5 Easy Steps to Reading the Bible Literally

5 Easy Steps to Reading the Bible Literally November 24, 2017

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

  • 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.

    • “Good English like Jesus spoke it.”

  • “The only real Bible is the King James. Good English like Jesus spoke it.”

  • 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.

    • Dorfl

      Literal interpretation is simply normal interpretation. It’s what you are doing when you read this post, or these responses.

      All of which requires fluency in the language used and inside knowledge of the cultural context, just like the meme says.

      • LT

        You might go back and read the meme. What it is trying to tell you is that you can’t actually read the Bible with any understanding. The fact is that modern translations are translated by those with fluency in language and culture and thus, modern translations are trustworthy when you interpret them literally.

        • Dorfl

          What it is trying to tell you is that you can’t actually read the Bible with any understanding.

          You can obviously read the Bible with some understanding, but it tells you that your understanding will be very limited as long as you stick to a literal reading.

          The fact is that modern translations are translated by those with fluency in language and culture and thus, modern translations are trustworthy when you interpret them literally.

          This claim assumes that the problems with reading translations are due to shortcomings of the translators, which the meme tries to explain is not the case. To clarify, you seem to assume that for any paragraph written in ancient Hebrew, there will be a corresponding paragraph in modern English which means the same thing. Based on that assumption, it’s reasonable to think that a sufficiently skilled translator would be able to find that English paragraph, and so give you a translation that you can read straightforwardly. The problem is that this corresponding English paragraph often does not exist. When that happens, it simply doesn’t matter how knowledgeable the translator is, the translation will be flawed, because a correct translation is impossible.

          Before we go on, I have to ask if you speak a second language. There are some things that will be easier for me to illustrate if you have some first-hand experience with translation.

          • LT

            Any reading other than a literal reading is not a reading of that text. It is reading of the person’s mind that is doing the reading of the text. The only way to understand a text is to take it on its own terms which can only be done by a literal reading.

            I am not fluent in any other languages, but I know a little of several and have taught for years through a translator in various languages, so I know quite enough to understand translation. And yes, in any two languages, there are equivalent paragraphs that mean the same thing. No one with any knowledge disputes that. Were it not true, there would be no way to communicate or translate at all. I think what you might mean is that there are not always equivalent words or equivalent semantic and grammatical structures.

            In terms of biblical studies, resources like the UBS Handbook often walk through the difficult examples of these showing how, when translating to other languages, you find the equivalent meaning.

            The whole idea of an equivalent meaning is a testimony to the fact that meaning is objective and can be determined. If, as you and the parody meme, seems to suggest that we can’t understand the meaning, how do you know you don’t understand it? The only way to know you don’t understand something is if you affirm that it has a meaning. Ironically the only way to know you don’t know the meaning is to know what it means, or at least for someone to know what it means.

            So in the end, language and communication is much more difficult in theory than it is in practice. And it is silly memes like this that sound sophisticated until you encounter someone who knows a thing or two about language.

          • LT

            I suppose the more direct question that will get us quickly to the point is this: How do you know someone’s understanding is limited unless you know the full understanding?

            The answer is: You don’t.

          • Dorfl

            […] in any two languages, there are equivalent paragraphs that mean the same thing.

            This is definitely false. I would go as far as to say that any bilingual person who can’t come up with a paragraph in either language that cannot be accurately translated into the other should question their own language skills. As a demonstration, I just made up the following:

            “Jag satt i fåtöljen och myste med en bok och en mugg glögg. Vädret hade varit precis lagom kallt, och efter att tålmodigt ha stått ut med de vuxnas krav på gemensamt Kalle Anka-tittande hade barnen återigen sprungit ut för att förvandla den halvmeterdjupa kramsnön till varsin snöfästning med tillhörande snöbollsarsenal. Jag sände en medlidsam tanke till vem som nu skulle behöva ta hand om tittarstormen, när tusentals bittra SD:are upptäckt att ytterligare en tresekunderslång sekvens försvunnit.”

