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Do You Read the Bible Literally?


Do you take the Bible "literally"? It is one of the great litmus tests of our day. The question is dangerously loaded. Answering "yes" or "no" puts you in an extreme position.

aamountainAffirming that the entirety of Scripture is to be taken literally is a confession of fundamentalism, which is one of the few things our pluralistic society cannot tolerate. Answering in the negative implies that you may not be taking the Bible seriously at all, questioning not only the historical credibility of the crossing of the Red Sea, but also that of the empty tomb. Some questions cannot be answered by a simple yes or no, precisely because some questions are themselves problems.

Word for word

Most often what our culture means by the phrase "reading Scripture literally," would be more correctly rendered "reading Scripture literalistically," that is, taking each word at face value apart from its literary context. Such an approach drains the life out of language; such readers leech the meaning out of Scripture. For example, a literalistic take on the phrase, "Her eyes are as bright as diamonds," would claim that her eyes provided a similar luminescence as diamonds. Such a wooden reading misses the poetic thrust of the simile the radiant beauty that flashes through her eyes.

An interpretation guided by a one-dimensional view of words may not only fail to glean the true meaning, but may reap the tares of a wrong-headed interpretation. For instance, the poetic comparison inspired from romantic courtship, where the poet sings of his beloved's beautiful hair, saying, "Your hair is like a flock of goats, moving down the slopes of Gilead" (Song 4:1), can easily be misunderstood if the metaphor is not read correctly. By comparing her hair to a flock of black goats cascading down a mountain, he is thinking of her rich, black hair; a comparison of color, not scent, is the aim of the simile.1 In this case, missing the metaphoric expression leads to an interpretation that is diametrically opposed to the intended meaning of the passage. I can tell you that it took me some explaining to convince the high school students I taught years ago that this image was flattering!

What do you mean?

Context is crucial, and that is why knowing the literary context of what we're reading is vitally important. In Scripture, God speaks through men in a human fashion. In order to understand what God is communicating, we must carefully search for the intention of the sacred authors. That is why the Church stresses the importance of knowing the literary genres of Scripture: "In determining the intention of the sacred writers, attention must be paid, inter alia, to 'literary forms for the fact is that truth is differently presented and expressed in the various types of historical writing, in prophetical and poetical texts,' and in other forms of literary expression" (Vatican II, Dei Verbum, no. 12). In short, we are not to take the Bible literalistically, but literarily.

Should Catholics take the Bible literally? If by literal we are referring to the intention of the author, then yes, Catholics do take the Bible literally. For such a literal reading respects the author's intention it reads poetry poetically, metaphors metaphorically, and history historically. The aim of interpreting the Bible is to discern what the author intended by the words he used. For example, when we read that Jesus says it is better to lose a member of one's body than to sin, we understand that Jesus is teaching about the gravity of sin through hyperbole. We do not take Him as literally commanding dismemberment. Some misreadings can be more costly than others, which is why Origen's literalistic reading of these words of Jesus (Origen supposedly castrated himself) is an example of the consequences of interpreting words without regard for their rhetorical genre.

Reading literally should mean reading for the author's intention. In our culture, however, there is much ambiguity in the use of the word "literal." Indeed, many will misunderstand our meaning if we claim to read the Bible for its literal meaning, taking that as a slavish bondage to the surface value of Scripture's words. A more winsome way to phrase one's response is to say that we do not take the Bible literally but rather literarily. In that way we avoid the pitfalls of literalism and still retain historical accuracy, such as the Resurrection. We must hold together the semantic range of the words used, the author's intention, and the larger context of both the words and the author. In doing so we will be poised to read Scripture in "3-D," open to all its potent literary meaning stemming from the author's words and their context.

Keep it in context

By the author's context we mean the history, culture, and real-life setting of the human author. It makes a difference to know that Luke is a Gentile, that Matthew is a Jew, and that Paul is a Jew with a Gentile mission. The context of the words is the literary genre. When reading that the lion will lie down with the lamb, it is important to know how the prophetic genre employs both narrative and poetry, and that Isaiah is a master of metaphor (in case you were waiting for sheep and lions to hang out together).

