How to Detect a Symbol

October 27, 2013 — 2 Comments

A symbol is a physical representation of an intangible idea. Authors, both ancient and modern, use symbols to convey abstract meaning. The problem with symbols, however, is that they often appear as part of an implicit dialogue between author and audience. It’s thus possible to misread an image as a symbol or a symbol as simply an image.  So how do we know when an image or object within a story is more than just that?  How do we know when its meant to convey something deeper?


If an author intends an object or image to be symbolic he or she must either rely upon a community’s preexisting symbolic language or make an effort to define the symbolic meaning of the image within the text itself. Ruben Zimmermann in his book Imagery in the Gospel of John thus offers two criteria for weighing a symbols plausibility: (1) conventional plausibility and (2) textual plausibility. He returns to these two criteria in Anatomies of Narrative Criticism

With regard to the criterion of convention plausibility, if a motif such as “light,” “shepherd,” and the like holds a great deal of religious meaning within a linguistic community due to a Bildfeldtradition(traditional semantic field) that can be substantiated by means of older and contemporary texts, then there exists a high level of plausibility that the motif is being used symbolically, in line with conventional usage. Here we may speak of evidence of plausibility outside the text. The criterion of textual plausibility would hold that the way in which an author identifies a motif within a text as a symbol will be made clear by clues in the text. Thus I would speak here of evidence for plausibility within the text. The symbolism of a text can be identified from the specific interaction between social-traditional convention and the actual textual-evidence.

Conventional Plausibility

When an author assumes his audience will recognize his meaning he or she draws a curtain between his group and those outside his community. The only way for outsiders to peek behind this curtain is to acquaint themselves with the common sources from which the author and his community derived its symbols. For instance, the gospel of John’s symbolic language like the Greek language John speaks arises in part from his social setting. Giving heed to the material that evidently played a part in his writing can supply ample information for symbolic investigation. Thankfully, with regards to the religious books of the Bible, their sacred texts are by and large still with us today. The plausibility of a proposed symbol is thus first weighed by its continuity with known scriptural convention.

Textual Plausibility

But authors also take care to define their symbols within the text. This occurs in at least two ways. First the author can use the narrator or characters within the story to make an explicit connection or comparison between two unlike things. A good modern example of how this shift takes place can be found in the movie The Shawshank Redemption. Notice how Andy links music to hope and Red more specifically to a harmonica.

ANDY: (taps his heart, his head) The music was here…and here. That’s the one thing they can’t confiscate, not ever. That’s the beauty of it. Haven’t you ever felt that way about music, Red?

RED: Played a mean harmonica as a younger man. Lost my taste for it. Didn’t make much sense in here.

ANDY: Here’s where it makes most sense. We need it so we don’t forget.

RED: Forget?

ANDY: That there are things in this world not carved out of gray stone. That there’s a place inside of us they can never lock away, and that place is called hope.

Later in the film the mere image of a harmonica becomes a symbol by invoking the metaphor of the previous conversation. Andy gives Red a harmonica as a “parole rejection” present. When asked if he’s going to play it, Red responds, “no, not right now.” The gift has moved beyond a mere object and now points to the hope which Andy provides and Red doesn’t want to let in.

In John’s gospel the symbols most easily recognizable are those found first in metaphor. “I am the light of the world” Jesus says. The incongruity of Jesus speaking of one thing in terms of another pushes the reader passed a literal meaning to reconcile meaning abstractly. Metaphors clearly denote John’s core symbols, images that occur frequently and contribute most to the gospel’s message. For instance Christ’s claim to be “the light of the world” establishes light as a symbol. Its frequency and placement underscore its vital importance (1:9; 3:19; 8:12; 9:5; 12:46).

A second way an author can define a symbol is through narrative structure. For instance, Mark, the earliest of the four New Testament gospels, records the following scenes in this order.

  • Jesus looks for fruit on a fig tree but finding none curses it (11:12-14
  • Jesus enters Jerusalem and attacks the temple (11:15-19)
  • The disciples see the fig tree withered from the root and ask Jesus about it (11:20-25)

The sandwiching of these stories indicates that the fig tree is a symbol of the temple. The cursing of the fig tree and its subsequent withering represents Jesus attack on the temple and its subsequent destruction. Jesus’ later teaching on the mount of Olives (Matthew 24, Mark 13, Luke 21) has this meaning in mind. Here, Jesus appeals to the meaning of the fig tree.

Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near. Even so, when you see these things happening, you know that it is near, right at the door. I tell you the truth, this generation will not pass away until all these things have happened. Heaven and earth, will pass away, but my words will never pass away.

One further thought. The symbols arising from the original metaphor or structural association need not be restricted to their specific language. For instance if Red had never made the explicit connection between music and a harmonica the harmonica still would have been a plausible symbol for hope in the proceeding scene. That’s because a harmonica is a subset of the larger concept of music. For example, later in the Shawshank Redemption, we find Heywood listening to Hank William’s records in the Library Andy has built. While Hank Williams has not been explicitly connected to the metaphor his music falls under the same category.

This occurs repeatedly in John’s gospel. Beyond metaphors to light we find linked references to things like darkness, day, night, blindness, and sight. The conceptual link to a central symbolic image suggests that these images likewise are to be understood symbolically. Philip Wheelwright has observed that many symbols have “a bright focused center of meaning together with a penumbra of vagueness that is intrinsically ineradicable.” The core symbol established in metaphor and clearly defined in context acts as the “bright focused center” while the linked images appear to radiate out in more or less decreasing precision.

Some of these images are more transparently symbolic than others. For instance, when the statement “men loved darkness rather than light” appears at the end of Jesus’ dialogue with Nicodemus it suggests that Nicodemus’ approach by “night,” is more than simply setting. Likewise the regular reoccurrence of light in John indicates a similar symbolic sense for Judas’ final departure (13:30) though only “night” is mentioned in the immediate context.

Of course not all images related to a core symbol have this probability. Craig Koester states,

When attempting to identify elements that may function symbolically as part of a motif, we do well to say that some are almost certainly symbolic and that others are only possibly symbolic.

Frequency and or context are once again the clearest guides to establishing likelihood. For instance, John’s light motif may play an ironic role in the solder’s use of lanterns and torches to arrest Jesus, “the light of the world.” However, because lanterns and torches are not mentioned or connected elsewhere in John with the light motif, the probability of an intended symbol, though good, is not as great.

Matthew Scott Miller

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