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N.T. Wright on Understanding Ancient Texts

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May 12, 2010 Tags: Biblical Interpretation

Today's video features N.T. Wright. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of BioLogos. You can read more about what we believe here.

In this video Conversation, N.T. Wright emphasizes the importance of understanding the context of biblical texts in order to know whether to read them as literal or metaphorical narratives.

Wright begins by referencing the example of the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-31) as an example of a text that is recognized not to refer to an actual historical event. We understand it as parable on account of its genre. Similarly, when Isaiah writes that the sun will turn dark, the moon will become blood, and the stars will fall from the sky, we know that this is not “a primitive weather forecast.”

Thus, we are able to distinguish between parable and resurrection narratives, and we know that apocalyptic texts are not weather forecasts. But with Genesis, the question remains of what clues we can find as to the author's intention –– or better, as to the author's "conceptual world" within which the narrative of Genesis makes sense. For additional perspective on this, see Pete Enns’s recent post on “genre calibration”.

Wright describes the use of biblical metaphor as “[the] language people use to refer to concrete events, but to invest those concrete events with their theological significance.” To use that framework then, the creation story becomes one where we can affirm some of the concrete events—the earth is created by a good God who has chosen human beings to be his image bearers on earth. But we cannot ignore the theological picture that the use of metaphor in Genesis adds to the text.

Commentary written by the BioLogos editorial team.

N.T. Wright is a leading biblical scholar, former Bishop of Durham in the Church of England, and current Research Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity, University of St Andrews. He studied for the ministry at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, and was ordained at Merton College, Oxford. Wright holds a Doctor of Divinity from Oxford University in addition to several honorary doctorates. Wright has also written over fifty books, including the multi-volume work Christian Origins and the Question of God and his two most recent books Simply Jesus: A New Vision of Who He Was, What He Did, and Why He Matters and How God Became King.

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Norm - #13735

May 14th 2010


I can make a case but this is not the place. However I will tell you that the “gatekeepers” have closed the entrance as you personally know from experience when confronted with new concepts that challenge traditional conventions. Wright however opens the door to the issue that Jeff and I are presenting concerning how to interpret the symbolic language of the Hebrews. They spoke and wrote extensively in parables and symbolism and Wright brings this up.

Pete, I’m not a trained scholar and do not attest to be one and I would love to be able to depend upon our talented and gifted men to enlighten us but the bottom line is that religion does not create the most open environment for getting results even with our best and brightest. Must I remind of Waltke’s experience? People like Jeff and me have more freedom to test and pull at issues that others shy away from because of established conventions that inhibit. That freedom is more important than the scholarly world may want to acknowledge.  You are in essence doing the same thing with Genesis by pressing the issues because of your passion for the subject and its cultural implications and yet you will even get kick back from the scholars.

Pete Enns - #13740

May 14th 2010

I hear you, Norm.

Biblical scholars don’t really act as gatekeepers. Some do. Usually that is left to administrators. I have found biblical scholars to be quite open to new ideas generally, but certainly not all. Fear seems to be a constant companion in our world.
But, let’s leave to the side the issue of gatekeeping, fear, etc. There is something to concentrated, formal, rigorous, lengthy, fulltime training by highly experienced professional scholars that cannot be duplicated independently. It is not an either/or but perhaps both/and. That is the spirit in which I ask the question of seeing whether such trained people, whose life work it is to investigate the Bible on a learned level, have gone in similar directions, to what extent, or not at all. There is certainly a “conservatism” in scholarship but independent work also has its downside: no system of checks and balances. By the way, Jeff was kind enough to send me his book a while back. I have been poking through it, including the H&E argument. it was after reading that that I was prompted to raise my question.

norm - #13788

May 15th 2010


In a perfect world I would agree much more substantially with you concerning leaving the investigation of scriptures up to those who have extensive training.  Jeff can substantiate that I have lamented more than once that we have no business doing what the scholars should be doing.  However (and it’s a big one) the environment for open scholarly investigation has varying forces undermining its integrity. It is what it is and that is why Genesis and Revelation haven’t already been resolved because of various societal pressures.

