Did the Writers of the Bible Expect It To Be Taken Literally? [Questions That Haunt]

Did the Writers of the Bible Expect It To Be Taken Literally? [Questions That Haunt] October 1, 2013

This week’s Question That Haunts Christianity comes from Nina:

Questions that haunt: did people of Jesus’ time even expect the stories they were telling to be taken literally? Would they be shocked to learn that 2,000 years later we are interpreting them that way?

They told lots of stories then about people who were sons of god, and born of virgins, and resurrected — these were themes that came up regularly. It doesn’t seem to me (or to most scholars since David Friedrich Strauss, I think), that first century folks approached storytelling with the idea that their stories were literally accurate (they instead were symbolically True).

What if when we try to interpret the virgin birth or the resurrection as historically true (rather than symbolically True) we’re just completely misunderstanding the original intent of these stories? What if people in antiquity were way more sophisticated than we are, and they would think we were impossibly thick to be interpreting their beautiful stories this way?

To give a modern example, what if I had a southern friend who said “She’s so crazy about her man, it’s like he hung the moon.” And I said, “Oh, I don’t think his ladder would reach that high.” Imagine the reaction I would get….

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  • Tom McCool

    Does it matter? We can debate biblical literacy all day and likely never reach any consensus. And what is the point, really? I would rather delve into the deeper meanings of the text. We could argue about whether or not the world was created in six, 24-hour days, or we can discuss what the beautiful poetry of the passage teaches us about God and creation. I choose the latter.

    • Makaden

      “I would rather delve into the deeper meanings of the text.” It matters because you have decided that a set of “deeper meanings of the text” are the ones that matter and the…less deep???…meanings do not. You’ve decided the outcome a priori.

    • The reason I think it matters is that so many people are put off Christianity because they think it requires an intellectual assent that feels coercive and dishonest to them. They find it impossible to intellectually assent to some things that they might be reassured to know Jesus own Jewish followers probably didn’t believe. Many people might be more open to the Gospel and the values it represents if they realized that some of the ways of understanding Jesus that trouble them were only added later and not part of Jesus’ Jewish disciples’ understanding of him — whether it’s Hellenist interpretations added by Gentile converts in the first century, or literalist interpretations added by Fundamentalist Christians in the twentieth century.

  • R Vogel

    I just want to say i love the post-script about ‘hanging the moon.’ Sometimes I like to think about what archaeologists from 2000 years in the future will think about what us based on what we left behind. I remember a cartoon i saw a while back; it was year 10,000 and a group of archaeologists were unearthing a modern office with a bunch of cubicles and the head archaeologist says, “As far as we can tell it was some sort of prison…”

  • Pax

    Obviously, this question is of critical importance, but it seems to be posed as though it is something that we can’t investigate the answer to (that may not be the intent, it’s just how I read it). But really, isn’t this at the heart of why people study the early history of the church and read extra-biblical writings of early Christians? If we can see how these writings were received early on, then we might have a better idea of what they really mean. I haven’t dug deep into the scholarship on this, but from what I have read, it seems that early Christians believed that the resurrection was a historical event. If there is evidence to the contrary, I would certainly want to see it.

    • CurtisMSP

      Current research shows that the followers of Jesus did not consider the resurrection to be a literal, physical, occurrence until hundreds of years after the death of Jesus. That is why the physical resurrection is not mentioned in Matthew, Mark or Luke. In those gospels the presence of Jesus after his death is portrayed in mystical, metaphorical terms, not as literal, physical, presence.

      • Makaden

        Current research by whom? We aren’t dealing with the physical sciences here. The situatedness of authors matters. And I know plenty of New Testament scholars who would not agree with your statement.

  • I can’t tell you how every ancient, or how every author of scripture, thought about how historical, literal, or hyperbolic their writings were. But we have a few hints. Fr’instance, Paul on the resurrection of Jesus. Seems he took it literally.

    Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified of God that he raised Christ—whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised. If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. [1Co 15.12-17]

    Because Paul took Christ’s resurrection literally, this doesn’t automatically mean Paul believed in a historical Adam when he elsewhere compared Adam to Christ. [Ro 5.12-17] After all, in that passage Paul was treating both of them as archetypes, not men, even though we know he believed Jesus to be a literal man. But to my point: Some ancients took the scriptures literally. And it’s not unreasonable to assume they likewise intended their own writings to be taken literally.

    Well, unless they were being hyperbolic, telling parables, or using poetic and apocalyptic imagery. I expect they figured we’d use common sense to interpret which was which. Literalists tend to ditch common sense and read the entire bible as literal. Since that renders the bible graceless and impossible to follow, they then invent pick-n-choose systems. (Like Dispensationalism, which permits them to embrace their favorite commands, and ditch others because “we’re no longer under Law but grace.”) Reading the entire bible as myth is simply another pick-n-choose system: We get the freedom to embrace or dismiss myths according to our whims, and follow God only in the ways we personally like—yet keep the Christian label.

    • Andrew Dowling

      That quote from Paul is often cited to show that he thought a literal bodily Resurrection paramount, but it is not that clear at all. Not only does Paul say the Resurrected bodies are NOT flesh and blood, but all of the accounts of his Resurrection experience (road to Damascus) are clearly spiritual in nature, not direct physical contacts. Despite this, he places his experience of the Resurrection on the same field as everyone else’s.

      2000 years ago there was no TV, no movies, no Internet . . .there were story-tellers, oral and written. These stories were meant to convey both hard facts, myths, and everything in between. As does the Bible. It was common to take something that had occurred in reality and embellish to flesh out larger meanings . . not only because it conveyed that deeper meaning, but it made a better story! Straight historical recollection? . . ancients for the most part would have found that incredibly boring!

      • S_i_m_o_n

        And yet elsewhere Paul appeals to the many eyewitnesses of Christ’s resurrection, as if it were something that could visibly seen by someone other than the resurrected one.

      • “Straight historical recollection?… ancients for the most part would have found that incredibly boring!”

        Well, of course they would have. It doesn’t give them any wiggle room to spin it however they like, and claim whatever they wanted. You know, exactly the same way people do nowadays. That aspect of human nature hasn’t changed any.

        But just because the Gnostics preferred their reality to have a liquid nature, or because the Platonists preferred the reality of ideas to the reality of reality, doesn’t automatically mean Paul did too. We can’t just paint all ancients with the same brush, and claim every single one of them preferred truthiness to truth. Just because we would rather interpret the past flexibly, doesn’t mean every ancient believed likewise.

        And since the ancients who wrote the New Testament consistently appealed to eyewitnesses, to testimonies, to evidence, to fruit, to facts, it seems clear to me they at least held these things in some esteem. Even if all their contemporaries did not; even if all our contemporaries don’t either.

  • Jesse


    You pretty much answered you own question.

    You’re right, ancient people were more interested in conveying meaning through their writing — ‘what does this story mean?’ or ‘what is the truth contained in this writing?’ as opposed to ‘is this written account historically accurate/true?’

    Ancient Hebrews didn’t look at truth as being an intellectual understandings of abstract concepts. Truth, the way Jews understood it, is about something that is steadfast, certain, reliable and based in relational experiential connectivity. To know something in the Hebrew culture is actually an experience.

    So when Jesus says “you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free,” he’s saying you will physically experience the truth and it will set you free 😉

    • Craig

      There is a sense of “being given a literal interpretation” that even the very young child ordinarily expects when she says things like, “I saw a cat,” or “I need to go potty.” I suspect that contemporary children are, in this respect, no different from ancient Hebrew children. Would you agree? If so, then here is the sense in which we can ask whether a particular Bible author intended a particular claim of his to be given a literal interpretation.

