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Metaphors [1]

Metaphors. —A metaphor is a blossom of one tree on the branch of another; it is a figure of speech by which a word or phrase is lifted to a meaning to which it is not literally entitled. A simple trope is a metaphor condensed. Similes are metaphors explained. Parables and allegories are similes or metaphors elaborately extended, and do not come into the scope of this discussion (see Parable). In this article we shall not attempt to catalogue or classify the metaphors used in the Gospels, or to distinguish in any technical way between the metaphors and other closely-related figures of speech, but shall use the word in its broadest sense.

Macbeth ( Might and Mirth of Literature ) restricts the term ‘metaphor’ unduly (cf. Gardiner, Kittredge and Arnold, Mother Tongue , 1962). Wendt ( Lehre Jesu ), notwithstanding the classic character of his general treatment of the figurative language of the Nt, does not give specific attention to the metaphors in the speech of Jesus and their relation to the more extended symbolic and parabolic teaching of the Gospels. Votaw, in his valuable art. ‘Sermon on the Mount’ in Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible, Ext. Vol., classifies Nt figures of speech as metaphorical, symbolical, hyperbolic, and figurative. But evidently the last term includes all the classes previously mentioned, while many of the hyperbolic expressions, even in the instances cited by Votaw, contain veiled metaphors. Every one who listened to Jesus mentally supplied the resemblance between the ‘gnat’ and the ritual peccadilloes which these men, so scrupulous of their meat and drink, ‘strained out,’ and between the ‘camel’ and the gross sins against the moral law which they swallowed so complacently. So the ‘eye’ which was to be plucked out ( Matthew 5:29) and the ‘beam’ which was not plucked out ( Matthew 7:3) evidently were the man’s pet sins.

A simple metaphor expresses the resemblance (or identity) between two dissimilar objects or ideas by applying to one a term which can literally designate only the other, as ‘This is my body ( Matthew 26:26). An abbreviated or veiled metaphor is one in which the assertion of resemblance is not expressed but implied. Sometimes a veiled metaphor sparkles in a phrase, as: ‘water of life,’ ‘sons of thunder’; or even in a single word used in a non-literal, ideal, or peculiar sense, to be determined by the context or by current usage, as: ‘cross,’ ‘yoke,’ ‘grace,’ ‘flesh,’ ‘the Day,’ ‘the Wrath,’ ‘darkness,’ ‘to wash,’ ‘to sleep’ (cf. use in Synoptt., John, and Paul, of ποτήριον), ‘to drink,’ ‘to walk’ (περιπατέω), and scores of other words constantly used in the Nt with an ethical meaning, the force of which is grasped only after the mind has made the connexion between their literal and non-literal meanings. All the Gospels refer to ‘death’ as a ‘sleep.’ This was not uncommon among the Jews of that era. But John’s Gospel uses a different and more tender word (κοιμάομαι), and adds to the usual metaphorical conception the idea of sleep being an invigorator which brings health to the sick and makes the tired man ready for the work of a new day ( John 11:12-13). Other expressions, such as ‘Get thee behind me, Satan’ ( Matthew 16:23), ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up’ ( John 2:19), may be taken at random as examples of veiled metaphors, the connexion between the literal and spiritual meanings being mentally supplied. Many of the deepest teachings of the Nt are embodied in words or phrases which cannot be fully understood until their metaphorical meaning is grasped.

All Oriental language is pictorial. This is especially true of the words of Jesus, not only as reported in the Nt, but in other sayings reported by the early Fathers and in the recently-discovered Logia. To insist upon taking the Sermon on the Mount ‘just as it reads,’ would often mean to insist upon taking it as no one listening to Jesus would have understood it. This metaphorical method of speech was habitual with Jesus ( Matthew 13:34,  Mark 4:11, where παραβολή does not mean ‘parable’ in the modern sense, but metaphorical comparison), and was used, so His disciples thought, to hide the meaning of His words from all except the inner circle of believers. It certainly, however, as Wendt has suggested, quickened the attention of His hearers, and enabled His teaching to be carried more easily in the memory.

