Yesterday, the Daily Telegraph ran an article about the discovery of 4th century Latin commentary on the gospels. The approach of Fortunatianus of Aquileia was allegorical rather than literary, and the suggestion was that this might something that modern readers could learn from. The article’s title: ‘Don’t take the Bible literally’ says scholar who brought to light earliest Latin analysis of the Gospels. The implication seems to be that the gospels would be a bit easier to handle if we read them as allegory rather than history.
I’m not a professional biblical scholar, nor am I an expert in journalism, but it seems a few comments are in order:
- From a journalistic point of view, it might have been a good idea to have invited comment from a scholar or two who might have offered a different perspective. For example, someone who could have explained why not everyone thinks an allegorical approach is necessarily the best approach.
- The article referred to the idea that ‘the Bible had to be “understood in the context that the authors were working in.”‘ Fair enough, but it wasn’t written in the 4th century!
- What, exactly is meant by reading the Bible literally? The article talked about ‘the trend of biblical literalism adopted by modern evangelical and fundamentalist Christians, which interprets the Bible as the literal word of God which is not open to interpretation’. Much more nuance is needed here. I doubt there are any evangelicals who take references to trees clapping their hands as ‘literal’! Of course there are evangelical Christians who believe that the Bible has to be interpreted.
- There are allegorical aspects to the Bible: think of Paul’s discussion of Hagar (though there is no requirement to say that it is either allegorical or literal). But care is needed. One of the classic (and most fanciful) examples of an allegorical approach relates to the story of the Good Samaritan. By the time you have figured out what the two coins mean and who the innkeeper is, you run the risk of missing the whole point of the story!
- Surely it’s more important to take account of the gospel writers’ own view of what they were trying to write rather than put so much weight on the views of people writing a few hundred years later. Frankly, it’s hard to believe that Luke thought he was writing anything less than an account of what actually happened.
- Christianity’s claims are founded in space and time. At its core is the belief that Christ died and was raised again. It matters that those events happened.