Also Pete you may not realize the extensive work and examination that went into Jeff’s book. This book had been worked on for at least 6 or 7 years before publication. The concepts and ideas in it were debated in biblical forums for years with refinement after refinement having occurred from those interactions. It was not a singular isolated endeavor by any stretch and it is still a work in progress as more work is being performed on some of the issues.


norm - #13789

May 15th 2010

It is interesting though that we see other independent investigators (Carol Hill, Dick Fischer, Peter Ruest, Brian Godowa ect) out there coming to some similar conclusions. I might mention again that the Preterist hermeneutic approach to eschatology is foundational and it is hardly an isolated camp composed of just a hand full of folks. Preterism is a dynamic exploration of scriptures and James Jordan is hardly the only one that shares some common exegetical methods. Jordan is a YEC and in my opinion drops the ball in early Genesis especially Gen 1 but that is characteristic of the varying baggage that divergent people bring to the plate. 

Pete the scholarly method should produce the results but when it doesn’t you have to examine why and simply attempt to fill the void that hopefully will be addressed as time goes forward. When it becomes clear that is being accomplished you will see less intrusions by those who have concerns. 
want to remind you though that I fully respect and appreciate the effort that you and many scholars continue to bring to the table. Your work is foundational to us amateurs being able to accomplish even the little that we do. 

There I have said my piece and forgive me if I overstep.

Rich - #13853

May 15th 2010

Personally I would prefer it if Pete were to actually read Jeff’s book and then comment.  I can poke around anyone’s book and disagree altogether.  But if I we’re to start at the beginning and read through the whole presentation things may have a completely different outcome.

Pete Enns - #13876

May 16th 2010


I know you respect me and likewise. There is NOTHING personal here whatsoever. Just a good hashing out. You haven’t overstepped.

It seems to me that you are saying that, since scholars aren’t doing their job—either through fear of reprisal or gatekeeping—they are not seeing/stating the obvious, and so others have to come along and “produce the results” and do “what scholars should be doing.”

If I am hearing you correctly, that sounds like a conspiracy theory.

Also, so we are clear, I am not angling to “prove” you, Jeff, or others wrong. It’s a big world and there and we can all bring things to the table. But my spidey-sense starts tingling when I see things posed as clear fact when they are not—such as H&E represents covenant people.

norm - #13907

May 17th 2010


I’m not sure I would classify my frustration with contemporary religious constraints as a conspiracy theory inclination.  I would hope I don’t come off in that manner but what I’m trying to voice is simply an analytical look at our contemporary issues that affect us all. Mark Noll in his book “The Scandal of the Evangelical mind” does a much better job of pointing out these dysfunctional issues that affect us including our biblical scholarship endeavors.

Also concerning Jeff’s description of the Heaven and Earth as people. I personally would not have framed it the way Jeff did because the H&E concept is indeed more complex than that portrayal appears to indicate.  However a strong case can be presented that indeed the H&E encompasses God’s covenant people from the biblical perspective. I personally think that an investigation reveals that the concept of H&E should not be understood as the physical universe and planet. It is simply cosmic language appropriated to illustrate a narrative about the people of God. Plenty has been written by divergent scholars that if one is interested it’s an easy investigation.  I believe this is simply another case of our reading ANE language through a western mindset.

Jeffrey L Vaughn - #13922

May 17th 2010


Private correspondence.

No concordist view of Genesis representing the physical physical creation of the physical H&E works. I’ve been through enough of them.

Every nonconcordist view focuses on a different feature of the text and all of them work to a point. I view this as progress.

I can develop my view straight from Walton and Jordan and a bit of extrapolation.

Walton calls the H&E, “the cosmic temple.”

Every preterist scholar makes the case that in the prophets and the New Testament, Heavens and Earth refers the Covenant and/or the covenant people. Walton admits this, but claims the NT writers co-opted the creation language.

Take James Jordan’s preterist view of H&E back a bit further God’s Covenant people were God’s original temple. The text concerns those people being set apart by God. We, the New Covenant people are God’s new temple.

