Theology 101: Reading the Bible “Literally”

I’ve been asked by several people in various comments or emails what fundamentalists and evangelicals mean when they speak of taking the Bible “literally.” I’m going to take a moment to hash that out here.

First off, I don’t know a single fundamentalist or evangelical who takes Jesus’ parables “literally.” Similarly, none of them look at the Proverbs or Song of Solomon and take them “literally” either. Even the most fundamentalist fundamentalist understands that there are different genres, and that Jesus’ parables are stories with morals, that when the author of Proverbs speaks of “wisdom” crying in the street he is speaking allegorically, and that the Song of Solomon is poetry. Taking the Bible “literally” does not mean being completely idiotic, as it is sometimes parodied.

What does it mean, then?

It means that when a book says it’s written by Luke, or Paul, or Peter, well, that’s who it’s written by. Asking whether it could really have been written by that person, whether maybe the content signals a later authorship or the style indicates a more educated author, is not okay. If it says it’s written by Paul, it’s written by Paul. I should note that somehow this also extends to books whose authorship has long been traditionally assigned to a given individual – for example, the first five books of the Bible have traditionally been assigned to Moses, and the book of Matthew to Matthew – even if the book does not itself state its author. So asking whether Moses really wrote Genesis? That’s a no-no.

It means viewing “books of history” – Genesis, Esther, I and II Kings, the gospels, Acts, etc. – as factually correct in every detail. In other words, Abraham was a real person and his wife Sarah really was noticed and lusted after by the Pharaoh of Egypt, Esther really saved her people from annihilation, and Paul really had a lot of shipwrecks. And there’s no questioning of sequence, detail, or event. If it says it happened, it happened, and it happened the way it says it happened. Period.

It means accepting that every miracle happened exactly as described. Balaam’s ass really talked, Sarah really had a baby in her old age, the idol of the fish god Dagon really did fall on its face before the ark of the covenant, Jesus did really feed the five hundred, and Paul really was healed from a deadly snake bite. In evangelical and fundamentalist circles, questioning any of those miracles – even simply questioning the details of how they occurred – would be enough to have your religion questioned.

It means assuming that there are no contradictions in the Bible whatsoever. If one passage says one thing and another appears to contradict it, the two must be reconciled, because both are 100% true. Questioning one passage or the other, or suggesting that the two authors just disagreed, would both win you a ticket right out of the church. There can’t be a contradiction, because God wrote it just as it is, and it’s perfect and without contradiction.

It means assuming that the words of Christ as recorded in the gospels were exactly what he said. And the same with every other quotation or monologue in the Bible. Like the assumption about historical accuracy, a suggestion that maybe the author wrote down simply what he remembered of this sermon or that is unacceptable. That would be allowing for an error. Because God guided the pen of every author of every book of the Bible, every word is completely accurate. It didn’t matter whether the author could remember a given sermon word for word, because God was telling him what to write, and God knows everything and doesn’t make mistakes. Period.

It means assuming that what was written in the Bible is still true today, regardless of how society has changed since then. In other words, if it says women are to be “keepers at home,” women are to be keepers at home. If it lists homosexuality alongside other sins, well, that’s where it belongs. The Bible is perfect, and God does not change.

In the end, taking the Bible “literally” means assuming that God directly inspired the authors of the Bible and wrote through them, almost to the point of guiding their pens. It means assuming that the Bible was handed to us by God in the form we have it today. It means accepting its words at face value, accepting its history as history, and accepting its prohibitions and commands as still valid. And it means leaving aside any analysis of the text that would call this into question.

When I learned about scholarly understandings of the Bible, while I was in college, I was shocked. I had never even thought to ask whether Matthew really wrote Matthew or whether Paul really wrote the letters that bear his name. I had never thought to ask whether some parts of the Bible might contradict others – I had been taught that it was all in perfect harmony, perfectly shaped, perfectly polished, the perfect word of God. As I learned about contradictions and historical inaccuracies, I was shocked. I soon began to understand just how complex the Bible is and suddenly the literal understanding I’d been taught to hold growing up seemed incredibly simplistic. There is no attempt to truly investigate where the Bible came from, how it came to be, and who and what shaped its creation. Instead, the answer to all those questions was simply “God.”


