Truth & Meaning in Scripture

This brings us back to our original question: Can a reader read the same text twice? On the one hand, the answer is Yes. The text (a biblical narrative) is an objective reality in itself. It was produced at a moment in the past and, as canon, it has come down to us in a fixed and immutable form. Although translations may differ, the original (Hebrew or Greek) text remains the same. What we read once we read again, each time we take up the Bible. The words do not change.

The meaning of those words, however, can and does change depending on our immediate, personal circumstances and what message, under the guidance of the Spirit, we are seeking in the biblical witness. This will determine which words make an impression on us – and what the text will in fact convey – at any given time. If we read Psalm 22/23, for example, we may encounter Christ the Good Shepherd, who “leads us beside still waters” and restores our soul with His presence, grace and peace. Read it again in times of acute anxiety or before a major operation, and our attention may be drawn to the psalmist’s reassuring cry, “though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, Thou art with me!” The psalm has not changed, but our way of reading it most certainly has.

Then again, the way we approach the accounts of Christ’s Passion will determine whether we see in the Cross the magnitude of Jesus’ physical and emotional agony, or an image of His redemptive sacrifice, or an invitation to struggle and remain faithful to Him through ascetic discipline and works of love, or a promise that “through the Cross, joy has come into all the world,” a joy that will be ours as the Risen Lord welcomes us into the glory of His Kingdom.

Can we or do we read the same text, the same biblical passage, twice or even repeatedly? Yes, insofar as Christ and His Word are the same today, yesterday and forever. Yet no, insofar as the text is a living reality, constantly changing because it is charged with the presence and inspirational power of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit “rewrites” the text, as it were, at every moment of our life, at every step of the tortuous journey that leads us through our daily experience and toward the fullness of life to come.

It is that constant “rewriting” that makes of the Bible not simply an historical record or a document to be deciphered and analyzed, but a living Word that conveys both truth and life.

2. Are the Stories of the Bible ‘True’?

This question is one of the most troubling for our lay people, since the popular media tends to present the conclusions drawn by non-Christian, or in any case non-Orthodox scholars, whose approach to the matter is purely “historical.” We can approach the question in a more satisfactory way by focusing on the Christmas stories, the narratives of Jesus’ birth provided by the Gospels of Matthew and Luke.
The Christmas season inevitably leads people in the media to speculate on whether or not the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ conception and birth are historically accurate. The question they raise in the public mind is whether these cherished stories are really “true.”

A good, well-balanced example of this kind of reflection appeared in the December 13, 2004, edition of the American news magazine Newsweek. The article rehearsed a familiar array of parallels that have been shown to exist between the birth stories concerning Jesus, and those of pagan heroes or demigods. It also showed how the two Gospel narratives of Matthew and Luke (which differ significantly from one another) were structured according to the model of “Promise and Fulfillment.” In large part, elements in both accounts were drawn from the Old Testament. Jesus’ birth, for example, is patterned after that of Samuel; his descent into Egypt and return to Nazareth recapitulate the Hebrew Exodus tradition; the Magi and their gifts fulfill the prophecies of the Psalms and Isaiah, which declare that kings of the earth shall offer obeisance to the Messiah, sealed by gifts of gold and incense; and the massacre of the children of Bethlehem reflects the original Passover, when the first-born of the Egyptians succumbed to the angel of death, whereas the Hebrew children were spared by the blood of sacrifice (here Hebrew children are killed, while Jesus, who represents the people of the New Covenant and is himself the true sacrifice, is spared).

None of the most characteristic events surrounding Jesus’ birth – the enrollment under Quirinius, the appearance of the star, the birth from a virgin mother in a Bethlehem stable, the visit of the Magi, the massacre of the innocents, or the descent and return from Egypt – is found elsewhere in historical records. Nor is there any allusion to them in other parts of the New Testament. This leads many scholars to assume that the birth narratives were constructed to create a theological symmetry between the beginning and end of Jesus’ earthly existence: he who is finally raised from the dead began his life in an equally miraculously way as the offspring of a virgin mother.