            If I completely ignore aesthetic concerns, and focus on making the translation as accurate as possible, I might end up with:

            “I sat in an armchair with a book and a mug of mulled wine, experiencing a warm sense of cozy enjoyment. The weather had been just cold enough to give the kind of snow that easily packs into snowballs, and after patiently enduring the adults’ insistence on the watching Donald Duck together – as one does every Christmas – the children had returned outside to transform the half-metre deep snow into a snow fort and snowball arsenal each. I felt a moment of compassion for the employee at the state television channel who would need to handle the deluge of angry calls from thousands of bitter voters for the neofascist party, who had discovered yet another three seconds long sequence had been cut out.”

            Getting the intended meaning across here forced me to take several liberties with the actual text.

            First of all, there are words which have no clear equivalent. Turning ‘glögg’ into ‘mulled wine’ isn’t a terrible stretch. Turning ‘kramsnö’ into ‘the kind of snow that easily packs into snowballs’, ‘tittarstorm’ into ‘deluge of angry calls’ and ‘SD:are’ into ‘voters for the neofascist party’ are all correct, but I’m sure you’re noticing how wordy I have to get to avoid losing information. Then we get to the verb ‘mysa’, which I’ve rendered as ‘experience a warm sense of cozy enjoyment’. This doesn’t actually catch the connotations of that word, but it’s the best I can do in English.

            Then there is the cultural context. I had to throw in ‘as one does every Christmas’. A contemporary Swedish reader would know that watching a specific Donald Duck cartoon at a specific hour is an old Christmas tradition, but without an explicit clarification, an English reader would not understand what’s going on. I also expanded ‘vem som nu’, which just means ‘whoever’ into ‘the employee at the state television channel who’, since the English reader would otherwise be unaware that this was viewed on the Swedish state television channel, and not just a private television channel, which obviously changes how the viewers react to what they see. Finally there is the part about short sequences being cut out, which despite my best efforts will remain opaque to a reader who does not know how in recent years, certain sequences of the cartoon have been cut out, since they contain 1950’s racial caricatures, and the outrage this change has produced in certain quarters.

            As you can see, despite being the original author and going so far as to permit myself to add things to the translation that aren’t even there in the original, I wasn’t able to fully convey the intended meaning. Certain things will always be lost in translation.

            This also answers your question of how I can know that we don’t fully understand the Hebrew text, without needing to fully understand it myself. Since I can show a short text that cannot be fully translated between two contemporary languages, even by a person who lives in the cultural context of the original, it follows that there will also be texts that cannot be fully translated between an ancient language and a contemporary language, by people who rely on partial reconstructions of the cultural context for the original text.

          • LT

            I think you are confusing the issue by moving the goalposts. I also think you are confusing the exact translation or meaning of words with the meaning of paragraphs. You also confuse translation of a text with explanation of things behind or around a text. Translating a text is not the same as explaining the cultural milieu and linguistic milieu of the text. Of course, there is a sense in which there are always things lost in translation, but it is only a sense, and it is not necessary to clear communication of meaning.

            As you point out (and seem to confuse even though you claim to do it), there are frequently single words in a parent language that require multiple words in the daughter language. By the same token, there are times when multiple words in the parent language can be communicated in a single word in the daughter language. It is not “one for one.” However that is different than not being able to communicate clearly and accurately in a paragraph. As you have demonstrated above, the communication of meaning in translation is possible. Yes, a nuance here or there might be missed a bit, and cultural explanation may help understanding. But meaning is communicable.

            If this were not true, meaningful translation would frequently be impossible and we all know that is not true.

            And in the end, there remains no way to prove your thesis that no one else can understand it fully unless you know the full understanding and can show that no one else does.

          • Dorfl

            No, I’m pretty sure that the goalposts are where they were to begin with. What I showed above is that while you can solve some problems by splitting single words into multiple, and even adding short clarifications, you eventually reach a point where it’s inevitable that something important will be lost. A person immersed in the same cultural context as me would walk away from the text with a different idea of what it’s describing as you would if you’d only read the translation. This is an unavoidable effect of the fact that some of the information contained in a text is always implied, as the author assumes some degree of shared understanding that the reader will use to reconstruct that information. The only way of getting around that is by adding expository text that will likely be longer than the translated text itself.

            As for the question of how I can know that you don’t fully understand the text without fully understanding it myself, this is very much like measuring something with a yardstick, announcing a length with micrometer precision, and asking “How do you know it isn’t the value I said? Have you measured it with micrometer precision to doublecheck?” when somebody protests that the measuring device you’re using doesn’t have that degree of precision.

