Saturday, October 18, 2014

Cosmic imagery

It is a serious misunderstanding of the relevant ways of speaking and writing to suppose that when the Bible speaks of the sun and the moon being darkened and the stars falling from heaven, and of similar “cosmic” events, it intends the language to be taken literally.

More specifically, different manners of speaking were available to those who wished to write or talk of the coming day when the covenant God would act to rescue his people…Metaphors from creation would likewise be appropriate. The sun would be turned to darkness, the moon to blood. 

It is vital for our entire perception of the worldview of first-century Jews, including particularly the early Christians, that we see what follows from all this. When they used what we might call cosmic imagery to describe the coming new age, such language cannot be reading in a crassly literalistic way without doing it great violence. The restoration which would be brought about was, of course, painted glowing and highly metaphorical colours. The New Testament and the People of God (1992), 283-84.
i) I appreciate the fact that Wright is debunking pop dispensationalism hermeneutics. Mind you, the fact that he's correcting one error doesn't make his own position correct. Indeed, he could be committing the opposite mistake by overreacting.

ii) It may also be that he's trying to make Scripture less vulnerable to scoffers. Perhaps he thinks some eschatological language involves a three story cosmography. Taken literally, that would be false.

iii) For some odd reason, he seems to equate a "literalistic" interpretation of this imagery with cosmic disintegration. But there's no reason to suppose the phenomena he quotes, even if taken literally, denotes cosmic disintegration.

iv) We also need to distinguish between figurative imagery and mythopoetic imagery. He acts as though the imagery he quotes can't be literally true. But even if, for the sake of argument, we think the imagery he quotes is figurative, that doesn't make it mythopoetic. In fact, it's fairly prosaic.

v) Apropos (iii-iv), he doesn't seem to grasp what the imagery describes. In my opinion, a darkened sun denotes a solar eclipse, a darkened or blood-colored moon denotes a lunar eclipse, and falling stars denote a meteor shower. There's nothing inherently figurative about that imagery. These are natural phenomena. I myself have witnessed a solar eclipse. Unfortunately, it was overcast. Even so, for a few minutes morning became night.

I've witnessed a lunar eclipse. The moon was literally darkened. And it was reddish. A red hue. And I've probably seen shooting stars.

vi) As I've remarked before, I think one problem with some Bible scholars is that they are so out of touch with nature that they just assume certain descriptions must be figurative or mythopoetic. It's not something they themselves have observed or experienced.

Keep in mind, too, that if you live in or near a big city, light pollution obscures stargazing. But people in Bible times had a better view of the night sky than we do.

Just recently, as I was returning from a late afternoon walk, I saw a sunset sundog (parhelion). That's a rare optical illusion in which refracted sunlight generates a cloudy virtual mirror-image. A double sun.

Now, if I was a Bible writer or Intertestamental writer, Wright would chalk that up to "figurative" omen. Yet it really happens.

vii) I don't think there's a presumption that cosmic Biblical imagery is either literal or figurative. That depends on the context and the genre. And sometimes context or genre is inconclusive. In those cases, you have to be open-minded.

viii) In addition, there's nothing mythopoetic about Christ returning in the clouds. I think that's like Ezk 1. Christ will return in the Shekinah.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Steve,

    On a very related note, here is something that should interest you.
    Something that I taught to my Sunday school class (some of them memorized the entire book of Romans last year), in our study of Acts 1 a few weeks ago:

    Anyway, us mere disciples are also eagerly 'waiting to meet Jesus in the air' as promised- Acts 1:11 and 1 Thessalonians 4:17. Indeed, the bride is eagerly 'waiting for her day to be with the groom'.

    As a side note, this 'rising up into the clouds' that we look forward to? Well, it will be quite unlike the thermal "cloud-suck" that hang-glider pilots (like myself) look forward to. This 'thermal' will be a 'suck that never ends'. A 'thermal' that us aero-wanna-bee's will never, ever fall out of. We will never, ever fall out of that thermal- because the Holy Spirit is our 'eternal thermal' :)

    It might also interest you to know that there is a dazzling phenomena that some hang glider pilots experience. Sometimes hang glider pilots get to see their "glory". My flight instructor tells me that, 'a "glory" is when you get the glider between the sun and a cloud and you see your shadow on the cloud and a very bright rainbow encircles the shadow' (H.T. Mark Dowsett).
    Sort of like that mythical halo that we even see in pre-Christian paintings. Does this give you Quizzers a different perspective of the "glory" of Romans 8:30?