Did the Ancient Prophets write Literally or Metaphorically?

Some have argued, including myself, that the ancient prophets wrote symbolically, metaphorically, and not literally. But is that really the case?

I have agreed with Crossan’s point of view in the past, even not long ago. But I listened to a podcast interview last night with Ken Wilber talking about the rise of Jordan Peterson and Wilber’s Integral Theory, and I think my view has changed. Yes, our views can change. They should change! If we are not changing, we’re perhaps not living.

Ancient people lived in very different times, with much more literal belief in magic and mythology. In fact, the co-mingling of religion and magic has a very interesting history, and they were not always distinguishable.

Is it possible that the ancient writers wrote about magical or superstitious mythological phenomena as if it literally happened? Yes. I think so. Their beliefs were far different than ours today, their understanding of the workings of the world were very different. They believed much more in magic, the supernatural, in the powers of deities, etc. That was their culture. That was their general belief. We often impose our modern-day understanding on the ancient past, as if they knew what we do today. This, of course, is not the case.

So when the writers said that Moses parted the Red Sea, they may have actually believed that he literally performed that magic, that his divination and prophetic wisdom gave him those supernatural powers over the elements. It’s not that this actually happened, but that the traditions that evolved and grew up around it may have thought that it did. Literally.

But that still doesn’t negate that these texts have deeper wisdom hidden within them, deeper symbolism, spiritual meaning. There seems to be inner realities for all that we think literally happens in the “external” world. Our thoughts may be quite mistaken (and often are), but the inner realities may still be valid.

It also doesn’t mean that we too should take the writing literally, just the same as the authors wrote it. We know more about how the world works today, and it is extremely improbable that Moses literally parted a sea, or that Jesus walked on water. Humans don’t do that. They can’t do that, at least not without some kind of advanced technology that was just not available at the time.

What we have in the scriptures is perhaps ancient mystics and prophets writing about their experiences with the Divine according to the best light and knowledge that they had. They were translating and interpreting their ineffable experiences into words according to their conditioning in the world at the time, in line with their culture, environment, education, and understanding. And the only words and ideas they could use were the ones their culture generally gave them. Yes, they often went beyond these, constructing new symbols, new frameworks, new meaning, but if they pushed too far outside of the status quo it’s possible that they would be rejected wholesale. Paradigm shifts and new understandings don’t often happen in one fell swoop, but step by step.

I think this has application more recently with people like Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon. I don’t think he himself thought he was writing a spiritual allegory. I think Joseph thought he was literally translating an ancient text from the ancient prophets of the Americas, just as the Tibetan Buddhist tertöns thought that their terma texts were literally writings that they were recovering and translating from more ancient sages. It seems clear to us only now that this was not literally the case in either case. And yet, these texts still hold a valuable depth of spiritual wisdom that we would be remiss to dismiss entirely.

We often throw the baby out with the bathwater far too quickly when we realize that stories are not literally true, that people in the past had incomplete understandings, that our human knowledge has actually evolved. But spiritual insight, perennial wisdom, seems to be much deeper and enduring, even under the façade of all the literalism. Stories can hold much truth, moral truth, spiritual truth, mystical truth, even if they are not literally true, even if they were written as if they were literally true.

The deepest feelings, insights, archetypes, and symbols of human nature seem to still emerge from all of these texts. It’s perhaps not that the ancient writers consciously wrote them that way, but that they get into the text regardless because of the simple fact that we are human, and our human nature has not changed much in many hundreds of thousands of years. But it requires us to look deeper, past the literal interpretations, even if the original authors wrote it all literally. The truth is always hidden deeper.

Do we think our understandings of today will be accepted exactly as they are in a hundred years from now, or a thousand. I hope not! Hopefully we will have grown into entirely new heights of human knowledge by then, but that knowledge still won’t escape the deepest wisdom that seems eternal, embedded beneath all our superficial views and thoughts and theories, woven into the fabric of reality and existence itself including ourselves, and which we can access today through contemplative practices and other means that shift our minds to deeper dimensions of perception.

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2 thoughts on “Did the Ancient Prophets write Literally or Metaphorically?

  1. You bring to light a very important point here, Bryce. That we cannot interpret these texts, which emerged from different times and places, in the light of our own time and place. We cannot make them say what we want them to say. We must try to understand what the text was attempting to say to a particular people, in a particular culture, within a particular worldview, which may have been very different to our own. Great post, great points.

    1. Thanks Walt! Yes, we can attempt to know what the original authors were saying in their time and place, and that may show us the literal nature of what they were thinking. And yet, there is a deeper nature underneath all of that, that I do think is the same today as it was then. It is that deeper mystical meaning that may underly all such spiritual texts, whether they were written literally or not. We’re searching for that subtext, that inner meaning, the hidden mystical meaning, that “wisdom and great treasures of knowledge, even hidden treasures,” which is just as true today as it was then. A key is perhaps that it cannot be found in the text itself, but rather in our own personal inner experience of consciousness. Once we have that experience, then we can see the subtext, the hidden meaning in these texts, then the eyes of our understanding are opened. Without that mystical experience, I’m not sure we can ever find it in the texts, because we don’t know what we are looking for.

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