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April 17, 2006

Who Reads the Bible Literally? Everyone and No one!

Reading the Bible literally is not what defines certain Christians as conservative or fundamentalist. Rather, it is their choice of which passages to read literally and which to read figuratively.

What exactly does it mean to read something "literally"? Well, it means taking each word at its face value and allowing each word to possess only it denotative meaning. It means dismissing any figurative or connotative meanings, including the possibility of exaggeration for effect, irony, metaphor, poetic allusion, or evocative imagery.

Every reader of the Bible interprets some passages literally (like Genesis 27:11 or 1 Timothy 5:23) and everyone understands some parts of the Bible figuratively (Psalm 23:1 or John 10:7). No one--not even the most hardcore fundamentalist--reads everything in the Bible literally, because that is simply impossible.

Why? Because very often the Bible will not allow you to read it literally. It will ridicule you if you do. Let's look at a few examples in the Gospel of John.

1. John 2:13-22 Jesus and the Temple Authorities
v. 19 "Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up."

The Jewish authorities interpret this saying literally, v. 20
The narrator explains the metaphor, v. 21
Even Jesus' disciples misunderstand at the time, v. 22

2. John 3:1-14 Jesus and Nicodemus
v. 3 "Unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God."

Nicodemus interprets this saying literally, v. 4
Jesus partially explains the metaphor, vv. 5-6
Nicodemus remains a bit confused, v. 9

3. John 4:7-15 Jesus and the Woman at the Well
v. 10 "He would have given you living water."

The woman interprets the statement literally, vv. 11-12
Jesus partially explains the metaphor, vv. 13-14
The woman again takes the metaphor literally, v. 15

4. John 4:31-38 Jesus and his Disciples
v. 32 "I have food to eat that you do not know about."

The disciples interpret this saying literally, v. 33
Jesus explains the metaphor, v. 34

5. John 6:33-35 Jesus and the Hungry Crowds
v. 33 "The bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world."

The listeners interpret this saying literally, v. 34
Jesus explains the metaphor, v. 35-40

6. John 6:51-63 Jesus and the Jewish Religious Leaders
v. 51 "The bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh."

The Jewish religious leaders take this literally, v. 52
Jesus expands the metaphor, vv. 53-59
Jesus' own disciples say they don't understand either, vv. 60-61
Jesus explains (sort of) that he was speaking figuratively, v. 63 Confused by too many metaphors, many of Jesus' followers abandon him, v. 66

Does the writer John think Jesus intended for his sayings to be taken literally? Not at all. In fact, John seems to delight in showing how clueless it is to take Jesus literally. Those who interpret Jesus as speaking literally rather than figuratively, directly rather than indirectly, are portrayed as spiritually obtuse.

In several modern translations, about one-third of John's gospel is printed in verse form in order to underscore its basically poetic character. Lest you think this propensity for figurative language is limited to John's gospel, you have only to read Matthew 16:5-12, where Jesus upbraids his apostles for not understanding that his metaphor, "the leaven of the Pharisees," referred to their teachings. Jesus is one of the world's most famous poets, but he is rarely recognized as such because he was a prose poet.

Critics of the religious right often accuse Christian conservatives of "reading the Bible literally." This is, at best, a half truth. Let me explain why.

What the critics mean, I think, is that "fundamentalists" are those who believe that certain miracles recorded in the Bible are historical facts. Here are some examples:

Ten Bible Stories that Many Christian Conservatives Read as Literally True:

1. God created the world in six calendar days (Genesis 1:1-31).
2. God destroyed the whole world in a gigantic flood, saving only eight people (Genesis 7:17-23).
3. God turned all the water in the Nile River into blood (Exodus 7:17-20).
4. God divided the Red Sea and made a dry pathway through it (Exodus 14:21-22).
5. God made the walls of Jericho fall flat at the sound of a trumpet (Joshua 6:20).
6. God caused the sun to stand still in the sky for 24 hours (Joshua 10:12-14).
7. God caused a shadow made by the sun to shorten by ten steps (2 Kings 20:9-11).
8. God killed 185,000 Assyrians in one night in order to save Jerusalem (Isaiah 37:33-36; 2 Kings 19:35).
9. God caused the prophet Jonah to be swallowed whole by a big fish, then spit out in three days (Jonah 1:17-2:10).
10. God impregnated a virgin named Mary (Matthew 1:18-25).

Yet this criticism, "reading the Bible literally," is a half-truth because it leaves the impression that all conservatives read all of the Bible literally. This is not accurate. In actuality, conservatives debate vociferously among themselves as to what should be interpreted literally and what figuratively. But they all agree that nobody can read everything literally.

In fact, I have noticed a strong tendency among Christian conservatives to read many biblical texts figuratively. Here are some examples.

Ten Statements of Jesus that Many Christian Conservatives Do Not Read as Literally True:

1. Whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another commits adultery (Matthew 19:9).
2. Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also (Matthew 5:39).
3. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you (Matthew 5:42).
4. It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God (Matthew 19:24).
5. Truly, I say to you, if you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, "Move from here to there," and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you (Matthew 17:20).
6. Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you (Luke 6:27-28).
7. When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return and you be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind (Luke 14:12-13).
8. If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me (Luke 9:23).
9. Whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave (Matthew 20:26-27; Luke 9:48).
10. All who take the sword will perish by the sword (Matthew 26:52)

Please notice the difference. The passages conservatives read as historically, literally true are one-time events set in the ancient past that have little or no direct bearing on the conduct of everyday life today. The passages not read as literally true are those that have radical implications both for the everyday life of individuals today and for the domestic and foreign policies of governments.

I dare say that taking the ten statements of Jesus mentioned above at face value and applying them literally and systematically to world affairs would dramatically change the world—probably for the better, all things considered.

So, I modestly propose that all of us resolve to stop using "reading the Bible literally" as a pejorative catch phrase. Surely liberals and conservatives alike can agree on this simple statement: "We should not always take the Bible literally, but we should always take it seriously."

About April 2006

This page contains all entries posted to Trite but True in April 2006. They are listed from oldest to newest.

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