Fishers of Persons

Now as He was walking along the Sea of Galilee, Jesus saw two brothers—Simon (the one called Peter) and his brother Andrew—casting nets into the lake, for they were fishers. And He said to them, “Come follow Me, and I will make you fishers of persons1” (Matthew 4:18-19).

Our subject verses, Matthew 4:18-19, along with the parallels Mark 1:16-17 and Luke 5:1-11 (cf. John 1:35-42), are among the number of New Testament (NT) references to fishing. Most Christians (and non-Christians) in the West are aware of the fish symbol used to signify Christianity. Nowadays it can be found on cars, various kinds of jewelry, etc. But what does the “Jesus fish”, the ichthys (or ichthus) symbolize exactly? Why and when was it first used?

fish_plain

credit: Wikimedia Commons

Possible OT and Jewish Background

While Jesus may have seized the opportunity to use the “fishers of persons” comparison simply because Simon Peter and Andrew were fishermen, it seems probable that this metaphor was also chosen to counter contemporary negative Jewish fishing metaphors. If so, the effect would have been to contrast those metaphors of God’s judgment with these fishers who will “pluck human beings out of the net of Satan and transfer them securely into the net of God”2 (cf. Matthew 13:47-48).

The Old Testament (OT) provides a number of metaphorical references to fishing, the majority relating to judgment:

  • The LORD (YHWH) sending ‘fishermen’ to catch the wicked Israelites (Jeremiah 16:16)
  • YHWH using the Babylonians to capture wayward Israel by ‘hook’ and ‘net’ (Hab. 1:14-15)
  • God threatening to take away the unrighteous of Israel via ‘fishhook’ (Amos 4:2)
  • YHWH equating Pharaoh and his people to fish who will be hooked (Ezek. 29:3-5; cf. 38:4)
  • Various peoples being caught by ‘fishnet’, symbolizing God’s judgment (Ps. 66:11; Ezek. 32:3).

Closer to the time of Christ, the Qumran community, via the Dead Sea Scrolls, provided commentary (pesher) on Isaiah 24:17, illustrating how YHWH judges the disobedient by sending Belial (Satan) to ensnare them:

Belial will be sent against Israel, as God has said by means of the prophet Isaiah, son of Amoz, saying: ‘Panic, pit and net against you earth-dwellers’. Its explanation: They are Belial’s three nets about which Levi, son of Jacob spoke, in which he catches Israel and makes them appear before them like three types of justice. The first is fornication; the second, wealth; the third, defilement of the Temple. He who eludes one is caught in another and he who is freed from that is caught in another (Damascus Document [CD IV:13-19]).3

Yet, amidst all the negative fishing imagery in the OT, Ezekiel 47:9-10 speaks of a new Temple (cf. Rev. 22:1-5), one with a river which will provide abundant life to fish (and all other creatures, vegetation, and trees receiving sustenance from it—Ezek. 47:11-12):

9 And it will come to be that every living creature that swarms wherever the river flows will live; and there will be a great multitude of fish, because this water will flow there, healing the seawater—making it freshwater. Everything will live where this water flows. 10 And it will come to be that fishers will stand on its banks: from En Gedi to En Eglaim there will be places to spread the nets. There will be many species of fish, just like the fish of the Mediterranean Sea—a multitude of many kinds of fish.

Jesus of Nazareth, the Jewish Messiah, came “to preach the good news to the poor…to proclaim freedom to the captives, renewed sight for the blind, and to relieve the oppressed” (Luke 4:18), in fulfillment of Isaiah 61:1!

NT usage of ICHTHYS, Fish

The Greek word for “fish” is ιχθυς, which is transliterated—exchanging each Greek letter for corresponding English letters—ichthys or ichthus. The Greek letters in the previous sentence are in miniscule minuscule, like our lower case letters. In majuscule, akin to our capital letters, the word is ΙΧΘΥΣ—as in the figure below—or, transliterated, ICHTHYS. The earliest Greek NT manuscripts are in majuscule; the miniscule would develop later. ΙΧΘΥΣ is found twenty times in the NT. (The word for “fisher” is the unrelated ἁλιεύς, halieus.)

Since the English transliteration has seven characters to the Greek five, further explanation seems necessary. The second and third Greek letters are digraphs in English—two letters representing one sound—whereas they are indicated by one symbol in the Greek. Here are the Greek-to-English correlations:

I, ι (iota) = I, i
X, χ (chi) = CH, ch
Θ,θ (theta) = TH, th
Υ, υ (upsilon) = Y, u/y
Σ/C, σ/ς (sigma) = S, s

fish_ichthus

credit: Wikimedia Commons

While Mark 1:16-17 is nearly identical to our subject verses Matthew 4:18-19, the good doctor Luke expands the incident considerably. Luke’s Gospel records the first great catch of fish, chronologically, in the NT (Luke 5:1-10). Simon Peter, after fishing all night and coming up empty, is instructed by Jesus to go back out into the deep water. After expressing a bit of reluctance initially, Simon relents, catching so many fish that he needed another boat to help retrieve them all!

Apparently feeling ashamed for his lack of faith, Peter fell at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Away from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord!” Sensing the feelings of awe within Peter, Andrew, James, and John, Jesus tells them to not be afraid, for they were now to catch people. Certainly, this first great catch of fish must be symbolically linked to their future great catches as “fishers of persons”.

