5 Easy Steps to Reading the Bible Literally

5 easy steps to taking the Bible literally

I’ve shared a number of these kinds of memes and infographics before, and so I thought that it was worth adding this one to the collection. This one is interesting because, without saying so explicitly, it nonetheless leads the reader to the conclusion that biblical literalism is an impossibility. It is impossible to know the relevant ancient languages as a native speaker. It is impossible to know the relevant ancient cultures as an insider. If the literal meaning of the Bible is what its earliest readers would have understood, then we can only approximate that at best.

This ought to humble the modern interpreter. And appropriately, the meaning of the Bible is clear enough even in translation, and read in a different cultural context, for us to grasp that humility is one of its major emphases.

That irony has long struck me. The “literal meaning of the Bible” clearly includes an emphasis on humility, as a response to the example of Jesus and the recognition of our inherent human limitations. And yet those who emphasize the “literal meaning of the Bible” tend to  arrogantly insist that “the Bible says” exactly what they think it does – or rather, what they think it should.

And so, while I think we ought to stop referring to”biblical literalists” altogether, can we at least agree that a moratorium is called for on acknowledging anyone who lacks humility as a “biblical literalist”?

None of this negates the value of learning Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek as well as we can, or the value of learning as much as we can about ancient cultures. I think the biggest blunders in these areas are made by American Christians who have never really learned another modern language to a high degree of fluency, nor lived in another culture long enough to either truly understand it, or have it challenge and relativize their own.

Perhaps a key to learning humility is to pursue those present-day experiences, and allow them to expand the horizons within which one reads the Bible and lives one’s life? American ethnocentrism and monolinguism are both causes and results of the arrogant (and anti-biblical) stance that thinks that one can master linguistic and cultural knowledge simply by consulting a phrasebook or concordance.

Perhaps in this era characterized by biblical illiteracy among self-proclaimed “biblical literalists” it will be study abroad rather than courses on the Bible or ancient languages that brings about the much-needed change of attitude…

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  • Al Cruise

    ” I think the biggest blunders in these areas are made by American Christians who have never really learned another modern language to a high degree of fluency, nor lived in another culture long enough to either truly understand it, or have it challenge and relativize their own. ” I think you absolutely nailed it. And unfortunately most adherents who are led by these so called “biblical literalists” believe them because of the tribal and cultural pressures that they happen to be in . The only bit of free thinking they’re allowed to make is a choice between agreeing with how the literalists interpret the Bible or burn in hell. Second I would say , for most of them, Biblical history started on their first day Sunday school as a toddler and now as an adult they can have it verified by visiting Ken Hams theme park.

  • John MacDonald

    Είναι όλα ελληνικά για μένα – lol

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      Ακόμη και Εβραϊκά;

      😉

  • Thomas Stuart
  • Chuck Johnson

    The Bible’s best use is as a conversation-starter.
    Using information in the Bible literally is the work of con artists and deceivers.

  • arcseconds

    I don’t think those who think of themselves as biblical literalists will be persuaded by this argument.

    While only having experience of a monoculture no doubt helps, I think the psychological drive is often primarily for security. They don’t want to live in a world where things are complex, uncertain, ambiguous, or a matter for debate. So they are not going to go for a world where the Bible requires legions of scholars and knowledge of weird language to interpret it, and even then you don’t get a clear picture.

    And we already know the line of argument they take to defend this. The literal meaning of the Bible isn’t how people understood it at the time, it’s what God meant, and what he meant is recorded for all to see in the King James Authorized version – he would not want his people (i.e contemporary American Evangelicals) to not understand him.

    The cultural undercurrent is protestanism, of course, which is disinclined to believe the Bible needs to be interpreted by a specialist institution.

    • Jennny

      ‘…in the King James Authorized version – he would not want his people (i.e
      contemporary American Evangelicals) to not understand him.’ I’m always fascinated by the fact that the KJV has a Reading Age of 11 years and the Reading Age of the average Brit is 9 years. Please don’t tell me God interprets it to the seeker..I’ve seen too many people put off by the ‘thees, thous, and begats’…to want to try to study it. I know learning disabled adults with faith who can’t read at all so we made books of bible stories in picture form for them. NT mainly, most of the OT doesn’t lend itself to that. A prominent english cleric said recently that the CofE Liturgy is beyond the reading level of 43% of its members.

      • arcseconds

        Please don’t tell me God interprets it to the seeker..

        If the meaning of the text is what a reader makes of it, then that means there is a plurality of meanings, not a single meaning (‘literal’ or not), as obviously different people take different things away from the Bible.