Notwithstanding the marked difference in vocabulary, style, and thought found in the various Gospels, they all agree, when reporting the speeches of Jesus, in putting a metaphorical spiritual meaning into even the simplest words, such as ‘sheep-fold,’ ‘door,’ ‘key,’ ‘lamp,’ ‘bread,’ ‘water,’ ‘fish,’ ‘life,’ ‘birth,’ ‘travail, ‘death,’ ‘love,’ ‘hell’ (γέεννα), ‘paradise,’ etc. This is true even in the case of reporters who themselves lacked poetic and spiritual insight, and who not infrequently misunderstood the inner meaning of Jesus’ words.* [Note: Such misunderstanding does not seem so strange after one examines the contemporaneous literature. In the Talmud (Pesachim) an entire section is given to the discussion whether a man may eat the leaven of a Gentile, and with what kind of water dough must be kneaded.] Sometimes, as in the references to ‘meat’ and ‘leaven’ ( John 4:32;  John 4:34;  John 6:27;  John 6:55,  Matthew 16:12,  Mark 8:17,  Luke 12:1), the deeper meaning of our Lord’s words was understood before the Gospels came into existence. In other cases it is plain that even the Gospel writer did not catch the meaning of the words which he reports.

In all parts of the Nt, social, civil, and regal terms are applied, often with a new depth of meaning, to our Lord and His Kingdom. Not only such terms as ‘king,’ ‘Lord,’ ‘Master,’ etc., but υἱὸς θεοῦ and σωτήρ are titles given to the Roman emperors of the 1st and 2nd cents., while ἀδελφός was the common term used for members of various heathen esoteric associations of that period, and ‘birth’ the technical term for the rite of initiation. So the papyri have shown that ‘presbyter,’ ‘scribe,’ ‘prophet,’ etc., were technical terms used for officials in the heathen temples. This means only that the members of the early Christian community were accustomed to use the ordinary language of their times. It is difficult to tell what new ecclesiastical colouring was originally given to the titles of the early Christian officials, or what new ideas were from the very beginning expressed by the old terms ‘faith,’ ‘salvation,’ etc., That the latter terms, though identical in form, expressed ideas radically different from what they did when used in the Lxx Septuagint, is acknowledged by all critics—how much more, then, did these ideas differ from those conveyed by the same terms when used in the heathen Mysteries?* [Note: See, e.g., Deissmann, Bible Studies, 1901, pp. 73, 233; Percy Gardner, Exploratio Evangelica (1899); cf. Ramsay, ‘Greek of Early Church and Pagan Ritual’ (Expos. Times [1898], p. 9).]

The command to baptize or believe on, in, or into the name of Jesus,—found in all parts of NT,—receives a new force from the papyri, where, in heathen temples, the property bought ‘into the name of God’ emphasizes the Divine ownership.† [Note: See Deissmann, pp. 142, 147, 197; Moulton, Gram. Nt Greek, (1906), has shown that the prepositions are practically identical in meaning as used in the papyri.]

The different Nt writers are marked by certain striking peculiarities in their use of metaphors. St. Mark, in his peasant’s Gospel, rustie but picturesque, uses many metaphors which all writers following him could but repeat. So his simple metaphors grow into extended metaphors or illustrations in the later Gospels. Yet certain strong expressions, evidently metaphorical, are, either because of their uncouthness or implications, ignored by the later and more reflective writers. That the disciples are to be ‘salted with fire’ ( Mark 9:49), and that even in this life they are to be rewarded with a hundred ‘mothers,’ etc. ( Mark 10:30) are peculiar to Mark.‡ [Note:  Matthew 19:29 is doubtful, and at any rate νῦν is omitted.] But when the force of these metaphors is caught, each statement strengthens our Lord’s argument.

So the statement that Jesus spat on the blind man’s eyes and on the dumb man’s tongue ( Mark 8:23;  Mark 7:33), though omitted for obvious reasons from the other Gospels, becomes peculiarly impressive when we remember that spittle, according to all ancient thought, represented the essence of a man’s inner spirit, the quintessence of himself, and therefore played, from the earliest ages, a leading part in magic and witchcraft. By this acted metaphor Jesus proclaimed symbolically that it was His very essence that healed. Cf. also  John 9:6, where the action of Jesus possibly receives a new meaning when we rememember that in the Talmud the dust of certain districts in Jerusalem was clean and of other districts unclean—not because of the district being insanitary, as is suggested in the Talmudic text. If, instead of spitting on the tongue, He ‘spat out,’ this would receive explanation from the custom of the Jews to spit in contempt when idols were mentioned; as also in the early Church, where converts coming to baptism spat out as a sign that they renounced the kingdom of Satan. Cf. J [Note: Jahwist.] E [Note: Elohist.] , art.‘Alenu.’