As much time as evangelicals and fundamentalists spend reading the Bible themselves, they also spend time reading Christian study books and listening to pastors. Passages that command women to be keepers at home may be honored while passages that inveigh against the braiding of hair may be ignored. Or, passages that command women to wear head coverings in church may be honored while passages that state that a pastor must have upstanding children may be ignored. Even those who claim to take the Bible literally generally don’t take everything all the way, and are generally guided in their understanding and interpretations by others.

While they generally inveigh against arguing that a given command or prohibition was “just cultural,” fundamentalists and evangelicals sometimes do address the social background of a given passage. For example, I was taught that braiding hair and having one’s head uncovered were now acceptable, because they had simply been prohibited because at the time braiding your hair or not wearing a covering over your head were the signs of a prostitute. In other words, those passages were actually saying “don’t dress like a whore.” And that, rather than specifically the hair braiding or covering, was what we were to take away from it. So even those who reject the “that was just cultural” argument when it comes to passages addressing, say, homosexuality, may use that argument when explaining why they don’t follow the prohibition on the braiding of hair. And again, this varies from church to church and group to group.

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About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • Ismenia

    I was recently told by a fundamentalist that the rule about a rapist having to marry the victim is perfectly reasonable as in that society she would not otherwise find a husband. I tried pointing out that if God was making the rules he could probably find a better solution but to no avail.

    • Eamon Knight

      Yeah, I mean what would it really take to have inserted — somewhere among all the rules about what you’re allowed to eat and how many doves you have to sacrifice for some offense against ritual purity — a rule saying: “But under no wise shalt thou consider the rape victim unclean or less precious a wife than the virgin. She is to be cherished and made to know that it wasn’t her fault. Oh, and the rapist? Thou shalt cut his balls off to make sure he never does it again.”

      (OK, that last is barbaric. But no more so than the standard Levitical punishments for many less serious offenses.)

    • charlesbartley

      if God was making the rules he could probably find a better solution

      I am having an email discussion with my fundimentalist uncle about the bible because of a FB post of mine about the Dan Savage “Bullsh*t” incident. We are talking about slavery and why God never did anything about it. He is basicaly saying the same thing as in your example “this was basically the best thing that he could have done” to which I am figuring out how to reply “then you need a new god because that is a pretty lousy answer on behalf of from the all powerful rulemaker that supposedly has love as his greatest virtue” without completly shutting down the dialog.

      Seriously, God had so many opportunities to repudiate slavery in the bible. Every time, the appoligists can jut come up with lousy “it was the best he could work with given the culture, or this allowed him to save the people so he could redeem them later.” HE SET UP THE RULES!!! ARRRRRRGGGGG (one of the reasons why I don’t think that he really exists…).

      My brother-in-law asked me why I am even trying to have the engagement with this uncle. I keep coming back to “he was an important shaper of my Christian/childhood identity, I still love him, and I hope to be, I don’t know the right word here, “bigger” than I was back when I was a Christian.

      As an atheist, I can work at loving everyone so much better than I could as a Christian. I don’t want to write off my uncle as a lost cause (likely also his motivation for engaging with me) and I believe that just like it is harder to completly reject LGBTQ people when you know them, it is also harder to reject atheists when you know them.

      I am thinking here of the recent blogging discussions about why people leave the church. It is very important to me to say “don’t put me in that little box that minimalizes me and allows you an easy pat on the back.” My lack of belief in a soul, and lack of belief in an afterlife really leave me driven to live the best life that I can possibly have. My basis for morality has changed, what I think is moral and immoral have changed (and yes this includes “fleshy” topics) and I believe that this is all for the better and that I am a better person now.

