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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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Jeffrey L Vaughn - #13978

May 17th 2010


Solomon spent years building a temple and one week dedicating it.  The dedication of the temple assumes the previous material creation.

The record of the dedication ceremony says nothing about the actual construction process.  It only records the events of the dedication ceremony.

Walton views Gen. 1 as a temple dedication.  His cosmic temple assumes the material creation of the universe had previously occurred.

Therefore, in Walton’s view, Gen. 1 says nothing about the actual events of material creation.  Instead, it records the events of the dedication ceremony.

Does that make sense?

Jeffrey L Vaughn - #13980

May 17th 2010


You said, “‘20th century understandings’ is an effort to uncover ancient understandings. It is not simply reading modern categories onto ancient texts.”  I agree.  Yet in this case, everyone assumes, without proof, that the modern category is the correct ancient understanding.  Why?

Think about it.  Have you ever questioned the hypothesis that H&E refers to the material creation?  Where is the falsifiable test?


H&E in Deuteronomy reads fine either way.  It is a null test.


It is not a matter of privilege of one interpretation over another.  It is a matter of one interpretation not being considered and another accepted without question.

Pete Enns - #14003

May 18th 2010


The point I was making is that what you call “the modern category” is the ancient category.

I am seeing something here that is giving me some clarity on this impasse. First, Norm’s appeal to Noll leads me to suspect that when I refer to “biblical scholars,” he has only evangelicals in mind. I do not. That miscommunication between us may account for some of our back and forth. Norm, look beyond the evangelical guild on how to read HE, where no one bats an eyelash at things like Preterist hermeneutics.

Jeff, you are a scientist and you approach biblical literature that way (falsifiable tests, null test). That is not a way to construct theories in biblical studies—it does not work the same way as in science. I will try to elaborate as I have time. HE in Deuteronomy does not “read fine"either way,” unless one has a system in place where such a reading is beneficial. But, as it stands, the text is not flexible enough to do what you are asking of it, in my opinion. Re: Walton, you are inferring something from his words he does not recognize. Maybe you should email him?

norm - #14004

May 18th 2010


You might want to go back and carefully read a copy of this section of Barnabas and notice the detail and implications of who is being addressed there. The H&E were included in the descriptions of those who needed to hear which included Israel, the rulers and the people.  It was all about Israel’s people being attentive to God’s message and the H&E are clearly indicated as referring to Israel as the people. You can try to explain it away but the contextual implications are too strong to buy into your argument. The author actually appears to be referring to Deut concerning the H&E and their testimony which further damages your supposition concerning Deut.
Deu 4:26 I have caused to TESTIFY AGAINST YOU this day the heavens and the earth,

Barn 9: And again He saith; HEAR, O HEAVEN, AND GIVE EAR, O EARTH, for the Lord hath spoken these things FOR A TESTIMONY.


norm - #14005

May 18th 2010

You should also realize that the word “earth” should read “land” as there was no global concept of earth as we modern’s understand. The Hebrews had another word similar to the connotation of the Greek word “Kosmos” which was more encompassing than the word “erets”.  The word “tay-bale” would be more encompassing and it more or less throws a monkey wrench in the idea that H&E meant the world at large as the Hebrew’s had a word for it which is generally applied to the broader peoples outside of the Jews. Check it out and notice the problem the translators have when it and “erets” are used together.

Nathan - #14008

May 18th 2010


Your lexicography is puzzling.  Languages have synonyms, and there is plenty of evidence for ‘eretz in Hebrew and other Northwest Semitic languages, as well as Akkadian, to refer to a cosmic entity that exists “under the heavens/sky.”  In other words, ‘eretz = everything under the sky.  Even more specifically, “heaven and earth” is ubiquitous as a merism for the entire cosmos.  Thus, I would agree with professor Enns.  Taking into account relevant lexical and comparative data, as well as context, the passages in question certainly do not read equally well “both ways.”

Jeffrey L Vaughn - #14013

May 18th 2010


Being a scientist, I certainly look at things differently.  As to whether that’s a problem here, I’m also certainly blind to it.  My coauthor, Tim was a student of Ken Gentry’s, a close associate and friend of James Jordan.  Tim learned Jordan’s method well and comes to the same conclusions I do.  (Much to the chagrin of his professors.)  Our actual reasoning is very different than what we’ve discussed here.

I’ve had great success reading the KJV flood account using late 16th century science categories (back before Planet Earth existed).  John Sailhamer,Genesis Unbound, confirms that these terms that sound global to our modern ears were actually local in physical extent.

Sailhamer appears to require a different definition for H&E in Gen. 1:1 and in Gen. 2:4.  His comments on Gen. 1:2ff seems to disallow your (and apparently his Gen. 1:1) definition of H&E from the entire Scripture.  However, his Gen. 2:4 definition doesn’t work as a general definition either.

Jeffrey L Vaughn - #14016

May 18th 2010


I need to correct a mistake in #13451.  Walton applies the corporate view of H&E to the NT.  It is preterists of different stripes (those who believe the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70 was the fulfillment of prophecy), Jordan for example, that apply the corporate view of H&E to the prophets.  I tangled Walton’s more limited scope with that of others.  Then to compound the error, I edited out the others in a botched effort to improve clarity.  Sorry for the error and confusion.

Jeffrey L Vaughn - #14017

May 18th 2010


I’m confident I understand Walton’s view in Genesis 1.

There’s also no doubt he believes H&E in Genesis 1 is the physical universe and that he believes H&E means something else in the NT.  I may have read my own view of H&E into his NT version.

As to why Walton won’t apply his NT understanding of H&E into the Old., he said no one else has done it and he sees no reason to do it.  Essentially the same as you’ve said, except you’ve made no comment as to whether H&E has a different meaning in the NT.

