educated Gentile Christians were drawn to Gnosticism (esp. Valentinianism and it’s greater emphasis on spiritual meanings and not literal meanings)

      You can see this in writings about the pagan religions of Rome from that same time period . . many of the well educated intellectuals saw the stories of Zeus and Apollos as allegory; whereas many ordinary Romans would’ve taken the stories more literally.

      • Michael Wilson

        Andrew I agree. I do think that people thought Jesus really did perform miracles in life, like healing, exorcism, and perhapes some other signs. I suspect though thatp some tales, walking on water and turning water to wine were parables as miricle stories, shich to the first audience was known to be artificial but was taken rather soon to be examples of Jesus’ power as his other miracles. Some miricles, like the loaves and fishes were perhapes events where people did think a miricle occured for what ever reason, but were elaborated in storytelling to have a deeper meaning.

      • Gary

        Since you mentioned Gnostics, the perfect example are “The Gospel of Truth” (Valentinian) and “The Secret Book of John” (Sethian). Both, you have to assume, are written by intelligent, educated people, since they wrote in Coptic or Greek when most people were uneducated. One is perfectly logical. One is so much symbolism, allegory, etc. that no one in their right mind would take it literally. Like a good camp fire story to keep you entertained (since there was no TV, movies, SciFi, Dr Who), but it still made a point. Origin stories in mankind’s history have always been a little crazy anyway. Adam and Eve, talking snake, Eve coming from a rib joint; Adam being put together in piece-parts by 365 angels, with “others over the remaining passions…in the a book of Zoroaster.” The amazing thing, is that someone, anyone, would take either Genesis, or “The Secret Book of John”, as literal. I’d call them both entertainment for the times, to make a point about creation. Wouldn’t take Dr Who literally?

    • Michael Wilson

      James, I never thought of that story being about the Eucharist, but now that you mention it, it makes perfect sense. I had followed your sugestion that John 21 was the original ending to Mark. How ever I very much doubted that the diciples really thought or reported that they ate fish with Jesus while fishing. I wondered why the actual circumstance the disciples came to believe Jesus had risen was dropped and this fable invented instead. I thought part of the reason was to link the new phase of Jesus’ gospel to his initial calling of the disciples, but recalling that Jesus also broke bread it is possible that the message is that the disciple experienced the risen christ in the Eucharist. Clever and powerful story telling.

    • Chris Eyre

      I’ve read “Constructing Jesus” as well; he makes a good argument, but I’m not sure I buy it. However, the way I look at it is this: the accounts were clearly intended metaphorically whether or not they were also intended literally, and we can therefore read them metaphorically with a good conscience. In addition, as far as I can see the principal messages we glean are always the metaphorical ones, and thus it makes precious little difference to how we actually react whether or not they were also intended literally, or whether they were even accounts of fact.

  • Steve

    I don’t think they thought either literally or symbolically. They thought
    mythically, which transcends literal or symbolic modes of thinking.
    They would not have understood the distinction.

    • Anonymous Coward

      What does “transcend” mean here? I’m not speaking their language, I’m speaking my language, when I use terms like “symbolic” and “literal.” You’re speaking my (our) language, too, when you use the term “transcend.” But what exactly do you mean by it? It our language, does transcending the two mean to think in a way that is _both_ literal _and_ symbolic? Or neither? If the latter, what _does_ it mean?

      • Steve

        Dictionary definition. “Go beyond.”

        • Anonymous Coward

          Of course. I’m trying to ask for an elaboration. The last bit of my post contained some questions to help show what it is I found unclear or vague in your use of the term.

  • Robert C Deming

    I don’t take the Bible stories literally for one reason: they don’t match up with my experience and understanding of the world and how it works. To take the story of the great flood as literal is to miss the point of the story and deny the accumulated knowledge and intelligence we humans have. Instead of arguing inane points, lets do what Jesus said in Matthew 25:36.

  • John MacDonald

    This is interesting: It’s a debate that took place 2 days ago between Crossan and Licona on “Who Was The Historical Jesus?” See

  • jekylldoc

    It’s a point that can’t be made too often. However, I am beginning to realize that literalism was mixed in early on. I think there has been a tension between literalist skepticism, symbolic mythos, and literalist credulism going back to ancient pagan myths. It’s too cut and dried to claim that all the ancients knew symbolism like the back of their hand.

    • John MacDonald

      I like how Crossan sums up the essence of Christianity. He points to a son of god, savior of the world, Caesar. It is a choice between Peace through Victory with the Pax Romana, and Jesus’ vision of Peace through Justice.

      Crossan doesn’t cites this but it fits in nicely with Mark’s use of the word gospel: “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ the Son of God” closely matches the formula found on a monument erected by the Provincial Assembly in Asia Minor (1st century BCE): “Whereas… Providence… has… brought our life to the peak of perfection in giving us Augustus Caesar… who, being sent to us and to our descendants as a savior…, and whereas… the birthday of the god has been for the whole world the beginning of the gospel (euaggelion) concerning him, let all reckon a new era beginning from the date of his birth.”