The remaining NT passages containing ΙΧΘΥΣ are:

  • “…if he asks for a fish, will you give him a snake?” (Matthew 7:10; Luke 11:11)
  • The miraculous feeding of the five thousand (Matthew 14:13-22; Mark 6:32-44; Luke 9:10-17; John 6:1-13
  • The miraculous feeding of the four thousand (Matthew 15:32-29; Mark 8:1-10)
  • Paying the “Temple tax”, via the first fish Peter was to catch, in which would be a silver coin (statēr) worth four drachmae (Matthew 17:27)
  • The broiled fish that was given to the risen Jesus (Luke 24:42)
  • The account of the risen Jesus instructing the disciples to again throw out their net, a near recapitulation of the first great haul of fish, excepting their lack of hesitation this time (John 21:6-14)
  • The Apostle Paul comparing the flesh of humans with the different flesh of animals, birds, and fish as he discusses the new spiritual body (1 Corinthians 15:39)

There is one more Scripture relevant here—though it does not contain ichthys, it does contain the Greek word for “dragnet”. It is the Parable of the Net (Matthew 13:47-50), which is a mixture of the negative OT judgment metaphor and a different take on the NT ‘fishers of persons’ analogy, in the form of eschatological (end times) judgment/salvation (cf. Matthew 13:30, 40-42; Revelation 14:14-20)

Use of ΙΧΘΥΣ in early Christianity

In the first century AD, many Christian converts met in private homes.4 After the Christian faith gained wider acceptance, buildings were erected specifically for worship.5 These early places of worship were unadorned and plain, for Christians were concerned about possibly falling prey to idolatry.6

In these early days, one would not find drawings or sculptures of Christ; however, eventually, symbols representing our Lord and our faith would be made.7 Rather than fashioning a likeness of Jesus’ human form, “they made a figure of a shepherd carrying a lamb on his shoulders, to signify the Good Shepherd who gave his life for his sheep”8 (John 10:11). The Messiah was also represented symbolically as a lamb.9 Other Christian symbols used were: a dove to represent the Holy Spirit; a ship, to signify the Church, the ark of salvation, sailing towards heaven; a lyre, to represent joy; an anchor, to symbolize hope; and, “a fish, which was meant to remind them of their having been born again in the water at their baptism”.10

These symbols began to be used on everyday items at home, such as lamps, vases, rings, bowls, wall-hangings and the like.11 Fish symbols were also found in the Roman catacombs in pictures with bread and wine—in some the fish is swimming in the water with a plate of bread and a cup of wine on its back, evidently alluding to the Last Supper or Eucharist.12 The oldest known ΙΧΘΥΣ-monument, the Cœmeterium Domitillae (cemetery of Flavia Domitilla) in the catacombs, is dated perhaps as early as the late first century, to the middle of the second.13 This one depicts three persons with three loaves of bread and one fish,14 a likely reference to the miraculous feedings.

It is unknown when, but someone ingeniously invented an acrostic (backronym) based on the letters of ΙΧΘΥΣ: ΙΗΣΟΥΣ ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ ΘΕΟΥ ΥΙΟΣ ΣΩΤΗΡ (IĒSOUS CHRISTOS THEOU YIOS SŌTĒR), which translates to JESUS CHRIST, GOD’S SON, SAVIOR.

ΙHΣΟΥΣ  = IĒSOUS = JESUS
ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ = CHRISTOS = CHRIST
ΘΕΟY = THEOU = GOD’S
ΥΙΟΣ = YIOS = SON
ΣΩΤΗΡ = SŌTĒR = SAVIOR

fish_table

Legend has it that during the early stages of Christianity and its attendant persecution, a Christ-follower, upon meeting someone whom they thought could be a fellow Christian, would seemingly nonchalantly draw one arc of the ΙΧΘΥΣ in the sand.

fishhalf

One arc of ΙΧΘΥΣ

 

If the other individual responded by drawing the intersecting arc, thereby completing the fish symbol, they would each know the other was a fellow sojourner in the faith.

fishhalf2

Completed ΙΧΘΥΣ

 

Conversely, if the other individual was not a Christ-follower, the gesture would be viewed as mere doodling and not reveal the faith-belief of the original drawer.15

According to Schaff, the ICHTHYS was the symbol most used.16 “It was the double symbol of the Redeemer and the redeemed”.17 Tertullian (ca. 155-225 AD), in his De Baptismo (On Baptism), makes this connection explicitly:

Happy is our sacrament of water, in that, by washing away the sins of our early blindness, we are set free and admitted into eternal life! A treatise on this matter will not be superfluous; instructing not only such as are just becoming formed (in the faith), but them who, content with having simply believed, without full examination of the grounds of the traditions, carry (in mind), through ignorance, an untried though probable faith…But we, little fishes (pisciculi [ED: Latin]), after the example of our ΙΧΘΥΣ Jesus Christ, are born in water, nor have we safety in any other way than by permanently abiding in water…18

In the following, Clement of Alexandria (ca. 150—215 AD) instructs fellow believers to steer away from idols, as he delineates these from the symbols described earlier. Note that he alludes to the ‘fishers of persons’ analogy:

And let our seals be either a dove, or a fish, or a ship scudding before the wind, or a musical lyre, which Polycrates used, or a ship’s anchor, which Seleucus got engraved as a device; and if there be one fishing, he will remember the apostle, and the children drawn out of the water. For we are not to delineate the faces of idols, we who are prohibited to cleave to them; nor a sword, nor a bow, following as we do, peace; nor drinking-cups, being temperate.19

In a somewhat convoluted mixing of metaphors linguistic devices, Origen (ca. 185-254) takes the miracle of the fish with the coin to pay the Temple tax and turns this into an allegory of Peter as fisher of persons:

As then, having the form of that slave, He pays toll and tribute not different from that which was paid by His disciple; for the same statēr sufficed, even the one coin which was paid for Jesus and His disciple. But this coin was not in the house of Jesus, but it was in the sea, and in the mouth of a fish of the sea which, in my judgment, was benefited when it came up and was caught in the net of Peter, who became a fisher of men, in which net was that which is figuratively called a fish, in order also that the coin with the image of Caesar might be taken from it, and that it might take its place among those which were caught by them who have learned to become fishers of men…20

The following comes from an early Christian novel (ca. 3rd to 4th century AD) Acts of Xanthippe, Polyxena, and Rebecca (part of what is known as New Testament Apocrypha). Note the reference to ‘fishers of persons’, and the possible allusion to the Parable of the Net (Matthew 13:47-52):

Thou hast sought me [Xanthippe], lowly one, having the sun of righteousness in my heart. Now the poison is stayed, when I have seen thy [Paul’s] precious face. Now he that troubled me is flown away, when thy most beautiful counsel has appeared to me. Now I shall be considered worthy of repentance, when I have received the seal of the preacher of the Lord. Before now I have deemed many happy who met with you, but I say boldly that from this time forth I myself shall be called happy by others, because I have touched thy hem, because I have received thy prayers, because I have enjoyed thy sweet and honeyed teaching. Thou hast not hesitated to come to us, thou that fishest the dry land in thy course, and gatherest the fish that fall in thy way into the net of the kingdom of heaven.21

Below is an ΙΧΘΥΣ inscription found in Ephesus (modern-day Turkey). Note the 8-spoked wheel. This is made by taking the letters, one at a time, superimposing each one over the other(s). The top and bottom of the iota must be suitably curved in order to fashion the wheel.

fish_ephesus

Early Christian inscription with the Greek letters “ΙΧΘΥΣ” carved into marble in the ruins of the ancient Greek city of Ephesus at Turkey

 

In the Sibylline Oracles, Book 8, verses 284-330 (Greek text 217-250)–dated ca. 3rd to 5th century AD–an acrostic is formed from the first letter of the first word in each line, resulting in (in English): JESUS CHRIST, GOD’S SON, SAVIOR, CROSS (ΙΗΣΟΥΣ ΧΡΙΕΣΤΟΣ ΘΕΟΥ ΥΙΟΣ ΣΩΤΗΡ ΣΤΑΥΡΟΣ [IĒSOUS CHRIESTOS THEOU YIOS SŌTĒR STAUROS]). Similarly, Augustine, in his de Civitate Dei (xviii, 123) forms an acrostic in the same manner, but without “Cross”—spelling out the ΙΧΘΥΣ (ΙΗΣΟΥΣ ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ ΘΕΟΥ ΥΙΟΣ ΣΩΤΗΡ).

Evidence seems to indicate that the ΙΧΘΥΣ-symbol fell into disuse prior to the middle of the fourth century.22 It was apparently revived on or just before 1970, during the “Jesus movement”. The ICHTHUS is quite prevalent today, at least in the West.

—————————

1 “Persons” translates the Greek ἄνθρωπος (anthrōpos), here in the plural, the word from which we get anthropology, the study of humankind.  My translation “persons”, as opposed to “people”, goes against current norms, for the term is usually confined to formal or legal contexts, such as “missing persons” or “persons of interest”. However, this is precisely, why I chose the term! Who are we to ‘fish’ for? According to Paul’s list in First Corinthians 6:9-10, we are to fish for thieves, swindlers, adulterers (yes, adultery is still on the books as a crime in some states, and it is certainly contrary to Mosaic Law), slanderers, etc., aka “persons of interest”, until they are ‘convicted’. And these were among those converted in the 1st century. Yet, I do not wish to limit the meaning in such a manner, as this term is simply a lesser used plural of “person”. Thus, consider my usage here as a synonym to “people”, but with the added underlying sense of individuals with less-than-optimum character. And who—besides Jesus—does not fit that description anyway? In the sense that “there is none righteous, not even one” (Romans 3:12; cf. 3:20; Psalm 14:1-3), we are all “persons of interest”! All such persons need to be ‘caught’. Moreover, the Day of the Lord will only come when all “missing persons” are ‘found’ (2 Peter 3:8-10).