In Mk., believers who have ‘salt’ within them ( Mark 9:50) have brotherly love; in Mt., those who love their enemies are salt ( Matthew 5:10-13).§ [Note: Compare the proverb yet to be heard in Jerusalem, ‘What salt is it that keeps money good?’ Answer: ‘Charity.’] In Mk., the word is a lamp (λύχνος) which must not be hid ( Mark 4:21, cf.  Luke 8:16;  Luke 8:18); in Mt., it is the believer ( Matthew 5:15), or his ‘eye’ (spiritual vision or intent), if clear and healthy (ἁπλοῦς,  Matthew 6:22), which is the lamp shining forth from the inward centre of life (φῶς,  Matthew 5:14)—which Jn. sees to be the eternal Word, Christ Jesus ( John 1:4). In Mk., disciples are compared to sheep ( Mark 6:34;  Mark 14:27); in Mt. they are sheep ( Matthew 10:6;  Matthew 15:24;  Matthew 26:31, cf.  Matthew 18:12), while in Jn. ( John 10:2-27) a long, elaborate discourse is based upon this well understood metaphor.|| [Note: | Jülicher (Die Gleichnisreden Jesu, p. 120) looks upon the narrative as contradictory and suspicious, because at one time Jesus is represented as the Door and at another as the Shepherd who enters it; but no Oriental would have criticised the use of these varying metaphors.] Both Mk. and Mt. teach that he who ‘findeth his life shall lose it,’ but Lk. enlarges the meaning of ψυχή until it includes the whole man ( Luke 9:25). Mt. alone says, Have no anxiety for your life, ‘for each to-morrow will be anxious for itself ( Matthew 6:25-34), though both Mt. and Lk. remark that even the birds, which have neither farming implements nor granaries, are eared for ( Luke 6:26;  Luke 8:20, cf.  Luke 12:22-24). The metaphorical allusion to new wine in fresh wine-skins,  Mark 2:22, is explained in  Matthew 9:17 and enlarged in  Luke 5:37. The patch which in Mk. and Mt. tears out a larger hole from the old garment, is in Lk. condemned for two altogether different reasons ( Luke 5:36)—the necessity of tearing a new piece of cloth in order to get the patch, and because it would be a different kind of cloth. Every one who heard this remark in either form would be caught by the unspoken metaphor: Judaism cannot be patched by this new doctrine of Jesus; it must be replaced by it. The gospel is no patch; it must replace the old and worn-out garment. In Mk. there is only a brief allusion to the coming of the Son of Man ( Mark 13:24-27), in Mt. an extended description.