      • Jesse

        I dunno Craig. I’m sure you know that postmodernism has taught us that we must accept relativism, especially when it comes to texts (of course we must also put a stake in the ground at some point). But when a child says “I need to go potty,” what they MEAN is “I need to expel urine out of my body because my bladder is full.” That’s what language is, a phonetic code we use to communicate our feelings, emotions and meanings. I still think that’s what the ancient writers were doing, communicating meaning — they were not doing modern scientific analysis or historical documentation, that’s for sure.

        • Craig

          The child is certainly also concerned with conveying meaning–it’s just that her meaning is best understood when her words are taken literally, as she intends. Plausibly, ancient Hebrew children were often the same in this respect. Why think that ancient Hebrew adults where necessarily any different when they said things like, “Mary was betrothed to Joseph,” or “Jesus was born of a virgin”?

          • Jesse


            Yes. I’d agree it’s fair to say that ancient Hebrew children had to “literally” use the restroom back then. However, two things:

            – Keep in mind the concepts “literal” and “figurative” did not exist back then. Again, I’m pretty sure ancient people thought a lot differently than us. They definitely had different conceptions of what “truth” is, for instance (see my first comment). For that ancient Hebrew girl, it was “literally true” that she had to pee because she experienced it–that’s the point here: there was no modern dualism to wrestle with.

            – This question is about a written text, the Bible. Writers of the Bible were not writing contracts, constitutions, instructional manuals or newspaper reports. The language of the Bible is read so much more effectively if we employ a relational component to the words and phrases. I’m afraid that our centuries old compromise with super-natural thinking conditions us to magically import things into the text that don’t necessarily need to be there. The phrase “Jesus was born of a virgin,” carries deep socio-economic and political meaning, which ancient people would have picked up on. But when a literal, wooden interpretation is placed on that phrase, it absolutely kills the poetic imagination.

            • Craig

              But the relevant point is not that ancient Hebrew children had to literally pee, it’s that when they said, “I need to go pee,” they usually intended that their words be given what we today call a “literal interpretation”–just as young children intend today. This remains true whether or not the concepts “literal” and “figurative” were expressed by words in the child’s (or anyone else’s) lexicon back then.

              Second, I think it might be helpful to distinguish between (a) using/interpreting words to convey literal meaning, and (b) using/interpreting words to convey merely literal meaning. You deny a claim about (b) when you note that the statement “Jesus was born of a virgin” carries, and was plausibly intended to carry, more significance than the bald event, literally conveyed. But this plausible denial doesn’t do anything to show that the statement wasn’t intended to be interpreted literally–a claim about (a).

              • Jesse

                Craig, we’ve been through this.

                Again, this is an epistemological question. The girl knows she has to pee because she feels it, not because of some intellectual abstract concept (e.g. literal or figurative). I’d say the girl is primarily concerned with conveying meaning here, period. She’s not concerned that her statement is “literally” true.

                Since you read this blog, I’m pretty sure this is not new to you, Craig: Again, poststructuralist’s, like Derrida, have shown us that language is incapable of conveying the type of meaning that is usually ascribed to historical narratives. Words are signs that point to something else. They’re arbitrary constructs whose significance is impermanent and unstable. When the girl talks about using the potty, she’s referring to the physiological sensation she feels in her body. Her language is pointing to that truth.

                McLuhan is right, whoever invented water, we know it wasn’t the fish. We swim in interpretation, my friend.

                • Craig

                  Perhaps the confusion arises over what it means to use/interpret a statement “literally.” I try to preempt this controversy by pointing to one sense of “literally” that we might broadly agree upon: it’s the sense that the young child usually intends when she says, “I need to go potty.” The child may be ancient or contemporary, it doesn’t matter.

                  Obviously there are controversies as to the precise semantics of “I need to go potty,” and all that such an expression may connote on a given occasion, but all these issues are beside the present point. The present point is that the ancient adult Hebrews could plausibly have intended certain of their claims to be similarly interpreted, and we can intelligently contrast this intention with the intention to be interpreted figuratively, allegorically, etc.