2 Joel Marcus, Mark 1–8, The Anchor Yale Bible (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1974), p 184.

3 Florentino Garci̒a Marti̒nez, The Dead Sea Scrolls Translated: The Qumran Texts in English, 2nd ed., transl. Wilfred G. E. Watson (Netherlands: Brill, Leiden/Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996), p 35. Cf. 1QH 3:26

4 James C. Robertson, Sketches of Church History: From A.D. 33 to the Reformation, Accordance electronic ed. (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1912), p 86; Larry W. Hurtado, Destroyer of the gods: Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World, (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2016), p 3.

5 Robertson, Sketches, p 86.

6 Ibid.; Philip Schaff, Apostolic Christianity, History of the Christian Church 1; Accordance electronic ed. 8 vols.; (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1910), paragraph 799  / (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2011), p 168; Philip Schaff, Ante-Nicene Christianity, History Of The Christian Church 2; Accordance electronic ed. 8 vols.; (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1910), paragraph 6357 / (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2011), p 267. Hereafter, references to Schaff will be dual credited as the Accordance paragraph / the Hendrickson page(s).

7 Robertson, Sketches, pp 86-87; Schaff, Ante-Nicene Christianity, para. 6358-91 / pp 267-68.

8 Robertson, Sketches, pp 86-87.

9 Schaff, Apostolic Christianity, para. 799  / p 168.

10 Robertson, Sketches, p 87.

11 Schaff, Ante-Nicene Christianity, para. 6358-59 / p 268; Cf. Schaff, Ante-Nicene Christianity, pp 267-281, 867-868; Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, eds., Fathers of the Second Century: Hermas, Tatian, Athenagoras, Theophilus, and Clement of Alexandria, Ante-Nicene Fathers, ANF II; Accordance electronic ed. 9 vols.; (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1885), paragraph 12131 [Elucidations on Clement of Alexandria’s “The Instructor (Paedagogus)” Book II, Chapter III: On Costly Vessels].

12 Schaff, Ante-Nicene Christianity, para. 6403, 9210 / pp 279, 280 (in footnote 2).

13 Ibid.

14 Ibid.

15 “Fish Symbol”, ReligionFacts.com, 18 May, 2017, Web, as accessed 25 Aug, 2018. <www.religionfacts.com/fish>

16 Schaff, Ante-Nicene Christianity, para. 6403 / p 279.

17 Ibid.

18 Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, eds., Latin Christianity: Its Founder, Tertullian, ANF III; Accordance electronic ed. 9 vols.; (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1885), paragraph 28175 [Tertullian “On Baptism” Chapter I. Introduction: Origin of the Treatise].

19 Roberts, Donaldson, & Coxe, eds., Fathers of the Second Century, ANF II, para. 11707 [Clement of Alexandria “The Instructor (Paedagogus)” Book III, Chapter XI: A Compendious View of the Christian Life].

20 Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, eds., The Gospel of Peter, the Diatessaron of Tatian, the Apocalypse of Peter, the Visio Pauli, the Apocalypses of the Virgin and Sedrach, the Testament of Abraham, the Acts of Xanthippe and Polyxena, the Narrative of Zosimus, the Apology of Aristides, the Epistles of Clement, Origen’s Commentary on John, Books I–x, and Commentary on Matthew, Books I, Ii, and X–xiv, ANF IX; Accordance electronic ed. 9 vols.; (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1885), paragraph 79992 [Origen “From the Second Book of the Commentary on the Gospel According to Matthew”, Book XIII.10].

21 Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, eds., The Gospel of Peter, the Diatessaron of Tatian, the Apocalypse of Peter, the Visio Pauli, the Apocalypses of the Virgin and Sedrach, the Testament of Abraham, the Acts of Xanthippe and Polyxena, the Narrative of Zosimus, the Apology of Aristides, the Epistles of Clement, Origen’s Commentary on John, Books I–x, and Commentary on Matthew, Books I, Ii, and X–xiv, ANF IX; Accordance electronic ed. 9 vols.; (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1885), paragraph 77323 [“Life and Conduct of the Holy Women Xanthippe, Polyxena, and Rebecca”].

22 Schaff, Ante-Nicene Christianity, para. 6404 / p 280.

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Biblical Literalism

Are we to read the Bible literally?  That is, are we to literally read all of Scripture literally?

Taking a strictly literal approach to Scripture reading is problematic. Jesus said, “I am the gate for the sheep” (John 10:7, 9); so, does this mean Jesus was the unique Word made flesh, while simultaneously a flat wooden object with hinges in order to allow woolly, bleating animals to enter? Even more troubling are the Apostle Paul’s words to the Galatians: “My dear children, for whom I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you…” (Gal 4:19, NIV). So, not only was Paul in labor to birth the Galatians, he had already birthed them previously! Talk about a miraculous conception!! Today’s varied and many successful attempts at conception have nothing on Paul, a man who self-conceived his many Galatian offspring – simultaneously. 

Obviously, Jesus as a gate is a metaphor, just as “sheep” represents true followers of Jesus Christ.  And Paul was only metaphorically ‘birthing’ the Galatians. The meaning of the verses in John can be easily gleaned by the context.  The Galatians passage is based on and adapted from a Jewish idiom: “If one teaches the son of his neighbor the law, the Scripture reckons this the same as though he had begotten him”1 (cf. 1 Cor 4:15; Philemon 10).  Therefore, Paul was making the point that he had previously taught the Galatians the Gospel, yet, as they were being influenced by Judaizers, he had to steer them back to the purity of the Gospel message, away from the Law (Gal 5:1-6).  Paul used an apparently well-known metaphorical expression, while adding some hyperbole (“again in the pains of childbirth”) to drive the point home.

