No, the Writers of the Bible Did Not Expect It To Be Taken Literally [Questions That Haunt]

No, the Writers of the Bible Did Not Expect It To Be Taken Literally [Questions That Haunt] October 4, 2013

This week’s Question That Haunts Christianity cames 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….

Great comments, as always. This week, there wasn’t really one thread that dominated, but lots of smaller threads, chasing down various ideas. I’ll probably touch on lots of them with my more narrative response:

I am once again teaching Introduction to the New Testament at a state university here in Minnesota. It’s a great time — I am really growing to love teaching undergrads. Last night was our last class before the midterm. We’ve studied the religious, cultural, literary, and political context of first century Palestine, and we’ve spent a week each on the four Gospels. Last night, the topic was “The Historical Jesus.”

I taught about when the quest for the historical Jesus began (early 19th century), about the book that was supposed to end the quest (Quest for the Historical Jesus by Albert Schweitzer), about the the quest continued through the mid-20th century (Rudolph Bultmann) and into the late-20th century (the Jesus Seminar). Then I attempted to show how completely futile is the quest for the historical Jesus, by showing these three artifacts:

1) The scene of the Cleansing of the Temple in Jesus Christ Superstar.


2) The 60 Minutes interview from last week with Bill O’Reilly, in which he claims that Jesus was crucified not because he claimed to be God — lots of people claimed that, O’Reilly said — but because Jesus cleansed the Temple of moneychangers. In O’Reilly’s universe, Jesus was standing up for the “folks” by interrupting the money flow caused by overtaxation.


3) Then I read a couple paragraphs from a book that Courtney is reading, World Peace Diet: Eating for Spiritual Health and Social Harmony, in which the authors claims that Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple was “an act of animal liberation,” and that,

“It was for this flagrantly revolutionary act that Jesus had to be crucified by the herding culture’s power elite.”

Then, of course, I read them the passage about the cleansing of the Temple from Matthew. It’s two verses long:

Then Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who were selling and buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold doves. He said to them, ‘It is written,
“My house shall be called a house of prayer”;
but you are making it a den of robbers.’

I don’t see much there that can be used to claim that it was either an act of animal liberation or a protest against taxation. But that’s not going to stop 21st century Christians from reading all sorts of intent into Jesus’ actions.

Another thing that O’Reilly said repeatedly on 60 Minutes, and something that’s sure to lose him some viewers, is that he doesn’t take the Bible literally. For example, he says that Jesus did not say, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do,” from the cross, because it would have been impossible for someone who was suffocating to say such a long sentence. (O’Reilly, it seems, is subject to another kind of literalism, just not biblical literalism.) I would have thought that such a statement would be anathema for a Fox News bloviator, but it seems that O’Reilly is so huge that he can even question the canon of evangelical belief about inerrancy.

It seems to me that at the current moment, we are wrestling with just what the Bible means in the postmodern era. When I read Marcus Borg arguing that Jesus’ resurrection only happens in the believer’s heart or Reza Aslan saying that it’s shocking to discover that Jesus didn’t really grow up in Nazareth or Bart Ehrman revealing that Jesus didn’t think that he was God, I honestly yawn. These debates and revelations, while they still get all sorts of press, are completely uninteresting to me.

I’ve said before that I think that Jesus really rose from the dead. I consider that to be an event that took place in history. But that’s an article of faith to me — it’s something I believe, and I believe it because I think it’s beautiful and revolutionary, and I honestly don’t give a shit if it defies the laws of physics and biology. In fact, I think that the “laws” of physics and biology are a lot more plastic than many people believe.

So, Nina, forgive me for not answering the question in a straightforward manner. The bottom line is that I don’t think that the question, “Do you read the Torah literally?” or “Do you want us to read what you’ve written literally?” would have made any sense to the writers of the New Testament. The bifurcation of literal and metaphorical readings of texts is a modern invention; it just didn’t concern the residents of Palestine and Rome in the first century.

However, I’ll conclude by saying this: We don’t need to be bound in our readings to what they thought 2,000 years ago. Some today disparage the postmodernisms of the late 20th century, but we clearly benefitted from the postmodern hermeneutics of thinkers like Jacques Derrida, JL Austin, and Stanley Fish. With the tools they’ve given us, we can see both the validity and the hilarity of Bill O’Reilly’s exegesis.

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  • Tom McCool

    I agree. Debates about Biblical literalness are a smoke screen that divert from the layers of meaning and deeper truths that speak to us across the millennium. Why argue about whether or not God created the universe in six, 24-hour days? What is the ultimate purpose besides “I’m right/You’re wrong?” I’d rather talk about what a God-created universe means to me, and what God’s purpose for that creation is, and where I fit into it. .