                  • Jesse

                    I hear what you’re saying, Craig. But the fact that we have differing views on this topic proves that we all have a hermeneutic. I mean, even scientific data needs to be interpreted to be made “meaningful.” Meaning is the important thing here.

                    When I tell someone ‘I need to use the restroom,’ all I care about is getting my point across. You can interpret that phrase anyway you want — literally, metaphorically, allegorically — but as long as I get my bladder emptied, I’m happy 🙂

                    The reason I keep coming back to this is because (again), as Derrida points out, all language is deceptive. It simultaneously invokes and masks meaning. I’m convinced that the Biblical writers were attempting to convey meaning with their writing, not posit some literal, scientific truth/data. I grant you, It’s plausible that some ancient folks may have wrestled with the question of Jesus being literally born of a virgin, but the better question (the less boring question) is “what does that mean?”

                    • Craig

                      When I tell someone ‘I need to use the restroom,’ all I care about is getting my point across. You can interpret that phrase anyway you want — literally, metaphorically, allegorically — but as long as I get my bladder emptied, I’m happy 🙂

                      But this focused concern of yours to empty your bladder is largely why you would, as child, ordinarily wish your statement, “I need to go potty,” to be interpreted “literally” (in the sense characterized above). Imagine your bewilderment if your parents frustrated your attempts to communicate by considering among themselves allegorical interpretations, or by assuming, in some Derrida-induced haze, that the “meaning”/”point” of your simple claim ought to be detached from its all-too-ordinary denotation.

                    • Jesse


                      Two points:

                      1) Again, the girl who has to go potty is not thinking “geez, I hope my parents take my statement literally.” She’s just not thinking that–just like you and I would not be thinking that. All she cares about is getting her point across. It’s a different way of thinking about truth and revelation.

                      2) Keep in mind there are a few different ways human beings communicate. We’ve been talking about two of them: written communication and verbal communication. When someone is communicating orally, though, there is the added benefit of non-verbal communication (or body language). You don’t get that in writing. Non-verbal communication helps convey the person’s intent. You know that I have to pee–and that I’m serious about it–by the look on my face and the pee pee dance I’m doing. Writing doesn’t enjoy that benefit. We’re left to speculate on the writers intent.

                      I understand why you feel the need to push back. You want to hold on to the idea that at least SOME of the Bible was meant to be interpreted literally, right? That’s fine. I admit that we all pick and choose what’s important to us in the Bible (I personally take the Sermon on the Mount “literally”). But I still believe the question ‘is this part of the Bible literally true?’ to be misleading, because the Authors of scripture were not probably not asking that question.

                      Peter Rollins says it well:

                      “By acknowledging that all our readings [of Scripture] are located in a cultural context and have certain prejudices, we understand that engaging with the Bible can never mean that we simply extract meaning from it, but also that we read meaning into it. In being faithful to the text we must move away from the naive attempt to read it from some neutral, heavenly height and we must attempt to read it as one who has been born of God and thus born of love: for that is the prejudice of God. Here the ideal of scripture reading as a type of scientific objectivity is replaced by an approach that creatively interprets with love.”

                      Thanks for the chat, Craig.

                    • Craig

                      On the first point, it’s true that she’s not thinking that–but that’s neither here nor there. (That she isn’t thinking that clearly doesn’t show that she doesn’t intend/want/expect her words to be given a literal interpretation. I want to be treated with common decency when I order coffee even if, as I order my coffee, I’m not thinking, “Jeez, I hope this fella treats me decently.”)

                      On the second point, sure. I would only add that in both cases there’s room to speculate, and in both cases the room to speculate reasonably is circumscribed.

                      You want to hold on to the idea that at least SOME of the Bible was meant to be interpreted literally, right? That’s fine. I admit that we all pick and choose what’s important to us in the Bible (I personally take the Sermon on the Mount “literally”).