Another good example of hyperbole is in the Sermon on the Mount: …If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away…And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away (Matthew 5:29, 30; NIV 1984).  Certainly, Jesus is not advocating self-mutilation!  He’s illustrating the seriousness of the sin of lust.

There’s also a metaphorical component to these verses: the “right eye” and “right hand”.  Craig Blomberg notes, “[A]s is characteristic of Jesus’ figurative and hyperbolic style, he commands us to take drastic measures to avoid temptations to sexual sin – to remove from ourselves anyone or anything that could lead us into scandal (‘causes you to sin’).”2  The right eye and right hand were viewed as more valuable3 and the right side more powerful than the left.4  Charles H. Talbert adds a bit more:

These two illustrations are hyperbole; they are not to be taken literally.  Together they call for a radical integration of the self.  Whatever does not fit into the self’s integration around God’s will is to be jettisoned, whether it be eye (intent) or hand (action).  The sentiment is reflected in Philo, Planting 36-38, where he says the soul needs to be cultivated, protected, pruned, and even have parts cut off if necessary in pursuit of moral development.  “The maiming that moral life requires will be a thousandfold repaid with the wholeness of selfhood and the life of God that comes with amputation.”5

The “maiming” and “amputation” are, once again, metaphorical, not literal.  This “pruning” is done with God’s help, as illustrated in the Gospel of John (15:2).

As evidenced by the three examples above, Christians cannot interpret all of Scripture literally.  Yet, this is a charge that comes from some liberals who try to demean “Christian Fundamentalism” – a term used pejoratively – by portraying all (or most all) orthodox Christians as foolishly reading and interpreting Scripture in an unsophisticated and anti-scholarly manner, thereby distorting the ‘real’ meaning.6  Of course, it’s these same liberals who distort Scripture by literalizing metaphors and interpreting texts meant to be taken literally as metaphorical instead.

True Biblical Literalism

On the other hand, conservative, orthodox Christianity adheres to a doctrine known as Biblical Literalism for Scripture reading.  So, what is Biblical Literalism if not reading the Bible literally? 

In the best application of the term, Biblical Literalism “Generally…seeks to discover the author’s intent by focusing upon his words in their plain, most obvious sense.”7  This means, among other things, that literal passages are taken literally, metaphors are interpreted as metaphors, and hyperbole is understood as exaggeration for rhetorical effect.

The following excerpt is from the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy with Exposition:

 Article XVIII.

WE AFFIRM that the text of Scripture is to be interpreted by grammatico-historical exegesis, taking account of its literary forms and devices, and that Scripture is to interpret Scripture.

WE DENY the legitimacy of any treatment of the text or quest for sources lying behind it that leads to relativizing, dehistoricizing, or discounting its teaching, or rejecting its claims to authorship.8

The grammatico-historical method seeks to uncover the author’s intent by studying the grammar, syntax (sentence structure), literary type (narrative, poetry, etc.), literary devices (metaphor, hyperbole, etc.) and historical context.  Here’s more from the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy with Exposition, this time from the Exposition section:

…[H]istory must be treated as history, poetry as poetry, hyperbole and metaphor as hyperbole and metaphor, generalization and approximation as what they are, and so forth. Differences between literary conventions in Bible times and in ours must also be observed: since, for instance, non-chronological narration and imprecise citation were conventional and acceptable and violated no expectations in those days, we must not regard these things as faults when we find them in Bible writers. When total precision of a particular kind was not expected nor aimed at, it is no error not to have achieved it. Scripture is inerrant, not in the sense of being absolutely precise by modern standards, but in the sense of making good its claims and achieving that measure of focused truth at which its authors aimed.

The truthfulness of Scripture is not negated by the appearance in it of irregularities of grammar or spelling, phenomenal descriptions of nature, reports of false statements (e.g., the lies of Satan), or seeming discrepancies between one passage and another. It is not right to set the so-called “phenomena” of Scripture against the teaching of Scripture about itself. Apparent inconsistencies should not be ignored. Solution of them, where this can be convincingly achieved, will encourage our faith, and where for the present no convincing solution is at hand we shall significantly honor God by trusting His assurance that His Word is true, despite these appearances, and by maintaining our confidence that one day they will be seen to have been illusions.9

How Many Meanings?

An important aspect of the grammatico-historical method is that there is only one correct reading of any passage of Scripture.  This does not preclude a passage, or even a whole book, from being literal yet also encompassing an allegorical understanding when the context makes this clear, such as the book of Hosea in which the relationship of Hosea to his wayward wife Gomer is analogous to God’s relationship with Israel.10  There are also NT fulfillments of OT types such as Jesus as the manna from Heaven (John 6 / Exodus 16).  Moreover, this does not preclude the Biblical author from using double entendre (double meaning) as in Jesus’ discourse with Nicodemus, in which John records Jesus using γεννηθῇ ἄνωθεν, which means is born from above/again (John 3:3).11

Yet, historically, there have been those who have claimed there are multiple meanings, or levels, of Scripture.  Origen (ca. 185-ca. 254) was one such individual. 