      My beliefs didn’t change to justify “sinful” behavior. My beliefs changed because my old beliefs were fundimentally broken, and many things that I thought harmful as a child/christian I now believe are normal, natural and essential to my health and well being. I want him to understand this and to just possibly relook at a little bit of his own dogma.

    • Steve

      That rule still exists in some countries. It’s worse than not finding a husband. Women who are raped are can be killed for not being virgins anymore.

  • Kevin S.

    I always wondered how an omniscient god who knew the future as well as the present could fail to take his future readers into account by giving commands in the cultural imagery of the time. Why wouldn’t he just *say* “Don’t dress like a whore” instead of listing specific clothes and hairstyles associated with prostitution at the time. If the framers of the Constitution were smart enough to ban “cruel and unusual punishment” instead of going down a list of awful practices like drawing and quartering, tarring and feathering, etc., why wasn’t God that smart?

  • Omorka

    Just for a taste of extra irony, if they’re really describing him as “the fish god Dagon,” then they’re adding to the text, and being inaccurate to boot. There is no known association between fish and Dagan/Dagon – the mer-deity in that pantheon is Derceto/Atargatis, a goddess, and the sea-god, Yamm, is usually depicted either as a sea serpent or as a man, not as a fish. None of the Bible stories involving Dagan/Dagon involve fish, or describe his appearance at all, except for mentioning that his cult statue has a head, hands, and a trunk, like any anthropomorphic statue would. This is a much later interpretation, based on a linguistic similarity between Dagan/Dagon’s name and the Hebrew word for “fish.” The archeological evidence tells us that Dagan is actually a god of agriculture and commerce, and Ba’al-Hadad’s father.

    I realize that this is completely beside the point, but it does strike me as an example of so-called fundamentalists still accepting and using information – in this case, incorrect information – from outside the texts, even if they don’t realize it.

  • Ariel

    So how did they decide that the hair-braiding prohibition was specific to its culture and that the homosexuality prohibition was a universal?

    • charlesbartley

      my theory, is that they are smart enough to realize that this prohibition is absolutly stupid and that changing it doesn’t change or challenge any of their other dogma, so someone made up this reasoning and everyone else that heard it ran with it.

      One of the things about the bible’s prohibitions… no one likes prohibitions that don’t make any sense. they want them to have a reason behind them. Why is pork bad… Triginosis (see God knew what he was doing). Why is homosexuality bad (because it breaks God’s system, and hurts the individual). Why observe the Sabath (hey, God understood that the Hebrews needed a break from work–early labor laws). It helps to reinforce that whole notion that Libby talked about of “still true today.”

      Going back to the honsexuality bit… I think that this is behind much of the pray-away-the-gay movement. They HAVE to believe that it is a choice. They HAVE to believe the “homosexual lifestyle” is bad for the individual. They HAVE to be blind to every bit of evidence to the contrary. If they don’t, they eventually come up against “God really screwed these people because he made them this way, and it is a pretty horrible life to have to put your entire sexuality up on a shelf.” I came to that point and added it as another large stone in the “I think that God might not exist” bucket. Others come to that point and say “well, we each have our own cross to carry.” The latter makes no sense to me at all. (see the comment at the top of the chain about “but he made the rules!!!!”

      • shadowspring

        Others find middle ground. I love the UCC pastor here in my town who points out plainly that Nehemiah and Isaiah have two entirely different visions of who God is. I love the book by some whacked out charismatic (he was right in this!) that points out the two different threads running through the Bible- one promotes self-righteousness and violent oppression of the other, and one promotes life. The Tree of Life vs. The Tree of the Knowledge of Good/Evil. For me I don’t have to give up on God, or Jesus or even the Bible- I just need to use critical thinking as I read. “What was this author’s agenda?” is a great place to start with each book. Once you read it, go back and revisit your original assumption. It’s not hard. Genesis? Author’s agenda to explain creation and give a historical narrative to a tribe of people that made them feel unique and special to God. Proverbs? A collection of popular Bronze Age sayings, some of which hold more or less true today. 2 Timothy? Written when Paul was facing his impending demise, wanting to lend authority and organization to the community he felt he had fathered.