          • LT

            Apparently we are having different conversations because this is nothing like measuring something with a yard stick. It is about the basic premise of communication. And that is that communication is possible across times, cultures, and languages. To deny that is fraught with so many problems that are self-evident and that are explicitly refuted both by history and the present. That we can know anything about past cultures at all is itself a refutation of of your premise.

            So while you have a valiant effort, sprinkled with a couple of obvious points (such as the lack of word-for-word equivalents), you have fallen far short of the goal you set out. You also (again) confused translation with explanation. And what you call “expository text” is sometimes just translation.

            When I say that that you can’t even affirm your position without denying it, it is obviously true. You can’t say someone else doesn’t have full understanding unless you do, because you simply don’t know what you don’t know. It may be that you don’t have full understanding and are thus judging from a position of incompetency. Well meaning to be sure, but incompetent nonetheless. These things are so axiomatic in communication that only someone trying too hard could deny them.

          • Dorfl

            Your argument that I cannot know that a translation is imperfect is based on an assumption that if someone tries to move information from A to B be some means X, I cannot know that part of the information that ends up at B has been lost or distorted, unless I have perfect access to the information at A. A happened to be an original text, B a translation of the text, and X the process of translation. I substituted A with an actual physical distance, B with a reported measurement value and X a yardstick, to clarify why the underlying logic of your argument is flawed.

            It doesn’t actually matter if you find the clarification helpful or not hough. The fact remains that I can think in Swedish, I can think in English or I can go to the trouble of translating between the languages. This creates a situation where I can have perfect understanding of the original meaning, and allows me to verify that the process of translation does in fact lead to information being lost and distorted. Having observed directly that this is a problem for two contemporary languages, I see no reason to believe that there is anything that somehow lessens the problem when one is an ancient language, used in a cultural context not fully understood by the translator.

            That it is possible to communicate between different times, etc, hasn’t been denied by anyone. Not by me, McGrath, or by whoever made the meme originally. What has been claimed is that is the process of translation a certain amount of information is lost; that this information loss is more severe the more the language and cultural context differs between the original writer and the reader; and that the more is lost in translation the more effort the reader must make to understand what the writer intended to convey.

  • 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?

    • 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


        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.

        • 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.


      “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.

      • I will also note that in the Wesleyan tradition (associated with Methodism), they recognize the importance of tradition, reason, and experience in addition to scripture.

    • 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.

      • Gary M

        I find it curious that moderate Christians snicker at fundamentalists when these “silly, poorly-informed (ignorant) literalists” insist that the Creation occurred in six literal days and that Jonah really was swallowed alive by a great fish, but these same moderates are shocked and appalled when skeptics snicker at them for their insistence that Jesus’ brain-dead corpse really did come back to life, ate a broiled fish lunch with his former fishing buddies, allowed a guy named Thomas to poke his fingers in his nail wounds, and then, forty days later, flew off into outer space!

        The fact is, the majority of scholars do not believe that eyewitnesses nor the associates of eyewitnesses wrote the Gospels. Even NT Wright has stated, “I don’t know who wrote the Gospels nor does anyone else”. If we don’t know who wrote these books, how on earth can we know which parts of their stories are historical and which parts are simply theological or literary embellishments??? How on earth can we know which parts should be understood literally and which parts should not? If today, someone told you that they just read four anonymous books which state that a guy living 40 years ago in the Middle East rose from the dead would you believe it?

        Of course not.

        • To build off that excellent point, it seems to me that every Christian has a point beyond which they abandon sense and become literalists. I once ran across a Christian blogger who was happy with himself for having left literalism behind–but he still believed that Jesus literally lived and died and rose again. His savior’s Gospel biography might be 99% allegory and metaphor and wishful thinking, but that one point was his literalism line in the sand and he would not, could not cross it. But there was no reason at all to stop at that line. If 99% of the rest of it’s not literally true, then there’s no reason in the world to think that that 1% is. More recently I encountered a Christian who was very proud of having walked away from literalism, but now believed very firmly in the Saturday Sabbath as something that all Christians must do. The mind breaks and bleeds at the inconsistency on display.