It’s important to understand that Origen was influenced by Middle Platonism,12 teaching on the preexistence of souls (and some, as I, construe transmigration of souls / reincarnation as well).  Attendant with this belief was his doctrine of universal reconciliation (all will be saved – including the devil!)13.  Some of Origen’s works were later burned, and he may have been posthumously branded a heretic at the Second Council of Constantinople (553AD) for these beliefs, though scholars are divided on this issue.14

With Origen’s penchant for mysticism, resulting from his affinity for the philosophy of Plato, came his threefold interpretation of Scripture, with a preference for the allegorical, though he sometimes departed from his own triadic formula:

…According to Origen, the biblical texts have a literal meaning, another which is moral, and another which is intellectual.  This is parallel to the presence in humans of body, soul, and spirit, based on what Philo had previously said and done.  But Origen did not always follow this triple scheme; instead he frequently included only the allegorical sense, and at times found a multitude of different senses in the same text….15

In effect, Origen’s belief system created a two-tiered structure of Christians – the unenlightened and the enlightened: “For Origen, those who stayed only with the literal meaning of the text were unenlightened souls who had not realized that Jesus gave some of his teaching in the valleys and some on mountaintops.  Only to the latter disciples, those who could ascend the mountains, did Jesus reveal himself transfigured.”16

Origen was quite influential, even into Medieval times, as his method of extracting meaning from the texts (or variations thereof) continued, expanding to a fourfold (quadriga) sense: literal, moral, allegorical, and anagogical (personal foreshadowings, prophetic).17  However, some sought ‘only’ two meanings, while still others reached for seven.  The literal sense was typically viewed as the least important, while the allegorical retained its preeminence,18 a la Origen.

While most rejected or downplayed the literal sense, there were a limited few who gave priority to the literal:

…[Thomas] Aquinas made the other meanings of Scripture dependent upon the literal meaning and thus elevated it above them.  He said, “…all the senses [of Scripture] are found on one – the literal – from which alone can any argument be drawn, and not from those intended in allegory…” (Summa Theologiae, i.1.10)19

However, it wasn’t until the Reformation that Scripture was afforded the opportunity to speak for itself.  Quoting Martin Luther, “When I was a monk, I was an expert at allegorizing Scripture, but now my best skill is only to give the literal, simple sense of Scripture, from which comes power, life, comfort, and instruction.”20

Protestantism continued with this “literal, simple sense” of the Biblical text amidst a myriad of challenges in the ensuing centuries from Pietism, Hegelian historicism, Liberalism, the “Historical Jesus” movement, Form Criticism, Bultmann’s demythologizing the Bible, Structuralism (Biblical books as literature only), etc.21

Current Trends in Christendom

It seems that in the past 100 or so years, there’s been a shift in some of Protestantism (loosely defined) away from the literal, plain meaning of Scripture back to the allegorical.  Postmodern (or is it now post-postmodern?) thinking has provided an ‘anything goes’ method of understanding Scripture, with one’s own intuition or experience dictating meaning.  In some quarters, there’s a dichotomy between those who dismiss orthodoxy and scholasticism over against those who adhere to the more traditional form of Christianity, such that some in the hyper-charismatic and Emergent wings of Christendom (again, loosely defined) seem to be of the opinion that “my feelings and/or experiences trump your dogma”.  Mystical experiences and/or one’s own thoughts are shoe-horned into Scripture – a practice known as eisegesis (reading meaning into the text).

Sadly, those better equipped to deal with these problems – those who teach at seminaries or Bible Colleges – are mostly deaf to the issues, either by ignorance of these problems, or seeming apathy.  Of those at least somewhat aware of the issues, their silence may render them complicit.  This leaves the task of correction to informed laypersons, many of whom have been and are frantically trying to learn orthodoxy and proper methods themselves, most not having the financial wherewithal, or time, to attend Bible College or seminary, in order to instruct others.  As I see it, properly instructing new converts is the second part of Jesus’ command to make disciples:

18 And Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” [Matthew 28:18-20, NASB]

Just getting them in the door (like the so-called “seeker friendly” churches) is not enough; we must teach them to observe all that Christ commanded.  How can the average church-goer know what Christ commanded if they’ve not been given the teachings?  How can the hyper-charismatic or Emergent church attendee know what Christ commanded if they’re merely reading their own intuitions and experiences into the Bible?

The Way Ahead

What can we do now that instead of one wayward sheep out of a flock of 100 (Matthew 18:10-14; Luke 15:4-7), there seem to be 99?  (Assuming these are really sheep to begin with.)  Desperately needed is leadership that can properly instruct in order to correct these negative trends.  Basic interpretive principles must be taught, so that the average church goer can be truly made into a disciple of Christ, thereby becoming less likely to stray as a wayward sheep.

Before going further it needs to be mentioned that the true Holy Spirit indwelt Christian can read Scripture on his/her own, without external aids, by the leading of the Holy Spirit.  Nevertheless, proper instruction can help to enhance one’s reading and promote good reading habits.

It needs to be stressed that the initial step in understanding any Scripture (or any literary work) is to begin by extracting meaning from the text (exegesis).  Proper exegesis comes from reading a given passage in its larger context (rather than simply ‘proof-texting’ one verse or clause), taking note of metaphors and hyperbole, to include reading the entire book. 