        As a fundamentalist, all this is considered heretical. As a person who considers herself a disciple of Jesus, I think Biblical inerrancy is heretical.

      • charlesbartley

        Shadowspring. I guess I couldn’t find that middle ground (and that was far from the only stone that I had in that bucket of non-belief).

        I think that you are right that the literalist fundamentalist reading of the bible is “heretical,” but I also think that the common fundamentalist charge against more “liberal” Christians that “once you start throwing out parts of the Bible, when do you stop? how do you judge?” is also true. I really don’t understand middle ground there–and I tried for a long time to find some that made sense to me.

        What I found left were, as you say, bronze (and iron) age stories, letters, moralizing, propping up some power structures, and attacking others. Some of this is good, some awful, most boring. I don’t see how any of it could be divinely inspired. It is a profoundly human book. I am extremely glad that I am well versed in them because our culture still treats (parts of it) as relevant, but I don’t see the point of living my life by them. I am also glad that I am well versed in Norse, Greek, and Egyptian myths for the same reasons.

        What I couldn’t find any more was a reason to believe the supernatural parts. The “woo” (as some call it). At first I was first a liberal christian, and then a Deist. Eventually, I had to look around and say “Why do I even think that there is a God at all anymore?”

        Believing in a God seemed natural back when I was Christian. Now it seems like the strangest thing in the world to me. If there is a god out there, I don’t think that they are anything like the many versions in the Bible or other scriptures and mythologies.

        I am not sure that I even still understand what being “spiritual means” any more, but If I were to go anywhere “spiritual” or “religious” it would be towards a non-supernatural form of Buddhism.

  • Aniota

    Minor correction:
    “Jesus did really feed the five hundred”
    No, he didn’t, not even in a “literal” reading. He fed either five thousand, according to all gospels, as well as another four thousand before that, according to Mark and Matthew. Jesus and five hundred are mentioned by Paul when explaining to whom Jesus did appear after his resurrection in 1st Corinthians 15,6 so I assume you got those mixed up – good for you, by the way, leaving the Bible far enough behind to misremember that passage!

  • wendy

    But, for example, there are two versions of the creation story in Genesis. Unlike some more obscure or subtle contradictions, this one’s pretty glaring. I’m fascinated by your experience and your point of view. (I live in a bright red state, so I know I bunch of smart, thoughtful Christians with surprising cognitive dissonance.) I can’t quite get my head around how someone would make sense of this.

    • Liriel

      I think the usual arguments are either that Genesis 2 id not in chronological order and that Genesis 2 is really just giving more detail about what we already read in Genesis 1. Plus I’ve seen an argument about “created” v. “formed” and them meaning different things. None of those arguments make sense to me. I’m probably overlooking some common arguments, though.

  • Rob F

    What about various Bible verses that are not included in modern translations/present in the oldest and best manuscripts? I’m thinking of the Longer ending of Mark, Jesus and the woman taken in adultery, and of what is basically only explicit reference to the Trinity in the Bible: “…in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one. And there are three that bear witness in earth,” (1 Jn 5:7-8). If a fundamentalist or literalist was a KJV-only sort than they would of course include those passages. But what if someone used another version?

  • scotlyn

    As an ex-biblical literalist, I am also bemused about all the clear and literal biblical concerns and teachings which appear to have no impact at all on present-day fundamentalists. For example the often repeated complaints about the lavish lifestyles of the rich while poor and family-less people (widows and orphans) are cheated, robbed and starved. Or the repeated injunctions against usury (banking – or at least lending money at interest). Or the excellent, and hugely relevant to our times, concept of debt-forgiveness – the very attractive Great Jubilee Reboot.

  • Eji Hellbergq

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