          The further one goes into accepting that the Bible isn’t real, the more one realizes that there’s no reason to take any of it seriously–at least any more seriously than one takes the myths of any culture. The myths must serve us, not the other way around. I love the myths of Ancient Greece; I have a copy of Works and Days next to my desk that I thumb through when I need a jolt of beauty and wonderment. I come away from that book’s poetry feeling like I’ve got berry stains on my cheeks–which is not something I ever experienced with the Bible even in my most fervent days. But I wouldn’t take those myths as being literally things that happened. They are inspiring but not something that I’m required to believe as literal truth.

          • I think that your appreciation of myth and an array of other genres is great, but I don’t think it needs to reject the appropriateness of historical work on ancient texts within and outside the Bible which show evidence of being mythologized accounts of actual events rather than stories crafted as pure fiction.

    • Dorfl

      Do you think we are all getting different understandings of the Scriptures from each other?

      Evidently, yes. Every time I listen to American Christians describing their faith, I’m struck by how distinctly American their branch of Christianity is.

    • jh

      I think you have a problem. Your Jesus made numerous non-literal statements. For example, the “You must be born again” reference. Jesus was known for his non-literal sermonizing. It was parables such as “the kingdom of heaven is like…” If anything, one could argue that a literal reading of the Bible is the incorrect technique to understanding the christian god.

      I get that it feels safe to have a literal, how-to manual where the do’s and the don’ts are clearly defined. But that seems rather childish. (And no reference to “suffer the little children” nonsense. JC didn’t recruit kids.) At least allow your god to have some level of intellectual complexity greater than a 5 year old child.

      Not only that, languages are different. To a German, a bridge is feminine and they would use feminine adjectives to describe it. To a Spaniard, a bridge is masculine and they would use masculine adjectives to describe that same bridge. The bridge didn’t change. The only thing that changed was the language of the speaker. There are words and concepts that are simply untranslatable in every single language. We can approximate them, but that native intuitive understanding is absent. We can only understand it intellectually whereas the native speakers will comprehend that same phrase on a far deeper level. The people who translated the original texts that came to form the modern protestant Bibles were not native speakers of those biblical languages. They had no understanding of the deep cultural motifs and traditions that were part of this middle eastern religion. To pretend that they were even half way competent is to trust Google translate to translate a legal document and expect it to be accurate in both words and meanings.

  • soter phile

    “literalist” – a pejorative term NO biblical conservative I’ve ever met actually claims.
    your meme mocking said “literalists” (ironically?) merely describes good scholarship.

    you then describe that same process as functionally “impossible” – except as approximation.
    then you say humility is a clear emphasis, but clearly conservatives lack it… (how *humble* of you!)

    a) how would you know? after all, it’s “at best, an approximation” by your understanding.
    b) does that include central tenets of the faith – like the resurrection? or do you just invoke this hermeneutical “humility” whenever you find a passage teaching something you don’t like?

    SUM: using “humility” to dismiss other clear themes of Scripture is NOT humble. it’s the antithesis (Mk.12:24).

    • For those who humbly accept that our human understanding is an approximation that should always remain open to correction, nothing that you wrote seems relevant or on-target as a response.

      • soter phile

        It seems you are “open to correction” from anywhere and any language except the language of Scripture.
        Again, that’s neither humility nor good scholarship.

        on point: resurrection – yes or no? did it happen? or just an “approximation”?

        • This is a bizarre comment that merely illustrates how far conservative Christian caricatures are from reality. Just because one does not view ancient human beings, or for that matter one’s parents, as inerrant does not mean that one is not open to learning from them.

          • soter phile

            Instead of answering a direct question (resurrection: yes or no?), you claim it’s bizarre. And yet many of the below comments had a similar response to your article: (basically) so *why* trust language at all? you seem surprised by that consistent response, because you apparently are not following your own (self-defeating) logic.

            but again, I’m not arguing that parents or ancient human beings are inerrant. i’ve asked you if you believe in the resurrection. you appear unwilling to answer that rather direct question. I’m highly suspicious that is because you realize:
            a) that’s a central tenet of the faith which requires greater acknowledgement than being a mere “approximation” (because if one disavows it, can one call oneself a Christian with any intellectual integrity?)
            b) you know it is illogical for you to affirm one repeated Scriptural claim while disavowing other similarly repeated claims/themes as unclear “approximations.”

            so again: resurrection – yes or no? did it happen?

