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5 Minute Jesus: Literary and Literal


Literary and Literal

Episode 72: The Flood

Jesus himself, in the gospels, referred to the flood of Genesis and to Noah himself. And some of my friends have pointed out over the years that this is pretty good evidence that Jesus himself believed the story in Genesis was literal, a concrete account of historical events. I’m not so sure. And it’s also worth noting the meaning that Jesus attaches to the flood. It isn’t exactly the traditional story of punishment. This passage of teaching I’m referring to comes from the source behind the gospels known as Q. Now I’ve mentioned this many times before on the pod. Q is just the abbreviation of the German word Quelle, meaning source. And it refers to the material that both Luke’s gospel and Matthew’s gospel have in common with each other. Most experts, for reasons I won’t bother going into here, are pretty confident that Matthew and Luke didn’t copy each other’s material in writing their gospel, so the best explanation of this shared material, this stuff they have in common, is that they’re both using an earlier source.

Q is just a collection of Jesus’ teachings that was circulating before the gospels were written. Most scholars date it around the year 50. So it’s just 20 years after Jesus. That’s pretty good in ancient history terms. Anyway, I’m getting distracted by history. Here is the saying of Jesus I’m referring to. I’m going to quote the version in Matthew’s gospel. “But about that day or hour, no one knows. Not even the angels of heaven nor the Son of Man, but only the Father.” He’s referring to his return.

“As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage up to the day Noah entered the ark. And they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away. That is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. Therefore, keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come.”

That’s Matthew 24, if you want to read it in context. Now some of my mates point out that Jesus refers to Noah and the flood in a very matter of fact way. This means, so they reckon, that even if the story in Genesis has the flavour of a literary theological story, Jesus’ own reference to the story means that we have to read it concretely. But I’m not so sure. Let’s suppose, for the sake of argument, that Jesus knew the story to be closer to a parable than to a historical record. How would he have differentiated that in his reference to it in the gospels?

Would he have said, “Just as that parable of Noah entering the ark” et cetera. I doubt it. You would refer to a famous story that was a parable in exactly the same way you’d refer to a story that was factual history. A bit like the way I might say, “I love my darling Buff just as Romeo loved Juliet.” There’s no reason for me to say, “Just as the fictional character in Shakespeare’s play, Romeo, loved the other fictional character in the play, Juliet.” You know? It just doesn’t make sense. A literary reference just stands on its own. So I reckon there’s just no way of telling what exactly Jesus thought of the status of the flood story from a literary reference he makes to it in the gospels. There are other examples of this kind of literary allusion where it’s clear the Biblical author makes a literary reference rather than a historical one.

So Jude 14 is an obvious example. Go check that out. So I’m pretty confident that what I’m saying is at least a plausible approach to the story. Jesus is just referring to a well known story and making his own theological point about it. Literary references can be loose in order to make the point. The other example is where Jesus refers to Jonah being “three days and three nights in the belly of a whale.” And then Jesus says, “In the same way, I will be three days and three nights in the belly of the earth.” He’s referring to his burial.

But here’s the thing, Jesus certainly wasn’t in the tomb for three days and three nights. He wasn’t even buried for 48 hours. And that took just two nights. Friday night, Saturday night. So where’s the third night? But this isn’t a mistake on the part of Jesus or on the part of the gospel writers. After all, they went on to tell the story of Jesus being in the tomb for less than three days, three nights, right?

It’s just that a literary allusion like this doesn’t have to be precise. It’s close enough to say that Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection has the same meaning as the story of Jonah, which by the way, was all about saving the people of Nineveh. But that’s to get beyond what I want to say here. The other interesting thing is that Jesus happily tells actual parables in the manner of historical narration. Think of the parable of the good Samaritan in Luke chapter 10. There’s no reference to it as a parable. It’s not introduced as a parable. Jesus simply starts telling the story. He says, “A man was traveling on the road to Jericho and was attacked.” And so on. Now I suppose someone could then say, “Well, that means this particular story is a factual story, not a parable.”

But it seems much better to interpret it as a parable since the key point Jesus makes is theological and moral rather than historical. Literary references work in a similar way. Now, to be clear, I do actually think there was a catastrophic pre-historical flood, which different ancient Near Eastern cultures told in different ways and which the Old Testament references in a highly figurative way in order to make a theological point about God’s great restoration of all things.

So I just don’t think the fact that Jesus refers to the flood and Noah necessarily commits us to reading the Genesis story in a concrete historical way. And I understand some people disagree with me and that’s cool. The only other thing worth noting is the way Jesus uses the flood story. Whether or not we think his reference is a literal reference rather than just a literary reference, I find it interesting that Jesus is only interested in one particular point. People were just getting on with their lives when the flood came, but hopefully those listening to Jesus will learn that lesson and be prepared for the day Jesus comes to restore all things.

His own punchline to the story is “Keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come.” However you read the story of the flood, this particular teaching of Jesus reminds us not to be simply eating and drinking our way through life, oblivious to ultimate realities.

By John Dickson

Want to hear the rest of the episode?
Check out episode 72: “The Flood”




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