        I’m not sure adding divine guidance helps. If one were to only acknowledge divine guidance in the cases where the reader comes into alignment with one’s own understanding that seems pretty presumptive. Plus I’m not sure why we wouldn’t think that the reader was being guided to what they need to hear (as opposed to the one true interpretation) which surely is also different in different cases.

  • Iain Lovejoy

    So the King James Version isn’t the original?

    • Jennny

      It was good enough for St Paul so it should be for the rest of us.

    • https://www.facebook.com/david.lloydjones.391 David Lloyd-Jones

      “Good English like Jesus spoke it.”

  • https://seekeroftruthweb.wordpress.com/ (((Kevin)))

    I think the biggest blunders in these areas are made by American Christians who have never really learned another modern language to a high degree of fluency, nor lived in another culture long enough to either truly understand it, or have it challenge and relativize their own.

    As someone interested in other languages and cultures, I have to agree with this statement. I have not reached fluency in another language yet (I am B1* in Spanish, French, and German.) I do know enough to know that terms and idioms do not always translate literally. (When I have translated blog posts, I provided a literal translation of idioms as well.)

    American ethnocentrism and monolinguism are both causes and results of the arrogant (and anti-biblical) stance that thinks that one can master linguistic and cultural knowledge simply by consulting a phrasebook or concordance.

    I have noticed how monolingualism affects the story of the Tower of Babel, and how my being a language geek influences the questions I ask, such as *why* speaking different languages stopped the project, when it doesn’t stop people today? Since language and culture are tied together, what is the significance of the language confusion?

    Perhaps in this era characterized by biblical illiteracy among self-proclaimed “biblical literalists” it will be study abroad rather than courses on the Bible or ancient languages that brings about the much-needed change of attitude…

    Agreed, particularly as someone looking to participate in a study abroad program (and eventually work outside USA). I did some of my speeches in my public speaking class on the benefits of studying abroad.

    I definitely think that there is a problem with ethnocentrism in the American church that needs to be addressed.

    *This refers to the Common European Framework of Languages (CEFL); I can read articles in Spanish and French, and watch some YouTube videos (with subtitles in the language) and listen to some podcasts. However, for TV, I need subtitles.

  • LT

    Whoever made this silly little meme doesn’t know what “literal” means when it comes to interpretation. Literal interpretation is simply normal interpretation. It’s what you are doing when you read this post, or these responses. To turn it into more than that is to confuse everything. It has nothing to do with knowing ancient languages. It has to do with knowing the language you are talking in or reading in.

    There are some parts of the Bible that are made more clear by having some knowledge of antiquity, but they interpreted language just like we do. It’s impossible to communicate any other way. By and large, the Bible isn’t confusing, and it isn’t rejected because it is confusing. It is rejected because it is clear and people don’t like its claims.

    • Rafi Simonton

      “Normal” interpretation?! You’re implying that average contemporary American English is the standard. That how the Bible is translated into English is irrelevant. Yet simply reading a few different editions would show a big difference between those that stick to the literal Greek, such as the NASB, and those which take the archaic words and render them into something meaningful to modern people, such as the NIV.

      In addition, this ignores the question of how the Bible was assembled in the first place. Neither OT nor NT fell from the sky fully formed. They actually were the product of centuries of human decisions about what to include and what to leave out.

      “To turn it into more than that is to confuse everything.” That seems to be the fear– that complexity leads to confusion that leads to… what? Loss of simple belief based on never questioning what you’ve been told? But real faith can stand up to challenges, to questions that might make us rethink how we act, where we are in our religious journeys. That’s the literal meaning of the word “repent,” which is Latin derived and means to think about something again and again. It is a translation of the Greek metanoia, and implies a deepening of faith that could take a lifetime.

      You might have a point about the Bible being “clear (it is in places) but rejected because people don’t like its claims.” But all too often that argument is an assertion that the parts one’s own group chooses to emphasize are what is important. if others see it differently, they are wrong.

      • LT

        Yes, normal interpretation. It is the same way you just read what I said and made sense of it. Why do you think that changes all of a sudden with the Bible?

        It has nothing to do with translation philosophy per se, though there is not a big difference between major translations. There is actually very little difference across the board. And the way the Bible was assembled (such a strange designation for it) has nothing to do with the way that we all know to interpret language. Repentance actually means change and yes, it is a lifelong pursuit. But all of that are side issues.

        This is simply reading/hearing the words and understanding them. It isn’t confusing. Whether you are reading the newspaper, a novel, or a blog post comment section, words work the same.

  • Daniel Fisher

    I fear I’ve never understood the critique of fundamentalists/evangelicals or those who embrace biblical inerrancy by using the “literalist” label. Even someone who knew Greek and Hebrew so fluently so as to be practically native would still recognize allegory as allegory, poetry as poetry, hyperbole as hyperbole, etc….. just like every inerrancy-believing evangelical and fundamentalist I have ever met.