In reading Scripture there are four cardinal genres to recognize. First is narrative, which tells the story of God's people. Second is what I call liturgical, which includes sacred sacrifices (Leviticus) and songs (Psalms). Third is law, which includes the legal and juridical norms (Deuteronomy), as well as the more customary law embodied in the Wisdom literature (Proverbs, Sirach, etc.). Finally there is the prophetic genre, which is expressed in both prose and poetry (Isaiah, Zechariah), and even apocalyptic (Daniel). Diverse as these genres are, and as scattered as they are throughout Scripture, there is logic behind them that gives them coherence and order that we'll now briefly outline. It remains for the following four articles to delve into each genre in more depth.

Scripture begins with narrative: the story of creation, Adam, and the Patriarchs. The story the events of God acting within the history of Israel gives way to liturgy. For example, the story of the Exodus, with its account of God's marvelous deeds performed on behalf of Israel, leads to liturgical praise and thanksgiving. The redemption won by the crossing of the Red Sea (the narrative told in Exodus 14) leads Israel to worship God with the song of the sea (liturgy of Exodus 15). The goal of the Exodus story is liturgy: Israel's Exodus turns into a pilgrimage to Sinai. The liturgical worship at Sinai (cf. Ex. 19, 24) leads to the giving of laws (cf. Ex. 20-23, 25-31). The Exodus itself ends with the giving of the Law of Moses in the Book of Deuteronomy at the end of the 40 years of wilderness wanderings. Law defines Israel's covenant relationship with God, and when that Law is broken God sends His messengers, the prophets, to indict Israel concerning their failure to keep the Law. The prophets give what is known as a covenant lawsuit, which is a reminder to Israel of how they have rebelled against the covenant laws (like Deuteronomy), whereupon they announce that God will therefore take away the blessings of the covenant and punish Israel with the curses instead.

Narrative (story) leads to liturgy, which celebrates what God has done in saving and maintaining Israel (and her story). From the context of liturgical worship comes Israel's covenant obligation, which is expressed through law. In light of the Law, the prophets convict the people when they sin and are unfaithful to the God of the covenant, who has saved them according to their narrative, a narrative that is remembered and celebrated in their liturgy. The prophets then speak of how the imminent judgment of Israel's infidelity will be followed by a new story a new exodus that will be fulfilled in the story of Jesus. And then the new narrative of Jesus' life, death, and Resurrection will give way to a new liturgy, law, and prophecy.

In subsequent articles, we will see how taking the Bible literarily, and seeing how these cardinal genres fit together, makes for a dynamic reading of Scripture.

1 Women of this region all have black hair. Most of the goats at that time in that area were black. Every commentator on this passage notes that the comparison is not to abstract beauty, but to her black hair. The Hebrews are never given to abstract notions. See Genesis 30:31-35 for examples of black goats. See also The New Bible Commentary, edited by D. Guthrie and J.A. Motyer, 3rd ed., (New York: Guideposts, 1970), 583; and Roland E. Murphy, Jerome Biblical Commentary (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1968), 508.

This is J. Fraser Field, Founder of CERC. I hope you appreciated this piece. We curate these articles especially for believers like you.

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Tim Gray. "Do You Read the Bible Literally?" Lay Witness (June 2001).

This article is reprinted with permission from Lay Witness magazine. Lay Witness is a publication of Catholic United for the Faith, Inc., an international lay apostolate founded in 1968 to support, defend, and advance the efforts of the teaching Church.

The Author

Scripture scholar Tim Gray is a member of CUF's board of directors. His book Sacraments in Scripture may be ordered by calling Emmaus Road Publishing toll-free at (800) 398-5470. CUF members receive a 10% discount.

Copyright © 2001 LayWitness

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