The theological message of these accounts is clear. Jesus is the new and true Israel, the Son of God, who is also “Emmanuel,” “God with us.” He is no mere prophet, itinerant miracle-worker or firebrand revolutionary, as some have tried to depict him. Rather, he is the fulfillment of all prophecy and the source of all genuine healing. The question that seems to concern us most, however, is this: Are these accounts factually “true”; that is, did they “really happen”?

This is a classic example of a “false question.” To explain why, however, requires that we clear up some common misunderstandings.

In the first place, we tend in our day and age to identify truth with “fact.” If an event can hypothetically be recorded on tape or film, if it can be observed and subjected to objective scientific analysis, then we consider it to be “true.” Such a reality may indeed be factual. Truth, however, is situated on another level, both higher and deeper than the level of fact. Jon Meacham, author of the Newsweek article, expressed it very well: “If we dissect the [birth] stories with care, we can see that the Nativity saga is neither fully fanciful nor fully factual but a layered narrative of early tradition and enduring theology, one whose meaning was captured in the words of the fourth-century Nicene Creed: that ‘for us men and for our salvation,’ Jesus ‘came down from heaven, was incarnate of the Holy Ghost and of the Virgin Mary and was made man.’”

“A layered narrative of early tradition and enduring theology.” There is no opposition between the two, since (holy) tradition is always shaped to convey theological truth: the significance for us of what God has done within the framework of time and space, to work out our salvation. This is why we insist that “the Gospels are not books of history but works of theology.”

Then again, we need to remember that what we regard as “historical facts” are never free of interpretation. We know of events such as the beginning of the universe, or the French Revolution or the first Gulf War only as those events have been presented to us by scientists, historians and “embedded” reporters (that is, news reporters who accompanied military units into battle). We assume their accounts are true, by which we mean factual. The “facts” that we believe we know, however, are for the most part interpretations we receive in the form of secular “tradition” through media such as news journals, television and books. But like gossip, these interpretations are always colored by the subjective viewpoint, experience and agenda of those who transmit them. We receive and transmit even our own personal experiences under the influence of our subjective interpretation of their significance. If I tell other people about some tragic or joyous occurrence I have known, my retelling is always shaped by the impact that experience has had upon me. To recount an event or convey a reality is always to interpret it, to pass it through the filter of my own experience and my own understanding. Accordingly, the very notion of “fact,” which we so cherish in our age of science and technology, may be little more than an illusion….

Yet the Truth will endure forever. However we (or biblical scholars) may judge the “historicity” of various events, from the Genesis creation account to the narratives of Christ’s birth, the truth of those events, and of their interpretations, lies in God’s presence and activity in and through them. Genetic engineering has already produced parthenogenesis, “virgin births,” in a Petri dish. But this no more proves the tradition of the Virgin Birth of Jesus than the Shroud of Turin proves His resurrection. The biblical narratives, like the Shroud, are received and interpreted as articles of faith. “Proof,” by which we mean objective scientific verification, simply does not apply in their case.

Are the stories of Jesus’ birth, as recounted by the evangelists Matthew and Luke, really true? Yes – as affirmed by the faith, but also by the experience, of countless multitudes of people who know Jesus of Nazareth to be Lord and Savior, who pray to Him as God and know their prayer is heard. Yes – because the Church’s spiritual elders have always recognized that truth is more than sheer fact, and that Scripture speaks more in the figurative language of poetry than in the analytical language of science.1

This is because truth is ultimately ineffable. If Scripture resorts to figures and analogies, if the Church Fathers rely so heavily on allegory, and if Jesus expresses some of His most profound teachings in the form of parables, it is because words are symbolic.2

They point forward to ultimate reality, and they even participate to some degree in that reality. But as human constructs, words are incapable of grasping that reality in all its fullness. This is why the deepest prayer must finally resolve into silence.