    • $23022903

      If the christian creation myth is not true in a literal sense, then the teachings of inherited sin from Adam is false, thus mucking up all the teachings about needing a savior. Inheriting death because some ancient man who didn’t (and couldn’t!) know right/wrong or the concept of death is a shit deal.

  • Craig

    But that’s an article of faith to me — it’s something I believe, and I believe it because I think it’s beautiful and revolutionary, and I honestly don’t give a shit if it defies the laws of physics and biology.

    Makes me wonder about all the other ideas that might be beautiful and revolutionary, despite flying in the face of all empirical evidence. Perhaps that cumulus clouds are floating pillows of pure fluffiness? Perhaps that there are hidden tracts of wilderness where unicorns rest under ancient chestnut trees watching their foals frolic in the clover? Perhaps that the great socialist experiments of the 20th-century really worked perfectly, providing revolutionary, beautiful, and economically viable alternatives to capitalism?

    Tony, is it also beautiful and revolutionary to think that your three artifacts show the futility of the quest for the historical Jesus? Not your best work.


      Craig, You are really twisiting Tony’s comment here. He was addressing the original question of literal interpretion of the Bible. I think his point was to assure some readers and to clarify to others his belief in the resurrection of Jesus, which was witnessed by more than just John and Mary and Martha. I also agree that the those who claim that science answers or will answer all questions about life, death origins of life etc…are incorrect. Everyone knows Unicorns don’t like chestnut trees!

      • Craig

        Perhaps you missed the remark to which I was responding:

        But that’s an article of faith to me — it’s something I believe, and I believe it because I think it’s beautiful and revolutionary, and I honestly don’t give a shit if it defies the laws of physics and biology.

        Tony has claimed this kind of thing before, and it seems fitting to press him to clarify this bit of prima facie nonsense. If you don’t give a shit whether your favored belief defies laws of physics and biology, and it’s enough that the belief is beautiful and revolutionary, then what’s wrong with the beliefs I mentioned? Are they not beautiful enough, not revolutionary enough?

      • Mazzdark

        the comment twists itself, methinks……

  • Steven Kurtz

    Well said Tony. Under the category of “yes, and”, the book “Binding the Strong Man: a political reading of Mark’s story of Jesus” is well worth the time. Myers shows things, such as, for example the many “sea crossings” of Jesus and the disciples in the boat – which has long puzzled (or tortured) exegetes who wanted to figure out the geography – but the issue of “location” seems much more to do with Gentile space vs. Jewish space and the inherent symbolism of the sea itself (ancient waters of chaos, brought to order at creation, etc). Read that way, it makes perfect sense. So, symbolically. Yes, AND, Jesus recruited a team of mostly fishermen and went out in a boat with them (literally) on many ocassions.

    • I’ve never read Ched, but I’ve heard great things.

  • Craig

    The bifurcation of literal and metaphorical readings of texts is a modern invention; it just didn’t concern the residents of Palestine and Rome in the first century.

    There’s quite a gap between the question and this response.

    Tony, think this through. When a very young child says, “I need to go potty” do you suppose she wouldn’t ordinarily be concerned–and perplexed–if her parents interpreted her statement metaphorically? Does this depend upon the young child having a perfect grasp of the general conceptual distinction between the literal and the metaphorical? Do you suppose that ancient Hebrew children were so entirely different in these respects, or that it all entirely changes when the children become adults?

    • Yeah, I saw that same comment by you on the other post. I don’t think it rises to the level meriting a response.

      • Craig

        You’re not thinking it through then.

      • Christopher Erik

        Why even respond at all?

    • Jesse

      Craig, Language is a phonetic code which we use to communicate our feelings, emotions, meanings and experiences. I think Dowd’s articulation of "Day Language" and "Night Language" could be helpful to us.
      Day Language speaks to our "day experience," what is objectively real; what is publicly, measurably true. Night Language speaks to the realm of symbols, interpretation, and meaning: What does it mean? The girl that needs to go potty is obviously using Day Language. Jesus (via the Biblical writer in the Gospel of John) talking about being born again, is using night language.
      I think you’re right that ancient people understood the difference, and we should seek to do so as well.