                      It’s not that I care about picking and choosing important parts of the Bible–I personally never look to the Bible for guidance in the way Christians are expected to (I am not a Christian, and I am not religious). My comments here are rather aimed at making a simple point: there is a fairly straightforward sense in which the Bible authors could have expected their statements to be taken literally, and this is a sense of “literally” that is entirely intelligible to us today. Denying this on the basis of the supposed conceptual differences separating the ancient Hebrews and ourselves is highly implausible.

                    • Jesse

                      Craig, I’m with you. This was a good conversation. And I think you’re right that ancient folk understood the difference between metaphor and plain speak (even if those intellectual categories didn’t exist, and the oblivious characters in the Gospel of John demonstrate different [see: Bill’s comments]). And so, we should use our brains and recognize the difference too.

  • Christian Stillings

    Nina, how much research have you done about comparative mythology pertinent to the Christian doctrines? Some “internet infidels”- Dawkins acolytes, basically- often like to toss around the claim that “every supernatural claim about Jesus is stolen from other mythology,” but there’s shockingly little evidence that such parallel myths which existed at the time and were apparently foisted onto Jesus. Harry Emerson Fosdick rejected the virgin birth because he thought of it as a dignifying myth which other contemporary cultures used, but he turned out to be wrong with the other examples he gave.

    People were “sons of God” or even gods in other contemporary cultures- thinking of some Roman rulers- but nobody in the fiercely monotheistic Jewish culture of Jesus’ day. People had been sons of Zeus and manifestations of the sun god and so on, but there was no precedent for a son of Israel’s Yahweh.

    I think you’re buying into an unfortunate- and unnecessary- tendency to create a dichotomy between “literally true” and “having symbolic/theological significance.” There’s no reason that God couldn’t raise Jesus from the dead both as a literal event and in order to send a theological message of triumph over death.

    I won’t address other particular doctrines at present, except to say that we can know what the earliest Christians thought of them, because they wrote their thoughts and we have their writings. Look up the Early Church Fathers’ writings to see what they thought about the Resurrection (bodily) and the virgin birth (historical) and so on. Granted, there’s no way to prove that they held the same view on everything as the New Testament authors, but considering that we have writings from some who knew the Apostles personally, I’d say they’re reliably representative. I don’t think there’s any historical record of Christians taking major supernatural NT events as purely symbolic/allegorical/etc until the last century or two.

  • Asking if the writers of bible stories intended them to be “taken literally” betrays the fact that we are products of modernity. If we could go back in time and ask the author of Luke (for example) if his nativity story should be “taken literally,” he’d likely have no idea what we mean.
    It seems to me that this lack of concern with being what we now call “literal” is evident in the determination of what would constitute the canon. The men who made that decision were intelligent, pious (presumably) and well-informed. They could not have failed to notice that the gospel accounts are factually inconsistent, sometimes dramatically so. As products of modernity we might say to them, “Hold on. These stories aren’t consistent, so they can’t all be literally true.” In response they would likely just look at us, dumbfounded.

    • Craig

      Notice also that if we go to a very young child and ask her whether her statements should be “taken literally,” she would also likely have no idea what we mean. Does this mean that she doesn’t intend for any of her claims to be taken literally? Of course not. Does it mean that she isn’t concerned about whether her words being given a literal interpretation when she says “I need to go potty”? Of course not. What would dumbfound her is if we interpreted her claim allegorically. She’d probably think we were stupid–and rightly so.

      • Of course genre and context will matter. If the child said, “I have to go number one,” then determining her meaning would first require an understanding of her metaphor.

        • Makaden

          …But would still have a concrete reference, yes? That is what we are talking about here. NT Wright says that “Literal” is a word that refers to the way words refer to things. He uses “concrete” instead. Even if we heard your daughter say she had to go #1, the concrete reference is peeing. That is what is at stake here, and why Derrida references and inferences are so off the mark. Of course language functions in incredibly complex and inefficient ways. Even deceptive ways. But that needn’t be turned into a philosophical valuation that embraces relativism as a virtue. Nor need it be turned into its opposite–a fundamentalist revolt against the complexity of texts–as a function of warding off attacks from those who use the complex reality and messiness of the texts as a political weapon.