For example, if one wishes to understand what Paul means by some preaching a “different gospel” in Galatians 1:6-7, one needs to read the rest of the epistle to see what Paul is referring to.  To make his case, Paul goes on to explain his position as an authority called by God (1:11-24), that he was accepted as an Apostle (2:1-10), and that he scolded Peter for preferring Jews over Gentiles out of fear, attempting to impose Mosaic Law upon the Gentiles (2:11-21).  The meat of this epistle then is an admonition to continue in the faith and not become slaves again to the Law.  This reverting back to the Law of Moses is the “different gospel” of which Paul speaks in the beginning of this letter.

Once the reader understands the point of Paul’s letter to the Galatians, the reader is less apt to proof-text individual verses into meaning something entirely contrary to that which the writer had intended.  One who listens to Bill Johnson, for example, would dismiss Johnson’s teaching that Paul’s “another gospel” was one that would negate an ‘all must be healed’ gospel, for Paul’s message instead is clearly about the Judaizers who were trying to bring back the Law.  In fact, Paul himself speaks of an illness he endured in 4:13-14:

13 As you know, it was because of an illness that I first preached the gospel to you, 14 and even though my illness was a trial to you, you did not treat me with contempt or scorn. Instead, you welcomed me as if I were an angel of God, as if I were Christ Jesus himself. [NIV]

This obviously shows that Paul was not preaching an ‘all will be healed’ gospel, as Paul’s illness brought a trial to the Galatians of whom Paul states “you would have torn out your eyes and given them to me” (v 15).  Surely, this would have provided a very bad example for the kind of “gospel” Bill Johnson is claiming.  That is, unless Bill Johnson wishes to claim that the Apostle Paul himself was preaching “another gospel” – a quite absurd notion.

Knowing a bit about the societal and cultural background in NT times is also quite helpful towards good exegesis.  Bible dictionaries, commentaries, and even some study Bibles, can provide this information.  For more on getting the most from your Bible reading, I recommend the Gordon Fee/Douglas Stuart How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth.22 

It’s time the Church, most especially the Emergent and hyper-charismatic wings, came back to true Biblical Literalism  –  instead of engaging in eisegesis, thereby taking Scripture out of proper context in order to fit one’s own interpretation.  Teaching congregants how to apply proper exegetical principles will alleviate this sort of thing and bring forth Biblical literacy.  Any subjective experience or thought must be measured against the literal, plain sense of the Bible, and, if not found to be congruent with Scripture, it must be rejected as not of God.