No trained biblical scholar came up with this view or has written about this view. I get pieces from all over the place. A couple full preterist scholars have adopted this view and a few partial and full preterist scholars are seriously considering it. I would like some scholars who work in Genesis to test it.


Jeffrey L Vaughn - #13926

May 17th 2010

And Pete,

Look at the trouble you got into going against the Docetist view of Scripture.  Do you honestly think every scholar you know would have done the same thing?  Especially if they knew they were risking their careers?

From your experience, all conservative scholars learned they must be public Fundamentalists.  Your general thesis being correct did not save you.  Tenure did not save you.  Your colleagues wishing you well in private did not save you.

Several scholars have told me personally that they will not consider or even discuss certain views because it would jeopardize their careers.  It is not a conspiracy.  It is a healthy respect what can happen to you if you buck the status quo too hard.


Jeffrey L Vaughn - #13929

May 17th 2010


I missed your post #13740.  Never mind post #13926.  I’m preaching to the choir there.

I have high respect for good scholarship.  (I am esteemed in my own narrow field, which has nothing to do with this subject.)  I have no business bucking that scholarship,.  But what am I to do when no published view of Genesis 1 works or can work and a possible solution that no one will consider is staring me in the face?

Milton Terry and A. Berkeley Mickelsen suggested the approach but didn’t follow through.

It really doesn’t matter why no one is considering it.  It is just a fact that no one is.  No one has written why H&E in Genesis 1 can or can’t be people.  They have just never thought about it.


Nathan - #13951

May 17th 2010

Perhaps few consider the possibility of HE=covenant people because it doesn’t fit the semantics of the words as they are used in the text.  In other words, it is philologically a bad reading.  Heaven and earth are generally explicitly cosmic entities, and that they function as such in Gen 1 is confirmed by the fact that the chapter proceeds to describe the creation and organization of the cosmos.  They are talking about real oceans, real land, real “firmament,” real animals and plants, and real people.  If HE really means “covenant people,” then I imagine you would be constrained to read all of those things as metaphorical somehow.  Nothing in this text warrants that kind of reading.

Even if you have other cases in the bible where HE = covenant people, it is illegitimate to generalize from that to all cases.  It is especially illegitimate to generalize it to a case like Gen 1 that is recognizably dealing with the creation of the cosmos.

This is not a modern imposition on ancient texts, by the way, since our reading of Gen 1 is well informed by other ANE cosmogonies.

Norm - #13957

May 17th 2010


What would you say if it could be demonstrated that the first century Christians understood Heaven and Earth as God’s covenant people? Would you state that they just do not understand the language either? Or would it be a strong verification that the ancients read the language differently than we do and maybe we should pay more attention to what they thought the language meant.

Notice how the Barnabas epistle around 70AD interpreted the prophets usage of H&E.

Barnabas 9:2
And again He saith; HEAR, O ISRAEL, for thus saith the Lord thy God. Who is he that desireth to live forever, LET HIM HEAR with his ears the voice of My servant.
And again He saith; HEAR, O HEAVEN, AND GIVE EAR, O EARTH, for the Lord hath spoken these things for a testimony. And again He saith; HEAR THE WORDS OF THE LORD, YE RULERS OF THIS PEOPLE. And again He saith; Hear, O my children, the voice of one crying in the wilderness. Therefore HE CIRCUMCISED OUR EARS, THAT HEARING the word we might believe.

Barnabas 11:2
For THE PROPHET SAITH; BE ASTONISHED, O HEAVEN, AND LET THE EARTH SHUDDER the more at this, for THIS PEOPLE hath done two evil things; they abandoned Me the fountain of life, and THEY DIGGED FOR THEMSELVES A PIT OF DEATH.

Norm - #13960

May 17th 2010


John Walton states that Gen 1 is a functional creation account of God’s Temple establishment. He doesn’t believe that it is a material physical creation so the question is how you prove your supposition that it is a material creation. Moderns might agree with you while the ancients might not. Who would be more likely to be correct?


