From literal to literary: The essential reference book for Biblical metaphors

From Literal To Literary: The Essential Reference Book For Biblical Metaphors; by James Rowe Adams; Rising Star Press, Colorado, in association with the Center for Progressive Christianity; 352pp; 2005; $22.95; Reviewed by Patti Whaley.

A few years ago my mother, a lifelong Methodist, told me that she had asked in a Bible lesson whether it was necessary to believe in the Virgin Birth. Her pastor dismissed the question, telling her that “if she had sufficient faith”, such questions would not arise. When I listed several other people claiming to have been fathered by gods in the ancient world, she was astonished. It didn’t shake her faith in God, but it certainly made her look at her pastor with much more dubious eyes.

My mother is only one of the countless multitudes who need this book. Following on from his earlier books So you think you’re not religious? A thinking person’s guide to the church and So you can’t stand evangelism? A thinking person’s guide to church growth, Jim Adams continues his campaign to rescue religious thinking from those he calls the “metaphorically disabled”. Delving into the Greek, Aramaic and Hebrew roots for over 150 Biblical words, Adams aims to show that the Bible itself is heavily metaphorical. Within the time frame encompassed by the Biblical writers, words had already lost their literal meaning and were being used in a metaphorical sense; to interpret them literally is not just narrowminded – it’s un-Biblical.

Some of the metaphors Adams discusses should be obvious even to the most metaphorically challenged. The New Testament regularly refers to Jesus as the way, the vine, the light, the lamb, the shepherd, and countless other terms that were clearly not meant to be understood literally. The entries on “son of”, “son of David,” “son of God”, and “son of man” are less obvious. Read as a set, they suggest that phrases that were relatively widespread in use and general in meaning came to be applied specifically to Jesus, implying roles that were Messianic (“Son of David”), apocalyptic (“Son of Man”) and metaphysical (“Son of God”). Although it is not clear exactly when or how this occurred, it happened relatively quickly, sometime between the letters of Paul and the later books of the New Testament. Particularly problematic are those terms which had specific political intent during Jesus’ lifetime – particularly Son of David, King or Messiah (= the anointed one, or the Greek equivalent christos) – and the extent to which these may alarmed the local Roman rulers.

A number of terms show the extent to which one English word may replace several different Greek or Hebrew terms, obscuring the original variations in meaning. “Doubt”, for example, may be a translation of the Greek diakrino (to make distinctions, to judge), distazo (wavering, hesitating), dialogismos (discussions or debates) or apistos (to lack confidence). Similarly, a single Greek or Hebrew word may be translated in many different ways, suggesting differences in the translator’s mind that did not exist in the original. For example, blasphemy, which we use only in terms of defaming God or defaming a religion, comes from the Greek blasphemia, meaning to injure the reputation of another, or the more general Hebrew shalah, (“wrong”) or naqab (“curse”). When the Greek word blasphemia appears in the New Testament, it is variously translated as slander, derision, insults, evil, reviling, denouncing, abusing, discrediting, maligning or cursing. Only when it is in relation to God himself is it translated as “blasphemy”, thus creating through the act of translation a more specific meaning for the term, and a more specific type of sin, than that intended by the original writers.

For those of us steeped in Christian language from childhood, it is instructive to see how many terms did not originally have the specifically Christian meaning that we now associate with them. A number of words which we use with strong moral connotations were originally more simply descriptive (abominable, evil, good, myth, pagan); other words that were originally general in meaning are now used almost exclusively in the context of Christian theology (evangelise, baptise, liturgy, redemption, repent).

Although I found most entries interesting and useful, it isn’t always clear that they represent metaphors; some are simply interesting religious words. The entry for “behold”, for example, draws our attention to the loss of this lovely little attention-getter in the New Revised Standard Version. Its disappearance certainly makes the NRSV less eloquent than the King James Version, but it hardly constitutes a metaphor. The entries for “religion” and “shame” focus more on our use of the term today than on a comparison of literal and metaphorical meanings in the original texts. Although this doesn’t make the entries less interesting, it does raise a doubt about the underlying agenda of the book; if the intention is to demonstrate the extent to which the Bible is metaphorical, then including words that are not strictly metaphorical might suggest that the number of “real” metaphors is not as long as the Table of Contents might suggest.

Although this is a scholarly work, it is written for practical use. Entries are organised alphabetically, with cross-references to other entries. The original Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic terms are systematically transliterated, with a guide to pronunciation. Indexes cross-reference the English entries to the Bible verses where they appear, and to the original Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic terms. Priests trying to pull sermon-worthy ideas from the drier passages of Deuteronomy, the purpler parts of Revelations or the over-worn letters of Paul will find the book a treasure-trove of knowledge and ideas; while lay-people, told to “have more faith”, can research for themselves what that faith really requires. Adams even explains exactly which source texts and computer programmes he has used and how to set them up for easy cross-reference, with the intention that “biblical metaphors [should be] a game that anybody can play.” In this era where the question of whether homosexuality is an “abomination” threatens to split the Anglican communion, let’s hope that more people join in the game.

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