Laser-Beam Literalism

How literal is the Bible?

Jeff Laird

Recently, Footnotes took a look at what happens when a well-meaning Christian takes a biblical metaphor further than it was intended. A related problem is when something which can be taken as a metaphor, or which should be taken as a metaphor, is given a doggedly literal interpretation.

This is usually (but not always) done by critics of the Bible. Frankly, there I times when I wonder what strange psychosis Bible critics have in regards to the word "literal." Judging by the way skeptics apply the concept when discussing the Bible, it's a wonder they can understand any piece of literature at all. Somehow, certain detractors have gotten it into their heads that a text has to be read either with blind, word-for-word literalism in every letter, or else be considered completely figurative. At last that's what one would think, listening to their attacks on conservative interpretations of the Bible.

The best term I can think of for this strategy is "obnoxious literalism." In practice, that absurdity makes virtually every work of literature impossible to understand. In The Grapes of Wrath, for instance, John Steinbeck said:
"Man, unlike any other thing organic or inorganic in the universe, grows beyond his work, walks up the stairs of his concepts, emerges ahead of his accomplishments."

"The migrant people, scuttling for work, scrabbling to live, looked always for pleasure, dug for pleasure, manufactured pleasure, and they were hungry for amusement."

"In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage."
The obnoxious literalist should be asked if Steinbeck was a fool, since concepts cannot be walked on, pleasure cannot be unearthed, and souls do not grow fruit. Or if, in passages where Steinbeck describes the family loading up a vehicle, they are metaphorical of some other action. After all, the obnoxious literalists' view of the Bible presumes that either every single phrase is meant to be read with absolute literalism, or none of it is.

If I had a dollar for every time some quote-skeptic-unquote declared that if I "take [insert scripture] literally, then you'd have to take [insert overtly figurative scripture] literally," I'd be writing this newsletter from my own private island. The Bible does not have to be read with simplistic literalism in every word. That's not what the phrase "I take the Bible literally" means in general use. There's no hypocrisy in interpreting only some parts of the Bible as metaphoric. Certain passages are highly poetic, some are boringly literal. Some phrasings have to be understood as products of ancient eastern thought; some are straightforward in any era.
There's no hypocrisy in interpreting some parts of the Bible as metaphoric and others as literal. tweet
There are a certain places in Scripture where this silly trend more commonly rears its head. Consider the words of Jesus, who was speaking to an ancient middle-eastern crowd accustomed to a particular style of speech. Hyperbole, then, was a very common method of expressing strong views. This means that ancient peoples were neither shocked nor confused when Christ said, "If anyone comes to Me, and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be My disciple" (Luke 14:26). They understood exactly what He meant — that a commitment to Christ supersedes all other commitments. Modern audiences probably would not understand this in the same way, but Jesus wasn't speaking those words, in English, to modern hipsters. He was speaking Aramaic to ancient Judeans. The obnoxious literalist will cite this as an example of how Jesus was an immoral teacher, or at least an inconsistent one.

Another example is the supposed "Pi problem" of 2 Chronicles 4. There, the obnoxious literalist tries to claim that the Bible makes a math error. An object is described having a circumference of 30 cubits, and a diameter of 10 cubits. Pi, the ratio of diameter to circumference, is about 3.142…not exactly 3. Actually, one of those scriptural numbers applies to the "molten sea," and the other to the vessel it sits in, so the thickness of the vessel counts. Even considering that, the numbers are fine. Why? The passage gives no indication that the numbers are meant to be read like an engineering schematic. It's a quick description of an art object, so there's no reason for the numbers to be any more specific than that. Of course, that doesn't fit the Bible critic's game plan, which insists that any numbers given must be taken as absolutely precise. Obnoxious literalism demands that if the Bible says 10 cubits, then it must mean 10.0000000, not 9.99 or 10.1, regardless of context.

There are plenty of other instances where this ridiculous mistake pops up. It's the hallmark of a narrow, shallow approach, but remains common in attacks on Scripture. The rational Bible student knows that context will tell whether a passage is figurative or literal, and there is no reason to take an "all-or-none" approach. Of course, the Bible critic knows this too — they can understand and appreciate Steinbeck. Yet, without obnoxious literalism, they'd have a lot less to talk about.

Reasonable people, thankfully, don't need to fear, fall for, or facilitate the laser-beam literalism of the Bible bashers.

See also: "Metaphor and Literature"

Image Credit: PublicDomainPictures; untitled; Creative Commons

TagsBiblical-Truth  | Controversial-Issues  | False-Teaching

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Published 7-25-17