A Reflection: Marcus Borg on Metaphor in the New Testament

In a “Two Views” sort of book titled The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions, N.T. Wright and Marcus Borg alternate with dueling essays on several areas of Christian History. The first section—“How Do We Know About Jesus?”—is a quick debate between Borg and Wright on historical methodology and the interaction of faith with that methodology. Both make frequent use of the concepts of “The Jesus of Faith” and “The Jesus of History,” that is, the Jesus whom the Christian religion portrays and He whom actually existed. For Wright, these two are, at their core, identical, while for Borg, they are significantly different. I, however, am not interested in commenting on either of those positions, but understanding that terminology will be necessary for what I am interested in doing over the next few reflections I post. Here, my interest lies in the discussion of historical methodology that each of them lay out, and of the two the more interesting will be Borg’s (though I agree with Wright almost totally in his approach to historical reconstruction). Particularly, I want to investigate Borg’s divide of “literal” and “non-literal” language.

(1) Borg on Method and Non-Literal Language

At the heart of Borg’s historical method, a differentiation between metaphorical language/statements and “literal” language/statements is made. Borg believes that there are many cases of New Testament statements where, if taken to be a “straightforward” utterance with straightforward propositional content, the real meaning of the statement would be lost (e.g. “Jesus is the light of the world.”). And with this I, and everyone else, other than perhaps some very strange folks, would agree.

But what exactly does this mean? What really is the difference between metaphorical and literal statements? It seems to be a common division, both in the world of laity and scholars, but little clarity seems to be given within much of the textual criticism I have read (though perhaps I am reading the wrong textual critics). Borg describes the use of metaphor as a way to “see x through y” (seeing Jesus through/as a light), but nothing more is said. And clearly much more could be said, since metaphor is only one of many forms of “non-literal” language. So, in one sense, “metaphor” for Borg seems to just mean “everything non-literal,” while at the same time denoting one form of non-literal language where you “see x through y.” Clarity, please. And since none is offered, I will make the division: literal and non-literal language, with a form of the non-literal being metaphorical.

I myself am tempted to see metaphors (whether it be through a narrative or a straight-metaphor) as capable of reduction (without loss of meaning) to a straightforward predication, where some attributes that belong to y (the light) are predicated of x (Jesus) through an imaginative (i.e. imagistic) mental process, or something roughly like that. If that is correct, metaphors are just predications, and so would have propositional content and be either true or false. But Borg, at face value, at least, seems to resist this, though not directly: he wants to avoid “reducing truth to factuality,” as the western, post-enlightenment culture is apt to do, for he considers the intellectual values of our western culture “a relative cultural construction” (on my Kindle edition, these ideas are found from Loc.270-284). So, what is the meaning of a metaphor in light of these comments? Does it make a claim about reality? What about non-literal language in general?

(2) Metaphor and Non-Literal Language as Non-Historical

If “reducing truth to factuality” can shed any light on Borgs view, my best guess would be that he takes metaphorical and non-literal truths as being independent of historical “facts,” that is, their truth is not reliant on or reducible to historical facts. The vocabulary, however, is unfortunate at least: truth is, by its very nature, factuality. So Borg has uttered non-sense, and with my interpretation of him I am trying to be charitable.

Back to the task at hand: metaphorical language, and perhaps all non-literal language, in Borg’s estimation, is independent of historical facts (true propositions regarding past occurrences), yet still makes claims which may be true (and so also may be false). He gives an example: even if Jesus didn’t restore sight to some blind man at past time t, it would still be true that He restored sight to the blind.

An objection forces itself into my mind, here—metaphors such as “Jesus restored sight to the blind” do rely on historical fact. I take that claim to mean something like “Jesus helped mankind to see the error of their ways, or the truth that they could not see.” And surely this is not independent of all historical facts, for if Jesus never existed, we could not call the metaphor true (unless we see “Jesus” as referring to a mere literary construction, which the NT authors did not do, and so that could not be the metaphor’s meaning). So, this simple division and unwinding of metaphor (and perhaps other forms of non-literal language) and historical fact is mistaken: some metaphors’ truth-values do rely on historical claims.

