Metaphor, Hyperbole and Context


A moderate and self-styled ‘intellectual’ Christian told me in a online discussion recently that ‘most of the bible is metaphor’. When I asked what it was a metaphor for, he decided it was time to end the discussion. A metaphor signals a deeper or alternate meaning; the bible cannot be ‘mostly metaphor’ without there being something else – what Christians might regard as a ‘greater truth’ – the metaphor is intended to convey. So, yes, I can see that the Genesis creation stories might be interpreted metaphorically (though symbolically might be a better term) as the inclination of all humans to rebel against God… but then that’s only one of many interpretations, and not actually what the text says. If the bible is mostly metaphor then understanding what God is supposedly communicating through it becomes a matter of personal, subjective interpretation, which is why there are so many factions and sects within the Christian brand.

Similarly, when I challenged Dave Armstrong on Biblical Evidence for Catholicism, about why Christians don’t take everything Jesus said literally, he told me it’s because Jesus was fond of hyperbole and it’s the point underlining his hyperbole that matters. I knew, of course, that Jesus liked to exaggerate so I asked Dave how we know which of Jesus’ remarks are hyperbole and which are not. He declared that this was ‘obvious’. Perhaps it is, in sayings like ‘when your eye offends you pluck it out’, but it’s less apparent with pronouncements like ‘sell all you have and give to the poor’ or ‘abandon everything and follow me’. Again, it becomes a matter of subjective opinion, however learned that opinion might consider itself to be, about which of Jesus’ words are hyperbole and which are meant to be followed to the letter.

When I made this point, Dave decided that, rather than it being ‘obvious’, it actually takes years of study to know which is which: ‘It’s by studying Bible commentaries and linguistic aids, and the rules of hermeneutics and exegesis (Bible interpretation).’ Jesus as the incarnation of the God of the Cosmos, and the gospels in reporting him, could surely have made it clear. Instead, it seems, it takes armies of theologians and commentators, and years of study to work it out.

The third way Christians (of all stripes) manoeuvre around the bible’s shortcomings is to say that anything they’re keen to disregard is ‘context-bound’. There are some matters, they say, that are of their time and ancient place and are therefore no longer applicable today.

There are things in God’s timeless Word that pertain only to the time in when they were written? Who knew?

So, instructions like ‘greet each other with a holy kiss’ (which Paul advocates four times in his letters: Romans 16:16, 1 Corinthians 16:20, 2 Corinthians 13:12, and 1 Thessalonians 5:26); ‘women should always have their heads covered in church’ (1 Corinthians 11:2-16) and ‘heal the sick by anointing with oil’ (James 5:14) are now generally considered to be context-bound. This, however, creates the same problem that arose over Jesus’ hyperbole. How do we know which of the bible’s pronouncements are context-bound and which are still of significance today? Answer: we don’t.

It could be argued that, just as ‘greet each other with a holy kiss’ is a custom anchored in the first century, beliefs like

the world is populated by demons,

humans are capable of living forever,


incantations (that Jesus is the Saviour) work

are equally context-bound. We know categorically in the 21st century, that demons don’t exist, humans cannot live forever and magic spells don’t work. Only those in a pre-scientific age, dominated by superstition, thought so (together with those today who buy into these same ancient beliefs.)

Once believers start claiming – and it’s Christians themselves who do this – that significant parts of the bible are metaphor, hyperbole or are context-bound, then they’re acknowledging that the bible frequently makes little sense, and that significant portions  lend themselves to whatever interpretation suits the individual reader. Some parts can even be dismissed altogether, which is precisely what Christians do with them (how many Christians do you know who believe they can move mountains or heal the sick by laying on of hands?) What this shows is that they don’t really believe the bible is God’s Word, either in the literal, evangelical sense, nor in a moderate, quasi-intellectual way.

In practice, even to most Christians, the bible is a book of no particular merit.

How to argue like a Christian


If you’ve ever tried discussing matters of faith with a True Believer™, you’ll know how difficult it can be; like wrestling with a jellyfish – and just about as poisonous.

So here’s a guide for the unwary; 10 of their favourite lines (5 this time, 5 next), all of which I’ve experienced more times than I care to remember.

“You don’t know your Bible!”

Point out that Jesus’ ‘good news’ was nothing like Paul’s or that they were both wrong about the Kingdom arriving in the first century and this old canard gets trotted out. Even if you quote chapter and verse, a clear indication you do know the Bible, they still produce it. What they mean is ‘how dare you quote the bits of the Bible we true believers don’t like and prefer not to acknowledge.’

“You’re quoting out of context.”

I’ve posted about this one before. Seemingly as a sceptic you have no discernment when it comes to selecting Bible verses. How ever many you reference – one or a hundred – they will tell you it’s not enough; that you’ve not, somehow, caught the true meaning of what the Bible is saying, which is, naturally, what they say it means. Unsurprisingly. quoting isolated verses is something the Righteous themselves like to do all the time…

“The bible says…”

It doesn’t matter what point you make, this will appear somewhere in the Christian’s response, followed, of course, by some random verse from the book in question. Christians seem to regard it as the ultimate clincher, the way to silence any opponent, as if quoting the bible to those who recognise neither its credibility nor its authority persuades anyone of anything.

