A Christian Case Against the Literal Reading of Scripture

If being a Christian is to be a follower of Jesus Christ, then it follows to think that Christians ought to be like Christ.

In many cases this might prove difficult. We do not know everything Christ did on Earth in the finest detail. In other cases, when overextended, this would be silly. It would be outrageous to say (as some people sometimes imply) that women cannot be Christians, because Jesus Christ was a man.

Here we see that even when trying to be a Christ follower it is crucial not to be a literalist. The point is that we exercise judgement the moment we attempt to follow Christ, in choosing what the relevant things to follow are. For Catholics, this is where tradition helps to guide, teach, and advise.

The opening description remains: To be a Christian is to be someone who tries to be Christ-like.

If this is true, then it follows to expect a serious Christian to read scripture like a Jew. Why? Well, because Jesus was not a Christian. He was a Jew. He read and taught scripture as a rabbi. (This also applies to the Apostles who, of course, were Jews, too.)

To review: IF being a Christian is to be Christ-like, THEN it is more than reasonable to read and interpret scripture in a Jewish, rabbinic way.

How do Jews read and interpret scripture? Not like Christian fundamentalists. Jews are not literalists.

Wikipedia has this helpful review:

Pardes refers to (types of) approaches to biblical exegesis in rabbinic Judaism (or – simpler - interpretation of text in Torah study).

  • Peshat (פְּשָׁט) — “plain” (“simple”) or the direct meaning.
  • Remez (רֶמֶז) — “hints” or the deep (allegoric: hidden or symbolic) meaning beyond just the literal sense.
  • Derash (דְּרַשׁ) — from Hebrew darash: “inquire” (“seek”) — the comparative (midrashic) meaning, as given through similar occurrences.
  • Sod (סוֹד) (pronounced with a long O as in ‘bone’) — “secret” (“mystery”) or the esoteric/mystical meaning, as given through inspiration or revelation.

Each type of Pardes interpretation examines the extended meaning of a text. As a general rule, the extended meaning never contradicts the base meaning. The Peshat means the plain or contextual meaning of the text. Remez is the allegorical meaning. Derash includes the metaphorical meaning, and Sod represents the hidden meaning. There is often considerable overlap, for example when legal understandings of a verse are influenced by mystical interpretations or when a “hint” is determined by comparing a word with other instances of the same word.

This means that literalist readings of Genesis and more are not only dull and stupid, they are also, in a very real and serious way, highly unchristian because to read and interpret scripture the Bible in a literal, fundamentalist way is precisely to not read scripture as Christ did.

Therefore Christian “Biblical” approaches to science are much more than wretched science; they are an abuse of the simplest logical expectations of what it is to be a Christian.

  • oregon nurse

    “IF being a Christian is to be Christ-like, THEN it is more than reasonable to read and interpret scripture in a Jewish, rabbinic way.”

    Are you sure the “Jewish, rabbinic way” is the way of the 1st century Judaism of Jesus? Judaism (which cannot even be said to be one thing) has changed dramatically since then and I believe the rabbinic tradition had its origin from the Pharisees. The Jewish rabbinic tradition has been one of argument and disagreement among famous rabbis rather than the cohesive doctrine of Catholicism. The Gospels indicate that Jesus was a radical teacher that nevertheless was allowed to teach in the synagogues and people recognized his authority. Just not seeing how this model works for Catholics today.

    • SamRocha

      Fair point. My point is not much more than a case *against* Biblical literalism. From this I am not trying to make a prescriptive counter to it. I would say, however, that the exegetical and hermeneutic tradition of reading and interpretation strikes me being in the same spirit with respect to its multi faceted imagination. Perhaps the midrash would be a better and more concrete example.

  • http://rosarynovice.stblogs.com/ Augustine

    These are the scholastic Four Senses of Scripture: literal, allegoric, moral, anagogic (CCC #115). But rabbinic tradition is actually medieval, so it’s fair to assume some mutual influence, direct or indirect, between Jewish and Catholic scholars.

    PS: the Jewish contemporaries of Jesus considered His interpretation of the Scriptures as nothing like the scribes’ and pharisees’.

    • celticcol

      Actually that 4 senses is Catholic and not Judaic from the first centuries during which the “Bible”– meaning the books chosen to go into in to it versus the hundreds of texts that were not included, called gnomic etc — was put together. And to oregon nurse — Catholic doctrine is not simply cohesive. It has undergone numerous changes and challenges — take a look at the lateran councils, then Great Schism, the Greek Orthodox vs the Roman Church.

  • Jikkiyu

    This is not quite a quod erat demonstrandum argument….

  • http://ashesfromburntroses.blogspot.com/ Manny

    Very good Sam. You probably could have expanded this a bit and gone into more detail and examples. Sola Scriptura doesn’t make sense on a number of levels.

    • SamRocha

      I have a word limit this month!

  • Chris

    Jesus is also God. He thinks as God. And as God He inspired the writings of Scripture in the first place no?

    Jews were chosen to keep true worship of God alive until the Messiah came and this was not because of their exegetical skills. (as they had almost lost true worship when Christ came…almost like He timed it that way). They were more likely chosen because of their stubborn insistence on maintaining the tradition of their fathers.

    I think modern scholars get lost in the weeds a lot with this whole think Jewish like Jesus thought avenue. Jesus was, is and ever shall be in possession of the universal (Catholic) mind of God. Trying to learn the mind of God through a cultural lens is counter productive.