Yes, the stories of Jesus’ birth are true. They are so, because their purpose and their effect is to convey meaning more than fact. In the final analysis, no particular element of biblical tradition can be definitively proved or disproved. But that doesn’t matter. What does matter is the witness that tradition offers us, by means of both historical facts and poetic images, to the significance of the person of Jesus in the whole of God’s work to bring to the world salvation and eternal life.

In this light, with the whole of Christian Tradition, we can – indeed we must – declare that in the person of Jesus, the eternal Word of God took flesh and became man. He did so by the power of the Holy Spirit and in the womb of the Virgin Mary. As the “God-man” He suffered, He was crucified and He was buried. Then, on the third day, He rose from the dead in glory, to fulfill the work begun on the first Christmas eve, in a humble stable in the city of Bethlehem.

With this affirmation historical fact merges with transcendent meaning. To skeptical eyes, none of it can be proven beyond question. To eyes of faith, though, there is no greater reality than this, and no more compelling truth.

3. How Does Scripture Reveal and Give Us Access to Transcendent Realities?

The last section took up the question of the relationship between fact and truth in biblical narratives, especially in the accounts of Jesus’ birth. I tried to point out that the question “Did it really happen that way?” arises from a certain common misunderstanding, one that confuses fact with truth, while it overlooks the point that everything reported as “fact” is filtered through the reporter’s own experience and understanding. For that reason, what we receive as fact is always colored and shaped by interpretation: our own, when it is a matter of our personal experience, or that of the person who conveys the information to us.

With regard to the biblical accounts of Jesus’ conception and birth, as with so many elements of Scripture, we need to recognize that they represent a synthesis of historical reality – what we call fact – and transcendent meaning, a meaning that human words can express only through images or figures.
Jesus’ parables offer an excellent example. They are stories built upon common experiences that the hearer knows as fact: the authority of the king or master of the household, the annual cycle of planting and harvesting, the hypocrisy of certain members of Israel’s ruling class, the care of a shepherd for his flock, and so forth. Jesus takes these common realities and uses them as images – verbal icons – to express a meaning that speaks to the immediate experience of His hearers. Extrapolating on the basis of their own experiences, those hearers (and future readers of the Gospels) easily see in the king or master an image of God as Lord and Judge, in the agricultural cycle a sign of God’s presence and activity in creation, in the rulers of the people a warning of judgment and a call to compassion, and in the shepherd a witness to Christ’s own concern to “seek and save the lost.”

Jesus never intended for His parables to be taken as “fact,” in the sense that they recount events that actually took place. They are figures, verbal images, which point beyond themselves to a deeper reality. For that reason, they are “more than fact.” Although based on familiar daily experiences and occurrences, they lift the hearer to a higher plane, a level of ultimate reality that concerns our relationship with the eternal God.

In this sense, the creation story – indeed, the first eleven chapters – of Genesis can be considered to be “parabolic.” If we ask, “Did it really happen that way?,” the answer is both Yes and No. Yes, insofar as the creation story of Genesis 1 affirms that God is the unique author of all that exists, that everything comes “from non-existence into being” by His will and power, and that what He created and continues to create is essentially “good.” But “no,” insofar as it is now known (scientifically demonstrable, if you will), that the cosmos is not three-tiered with “water above the firmament,” and that the “days” of creation cannot be understood literally as 24-hour periods.

To put it in more technical terms, there is a profoundly “mythological” aspect to every biblical account, including the accounts of Christ’s Nativity. But to say that, we need to be very clear about the meaning of “myth.” A myth is not a legend, an invented story. Nor is it to be confused with a parable. In the proper sense of the term, a myth is a narrative that serves to express, in human language and figures, realities that transcend what we consider to be the purely historical. Some realities, such as emotions and aspirations, can be most adequately expressed in the language of poetry. Transcendent realities – truths about the inner life and external operation of God, for example – can best be expressed in the language of myth.