          When it came time to understand where the Messiah would be born, and Herod asked his lackeys, they said “Bethlehem,” as Malachi 4 indicated. How did Herod understand them? Concretely. And the angels announced to the shepherds that the savior was “born in the town of David” in Luke 2, the shepherds understood the angel concretely and went to Bethlehem, which was David’s city according to the Scriptures. They understood the message concretely, not metaphorically.

  • CurtisMSP

    Of course not. Did storytellers 2500 years ago expect their stories to be analyzed with 15 century analytical techniques? Did storytellers 2500 years ago expect their stories to be analyzed with 21st century analytical techniques?

    They were storytellers, not fortune tellers. Any reading we do of their stories will always be skewed by our current-day perspective and world view, which the original story tellers had no way of knowing when the stories were first told.

  • Another thought: Jesus’ preferred method of teaching was nonliteral. He used metaphors, symbols, parables and similes. Scripture records numerous instances of him being misunderstood because those to whom he was speaking insisted on interpreting his messages literally. Do we continue to make that mistake? If the teaching of God incarnate was typically nonliteral, then why do so many of us continue to insist that the Bible must be interpreted, read and understood literally?

    Here’s that thought, fleshed out a bit (c&p’ed from my blog–pardon the length):

    Jesus said to Nicodemus, “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.”

    Nicodemus, a high-ranking religious authority, replied, “How can a man be born when he is old? Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb to be born.”

    Nicodemus was confused and did not understand, because he made the mistake of interpreting the statement of Jesus literally.

    Jesus said to the Samaritan woman at the well, “Whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst. Indeed the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”

    The woman responded, “Sir, give me this water so that I won’t get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water.”

    She missed his point, because she made the mistake of interpreting Jesus’ comment literally.

    On another occasion Jesus said to the religious authorities at the temple, “Destroy this temple and I will raise it again in three days.”

    They replied, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and you are going to raise it in three days?”

    The religious authorities missed the point, because they interpreted the statement literally.

    I could go on and on. Jesus’ preferred method of teaching was with metaphors, symbols and parables. Anyone who tried to understand his teachings literally would miss the point (and many did). The stories of the Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son, the Workers in the Vineyard, the Unmerciful Servant, etc., for example, are obviously not historical narratives of actual events. Rather they are stories used by Jesus by illustrate a point. It would be absurd to debate the historicity of the story of the Prodigal Son, for example.

    Jesus said that he came to announce the coming of the kingdom of God. So did he do so using language that was scientifically and historically literally precise and accurate? No. Typically he used simile. He often said what the kingdom is “like,” rather than what it “is.” The kingdom, according to Jesus, is like a mustard seed, like yeast mixed in dough, like a net lowered to catch fish, like a treasure hidden in a field, like a merchant looking for a pearl, etc. He left it to us to sort out the meaning of those sayings.

    Christians believe that Jesus was God incarnate. Jesus represents God in human form.

    So God, in human form, taught with simile, metaphors, symbols, stories and parables. His language was typically remarkably nonliteral.

    So why then do so many of us assume that the Bible must always be read and understood literally? Why are we resistant to seeing stories in the book as metaphors, symbols and parables? If God in the flesh taught that way, then why are we so reluctant to see the revealed words of the Bible that way?

    When we insist on consistently reading the texts literally, aren’t we responding in exactly the way Nicodemus, the woman at the well and the authorities at the temple did?

    Just wondering…

    • Great answer. Thanks, Bill!

    • Andrew Dowling

      Read Spong’s latest book on John, eh? 🙂 He makes the exact same point re: the Nicodemus/woman at the well story

      • I haven’t read it (my blog post was from September 14, 2011). As much as I’d like to think it’s a matter of great minds thinking alike, I’m sure neither of us is the first to make the observation.

    • Makaden

      Bill, you said:

      “So why then do so many of us assume that the Bible must always be read and understood literally?”

