Levis also points to the many discrepancies within the Bible. For example, Matthew and Luke both have Jesus’ birth taking place in Bethlehem, but, says Levis, “they get him there in different ways.” Levis compares the Age of Enlightenment—which he describes as the start of biblical skepticism—to the many interpretations of today. “There were a lot of questions about the miracles of Jesus,” he says, “but lots of theologians just didn’t talk about them much.”
Even so, there are plenty of literal readers who believe it happened just as the book says it happened. About half of all Protestants, says Powers, belong to churches that teach a literal reading of the Bible. Borg points to the Creation Museum and the Ark Encounter theme park, not to belittle their beliefs, but to show the sheer numbers. The museum is thriving, and the Encounter is on its way to raising $24.5 million to build a real ark, donated one peg and board at a time.
Borg references the three stories in the Gospels that tell of Jesus giving sight to the blind. A biblical literalist may believe that Jesus, a miracle worker, made blind men see. But Borg references the choice of language, especially in the Gospel of St. John. “John says this about Jesus: ‘I am the light of the world,’ ” Borg says. “It’s also in that story that we hear the great line about ‘I was blind, but now I see.’ ” He goes on: “Some might say ‘My God! Jesus healed a blind man.’ But a metaphorical reading is that Jesus opens our eyes, even now. That he’s light in our darkness. Jesus is the one who enables us to see.”
Greenberg points to the story of God calling upon Abraham to leave his country. The wording differs slightly depending on the translation, but the gist is: “Leave your country and your people,” God said, “and go to the land I will show you.” Greenberg explains that in the Hebrew Bible, the words God uses are “Lech-lecha.” Lech means, simply, “go.” So a literalist might read this part of the Torah as God giving Abraham a simple order. But that second “lecha” complicates things a bit, Greenberg says. It can mean “go thee,” but it also means “go to yourself.” In other words, says Greenberg, “Don’t just go to the land that I show you. Go inward and get in touch with who you really are at your core.”
That’s part of what reading the Bible is about: figuring out who you are and what you believe. Greenberg points to one that largely has Jews and Christians in agreement, the story of Abraham and Isaac. And it’s a tough one for anybody—any parent, especially—to read and understand. After testing Abraham in a series of trials, God says, “Take your son, your only son, whom you love—Isaac—and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you.” Abraham nearly goes through with it, holding a knife to Isaac’s throat to prove his devotion. He only stops at the sound of an angel’s voice calling him off in the name of God.
“Rabbis and interpreters have really wrestled with this story,” Greenberg says. “What kind of a command was this?” Literalists would say it happened just as it was written, angel and all. Others might read the story metaphorically, that sometimes we need to sacrifice the things we love in order to please God. One thinker speculated that Abraham lost his mind that day. Greenberg points to another metaphorical interpretation. “For commentators throughout the centuries, the story was a metaphor for the martyrdom of Jews,” she says. “Especially during times when they were continually persecuted.”
But what would it all look like? The Abraham and Isaac story, like many others in the Bible, made its way onto canvas. Much of our knowledge and interpretation of the Bible comes from art, explains Ena Heller, Bruce A. Beal director of the Cornell Fine Arts Museum. An expert in biblical art, she came to Rollins from New York City, where she was founding director of the Museum of Biblical Art. “For religious art, you need to know its story, what the symbolism is, how people would have looked at it in the century it was made,” Heller says.
In a recent lecture at Rollins, Heller explained the differences between the Jewish and Christian interpretations of the same story. A painting created through a Christian lens, Andrea del Sarto’s The Sacrifice of Abraham, for example, might use imagery and symbolism to foreshadow the crucifixion of Christ and God’s own turmoil in sending his only son to die. A Jewish aesthetic interpretation of the same story puts the focus on Abraham’s and Isaac’s martyrdom, as is seen in the sixth-century mosaics of Beit Alpha in Jerusalem.
To Greenberg, the message is universal. “It’s a story of the struggles with and power of faith,” she says.
Faith. That’s the complicated part, a lifetime journey of reading and thought and prayer, I suppose. That’s why I’m reading parts of Exodus, which include the story of Moses leading his people to freedom and the Passover stories. It is, as Greenberg promised, tough reading.
I realize in conversation with Heller that much of the iconography that I associate with the Bible didn’t come from the Bible at all. “There wasn’t enough detail for artists to embellish their work, so they went to legends of the saints, post-Bible writings, meditations, mystical writings of the Middle Ages,” says Heller. “[Christian art] is embroidering on the skeleton of the narrative that the Bible gives you.”
The famous Pietà, or “suffering mother,” a sculpture by Michelangelo, depicts the Virgin Mary cradling the dead body of Christ, a scene not documented in the Bible. “Yes, she was there at the Crucifixion,” Heller says. “But there was no Mary lifting the body and cradling it. That image came from a number of writings in the Middle Ages.” The images, says Heller, were created to emphasize the suffering of Christ, so people could relate to it.
Now, I reflect on the Pietà differently—as a mother of two boys. And I come to this conclusion: If one of my boys were to die before I do—God, please, forbid—I would cradle that child or man to my chest if I had the chance. It would take armed guards to pull him away from me.
So, while the story of the Pietà may not have been written in the Bible, I absolutely believe it to be true.