Speak Your Mind, Literally

Do you take the Bible literally?*  This is one of those questions like: have you stopped beating your wife?.  It is not sufficient to answer with a simple yes or no.  Although the skeptic usually objects to any clarification the Christian attempts to offer.  They generally interrupt demanding a yes or no to the question.  Of course, answering with a simple yes creates problems, and answering with a simple no creates even more.  So how should the Christian answer this question?  Can this question be answered with any satisfaction?

To begin with, the Bible was not written by one author.  More than a dozen individuals over a 1500 year or so period of time and eventually compiled under one cover.  Unlike a single book with a single author, the Bible contains multiple genres of writing.  Some poetry, some prose, some history, some biography, some personal letters, etc.  There are many cultural references and perspectives used that the contemporary audience would have immediately understood.  For example when Jesus refers to sinners, He sometimes also mentions tax gatherers.  Tax gatherers were Jews who worked for the Roman government collecting taxes.  They had an amount they were required to turn in, and anything in excess of that amount was theirs to keep.  The tax gatherers routinely overcharged the people for their own gain.  The people knew it but there was nothing they could do about it.  For this reason they were hated by the people. Being compared to, or lumped in with them was highly derogatory and insulting.  This is a reference His audience would grasp immediately that a 21st century non-Palestinian audience may not.  This may make our work a little harder, and we may have to do a bit of historical research for certain figures of speech in order to gain a more correct understanding of the message.

The Bible’s literal or non-literal interpretation is not an all or nothing enterprise.  We need to attempt to understand the Bible as it was intended to be understood by the author.  We need to determine what the author is trying to communicate.  Authors regularly use non-literal language to relate literal ideas or events.  This concept is widely accepted and understood except when it comes to the Bible.  For one reason or another there are some who expect the Bible to be entirely literal, or entirely non-literal.

We don’t take every writing literally.  How about a love letter for example.  Take the following: “I love you so much, you are the most sweet and tender woman I have ever known.  You fill my heart with gladness and it leaps at the sound of your voice.”  What follows from taking this literally?  Does the author intend the reader to think the woman he is writing about tastes sweet as opposed to salty?  Or how easily crushed or bruised her body is?  Are we to believe the heart in the man’s chest has its blood removed and replaced with some substance called gladness, and that it sprouts legs and jumps around his chest cavity?  This is all absurd and no one takes this understanding of the words in the love letter.  But why?  Because the words of this particular genre of writing are intended to convey the romantic emotion of the author for his beloved.  He is using figures of speech commonly understood by his audience to convey a true state of affairs.

When it comes to interpreting the Bible one should take it at face value.  A literal understanding is preferred unless a non-literal understanding makes better sense.  It would be a mistake to force a rigid method of understanding on the texts.  The determining factor is context.  What type of writing is it, to whom is it written, when was it written, and for what purpose.  Does your understanding fit with the surrounding passages?  If your understanding of a particular passage is foreign to the rest of the surrounding verses and chapter, you are likely misunderstanding the author’s message.

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* I recommend the article, Do You Take The Bible Literally? by Greg Koukl of Stand To Reason for further discussion of this topic.

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Related Articles: The Fortune Cookie Bible, What’s That Supposed To Mean?, Eeny Meeny Miny, Moe

Comments

  1. Good points, and Koukl is always a great resource. I heard him say something about reading it the way the authors intended it, which we do with most literature.

    Those who hurl the “literalist” label are typically disingenuous in doing so. They take plenty of things literally — and often incorrectly — when it suits them.

  2. It is a benign sounding question utilized to either discredit the Christian who answers “yes”, or turn the Christian into a relativising opportunist to pick and choose for matters of convenience by answering “no”. This is why skeptics demand a simple yes or no, in order to funnel the Christian into one of these catagories. When the Christian is afforded the opportunity the skeptic acts as if the Christian is trying to get away with something when they try to explain the point I raised above.

  3. I don’t think that when a skeptic asks if you take the Bible literally, they mean ignoring attempts at simile and metaphor. They mean, do you think that what the Bible says is true is actually true, that what the Bible says happened actually happened?

    I completely agree with you on the context point, though. Context is actually why I don’t believe the Bible is true. When you look at the ways it was edited and rewritten and spliced together along with different political divisions and reformations in ancient Israel, the way there are multiple versions of the same story appearing in a couple places because each faction had their own version that made their heroes look good and the other side’s heroes look bad … I seem to remember reading that when they chose which books to keep in the NT, they rejected as false any “gospel” that didn’t portray Jesus as divine because they had already decided that was the right answer … the context shows me how much humans have shaped the Bible, and gives me no reason to believe that it’s the word of any god at all.