In Walton’s view, Genesis 1 is a temple dedication and not an actual creation.  I agree.  I believe it is an actual record, over 5000 years old, translated originally from Sumerian.  Walton believes it was written by Moses as a polemic against previous ANE (Sumerian and Akkadian) temple dedications.  I believe the temple was the people who wrote the record.  Walton believes the temple was the physical universe.

Regardless, Walton’s book, The Lost World of Genesis One, is a great read.


Norm - #14018

May 18th 2010


You essentially avoided my point that erets as earth is not a good distinction in lieu of the fact that the Hebrews had a more comprehensive word (tay-bale) that encompasses a broader defined area than does erets. I’m not going to belabor the issue but do a little research on how (tay-bale) typically translated “world” is used side by side with “erets”. The word is only used 36 times in the OT but is often pared with “erets” and may be associated with the greater oikoumene which includes Israels neighbors. This discussion is not a simple subject but it basically involves how to understand the language as it meant in the theological context of the Hebrews. It essentially is applying a consistent hermeneutical approach to scriptures. Some don’t think this is possible but IMHO it matches with the ancient viewpoint which helps verify this conclusion.


I hope that the scholars outside of the evangelical world are open to new ideas about a hermeneutical approach that has promise. It would be interesting to see why there would be a carte blanche refusal to even investigate.  It might possibly speak to blind spots that have been erected to open investigations.

Norm - #14019

May 18th 2010

Most old earth adherents outside of concordism reject the idea of an idyllic earth in which there was no death. We do so partially because the physical evidence speaks against it and now after investigating it outside of the literal hermeneutic we see the language also does not support it. It strikes me as strange that we can accept the figurative and symbolic language in Gen 1-3 yet turn right around and embrace the literal approach again in Revelation.

According to those who follow NT Wrights thinking it is now permissible to use literal language to explain an idyllic new earth for future habitation after rejecting it in Gen. Rev 21 says that the sea, the sun and the moon will all be missing from this new earth and yet some embrace this idyllic irrational understanding with open arms. I think there is a big disconnect going on that hasn’t really sunk in. The irony seems to me is that many who don’t buy into Revelations physical literal language have come to similar conclusions about it as those concerned with Genesis on the other end. Some want a heaven on earth originally and some want heaven on earth at the end. My thinking is God doesn’t have to rework the earth to provide a home for us after this life in Heaven.

Jeffrey L Vaughn - #14022

May 18th 2010


The issue in question is whether or not “heavens and earth” is a merism.  We agree that it is ubiquitous.  But for the ancients to call a known tribal god or city god, “Lord of heavens and earth,” speaks not of “Lord of the physical universe,” which they knew he was not, but “Lord/patron of our tribe” or “Lord/patron of our city.”

Artemis of Ephesus, Queen of Heaven and Earth, was never thought of as ruling the physical universe.  She ruled her city.  Other city gods ruled their cities.

Similarly, Marduk was not “Lord of the physical universe.”  He was “Lord/patron of Babylon” and of those cities Babylon conquered.  It was well understood that Marduk was Lord beyond Babylon, only by right of conquest.  Marduk was not Lord of those cities Babylon did not rule.

In Akkadian and other Semetic languages, H&E was clearly not a merism.  It was either hyperbole or it referred to the corporate body, those of the city, those under that god’s rule and law, those in covenant with that god.


Nathan - #14037

May 18th 2010


I disagree with your statement that H&E “was clearly not a merism,” as well as with your statement that ancient peoples weren’t really claiming universal lordship for their local deities.  Resolving our disagreement, however, would take extensive and careful examination of the primary sources in their original languages: Hebrew, Aramaic, Moabite, Phoenician, and Akkadian.  This is not the right forum for that kind of detailed analysis.


I rejected your claim that eretz does not mean “earth” since it is based on the illegitimate lexicographical postulate that if a language has a word X (in this case tebel) that means Y (earth), then word W (eretz) in that language cannot also mean Y.  As I said, there is ample evidence that eretz means “the part of the cosmos that is not sky” in both ancient Hebrew and other Northwest Semitic languages as well as Akkadian.  Surveying that evidence here would be tedious, especially since it can be found in the appropriate lexica (BDB and HALOT for Biblical Hebrew; DNWSI for NWS Inscriptions; CAD for Akkadian).  What you are claiming is lexicographically revisionist, and to substantiate it, it would have to be proposed to and tested by experts in the relevant languages.

Norm - #14041

May 18th 2010


I agree this forum is not the place for an extensive discussion and I think its time to let it drop yet I appreciated the interaction. I’m sure we will have oppurtunity again as it looks like Pete has a new article right down our alley.  



Jeffrey L Vaughn - #14049

May 18th 2010


Have you previously considered that H&E might not be a merism?  If you did that “careful examination” what would you look for?

Considering all the “creation stories” that have H, E, or both H&E formed out of the sea, my comments on Rev. 20 are quite relevant.

By the way Pete, in #13723, did you mean to imply that you don’t consider James Jordan a “trained biblical scholar?”  His book, Through New Eyes depends heavily on the prophets using H&E as a corporate entity.  For example,

“Each of these, however, pictures a social or human environment. We have seen that the heavenly host has to do very often with rulers or with saints. In terms of the political arrangement of a nation, the heavens are the rulers and the earth is the ruled (Isaiah 13:13; 34:4). In terms of the spiritual polity of the world, God’s peopIe are positioned in the heavens (Philippians 3:20; Ephesians 1:20; 2:6; Hebrews 12:22-23).”

http://www.biblicalhorizons.com/pdf/jjne.pdf  pg 161 of the text, 166 of the pdf.

Jordan doesn’t say it as plainly as other preterists, but his comments are on-line and you know him.


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