Jeffrey L Vaughn - #13963

May 17th 2010


In Rev. 20, the sea is judged separate from the H&E. The sea was not part of the H&E. When Peter explained his vision, Acts 10, he claimed the animals were people. Is it illegitimate to refuse to consider the Bible’s own interpretation of Scripture?

In Rev. 21:1-3, did John see 3 things? Or 1 thing with 3 descriptions? 1) The new H & new E, 2) the holy city, 3) the bride?

In Rev. 21:9ff, did the angel promise one thing and deliver another? Or did the angel show exactly what he promised?

The angel showed John exactly what was promised. The bride (the Church) and the city are the same. The new H&E, city, and bride are the same. This is a common preterist understanding and appears to have been the most common understanding Dispensationalism.

The last half of vs 1 reads, “for the first heaven and first earth had passed away and there was no longer any sea.” Is that a reference to Gen. 1?

The new H&E is the Church. The first H&E, the Gen. 1 H&E, had passed away. John sees Gen. 1 as speaking of the entity that was replaced by the Church, that is, Old Covenant Judaism.

The Apostle John saw Gen. 1 the same way I am suggesting. Was John wrong? Is it illegitimate for me to apply John’s understanding of Gen. 1 to the text?

Nathan - #13967

May 17th 2010


I think 1st century Christian interpretation of the OT tells us a lot about 1st century Christians, but they do not give much assistance in a historical-philological reading of texts written hundreds of years before them.  “The ancients” are not a homogeneous group.

Besides, the passages you provided, and the sections you capitalized, do not establish the equation of Heaven/Earth and covenant people that you are advocating.  Instead, they look a lot like a rhetorical invocation of heaven and earth to listen to the outrageous things that are about to be narrated so that HE can serve as a “witness”.  See Deut 4:26; 30:19; 31:28 which invoke the heavens and earth in a similar way.  This kind of language, by the way, can plausibly be traced back to ANE treaty codes which invoked deities, including divinized heaven and earth (attested even in NW Semitic; see the Aramaic Sefire treaty Kai222).

I haven’t read Walton, so I can’t interact with his claims unless you flesh them out a bit more.  Why should the creation of a cosmic temple preclude the creation of an actual cosmos?  In fact, the argument seems to necessitate that Gen 1 is a real cosmogony.

Nathan - #13968

May 17th 2010


If what you are after is what Gen 1 meant at the time of its composition or at the time of its inclusion in the Pentateuch, then yes, it is illegitimate to apply 1st cent. understandings.  If you are interested in describing a particular part of the reception history of those texts, then looking at the NT and other early Christian literature is entirely legitimate.  Whether your analysis of those texts is plausible or not, I cannot say.

Jeffrey L Vaughn - #13971

May 17th 2010


Then it is illegitimate to apply 20th century understandings as you have done.  Our culture and understanding is farther removed than the 1st century understanding and culture.

Pete Enns - #13973

May 17th 2010


“20th century understandings” is an effort to uncover ancient understandings. It is not simply reading modern categories onto ancient texts.

Nathan is certainly correct about the appeal to HE in Deuteronomy. There really is no question, actually, from the point of view of ancient world. Reading those instances of HE as referring to covenant people is midrash.

I emailed Walton about the implications of his view Gen 1 for this question of HE and he responded that this is a implication he does not see. As Nathan said above, seeing creation as a cosmic temple is not distinct from a material creation of the cosmos but actually assumes it.

Nathan - #13975

May 17th 2010

Would you take the Qumran communities interpretation of Habakkuk as giving greater insight into the meaning of that book at the time of its composition than modern exegesis of Habakkuk?  Your logic would seem to require this since the Qumran community is much much closer to the composition of Habakkuk than we are.  But this is not plausible.  Relative proximity doesn’t necessarily privilege one interpretation over another, especially when the text interpreted is already “ancient” for the earlier interpretation.

Nathan - #13976

May 17th 2010

Sorry, the last post was in response to Jeffery #13971

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