If this sounds dubious, it is most likely because we tend to misunderstand the concept of “history” or “historical reality.” Seduced by a certain intellectual dualism, we create an improper dichotomy between the temporal and the eternal, just as we often do between fact and truth.8 We consider them to embrace different spheres of reality, whereas they constantly merge into one another. The universe came into being as a result of the “Big Bang.” But the reason the question “What existed before that?” cannot be answered is because time itself did not exist. The Creator, however, did exist; and at a particular a-temporal “moment” He set in motion what we know as physical and historical reality. We cannot understand the historical or “factual” aspect of creation, therefore, without reference to the transcendent Creator (although many people have tried…).

Similarly, Jesus’ presence in the life and experience of His people occurred in part as a result of certain historically determinable facts, namely that He was born, crucified and buried at specific times and places. Yet at the same time, that birth and that death are transfused with a higher significance because they are vehicles for divine intervention into historical reality. The One born of the Virgin Mary is a human being, but He is also the eternal Son of God; and it is He whose death, followed by His resurrection, marks the definitive Passover into eternal life. Here we find the ultimate merging of time and eternity, of historical event and transcendent truth.

Because God is present and active in every event of world history as He is in our most intimate and personal experiences, it is imperative that we correct any false dichotomy between time and eternity, fact and truth. All time is permeated with eternity, just as every fact has the capacity to convey some aspect of ultimate reality. Yet eternity transcends time as much as truth transcends simple fact. Language attempts to express this interrelationship, and it does so most effectively in the form of myth: a story in human words that expresses in its own unique way the ultimately inexpressible mystery of divine and human interaction.

This is why we affirm that the Genesis creation story is true, even though every element of the account is not “factual.” And this explains why the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ birth, death, resurrection and glorification are true, although every detail could not have been verified to the satisfaction of skeptics who might have been present. The truth of those accounts, however, is not merely subjective, even though it is perceptible only to eyes of faith. Thomas saw and believed, as did the other disciples, together with countless others (1 Cor 15:3-8!). What they saw was reality: historical reality insofar as they beheld the risen Lord in the flesh, but transcendent reality insofar as that flesh was transfigured into His resurrection body.

Although we are usually oblivious to it, what we call fact, time and historical reality are always filled with eternal presence and meaning. The expression “realized eschatology” is not mere theological jargon. It too is a verbal icon that seeks to express an ineffable truth. It means that the world itself, in the memorable words of the Roman Catholic poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, “is charged with the grandeur of God.” Scriptural accounts – whether we class them as factual, historical, parabolic or mythological – are verbal icons whose purpose is to seize that grandeur, to make it intelligible in the form of human language, and to offer it to us as a life-giving witness to what is ultimately and absolutely true.

Conclusion:

This perspective on truth and meaning in Holy Scripture is based largely on insights that were originally gleaned from secular literary criticism. Those insights, transferred to the realm of biblical interpretation, can be of great value insofar as they lead us back to earlier insights, earlier hermeneutical presuppositions and principles, that governed the exegesis of the ancient Church Fathers.9 Biblical scholars can make significant progress in their field of study and, most importantly, serve the pastoral needs of the Church, insofar as they are willing to return to interpretive methods that the earliest Christian exegetes took over and developed from the surrounding Jewish and Hellenistic world. These include a proper recovery and use of allegory and typology, as well as an appreciation for the multiple meanings a biblical text is capable of expressing: literal or historical, symbolic or doctrinal, tropological or moral, and anagogical or eschatological.

  1. 6 See the valuable discussion by H.A. Blair, “Allegory, Typology and Archetypes,” Studia Patristica vol. XVII (part one), Leuven (1993), 263-267. []
  2. 7 On the enduring value of allegory, properly conceived, see A. Louth, “Return to Allegory,” in Discerning the Mystery. An Essay on the Nature of Theology (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983), pp. 96-131, []