‘Let the dead bury their dead’ ( Matthew 8:22); ‘Cast not your pearls before swine’ ( Matthew 7:6); ‘Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles?’ ( Matthew 7:16), are some of the striking expressions found in Mt. alone, as also the declaration that no man should be called ‘ father ’ ( Matthew 23:9); cf. the acted metaphor ( Matthew 17:26), no where else recorded, by which Jesus metaphorically claims that the God of the Temple is His Father, when He declares His legal exemption from the Temple tax. There are a number of peculiarly picturesque and humorous metaphors for which we are indebted to Matthew. The Pharisees are ‘white-washed tombs’ full of putridity ( Matthew 23:27); ‘blind guides of the blind’ ( Matthew 15:14,  Matthew 23:16;  Matthew 23:24); ‘wolves in sheep’s clothing’ ( Matthew 7:15). One who truly exhibits the law of righteousness (which is unselfishness and love) does not let his left hand know what his right hand doeth ( Matthew 6:3); but these men blow a trumpet before them, not only when they give alms, but when they pray (cf. the remark in the Teaching of the Twelve Apostles [xii. 1], that a teacher of the true doctrine is known to one who ‘has understanding of the right hand and the left’). They make long prayers and ‘devour windows’ houses ( Matthew 23:14 or 13?). These hair-splitting theologians, so particular in their eating, strain out the gnat but swallow the camel ( Matthew 23:24).* [Note: All the Synoptists report the saying of Christ that it is easier for a camel to go through a needle’s eye than, etc. ( Mark 10:25,  Matthew 19:24,  Luke 18:25). The Talmud has the same expression, excepting that an elephant takes the place of the camel (quoted by Arthur Wright, Some Nt Problems, p. 127).] Christ’s yoke does not gall ( Matthew 11:30), but these men lay upon the shoulders of others burdens which they will not move even with the finger ( Matthew 23:4). For such is the ‘weeping and the gnashing of teeth’ ( Matthew 8:12,  Matthew 13:42;  Matthew 13:50,  Matthew 22:13,  Matthew 24:51,  Matthew 25:30, elsewhere only  Luke 13:28). These satiric pictures of the theologians of the day are peculiar to Matthew. Both Mt. and Lk. refer to the same individuals as hyper-critics, who are greatly disturbed by the mote in their brother’s eye, although they have a beam in their own. Forgetting their own infirmity and need of immediate surgical assistance, they use the other eye, which must also have been sympathetically afflicted, in spying out and ridiculing the speck of dust in the eye of their neighbour ( Matthew 7:3-5 =  Luke 6:41 f.). Nothing in Hogarth is better than that.

In Lk., several of the Beatitudes concerning the poor and hungry take on a distinctly different meaning from what they had in Mt. ( Matthew 5:3;  Matthew 5:6); the words ‘poor’ and ‘hungry’ ( Matthew 6:20;  Matthew 6:23) having perhaps obtained a settled ecclesiastical, non-literal meaning. The storming of the Kingdom of heaven by those who upset the Law in their anxiety to hurry into the Kingdom of the gospel, while obscured in Mt. ( Matthew 11:12), is explained in Lk. ( Luke 16:16-17). The mixed figures used by Mk. ( Mark 4:14-16) and Mt. ( Matthew 13:19),—sometimes similes and sometimes metaphors,—representing men in one breath as both soil and seed, disappear in Lk.’s beautiful symmetrical narrative ( Luke 8:5 ff.). He, too, is responsible for the injunction ‘Make for yourselves purses which wax not old’ ( Luke 12:33), and for the attractive Orientalism ‘son of peace’ ( Luke 10:6) added to  Matthew 10:13, and for the less commendable addition that the descent of the Spirit at the baptism of Jesus, which Mk. and Mt. had said to be ‘like a dove,’—and which Jn. explains to have been ‘as a dove,’ i.e. in a softly, floating manner (Moulton),—was ‘in bodily form’ ( John 3:22). Instead of Mt.’s metaphorical reference to the Pharisees as painted sepulchres ( Matthew 23:27), beautiful to look at but foul within, Lk. makes Jesus speak of them as unsuspected graves (μνημεῖα) which defile every one who comes near them ( Luke 11:44). The ‘mountain’ of Mt. ( Matthew 17:20), which can be east into the sea by any disciple who has faith as fully alive as a mustard seed, becomes a ‘tree’ in Lk. ( Luke 17:6). The ‘seventy-seven’ acts of forgiveness required of Jesus’ disciples, according to Mt. ( Matthew 18:22), are expressed with equal truth and vigour by Lk. when he reduces that number to ‘seven’ ( Luke 17:4). The satirical remark that wealth can build a man an ‘eternal tent’ ( Luke 16:9), and the hyperbole that one must ‘hate’ (μισέω) his father and mother in order to be a true disciple of Jesus ( Luke 14:26), are original with Lk.; as also the statement that the disciples must ‘win their souls’ ( Luke 21:19), and that the Pharisees take away the ‘key of knowledge’ ( Luke 11:52, cf.  Matthew 16:19).

