Sometimes Reading the Bible Literally Is Literally Wrong

Sometimes Reading the Bible Literally Is Literally Wrong July 18, 2017

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For most of my life the goal of reading Scripture was information in, transformation out.
It was almost as if the Bible was an archive of knowledge that could be mastered by the most devoted disciple.

And often I still notice this trend playing itself out in one way or another. In other words, Christian character is often measured by how many verses someone can whip out in a freestyle theological debate.

But 2 Chonicles 2.7 says…. and then Revelation 24.2 says (oops, that’s not in my Bible at least)… and of course Jesus says in John 7.7….


(And usually, that “thus” leads to how right the verse slinger is in his or her opinion about a theological matter.)

Unfortunately, this pick and choose method, although for some can be evidence of a passion for God and the Bible, is problematic in many ways.

And, being able to pull out chapter and verse on a dime isn’t a sign of transformation that the Bible itself usually emphasizes. A better starting point is the “fruit of the Spirit” or the virtues Jesus advocates in the Sermon on the Mount.

Beyond this mismeasure of character formation, is the way that the Bible gets used in these sorts of situations.

Many of us were trained to take the whole Bible literally.

We were literally taught to literally take the whole thing literally.

Here’s the deal: when you tell people that the whole Bible can be understood by trusting the meaning of the “plain sense” of the text (what it means to the reader from their vantage point), then the picking and choosing method of theological interpretation becomes a natural way to work it out on the ground.

But the Bible isn’t designed to be an archive of isolated sayings and stories that we can pull from to make synthesized arguments for our various opinions about God and the church.

It is a library.
It is a set of books.
It has multiple voices with varied vantage points.
It speaks of God differently depending on its setting.

And if we believe that this library we call the Bible is actually inspired by God, we do right by it when we take it on its own terms: not our own.

The Bible isn’t something we can extract into literal wooden principles or minimize to one genre.

We can’t make the Bible too simple: when we do, we squelch the voice of the text to mimic our voice a bit too much.

That can be dangerous, or just a bummer. The Bible offers so much more than plain sense readings!

Depending on your background, what I’m about to say will probably be: 1) review, 2) brand new and helpful, 3) brand new and intimidating.

I want to give a simple but important grid for approaching anything we read in the Bible.
I realize that not everyone who reads Scripture as an act of devotion will have time to do all of these steps, but all of us have access to quality resources that do some of the heavy lifting for us.

Let others do the heavy lifting! No shame in that! Especially if you are not a professional scholar.

You can engage scholarship by utilizing tools and methods at your own pace. 😎

This is why I write here at Patheos and Theology Curator: I want to remove as many barriers as possible that get in the way of engaging the Scriptures (which ultimately point us to Jesus) with intelligent and humanizing lenses.

Author’s intent.

  • Before reading a passage as something to be interpreted, we always want to ask: What was the author trying to convey here? The Scriptures are always conditioned within a real situation. Yes, God speaks through the Bible! But, so do the human authors. We start with the human intent to clearly discern the Divine intent. Getting this backways leads to weird places. But, this is a fundamental concern that we will have to circle back to multiple times as we engage the whole process through. The author’s intent, if we can discern it well enough, will get us closer to the Divine intent.


  • Knowing the type of literature we are dealing with is as important as asking what the author may have been communicating!!!! In fact, this is one of the places where interpreting “literally” can lead to problems. For instance, Genesis 1 is likely a ‘poetic narrative’ or a liturgy. That shapes what we should expect from the text. Taking every line as ‘literally how it happened’ could compromise what the text is actually trying to convey! That’s one example of many. We need to take poetry as poetry, narrative as narrative, parable as parable, letters as letters, imagery as imagery, etc.

Words & rhetoric.

  • The Bible is written in multiple languages. We need to notice: 1) which language is being used (in the New Testament, it’s all Greek, for instance), 2) which words are being used and how they would be understood to the particular audience, and 3) which rhetorical devices are being used in that language and how that shapes the meaning and intent. Words matter. For instance, as Mark Nanos argues in The Irony of Galatians, the words and rhetoric Paul uses clearly mimics Greco-Roman methods of ironic rebuke (more on this another day!). Or when in Mark 13 Jesus uses cosmic language of destruction that he has in mind the rhetorical strategies involving hyperbole (exaggeration) that often point toward an earth shattering event with political ramifications–not the literal destruction of the cosmos. Both the words authors choose and the rhetoric they utilize matter.

Cultural context.

  • The Scriptures are embedded in culture! This is so important. We need to learn about geography, religions, empires, customs, recent history, cultural assumptions, and so much more. For instance, as is a theme in my own work, the Roman Empire plays such an important role in the shaping of the New Testament. Why was it subversive to say “Jesus is Lord?” Well, because we know that this was a central claim of the Caesar’s about their own Lordship. Why was it subversive to say “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you?” Because this likely extended beyond frustrating neighbors to the Roman soldiers that treated the Jewish people as second-class humans. Context shapes everything and it is in the story world of a text that we start to really uncover the author’s intent: to get us closer to Divine intent.

Narrative flow of a passage.

  • Where does the passage at hand fit within the larger parameters of the book? How does Mark 13 fit into Mark’s overall narrative strategy? What did James say immediately before and after he said “Faith without works is dead”? Within any book of the Bible, knowing the flow of that book is important so we can keep the whole story in mind.
Now that we’ve done our historical/biblical studies work (yep, you can be a scholar!), we now can move into theology (where we do the work of integrating what one part of the Bible says with the rest of it).
This step is a decisively “Christian step.”
For those of you who aren’t followers of Jesus, but enjoy biblical scholarship, the above steps are likely where you will stop.
For those of us who believe that the whole Bible is inspired, we need to move into these final two stages of the interpretive process.

Biblical narrative.

  • After doing the above work, hopefully we’ve gained some insights into what the author of the text was trying to say. Genre, words, rhetoric, and culture are all the means through which we discern. Up to this point we’ve been historians mostly. But when it comes to discussing how a passage fits into the broader biblical narrative (from Genesis to Revelation), we have made a choice that it actually matters. So, how does Mark 13 speak to the apocalyptic images in Revelation (in some forms of literalist readings of Scripture, they work together to create a future 7 year tribulation)? How does what Jesus says in Matthew’s gospel compare to Leviticus?

Redemptive movement.

  • This last step that I’m proposing complements the previous theological move. But now was ask: Where is the storyline of the Bible headed? A great example of this is how the Hebrew Scriptures teach–Don’t kill–but the New Testament goes as far to teach–Don’t use violence. Or where the Hebrew Scriptures (to be way to generalizing) basically say–Treat slaves nicely compared to neighboring cultures–Paul can say– Treat slaves as brothers! The Scriptures move somewhere redemptive. Ultimately, this redemptive movement will end up at a renewed creation.

I hope this gives you something to sit with about how we read the Bible.
Literal interpretations can be helpful when we are meant to read things literally. No doubt!
But we need to notice that it isn’t as simple as reading something and making meaning out of what it seems to say on the surface.

The Bible is too important of a book for that! In fact, it is a library that points us to a God of love!

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