“You’ve no right to criticise Christianity when you can’t ‘prove’ how something came from nothing/how life arose/evolution.”

It’s unlikely anyone can explain these biggies in 140 characters or a Facebook comment, but we can direct those issuing the challenge to scientific works that offer viable theories soundly based on the evidence available. Needless to say our Christian smart-Alec is unlikely to read them, claiming instead that one’s inability to comprehensively explain the Big Bang or evolution ‘proves’ it must have been – watch the sleight of hand here – YHWH.

“‘People like you’ only want to wallow in your own sin (which is why you won’t let me have my own way).”

Now I like to wallow as much as the next man, but outside the Christian bubble, ‘sin’ is a fairly meaningless concept, designed only to induce guilt in others. Which means the point of this unpleasant finger pointing is to side-step any discussion and to dismiss whatever point you might want to make. What this retort really means is ‘you have an ulterior motive for saying what you’re saying and, in any case, your inherently evil nature doesn’t entitle you to have an opinion.’

More next time…

Con Texting

Cross2Pastor Chris Linzey didn’t like my previous post. He attacked its shoddy journalism(?), complained I exercised faulty hermeneutics and was upset I quoted bits of the Bible ‘out of context’. What he didn’t do, of course, was address the point made in the post, that Christians are selective about the parts of the New Testament they’ll accept, nor did he answer my question about how they decide which commands to follow and which not. Ironic, really, for someone whose blog has the strap line ‘Turning the Bible into Behavior’.

Christians are inherently dishonest about which parts of the supposed ‘Word of God’ – the New Testament specifically – they’ll acknowledge, believe and apply to their own lives. They mask this dishonesty, from themselves as much as anyone else, with a sleight of hand they mistake for hermeneutics (more on this in two post’s time) and by wilfully misinterpreting those who draw attention to their inconsistency. Pastor Chris didn’t seem to understand the fairly simple points I made in ‘Pick and Mix’ so came up with a couple of avoidance strategies. First, he took a swipe or two at my writing style (fair enough, though no-one was compelling him to read it) before, secondly, setting up strawman arguments to attack. They certainly weren’t my arguments he was tilting his lance at, that’s for sure. I guess this is what Christians mean by putting on the armour of God; you gotta deflect criticism by whatever means possible.

I’d like here to address though, Chris’s claim that I was quoting the Bible ‘out of context’. I have to say I find this one of the most unconvincing rejoinders – it hardly qualifies as an argument – that Christians offer in defence of their beliefs, right up there with ‘you wouldn’t dare say this about Islam’.

A quotation from any source, not just the Bible, is necessarily out of context no matter how much of it one uses. There is no way round this, even if one resorts to quoting extensive amounts of material, which I do when the meaning isn’t apparent from a short quotation, like here, for example. Nonetheless, a lengthy quotation is still decontextualised, from its letter or gospel as well as from the original time, place and culture in which it was written. In addition, while long quotations might be appropriate for longer academic papers (I have some experience of these and even there, great chunks are rarely necessary) they’re not always suitable for short, pithy blog posts.

In any case, the objection really only has validity if quoting ‘out of context’ somehow distorts the meaning. If it doesn’t, if the meaning is apparent from the lines referenced, then quoting more isn’t necessary. Readers who have any doubts can always check the source material for themselves – I always provide chapter and verse – to gain a sense of the wider context for themselves. Remarkably, the verses I cite invariably turn out to have the same meaning in their greater context as they do when quoted in isolation. The Christian objection to them being ‘out of context’ is usually nothing more than a smoke screen to avoid addressing the point being made.

What of Christians themselves? Do they ever take ‘scripture’ out of context? Oh my, yes, and they’ve been doing it from the very beginning. The gospel writers, particularly Matthew, wrenched snippets from the ‘Old Testament’ to make ‘fulfilled’ prophecy out of verses that weren’t prophecy to begin with, and, as we’ll see next time, Jesus too lifted lines from their original context to allow him to make theological points.

Nor are Christian bloggers and apologists today averse to doing the same. Then there are those devotional posters with a single, ‘comforting’ verse of scripture on them (like the one I used to have that said, ‘Heaven and earth will pass away but my words will never pass away’); the placards that surround street preachers with ‘For God so loved the world he gave his only begotten Son’ and ‘Ye must be born again’; the banners at marches and parades that declare ‘Repent or Perish’ or ‘Christ died for the Ungodly’. Each and every one out of context. I suppose if the original sense is more or less preserved then these might be seen as legitimate (if not entirely useless) but evidently taking scripture ‘out of context’ is something Christians are allowed do but others shouldn’t. Yet another case of do as I say, not as I do.

Next time, we’ll take a closer look at how believers ease their cognitive dissonance – between what the Bible says they should believe and do and what they actually believe and do – by disregarding context when it suits them.