      Who are these “so many of us” you refer to? Assuming you mean fundamentalist Christians, broadly speaking, I should offer the following points:

      1. An emphasis on “literal” meanings goes back at least to the Reformers. Calvin and the translators of the Geneva bible insisted that “all Israel shall be saved” in Romans 11 was to refer to “literal” Israel.
      2. Dispensationalists, those notorious “literalists,” do not fall under your statement, as they most certainly DO NOT “always” insist on literalism. They employ an historical-grammatical interpretation that uses (problematically) Scottish “Common Sense Realism,” but they certainly don’t do what you describe.
      3. On Tony’s first question–did the writer’s of the bible intend it to be taken literally–I think your response is (accidentally) insightful. If we posit a writer in the exchanges between Jesus and his interlocutors that you provide, you can see that the writer was telling the reader that IN THIS INSTANCE Jesus’ words are not to be taken literally (or, as NT Wright calls it, “concretely”). The writer was helping the reader not to make the mistake, in those instances where the writer was clarifying, of misunderstanding Jesus’ words as concretely true. You didn’t pick up on this, but it’s surely there and the fact that it is there tells us how the writers believed the average first/second century reader would engage Jesus’ words without clarification.

      • I had in mind are folks who sport bumper stickers that read “The Bible Says It. I Believe It. That Settles It.”, and who claim the world is 6,000 year old. Very common around here. They’re as numerous as the grains on sand on the seashore (a little literalist humor there). More generously it includes folks who won’t entertain the possibility that the creation stories or the birth narratives (for example) are myth, rather than scientifically and historically accurate narratives.

        But you’re right that those folks are only selectively literalists. To the best of my knowledge that don’t advocate hating one’s parents and children, or gouging out one’s own eyes. They don’t believe Jesus was actually a shepherd, or that he served up his own body and blood at the last supper. They probably don’t believe the stars will fall from the sky someday. They understand that in these and many other instances Jesus did not intend his words to be taken literally.

        My point is that given Jesus’ preference for teaching with metaphor, symbols, parables and the like (rather than with statements of propositional fact), then maybe we ought not be so resistant to the possibility that other teachings in the Bible might be intended to be understood non-literally as well. Put differently, if the Word is best understood non-literally, then maybe the word is as well.

        • Makaden

          Yes, I hear you. But I’m trying to suggest that literalism is a matter of both degree and kind. Most literalists are literalists typically in two specific mode of bible interpretation: defensively, against those who wish to discredit the bible as a document with something historical to say, and when interpreting prophecy. In the first instance, let us note, the opponents of the fundamentalists ALSO interpret the passages literally; that’s what makes their arguments have “punch.” “Your bible says the earth was created in six days…but see here Darwin, physics, etc.” That is why I say they are in defensive mode: literalists take the claims of their opponents at face value and run with it the other way.

          In the second instance, prophecy interpretation, its a bit more complicated, but usually appears in support for Israel. Israel must “literally” be returned to their land. Israel then becomes the Great Proof For The Existence Of God in modern times. Prophecy fulfillment has come to function epistemologically, as a mode of knowing and affirming truth. Thus the proliferation of prophecy gurus and books, with little or no accountability for their interpretations and, sometimes, predictions.

          Other parts of the bible don’t “have” to be read literally by literalists. And often aren’t. I heard John Hagee, staunch literalist, interpret Jesus’ first sermon about “setting the prisoners free” as follows: “What Jesus meant was that those who are captive to demonic forces, to the power of evil, Jesus would set free.” Really, now. Sometimes nonliteral interpretation pops up because it isn’t practical. I heard Perry Stone dismiss the OT Year of Jubilee because “That would never work in our day, but you understand the principle here.”

          My point is that you see that there is leeway for other types of interpretation besides literal when a) there isn’t a social conflict around the passage and b) when prophecy isn’t involved.

          Literalism has a context, functions through degree, and comes in a specific form.

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