          • John Purssey

            That’s a creedal type question, beloved of those who would appropriate God’s role of separating the sheep from the goats. Very similar to the questions that those who resisted Jesus asked him to trap him. Wisely, he used to answer the questions that he thought should have been asked.

            Perhaps we should move away from propositional theology and ask what does the resurrection mean. Can we see what it meant to the various Christian understandings found in the New Testament, and how can Itranslate that meaning for my milieu, or how can you for translate it your milieu, or someone else for theirs.

          • soter phile

            It IS a creedal type question – a conviction predicated on rejecting *much* of what the author above claims, especially in regard to “approximations”.

            I certainly agree there is more going on here than propositions, but – sadly – that point often seems to be invoked only as an excuse to ignore the fact that it is not less than a proposition either.

            Jesus certainly didn’t *avoid* the propositional aspects of his teaching, nor did his apostles after him.

          • John Purssey

            So your question was posed in an effort to justify your rejection of the author. You don’t need to ask a question to do that.

            Propositional theology is an attempt to reduce mystery to manageable statements, to provide some sort of model to help understand experiential theology of life and its mystery. In the undertaking to create propositional statements there is great value. The idea that propositional statements have captured (in reality – reduced) the essence of belief and can be used as discriminators is misleading.

            And what I said was that when Jesus was asked to answer a propositional question by those who wanted to catch him out on his theology he instead answered the question he thought should have been posed, rather than the actual question. E.g. The good Samaritan story; payment to Caesar, the Samaritan woman’s question on whether to worship on Mt Gerizim or Jerusalem.

          • Exactly. Soter Phile seems to imagine that he is the first to use this tactic of throwing a shibboleth into a conversation as an attempt to find a basis for dismissing all that the other person has to say. There are two big ironies. One is that I have written a book on the subject and so he could have known the answer had he really cared to. The other is that, unless we sort out what the Bible is, we will not agree on how to answer the question or whether it is answerable. But that is the nature of conservative approaches to theology and to scripture. You start with the doctrines you want to affirm; then you posit a doctrine of scripture that supports it; and then you turn around and assert that the doctrines you presupposed all along are in fact something that emerges from scripture. It is incredible that this sleight of hand is not perceived more widely.

          • soter phile

            I have read enough of your blog not to need to read your book – unless you are claiming what you espouse here is at odds with what you’ve written elsewhere. There is little unique to your hermeneutical claims here, especially in current progressive circles.

            Sad that you consider a central tenet like the resurrection a shibboleth. 2000 years across 5 continents, and Christians share this common conviction – and yet you refuse to answer a direct question on it. That is the irony. The longer the dodge goes, the more indicting it is. If you can’t affirm what is most central, what common basis do we have as self-described Christians other than both invoking the name?

            “…Unless we sort out what the Bible is…” This is an attempt to dodge how the Scriptures have functioned in the believing community for 2000 years. You merely want to mock fundamentalists in the last 150 years, yet even inerrantists like Hodge & Warfield pointed back to the sources & Christian history. The Reformer’s cry was “to the sources!” By contrast, the progressive’s faux humility (“we just don’t know what the Bible is in context”) is ironically arrogance, as it is used to undermine CENTRAL tenets the faith has espoused CONSISTENTLY for 2000 years.

            “you start with doctrines you want to affirm…” We’re not talking hot topics! I’ve raised one of the most central tenets of the faith, if not the primary theme of the NT. how is that controversial or random?

            At the end of the day, when you read Mt.18:1-9, does it lead you to wrestle with your teaching? Are you leading people to Jesus or “James F. McGrath, progressive scholar”? If you can’t affirm the resurrection, yet you claim to be a teacher of Christ, these passages exist for a reason. That’s as true for the right (and the charlatan lies of Joel Osteen or Franklin Graham selling out for Trump) as it is for the left (waffling on CORE tenets of the faith).

            It’s not just a proposition. If this God is real, and not a figment or legend, how do we know who he is? Even Barth said: “we can only speak of God where he speaks of himself.” Yet you would have the Bible be something other than what it claims itself to be: namely, the very Word of God. “Where else would we go? You have the words of life.” The only sleight of hand here is claiming to submit to Christ while dodging his Word.