Lk., which shows more attention to literary style than any other Nt writing except the Hebrews (Moulton), uses far fewer original metaphors. This is because it was not a first-hand work, but a compilation ( Luke 1:3). Even the beautiful reference to Jesus as the Sun-rise ( Luke 1:78) looks back to the Ot; and the terms ‘torment’ and ‘fixed gulf’ in the Dives parable, which are peculiar to Lk., are found in the medical works of that period; while the word used for the life immediately after death—Paradise—is the word for the garden of delight in which our first parents dwelt ( Genesis 2:8 Lxx Septuagint). In Lk., as truly as in Jn., the Baptist not only preaches the whole gospel, social, ethical, and sacrificial, but uses the favourite metaphors of Jesus; while Elisabeth and Mary, Zacharias and Simeon, all speak in blank verse, every line being filled with Ot imagery. The nautical metaphors of Lk. are few and doubtful (cf. Expos. vi. viii. [1903] 130). It does not even use the striking phrase ‘fishers of men’ common to both Mk. and Mt.

In the Fourth Gospel we have not many new figures of speech, but all the old ones are filled with new contents. Even the old title ‘Son of Man’ becomes exalted ( John 1:51;  John 5:27). In the Synoptt. Jesus points out the way; in Jn. He is ‘the Way’ ( John 14:6). In the Synoptt. He gives life; in Jn. He is ‘Life,’ and ‘the Life’ ( John 1:4), and large inferences are drawn from this. He is also called ‘the Resurrection’ ( John 11:25). In the Synoptt. Jesus is like a shepherd, but in Jn. He has become both Shepherd and Gate of the fold ( John 10:7;  John 10:11). In the Synoptt. Jesus speaks the word; in Jn. He is ‘the Word,’ and the term has taken into itself a new and mystic meaning: ὁ λόγος has come to mean the eternal thought of Jehovah given visible utterance, the sacred Tetragrammaton manifested in flesh ( John 1:14), whose word (ὁ λόγος) or words (τὰ ῥήματα) are a part of His own Divine essence, to abide in which is to abide in Him ( John 5:38,  John 8:31). Either term expresses the creative, cleansing, protecting power of the Divine Name. The unity of the spoken word with the speaker is metaphorically regarded as an identity equivalent to that between Christ and the Father ( John 14:10, cf.  John 10:30). But the unity of the word with the speaker, or of Christ with His Father, is no closer than that between the Christ and His true disciples. He abides in them and they abide in Him ( John 6:56,  John 15:4,  John 17:26; cf.  John 6:70, where Judas, because of his relationship with Satan, becomes diabolos ). So all believers may become one ‘as thou, Father, art in me and I in thee’ ( John 17:21). The Christ, the ‘only begotten’ ( John 1:14;  John 1:18,  John 3:16;  John 3:18), is the Vine ( John 15:1), His body a sanctuary ( John 2:19); even while on the earth He is ‘in heaven’ ( John 3:13), and holds His disciples and all things in His hand ( John 10:28,  John 3:35). Those in whom the Word abides ( John 15:7) and who abide in the Word ( John 8:31)—these metaphors being interchangeable—cannot ‘taste death’ ( John 8:52), nor even ‘look on death’ ( John 8:51).* [Note: For Oriental parallels to the Logos in other Oriental religions, see Jras, April 1906.]

In Jn., more than in any other Gospel, metaphors become an important factor in doctrinal development. These mystic figures of speech indicate the growth of the Church in theological development, and have also played no little part in shaping the later doctrines of Christendom. A freely translated expression in the Psalms concerning the manna which came from heaven is made the occasion, metaphorically interpreted, of deep and beautiful teachings concerning the heavenly origin of the Christ and His power to give life ( John 6:33;  John 6:35;  John 6:51). To eat Him is the only way to gain life ( John 6:51;  John 6:53;  John 6:58). So Jesus is the well of salvation out of which men may draw water with great joy (cf. Is  John 12:3); not only satisfying their own thirst thereby, but becoming living fountains which send forth floods of life-giving water such as came from Jesus Himself ( John 4:10-14,  John 7:38). In the Acts ( John 8:32), Jesus goes as a lamb to the slaughter; in Jn. He is the Lamb ( John 1:29;  John 1:36) ‘exalted’ upon the cross-altar ( John 3:14,  John 12:32;  John 12:34 [ὑψόω is peculiar to Jn.]).

Camden M. Cobern.