(3) Metaphor and History

If I have been right so far—that metaphors, whether they be through narratives or single statements, can be reduced to some sort of predication (or even if they can just be reduced to some proposition), and are thus true or false—then obviously a metaphor being true relies on some state of affairs in the world. And certain metaphors rely on past states of affairs and propositions that represent them (historical propositions and facts). I am not sure if Borg would agree with me at this point, given his previous sentiments, but at this point I don’t care: I have gone beyond Borg and have begun to develop my own questions. Obvious questions are “what does the New Testament claim?” and “which of these claims are true?” To answer the latter question, we’ll have to be able to answer the former, and to do so, we’ll have to answer “what do the metaphorical and non-literal claims of the New Testament mean?” Since we have already supposed that metaphorical claims reduce to predications or at least to\o statements of propositions, and are thus true or false, we can then ask, “are those metaphorical claims are true?” Finally, in order to get to the bottom of this, finally, we must see what the truth-conditions for those claims are: “which metaphorical claims rely on historical facts, which facts do they rely on, and how so?”

To end this surprisingly long reflection, I’ve basically come to hold a view that the New Testament, when not communicating propositions in straightforward ways (I use this as an intuitive category, including historical-reporting and blunt metaphysical claims), communicates them through metaphor and other non-literal forms of language. And when the authors do so, a certain formula will be followed:

(1) Stories will be told, with metaphorical content. –> (2) A metaphorical claim will be communicated through the story. –> (3) The content of the metaphorical claim—an ordinary proposition–will be tacitly expressed through the metaphorical claim.

Now, it seems to me to be at least conceivable that the truth of some propositions of type (3) are conditional upon the story in (1) having some historical basis—that is, it seems the truth of (3) is affected by the historical status of (1). And so ultimately I see that at least some of the claims—even the metaphorical claims—made in the New Testament rely on the stories which communicate them having historically-accurate content.

(4) Closing Thoughts on Borg

At the end of writing this, it strikes me that, while I’m not positive, Borg seems to disagree with what I have written. For he writes that “independently of their historical factuality, the stories of the canonical Jesus can function in our lives as powerfully true metaphorical narratives, shaping Christian vision and identity” (loc. 346). All in all, I want to challenge this notion: I, for the sake of argument, concede that some of the New Testament or Biblical narratives express metaphorical claims which reduce to propositions not relying on those narratives being historical reports, having any historic element, or even any particular historical facts being true, (like the “moral” of Job, which seems to be a necessary truth, and so true regardless of past events). But I have great difficulty expanding this to the narratives about Jesus, such as those surrounding the resurrection. And that is not to say that every narrative must be entirely historic, but merely that it has to have some significant historical core.

What is that “historical core?” How much of the passion story needs to be historic for the claims it communicates to be true? More clarity is needed, and I must do some textual digging. I’ve also been left wondering what an “ordinary” or “straightforward” proposition is, and what separates it from a metaphorical statement—like an old biology professor once remarked to me, isn’t all language metaphorical?” Maybe it is, but for now this is all I have: to go any deeper at the moment would lead to madness. And so, I can only offer up this very general and more philosophical dismissal of Borg’s views (whatever they turn out to be).

Closing Questions:

  1. What are the claims of the New Testament?
  2. Which of those claims are true or false?
  3. Which claims of the New Testament are communicated via metaphor or non-literal language?
  4. What stories of the New Testament need be historical in order for the claims they communicate to be true?
  5. In what way do the stories in (5) need to be historic?
  6. What is the nature of non-literal language?
  7. Can the Christian religion be true is it has no historical basis?
  8. What historical propositions need be true for Christian to be true?

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