    We have a universal religion meant to wake up and resonate with all the descendants of Noah not just those who can think like a Jewish person. I am all for attacking fundamentalists approaches to scripture but pointing them back to Judaism (instead of pointing them to what true Judaism became…Catholicism) is problematic.

    I also think–when making Catholic arguments it is not helpful to call the vast vast majority of Church Fathers (whose exegesis we still often times rely on) as ‘dull stupid, and un-Christian’. Because they mostly held to a literal reading of Genesis…

    This whole creationism vs evolution is a distraction from the things that are actually necessary for salvation.

    • M. Daniel Mills

      Add to that the painstaking effort made by the writers of scripture to detail the genealogies and trace them from Christ back to the line of King David and such.

      And I agree that the creation/evolution debate has been a very effective distraction from the fallen state of man and his relationship with his creator and redeemer.

  • Th3ShakeMaster

    How can people talk about reading the Bible literally or not when we know the Bible has been altered and changed to suit individual and periodic beliefs hundreds if not thousands of times over the years? The exclusion of the “Apocrypha” alone is enough to make it a completely different book. So at this point you can’t even expect it to even resemble the book it was 2000 years ago. Not to mention everything that gets lost in translation. Is no one aware of the amount of word play that was used and gets completely lost when you translate it out the original Arabic, Hebrew and Greek? We have to stop perpetuating the idea that the Bible is anything like what was originally written. The fact that it shares so much with so many religious texts and tales (Kuran, Mahabharat, etc..) should be enough for us to realize that the Bible was not the first book with tales of floods, saviors, moral codes and rapture like returns. Thinking that the book you have in your hand today is the direct word of any God is naive, ignorant and harmful to the evolution of humanity.

    • http://rosarynovice.stblogs.com/ Augustine

      Actually, we can attest to the integrity of the Bible. If not back to 2000 years, a couple of centuries shy of that. The pieces that have lasted to this day are identical to the Bible as we have had in the last few centuries.

    • NoGod4Me

      AMEN to that! Just look at the number of “versions” out there, and you quickly realize that the “bible” has been rewritten so much and so often that you can’t trust what is printed is “the word of god.” Then it hits you: It’s not the word of god, it’s just the words of a bunch of people making a new religion out of the ashes of the old ones. Doing it to gain political and moral control of the ignorant masses.

  • yan

    “To review: IF being a Christian is to be Christ-like, THEN it is more than reasonable to read and interpret scripture in a Jewish, rabbinic way.”

    I disagree. Christ often interpreted the Scriptures in a manner at odds with the interpretation of his contemporaries. From what I have seen, the interpretations of Christ’s Jewish contemporaries were more literal, not less literal, than the interpretations of modern and talmudic Jews. And Christ’s interpretations were the most literalistic of all three.

    So, if you want to propose an authoritative basis for figurative interpretation of Scripture by Catholics, I think you ought to look elsewhere than the example of Christ. Look instead to the fathers of the Church, and to the scholastics.

  • Christopher

    Christians have, through the centuries, looked to BOTH the literal (not fundamentalist) and spiritual meaning of Sacred Scripture. (See Henry de Lubac, Origen: History & Spirit; Medieval Exegesis.)

  • ylarryb

    I started studying the torah from a jewish perspective many years ago. there are lots of web sites to help you that are free. You are absolutely right they understand scripture differently and have convinced me my understanding was incorrect, so much so that I have left christianity.

    • Noe

      I did something like that too, and I did it veiter, mamash – for 12 years. And then I learned how much of a difference there is between expurgated post-Beit-ha-Mikdash Judaism/parshanut and so much else – and what went on before, and while, Jesus walked the earth. And then I became Catholic.

      • ylarryb

        I do not understand. Can you point me in a direction so I can find out what you are saying?

  • Justin Lightle

    Don’t forget that Jesus told the Pharisees that they had been misinterpreting the torah all along… How quickly we forget the sermon on the mount, which is one of many examples. To take Jesus’ words and someone turn them into some convoluted mix of symbolism and mystic meaning is to start muddying the waters, which is not Jesus’ intent. All things in the Bible have a literal meaning that is relevant to the time period it is written and some of it has double meanings like the prophets, but not all.

  • Howard

    Why exactly would a Christian care how the Jews — particularly post-Temple Jews — interpret Scripture?

    • Thomas Gallagher

      He would care because the Jews of today are our elder brothers and sisters in Faith, and as Pope Saint John Paul has taught us, the Covenant between God and His chosen people–the Mosaic Covenant–has never been abrogated, never been superseded by Christianity. God still pours out His blessings and His favor upon the sons and daughters of Israel. Your question, unhappily, implies a certain lurking anti-Semitism.

      • Howard

        No, they are not. You are inserting “of today” into a phrase where it does not belong.

        Understanding Scripture as it would have been understood by St. John the Baptist is one thing. It has its place, though even that is not really normative; the Church has grown and developed quite a bit since then. It is something different altogether, though, to understand Scripture as the rabbi down the street might understand it. Even though a few insights might be gleaned from his understanding of it — or the understanding of an atheist or Buddhist, for that matter, if they happen to have the right education — he is part of a tradition that has emphatically rejected the Gospel for the past 2000 years. He is not a reliable source of wisdom.

        A parallel would be the Samaritans who, like the Sadducees, rejected all Scripture after the Books of Moses. A Pharisee or modern Jew would not consider them “elder brothers” simply because they never progressed any further in their faith, and neither a Pharisee nor a modern Jew would have much interest in how the Samaritans interpreted those Scriptures they acknowledged.

      • Howard

        Also, it is not always the “elder brother” who gets the blessing. Edom was the older brother of Israel.