    On the other hand, if the “literal meaning” simply means the true intended meaning…. if this is really as inaccessible as is suggested here, then I think the “literal meaning” of Professor McGrath’s blog post here is equally inaccessible. How can I possibly know the “literal meaning” of his words on this blog? Is the effort to do so not equally futile?

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      Your failure to understand the meme’s point seems to me to convey its point quite vividly. Understanding meaning, including things like poetry and hyperbole, depends on linguistic fluency and shared cultural knowledge, things that we can at best approximate when reading in translation, or reading literature from a different modern culture that we have not been immersed in, to say nothing of an ancient one.

      • Daniel Fisher

        Sir,

        I’m not trying to be obtuse, but I simply don’t grasp the point that is trying to be made here.

        If by knowing the “literal sense” we are talking about perfect communication, i.e., understanding an author so comprehensively and exhaustively so as to exclude even the possibility of misunderstanding, that is not even possible in verbal, face-to face communication between people of the same culture, education, religion, etc. it is not uncommon for me to misunderstand, or be misunderstood, even by my coworkers in either written or verbal communication. And even in such cases, no one to my knowledge would claim we have (nor need) perfect, exhaustive knowledge of the meaning of anyone’s words even in such contexts in order for me to grasp the “literal meaning” of anyone’s words.

        If, however, by “literal sense” we mean grasping the general intent and meaning of a communication, then that is surely accessible in at least some sense to anyone reading a translation even of most ancient writings. When I read, for instance, a translation of Thucydides’s description of his historic method, where he said he “found it difficult to remember the precise words used in the speeches which I listened to,” I generally take that to mean that Thucydides found it difficult to remember the exact words used in the speeches he heard. I have read Thucydides “literally”: this is the “literal sense” of his words, and I don’t think many would criticize me for so believing that I was able to grasp, at least in some very real sense, the literal meaning of his words. Granted, there are certainly many nuances that others more familiar with his language, culture, idioms, religion, customs, etc., might pick up…. but I still think it fair to say that someone even as unfamiliar with Thucydides’s world, culture, and language as I am can still grasp the basic literal sense of his words when he said he couldn’t recall the exact words used in speeches he heard.

        So if “reading literally” requires I have an exhaustive and comprehensive knowledge of the author’s world, then I can’t even be said to have read, say, The Abolition of Man by C. S. Lewis literally. But if by “reading literally” we simply mean grasping the author’s basic intent, then I think it is fair to say I have successfully read History of the Peloponnesian War literally.

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

          I don’t think that the issue is perfect accuracy, but our ability to be confident that we are consistently broadly accurate. It is easier to claim to have read C. S. Lewis “literally” than Thucydides, because it is very plausible that ancient Greek language and culture had assumptions, values, and nuances which a modern English speaker reading in translation will not pick up on.

          • Daniel Fisher

            Sir, don’t significantly disagree… but might it be better to speak of where these things fall in a spectrum rather than being an either/or scenario? I am much closer to Lewis’s world than that of Thucydides, but I still couldn’t claim the full knowledge of Lewis’s world (many of his allusions and references I’ve never heard… Colonel Blimp, e.g.) that the meme suggests I would need in order to read something “literally.” And simultaneously, even over the difference in culture and language, there are clearly simple facts that Thucydides communicates that can be grasped by the most novice reader.

            So should I not endeavor to read both authors so as to attempt to understand their purpose and intent, with humility, even if my likelihood of success is higher with Lewis?

            So it seems to me better to say I have more likelihood of success in grasping Lewis’s literal intent than that of Thucydides, and am more likely to miss various nuances and subtle implications of genre in thucydides, rather than to claim that I “can” read Lewis literally but I “cannot” read Thucydides literally?

        • arcseconds

          It’s probable that Thucydides meant that statement quite literally (in the literal sense of ‘literal’, i.e. not figurative) and wasn’t using a figure of speech, being ironic, making a literary allusion, or any one of a number of things that might mean the literal meaning is not the actual meaning.

          So reading in translation and not knowing a thing about ancient Greek culture probably doesn’t lead you astray here.

          However, non-literal language ends up being a bit of a pitfall. If you are reading in translation, or just have a ‘dictionary’ understanding of Greek, then you run the risk of just missing a lot of this stuff.

          (So I disagree with you when you make recognising ‘allegory as allegory’ something that’s obvious)

          To take an example that might be less contentious than a biblical one, in Timaeus Plato has Timaeus give a description of the universe which is fairly obviously a pastiche or a parody of Xenophanes’s statements about God (the statements are inverted in certain respects).

