John Dominic Crossan quote on literal interpretation

I saw a good quote from a Catholic Biblical scholar:

"My point, once again, is not that those ancient people told literal stories and we are now smart enough to take them symbolically, but that they told them symbolically and we are now dumb enough to take them literally.”
― John Dominic Crossan, Who Is Jesus? Answers to Your Questions About the Historical Jesus

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Interesting quote, but I don’t trust Crossan as far as I could throw him. Smart dude, but way too liberal imo.


I agree. Like Bishop Spong, he rejects too many basic tenets of Christianity.


Crossan seems inclined to regard every page of Scripture as ahistorical, which goes far beyond where I am willing to go. The gospel of Luke, for example, makes specific claims about historicity which are not made in the Song of Songs.

Since his relationship to the Roman Catholic church was mentioned, it is also worth mentioning that none of his works have been published with an imprimatur.

That said, there are many Scriptural passages for which Crossan’s observation is quite apt. Thanks for bringing it to our attention, Larry.

Best regards,
Chris Falter


I agree with previous posters’ caveats about Crossan, but in this case he’s right, and pithy to boot.

To spoil the succinctness of his phrase, though, I’d quibble with “symbolic” as necessarily the best term, since in itself it rather implies that there is a literal, material, truth hiding behind the text. But if an ancient writer did not consider the material realm to be fundamental reality, then they might write literally (if a pagan) that the sky was a goddess (only appearing as air) or, if a Hebrew, that the world is a temple first and foremost, manifesting as the things we see.

In either case, they would be likely to believe at that time that the literal cause of all phenomena was the activity of God or gods, there being no concept of “natural causes” to symbolise. They may even have been right, given how hard it is “literally” to define what “natural” means in its own right, let alone in relationship to God.

So we have to do some real mental adjustment to get inside their mindset at all, and the “symbolic-literal” dipole may not be the most informative.


Crossan’s quote is from his book on the “historical Jesus”, and I suspect he is using it in reference to the gospel accounts of Jesus to dismiss the miracles, the resurrection, etc., not in support of a non-literal view of the creation account in Genesis.


Thanks, I’ve been looking for an opportunity to use that emoji.


That context does change the landscape. People in Jesus’s time didn’t write a bios or a history thinking it was mythological. Just as people in Moses’s time didn’t write about archetypes thinking they were allegories!

But didn’t Jesus tell parables without thinking that the characters in them were historical? Would a fictitious Good Samaritan change the message of the story?

Jesus wasn’t writing a history or a bios, but telling a parable. Pay attention to genre, and most of the problems are solved.

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Just what I said.

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Love this. So true.

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