      • Craig

        A lot of what Dowd says there is right, and I think I probably agree with his main thrust. However, I am leery of his move to separate out two “languages,” and to sharply delineate “meaning” from “fact.” I don’t quite see any improvement over the very commonplace distinction (marked by short prepositional phrases) to distinguish what something means (or is) from what something means to me or to you. “Meaning” tends to have a lot of different meanings, and so sometimes the meaning of things or of words belongs squarely in what Dowd would seem to regard as “the realm of fact” (whether the clouds over there mean that it will rain; that the Spanish words “Estoy embarazada” do not mean “I am embarrassed”). Likewise, some facts belong squarely in what Dowd might regard as the realm of experience (the fact that I am feeling slightly tired).

  • courtney

    For the record, Courtney thinks that the aforementioned World Peace Diet book is mostly terrible, but sometimes it’s good to read authors with whom you mostly disagree.

    • Craig

      It’s often good to read the good arguments/writing with which you mostly disagree. When is it good to read the mostly terrible arguments/writing with which you mostly disagree?

      • courtney

        Try it and see.

        • Craig

          Try eating raw slugs. Enticed?

  • Andrew Watson

    My key thought is this. does the text indicate that the author believed what he was writing was actually historically true? That can be very difficult to ascertain with the Old testament, but it seems pretty clear in the New. If the Apostle Paul says “And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.” 1 Corinthians 15:14 NIV,
    then I assume he actually believes Christ rose from the dead and this is not some sort of metaphor or analogy.

    • I think that’s right. Paul clearly believed in the the risen Jesus. Actually risen.

      • Andrew Dowling

        What does “actually risen” mean? If that means “he ascended from the grave” I don’t think Paul clearly alludes to that at all.

        • lindsey

          I agree, Paul didn’t allude to it at all…He clearly stated.

      • Craig

        The question is whether Paul expected such claims to be interpreted literally/non-metaphorically, etc.

        (Set aside whether he expected “the Bible” to be taken literally–and try not to get sidetracked with the question of whether Paul had a perfect grasp of the general conceptual distinction between the literal and the metaphorical)

  • Kien Choong

    Shouldn’t our faith be accountable to reality? Otherwise one can pretty much believe whatever one thinks is beautiful. I too believe in Jesus resurrection (physical, albeit with a spiritual body) but this is a fragile belief (often accompanied by doubts and questions), not a “I don’t give a shit” belief. I think a belief that is accountanble to contrary evidence has a different quality to a belief that is independent of reality.

    As I understand it, professional historians generally agree that they cannot verify the claim that Jesus resurrected as this is a unique event for which there is no comparable precedent. The same can be said for other singular events like the “big bang theory” of the birth of the universe. But we can still look at events surrounding the singular event to see how we’ll our belief or theory stands up to empirical scrutiny.

    • lindsey

      I agree, even if they can’t verify it…we can verify it if we allow Him to be resurrected in our lives. (I got a laugh from your “I don’t give a shit” belief comment”)

  • Steve

    It seems to me that the literary genre of Luke was one which intended to be a straightforward account:

    “Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.” – Luke 1:1-4

  • S_i_m_o_n

    Honestly can’t tell if you meant for us to believe you think the answer is ‘yes’ or ‘no’.

  • Brian s

    I suppose that you think we should not take “Thou shalt not kill” literally.

    • Andrew Roling

      You don’t have to be religious or have any kind of faith to know that murder is wrong.

  • gimpi1

    I think your statement, “We don’t need to be bound in our readings to what they thought 2,000 years ago,” adds a lot to the discussion about belief. After all, 2,000 years ago, scientific fact as we understand it today was not even on society’s radar. For that matter, neither was radar. Understanding that our knowledge base has grown in the last couple of thousand years can make conversations about faith much more reasonable.

    An aside: I can offer substantiation to your statement, “In fact, I think that the “laws” of physics and biology are a lot more plastic than many people believe.” is true. My father was in an industrial accident in which a drill-bit performed an accidental split-brain procedure in the early 1950’s. He was DOA. He was sent to the morgue, and was there for hours. An attendant noticed his foot twitching. He was revived, mostly recovered, and lived another 40 years. He truly “came back from the dead” in defiance of many established medical beliefs of the time.

  • lindsey

    I think the people of antiquity were intelligent enough to say if the stories were intended to be symbolic. The Bible is a recording of experiences of God, that people of that time experienced. The Bible is history, history meaning his story(his…being the person who was doing the writing or who had the experience.) The experiences were of God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit. The thought I would like to inject here is Our Story. What are the experiences we’ve had with our Heavenly Father. I think if we focused on our experience with Him our questions will be answered.

  • 99Loretta

    God’s word is inviolate and meant to be taken literally except where He speaks in symbols, parables and word-pictures:

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  • barbq

    Yes the Bible is 100% literal, don’t let demon possessed online blogs tell you any different.

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