          So there is certainly a reference to Xenophanes here, and possibilities include that one is supposed to compare Timaeus’s view of the cosmos with Xenophanes’s view of God, or possibly just that Plato is poking fun at Xenophanes.

          But if you haven’t read the fragments of Xenophanes, and no-one draws this to your attention, then you won’t know this at all, and you’ll just suppose that this is a somewhat far-flung and poetic depiction of the cosmos.

          I’m not sure we can say exactly what Plato’s intention was here (so therefore it is impossible to read ‘literally’ in your sense), but the allusion suggests that there’s more going on than a literal description of how he thinks the cosmos is (or how he wants us to think his character Timaeus thinks it is).

          To go on to perhaps a more contentious issue, people who believe they’re reading the bible ‘literally’, read statements referring to God spreading out the heavens as a slightly poetic reference to the modern view of the expansion of space.

          But if you know the etymology of the Hebrew words used, and that Ancient Near East thought of the sky as solid, then it seems that this would have been understood much more literally as manipulating a solid substance that forms the sky.

          So here the ‘literalists’ wrongly mistake actually quite literal language referring to manipulating a solid substance as a poetic reference to modern cosmology — a failure to grasp the extent to which the language is figurative, as well as a failure to understand basically what is meant here.

          • Daniel Fisher

            I generally agree with you, and in general with Professor McGrath’s observation that the chances of success in reading “literally” will be proportionally higher in relation to how close the reader is in culture, language, etc. to the writer.

            My objection was more to the tone of the meme… that suggested near perfect and exhaustive knowledge of an authors world is necessary to even attempt to read something “literally.” That proves too much, and makes it impossible for me to claim to read the New York Times literally.

            Rather, I should endeavor to read Thucydides literally (or grammatical-historically) no less than I ought to do endeavor to do so with C. S. Lewis, recognizing the likelihood of success is higher with the latter than the former. And the fact that I don’t have such exhaustive knowledge (as suggested by the meme) of either of their worlds does not suggest I should not try to so read them literally… even if I grant my chances of success are much higher with Lewis, and that I am far more likely to miss things in Thucydides. Why is it such a bad thing or fruitless endeavor to similarly seek to read the Bible literally, recognizing the limitations thereof and seeking better and better resources to so do?

          • arcseconds

            Surely the target of the meme are the people who don’t think they need to bother with any of that stuff but can just open a Bible and read the ‘plain literal truth’ therein?

  • Clayton Gafne Jaymes

    What part about God isn’t literal? What parts about Jesus and salvation aren’t literal? What parts of the things that the Scriptures say do you see as being something other than literal and accurate?

    Or are you going to get caught up in figurative usages in Scripture that are meant to be literal intent behind them rather than reading the words themselves ‘literally’?

    The Scriptures have been translated for centuries. As suc that only helps to keep the undertanding through languages in its true meanings since the current day translators are able to compare the oldest translations and see what the relationship was between those languages along with the actual original language copies of the Scriptures.

    And how many different ‘cultures’ all around the world are reading the Bible today? Do you think we are all getting different understandings of the Scriptures from each other? And yet you want us to believe that the ppl of the past had bad translations over all rather than really good ones that have been preserved down to this day to be studied?

    Perhaps it is you that lacks the ‘humility’ in trust of the translators to carry out something God would and does want done?

    • Cynthia Brown Christ

      Did you know that biblical literalism did not even exist until the 1850’s? And that it was a result of Darwin’s book on evolution, and the fear it inspired into a group of Evangelical religious leaders.

      Jews don’t read the book literally. Catholics do not. Martin Luther did not either. He had 5 Hermeneutical Principles of scriptural exegesis.

      Luther:

      “Only after prayer, and through the work of the Holy Spirit can the truth about scripture come about.”

      “One must respect the context of the passage, and then meditate on the passage with the help of the Holy Spirit.”

      “must blend exegesis and experience and the work of the Holy Spirit…”

      “The whole scripture is about Christ alone. Understanding Scripture means finding Christ within it.”

      You cannot just look at a verse and deem it’s literal meaning as the meaning of the original writers. Nobody teaches that, except the false teachers, the wolves in sheep’s clothing.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      What human language about God is literal, and which is not? God walking in the garden? The hand, the outstretched arms, the wings? Is heaven literally “up”? Classic Christian theologians also emphasized that no human language does justice to what God is like, so that even a word like “good” cannot be said to be literally applicable to God, since no human concept of goodness perfectly reflects the nature or character of God.

      If you travel the world a bit you will find that yes, people reading the Bible in the same language but different cultures, as well as those reading in different languages, understand things differently.