    • You’re right, I actually should have differentiated between the two “literally” camps. The group who dismisses any attempt to distinguish between genres and figures of speech, and those who think that unless Christians follow and apply the OT law are not taking it literally. (which I think is a misapplication of the term “literally”). I actually address this issue in: Laying Down The Law, I wrote it for Christians who believe they are mistakenly obligated to “obey” the OT law, so the perspective is “in-house” but should suffice to address the “pick-and-choose” “literally” objectors.

      Can you give me some examples of what you consider edits and rewrites? Most events are witnessed by multitudes when it comes to God acting in history, so I’m not sure I’m willing to say factions had their own version is any more a liability than we can say different witness statements to accidents are revisions and rewrites.

      There was criteria for accepting and rejecting texts. By mid-4th century the books which were considered inspired were really already set ‘in practice’ and it wasn’t until people like Marcion came along and started throwing some out and completely “literally” editing books of the NT that a councel was formed to “certify” which belonged and which didn’t. Some of the criteria included only books known to be written by the apostles or from the immediate associates of the apostles, and had to be known to be early.

      If you look at the rejected books, none contain a solely human Jesus. In fact they deified Him to the point where they depicted Him as merely God and His humanity was a only an illusion. They were rejected because they were known to be forgeries written too late to be credibly assigned, and that they inaccurate records of the events they depict. It wasn’t arbitrary and it wasn’t a conspiracy.

      Check out : No Lost Books, The Scriptural Chain of Custody

      • Oh, maybe I got the rejected-gospels bit backwards. But if they were rejecting books that were inaccurate on their history, they should have gone further — see this examination of the Jesus timeline and this reply to Christians who objected to that first video.

        Regarding edits and rewrites: this is basically the Documentary Hypothesis. Of particular note are the J source, the “Jahwist,” who describes a personal God referred to as “YHWH” and generally writes about the kingdom of Judah and its people being super, and the E source, the “Elohist,” who calls God “Elohim” and generally writes about the kingdom of Israel as being superior to Judah. You see this sort of thing crop up especially where there are duplicated stories crammed together — there’s a creation story from Genesis 1:1 to 2:3, and then in 2:4 another one abruptly begins with many key details changed; Genesis 6:18-20 is God telling Noah to bring all the animals onto the ark in twos, then in 7:1-3 as though the preceding verses never happened God tells Noah in very similar language to take seven of some animals (“clean” beasts and fowl), and then back in 7:7-9 we’re back to all twos again. Note also that Noah’s family and all the animals board the ark and then it rains twice in immediate succession, 7:7-12 and 7:13-17 (though they do both say “twos”). Those are just the examples that immediately spring to mind.

        • I am fairly familiar with the JEDP theory, but I’m not convinced it can support the claims it makes based on the evidence it cites (big surprise, I know). I think there is a tendency to anachronistically impose modern writing conventions on ancient writers, not just in these instances, but generally speaking. Not that this is evidence against JEDP, but if one were to look at my site’s earliest writings and the latest, based solely on the writing style: sentence structure, vocabulary, length of posts, etc. also look at the differences in styles in my comments as opposed to my posts. I think they could conclude different authorship, and it has only been a few month span. Do we really think we can credibly determine parts of a single sentence to be of different authors? Or from one sentence to another?

  4. I always thought that “to take bible literally” is not to be taken literally. It is more like a metaphor not meant to undermine christianity in general, but to point out that there is both love and hatred to be found in the bible. Usually this metaphor is referred to, when people are using the bible to give excuse for their own hatred.

  5. “If you look at the rejected books, none contain a solely human Jesus.”

    Yes, that is the irony of “DaVinci Code theology” — it got it completely wrong. The heresy in play was that Jesus was only divine and not human, but Brown & Co. say the opposite.

  6. I know this is from last year, but a quick thought/question…

    I’m not sure why this is not a simple yes/no answer for anyone. The answer you seem to be offering is the only logical answer anyone can offer:

    “No, we don’t take the Bible fully literally.

    As in any text, there are parts in the Bible that ought to be taken literally and other parts that need not be (or OUGHT not be) taken literally.”

    Why is that not a simple No answer? Or, as demonstrated, a simple No answer with some caveats?

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