          • My reference was not to the consideration of the resurrection in the abstract, but your attempt to do two things: (1) introduce a new dogmatic test into the conversation that might allow you to evade the difficult topics that I was asking you to engage with, and (2) put the cart before the horse, as it were, by avoiding obviously prior questions about what tools might allow us to answer the question you posed.

            You are free to simply submit to the authority of the church and tradition if you are so inclined, but as a Protestant Christian I cannot do so mindlessly and uncritically. I am responsible to evaluate for myself – and also to evaluate the claims that modern conservative Christians make that their view reflects a 2,000 year old tradition, rather than what it really is, a reactionary response to modernism.

          • John Purssey

            “It is incredible that this sleight of hand is not perceived more widely.”

            I wonder if this is significantly caused by the nature of social media, which often is more like anti-social media. Many, especially on open sites such as this, take up a combative mode of interaction. They may be looking for such interaction and regard themselves as being apologists.
            This is satirised well in the XKCD cartoon Duty Calls https://xkcd.com/386/

            It is very easy to be drawn into this. I try to avoid it, but it takes an effort, and I do not always succeed.
            When one gets focused on arguing a point, the nature and tone of the dialogue is often not examined.
            (My natural De Bono hat is blue, so that probably helps).
            IMHO it is best to pose questions when you can; though often, the effort to get the other to think and reflect is mistaken as a a literal question for which an answer is needed, and rhetoricals or hypotheticals are assumed to be your own position. But I can live with that. it’s the (non-literal) eyes to see and ears to hear thing.

          • soter phile

            As I said above, the Gospel is not merely propositions, but it certainly not LESS than propositional.

            This “propositions = reducing” line of argumentation requires ignoring the fact that Jesus himself sometimes (if not frequently) made propositional affirmations. It’s only *reducing* if one thinks that particular proposition is ALL he had in mind, losing sight of the whole, the greater metaphors, the transcendent reality which he’s revealing in himself, etc.

            And yet that is *exactly* the line of logic so many self-described “progressives” invoke. Because “propositional = reducing”, now progressives can dismiss clear teaching from Christ or anyone else. Quite ironically & tragically, THAT is the ultimate reduction. A little god in a little box – certainly a god who cannot contradict anything a progressive already thinks. There is virtually no hope for transformation of a life within such a hermeneutic.

            And if the “gotcha” question is such a disqualifier (as you claim), why does Jesus himself so often respond with his own “gotcha” questions? Note well: yes, he excoriates Pharisees for studying the Scriptures & missing the living Word (Jn.5:39-40), but he equally (if not more readily) denounces the Sadducees for dismissing the obvious content of the Scriptures (Mk.12:24). Or would you have responded to Jesus in Mark 12 by claiming he was *reducing* resurrection to a proposition?

          • jh

            It doesn’t really matter whether the author believes in the resurrection or not. The parable of the Good Samaritan shows that your god (the JC/gospels version) doesn’t have a creedal litmus test. Otherwise, the Samaritan would have been knocked off before he even had the chance to extend help because he didn’t have the right … color of skin, ethnicity, cultural background, heritage, tradition.

            Frankly, you remind me of the caricatured Pharisees and the Sadducees in the New Testament: Torah literalists and arrogant unmerciful purity police.

  • Dr. Phlerman

    You don’t have to go to a museum to read the Old Testament in the Hebrew. You can just go to nearby synagogue. You can take adult Hebrew classes.

    • Sure, then you are dependent on the copyist who produced that copy, those who preserve and safeguard it there, and your Hebrew instructor, so hopefully you were not suggesting that what you wrote detracts in any way from the point of this post…

      • Dr. Phlerman

        Not true. The Hebrew Bible today is the same language as found in the Dead Sea scrolls. “he scrolls were found to be almost identical with the Masoretic text. Hebrew Scholar Millar Burrows writes, “It is a matter of wonder that through something like one thousand years the text underwent so little alteration. As I said in my first article on the scroll, ‘Herein lies its chief importance, supporting the fidelity of the Masoretic tradition.’” This is from the Moody Press. https://probe.org/the-dead-sea-scrolls/

        • I think you have completely missed the point of the post, and the meme. Without scholars and expert scribes, you would have no Masoretic text, no knowledge of what the Masoretic text is, and no book by Millar Burrows to consult…

          • Dr. Phlerman

            I get your point, I don’t agree with it. That’s not the same thing as “missing” it.