     [1] Marvin R. Vincent Vincent’s Word Studies in the New Testament, Volume IV, 2009 (5th Ed, August 2009), Hendrickson Publishers, Inc, USA, p 147.  This is taken from the Babylonian Talmud: Tractate Sanhedrin, folia 19b (para 11) as found here: <http://www.come-and-hear.com/sanhedrin/sanhedrin_19.html>, Rabbi, Dr. I. Epstein (Gen. Ed.), n d, Soncino Press, London, as accessed 05/01/13.  While the Babylonian Talmud was not written until well after the Apostle Paul penned the Epistle to the Galatians, it seems very possible that this idiom was in the oral Tradition of the Jews at the time of Paul’s writing of the letter.  Cf. F. F. Bruce New International Greek New Testament Commentary: Commentary on Galatians, 1982, William B. Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, MI, pp 212-213, though Bruce does not mention the Jewish idiom. 
     [2] Craig L. Blomberg The New American Commentary: Vol. 22; Matthew, 1992, B&H Publishing Group, Nashville, TN, p 109. Emphasis in original.  The Greek word rendered ‘cause to sin’ is (transliterated) skandalov, from which we obviously get the word “scandal”.  Donald Hagner renders this “cause to stumble” [Word Biblical Commentary, 33A: Matthew 1-13, 1993, Word, Dallas, TX, p 119].
     [3] Blomberg Matthew, p 109
     [4] Grant R. Osborne, (Clinton E. Arnold, Gen. Ed.) Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, Volume 1: Matthew, 2010, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, MI, p 196
     [5] Charles H. Talbert Reading the Sermon on the Mount: Character Formation and Decision Making in Matthew 5-7, 2004 (2nd pr. 2007) Baker, Grand Rapids, MI, p 76.  The portion in quotes at the end of the selected text is from Frederick Dale Bruner [The Christbook, A Historical/Theological Commentary: Matthew 1-12, 1987, Word, Dallas, TX, p 186] as cited in Talbert.  While this may seem like Talbert is stating that we do this through self-effort, the point is to submit to the indwelt Holy Spirit.
     [6] See G. K. Beale The Erosion of Inerrancy in Evangelicalism: Responding to New Challenges to Biblical Authority, 2008, Crossway, Wheaton, IL, p 21, for a brief mention of fundamentalism.  Cf. C. T. McIntire “Fundamentalism” in Walter A. Elwel, ed. Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 1984 (10th pr. 1994), Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, MI, pp 433-435.
     [7] J. J. Scott “Literalism” in Elwel, ed. Evangelical Dictionary, p 643
     [8] Currently available online at <http://www.bible-researcher.com/chicago1.html>, © 2001-2012 Michael D. Marlowe, as accessed 04/28/13.  Also available as Appendix 2 in Beale Erosion of Inerrancy [pp 267-279].  Article XVIII is on p 273.
     [9] Beale Erosion of Inerrancy, p 277.  While Beale generally agrees with the Chicago Statement [p 24], he states in a footnote that he takes minor issue with some of the wording.  In the section as quoted above beginning with “Differences between literary conventions in Bible times…” and ending with “…that measure of focused truth at which its authors aimed” he explains: This statement does not take into consideration that even some modern literary genres use non-chronological narration or nonprecise [sic] time or geographical measurements or approximations as an acceptable style.  Also, I would prefer not to speak of “apparent inconsistencies” in Scripture as “illusions” [ED: see last sentence in above quote]…but rather as phenomena that will one day be understood at the end of history, when we shall ‘know fully’ (cf. 1 Cor. 14:12).  This underscores the partial knowledge that we have in the inaugurated eschatological era in contrast to the ‘full knowledge’ that we will have in the consummated eschatological period (see 1 Cor. 14:9-12) [from footnote on p 267].  I would have to agree with Beale.
     [10] Leon J. Wood “Hosea” in Frank E. Gaebelein (Gen. Ed.) The Expositor’s Bible Commentary with the New International Version, Volume 7: Daniel and the Minor Prophets, 1985, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, MI, pp 164-167.  Cf. Donald E. Gowan Theology of the Prophetic Books: The Death and Resurrection of Israel, 1998, Westminster John Knox, Louisville/London, pp 47, 37-47, in which the moderately liberal Gowan seems unwilling to recognize that it’s Gomer referenced in both chapter 3 and chapter 1 of Hosea, though he sees chapter 3 as allegory: That it was intended to be symbolic, that is, representing in the prophet’s life what was happening in the relationship between God and Israel, is made evident by the comparison: “Go, love a woman who has a lover and is an adulteress, just as the LORD loves the people of Israel, though they turn to other gods and love raisin cakes” (3:1).  Israel has been promiscuous, so the prophet must deal with some promiscuous woman the same way God deals with Israel…[p 47].
     [11] BDAG [Walter Bauer, F. W. Danker, et. al. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 2000 (3rd ed.), University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL] defines the term as “at a subsequent point of time involving repetition, again, anew”, also noting that in the context of John 3:13 ανωθεν “is designedly ambiguous and suggests also a transcendent experience born from above” [p 92].
     [12] Andrew Louth The Origins of Christian Mysticism: From Plato to Denys, 1981 (1983, 1st pprbk), Oxford University Press, Oxford/New York/Toronto, pp 52-53
     [13] Justo L. Gonzalez “Origen” in Justo L. Gonzalez, Gen. Ed. (transl. Suzanne E. Hoeferkamp Segovia) The Westminster Dictionary of Theologians, Westminster John Knox, Louisville, KY, p 267; Chas S. Clifton “Origen” Encyclopedia of Heresies and Heretics, 1992, Barnes & Nobles, New York, 105.
     [14] Clifton, Encyclopedia, a rather abbreviated source, states so definitively [p 105]; Gonzalez [Westminster Dictionary] is less straight-forward, though leaning in the same direction: Such theories were never accepted by Christians in general, and they were soon officially rejected by the church [p 267].  Contra John A. McGuckin “The Council of Constantinople II” in The SCM Press A-Z of Patristic Theology, 2005 (2nd ed.), SCM Press, London: In Anathema 11 the name of Origen himself appears as a heretic.  Modern scholarship has since argued that the name was inserted as a later interpolation into the conciliar acts to justify the burning of his books (though many propositions from Evagrius and the Origenist monks of the desert were certainly condemned here) [p 84; bold in original].  Lavinia Cohn-Sherbok “Origen” in Who’s Who in Christianity, 1998, Routledge, London/New York, is confusing in that the phraseology could be construed as though Origen is branded a heretic at Constantinople II for his teachings on the Trinity; nothing at all is mentioned about his views on the preexistence of souls [p 227].
     [15] Gonzalez Westminster Dictionary, p 266
     [16] McGuckin “Origen” A-Z of Patristic Theology, p 244
     [17] J. J. Scott “Literalism” in Elwel, ed. Evangelical Dictionary, p 643; D. P. Fuller “History of Interpretation” in G. W. Bromiley, Gen. Ed. The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (Fully Revised), 1982 (July ’88 reprint), William B. Eerdmans Publishing, Grand Rapids, MI, p ii.865.  Hereafter ISBE.
     [18] D. P. Fuller “History of Interpretation” in ISBE, p ii.865;  J. J. Scott “Literalism” in Elwel, ed. Evangelical Dictionary, p 643
     [19] D. P. Fuller “History of Interpretation” in ISBE, p ii.865
     [20] D. P. Fuller “History of Interpretation” in ISBE, p ii.865; from Tischreden, 5285, Oct. 1540.  Cf. J. J. Scott “Literalism” in Elwel, ed. Evangelical Dictionary, p 643
     [21] D. P. Fuller “History of Interpretation” in ISBE, p ii.865-874
     [22] Gordon Fee, Douglas Stuart How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, MI