Literally literal

It is common these days to claim a literal reading of the Bible is the best reading of the Bible. When people talk about a literal reading they often mean what is sometimes called a plain reading of the text. In reality this often ends up with the text meaning whatever the reader thinks it means. For some reason, we often think that because the Bible is God’s word, words written several thousand years ago can be read just like something written last week. This sort of literal reading assumes there is no substantive difference between the world of the text and our world.

None of us is a complete and total literalist. The most conservative Bible readers I know recognize that there are different genres in Scripture. They recognize there is poetry, metaphor, simile, irony, and hyperbole present in Scripture. When Jesus says he is the gate, none of us think Jesus is actually a gate. When Jesus tells a parable, none of us worries about where exactly the family of the prodigal son lived. When Jeremiah buys and then buries a loincloth (Jer 13) or Ezekiel eats a scroll, (Ezek 2:8-3:3), we all recognize that action as symbolic.  This is because none of us reads without interpretation. All of us make judgments about what we are reading.  That’s not a bad thing. It is inevitable. Interpretation is part of reading.

The question is how do we interpret. What criteria do we use?   How and why do we make the interpretive decisions we make? What is a stake theologically when we accept a particular interpretation?  There is a lot that can be said about Biblical interpretation. Entire books are written on the subject; entire classes are taught in colleges and seminaries about it.

I’m all for literalism; if we are Biblical literalists like John Calvin. For Calvin (and other reformers) to read the Bible literally meant trying to understand what the text meant for it’s first audience. God works in and through people and history. What God says and does has to make sense for the first audience. It has to make enough sense for them to understand and recognize it as God’s word and God’s work. It has to make enough sense for them to recognize it needs to be preserved and passed on.

And we have to have enough sense to recognize that our understanding of the world is different than the understanding of people 300 years ago. And 1000 years ago. And 3000 years ago. We have to understand we live in a different time and place than the first recipients of the Scripture. We have not been slaves in ancient Egypt. We did not worship in the Temple. We have not be exiled to Babylon. This doesn’t mean we can’t try to understand their world. In fact it is incumbent on us to try. Faithful, serious Bible reading demands we do our best to understand the history and culture of those whose stories we read in the Bible.

Here is a small example. In Luke 2:11 the angel says to the shepherds,”… to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” Two thousand years after this pronouncement, it is common for us to think of Jesus as the Savior and the Messiah and Lord. But in that day, Savior was primarily a Roman political term. It was used to refer to the Emperor. The Emperor was the Savior. So do you see what the angel was saying? The Savior is not the Emperor. The Savior is the Messiah- the Jewish anointed one. Rome isn’t really in control.  (You can read more about this, here.)

What do you think that meant to the shepherds? What is this angelic message telling them?

After we have thought about that, and only then, are we really ready to think about what that angelic announcement means to us.

This may seem like a daunting task, to study the cultural and historical context of every Biblical text. At first that might be true for you. But with time and some effort it will get easier. And besides, why do we have the idea that reading the Bible should be easy?


As I was working on this post, Biologos posted this from John Walton, “Genesis Through Ancient Eyes”   where he discusses Biblical authority and how we read the Bible.

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