Does a metaphorical Jesus follow from a metaphorical Adam?

January 23, 2012 § 2 Comments


Painting from Manafi al-Hayawan (The Useful An...

Someone recently asked me whether nothing stops us from seeing Jesus as a metaphor when we embrace a metaphorical understanding of Adam and Eve. This is a valid question. A typical case of the slippery slope. I have been there too and in certain ways will always remain at a place of ambiguity toward the true meaning of the text and the consequences resulting from the interpretative decisions we make. But it is not true that a metaphorical Adam results in a metaphorical Jesus.

Ever since the Enlightenment there have been many approaches to Jesus some of which indeed interpreted him more metaphorically than historically. German idealism took Jesus to be a decisive synthetical moment in the self-realization of the divine Idea through human finitude. Similarly, liberal theology has seen Jesus either as the exemplar of ultimate dependency on God or the moral example for humanity to follow. All these approaches detach the concept of Christ in varying degrees from the historical Jesus.
Key to the particular question about Adam, Eve and Jesus is a proper hermeneutics that emphasizes the importance of authorial intent. If we can establish what in all probability the author intended to convey, we might have a clue as to the metaphorical nature of the characters described in a particular narrative. A literal interpretation, mainstay of much of evangelicalism, certainly is not primarily interested in the intention of the author. It merely looks at the text and assumes that what is written is to be taken to be factually the case one-on-one. The literal method assumes this is a literal method, but subconsciously imposes a mental grid upon the text that often turns out to be foreign to it. It is better therefore to call is literalism. The human author and the cultural context are taken from the equation and the text is seen as a flattened piece of revelation descended from above.
For instance, Genesis 1 is always understood by literalists to mean that the earth was created in six literal days. Much ink has been spilled back and forth on this issue. One writer came up with a fantastic insight derived from a proper investigation as to the real authorial intent behind the text. Comparisons with other similar texts of the Ancient Near East (ANE) and a thorough understanding of the worldview of people who lived during the time when this piece may have been written, led this theologian, John H. Walton, to suggest that Genesis 1 is not at all about the literal material coming into being (from nothing) of the objects described. Rather, as he suggests in his book ‘The Lost World of Genesis One,’ the original author of this piece of literature had ‘functional ontology’ in mind. For the ANE worldview, things only exist when God ascribes function to them, i.e. when the world is ordered well. This is what happens in Gen 1. It looks a lot like an ancient temple text where the divine being orders the cosmos as a temple for himself to dwell (rest) in. This has little or nothing to do with six literal days as literalists think, but everything with the intention of the ancient author.
Similarly, when we look at Gen 2/3 in combination with the entire Pentateuch (i.e. the 5 books of Moses) there emerges an interesting structure:
A – Gen 2: Idyllic situation in the garden / unity with God / obedience to God
B – Gen 3: Disobedience, Adam and Eve receive curse and are expelled
C – Gen 3:15 Promise of salvation
D – Gen 4-11 Further degeneration of the human race / no unity with God
C’ – Gen 12:1-3 Election of Abraham for the salvation of the entire human race
B’ – Ex 19-20 Obedience and law at Sinai, Israel is blessed
A’ – Deut: Israel as representative of the human race about to re-enter the garden (i.e. the promised land)
I am not sure (since I am not a biblical scholar) whether this chiastic structure is correct, but something like this is going on. So, when we look at the authorial intent we can say that the primary function of Adam and Eve (as well as Israel) is to function as (metaphorical) representative of the human race. It is not clear whether the author understood Adam and Eve to have been literal people. Maybe the author used one of the mythical narratives around and integrated it in his own narrative in order to get his point across about the purpose and meaning of the human race and the role people of Israel. They were to be instruments toward restoration of what had gone wrong with the human race. The text leaves the actual existence of Adam and Eve open for interpretation. We do not know, whether they were real people; we cannot ask much more of the text. Even so, a literal interpretation is legitimate, but it will always be subject to the representative function Adam and Eve have in the story.
Lastly, when we turn to the New Testament, we look at the narratives concerning Jesus. Even a cursory glance at the text makes clear that the authorial intent is to convey that Jesus was a real person. He is the one they had seen with their own eyes, whom they lived and walked with, who were witnesses of his resurrection and lived in the hope of his return. There can be no doubt that Jesus was a real person and that, according to the gospel writers, he is seen as the one who reconciles people with God. Any decision to interpret Jesus as metaphorical will always be informed by theological, philosophical, or historical concerns. Many in the liberal camp have given up on a literally divine Jesus who performed miracles, died and rose from the dead, and is seated at God’s right hand. They find it unbelievable that such a Jesus could actually be the case.
As you can see a literal hermeneutic is not necessarily biblical. A proper hermeneutic looks at authorial intent and a bunch of other things. And even then, we simply have to admit that we cannot know everything. Evangelical theology is usually not very happy with uncertainty but when we engage these matter academically, a certain degree of ambiguity is unavoidable. We simply have to live with that. Yet, a metaphorical Adam and Eve do not automatically lead to a metaphorical Jesus. Far from it!
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