Against Biblical Literalism

And now for something completely different.

I’m not religious, so I have no dog in this fight. But here’s a quick take on Biblical literalism, and why, to me, it always seemed like a strange view.

Two thought experiments:

1. Peter is hanging out with Jesus. Jesus looks at a mess James has made and says, “James is a pig.” Peter freaks out: “Jesus, you said James is a pig. But he’s a human being! You must either be fallible or a liar!” Seems like Peter is being an idiot. Obviously, Jesus could speak in metaphors without being a liar or a fool. Speaking in metaphors can communicate more understanding than speaking literally, especially when dealing with limited beings like ourselves. What Jesus is saying is true, if not literally true. It communicates something true, though it’s not literally true.

2. Jesus finishes giving the parable of the good Samaritan. An audience member raises his hand. “Jesus, did that actually happen, or is that just a fictional story?” Jesus says, “No, it’s just a fictional story meant to illustrate an idea. It’s like a thought experiment.” The audience member gasps, “Jesus is a liar!” Again, that seems like a stupid reaction for the same reasons as above.

Once you grant that–and frankly it seems absurd not to–I don’t see why you wouldn’t grant that much of the Bible could be metaphorical rather than literal, even if you believe that the Bible is the unerringly true Word of God. You wouldn’t accuse Jesus of being a fool or a liar in  1 or 2, so why couldn’t large portions of the Bible be metaphorical? Therefore, biblical literalism is a silly position.

P.S. In grad school, I took a class on pragmatics. Turns out that identify just what counts as a “literal” meaning is rather complicated thing. Indeed, we rarely speak literally, and the most natural way to interpret what others say usually involves adding more meaning than is contained in their words taken literally. See, e.g.,

  • Jeff Sylvester

    Er, strange topic. But I’ll bite.

    Biblical literalsim the way you are describing it is indeed silly, but almost no one actually treats it that way (except for fringe, crazy fundamentalists).

    The idea between reading the Bible literally is understanding the context of the literature it was written. So you wouldn’t read a psalm the same way you would a historical account. Metaphores are indeed quite fine in terms of Biblical interpretation, assuming that the text supports that we are talking about a metaphore.

    Yes, it’s true that people tie themselves in knots over some places that may indeed be metaphores, or at the very least much more complex forms of literature than we understand in our English translations; however, a lot of that comes from people reading the Bible with high regard, but with low context for what they are reading.

    So rather than say “Biblical literalism is silly”, I would say that “reading the Bible without respect for many disciplines that help us understand it” is silly. That is, in my view you don’t have to be an expert reader of the Bible to find it useful, but you should respect that you may not know the whole picture and not make sweeping judgement in ignorance.

    The Bible is plain regarding things like redemption. Creation, echatology, and other things are a lot more complex, so it is wise to walk very humbly around those topics.

    • A. Alexander Minsky

      I think your post is spot on. I respect Mr. Brennan’s writing and intellect, but this particular piece reminds me of a pyromaniac in a field of straw men.

      • It’s interesting. I read Jason less as building a straw man and more as building a reason why one might be able to argue that a particular text is metaphorical, without sacrificing inerrancy. Maybe that wasn’t his intent. On your read, I definitely agree the post is a straw man.

        Either way, I agree with Jeff’s comment.

  • “What Jesus is saying is true, if not literally true. It communicates something true, though it’s not literally true.”

    Here’s how I would put it. The sentence Jesus uttered is false. But Jesus was using the sentence metaphorically, that is, he was using a false sentence to convey something true, and he trusted you to be able to understand, from the context, what he meant (which is different to what his words meant).

    “I don’t see why you wouldn’t grant that much of the Bible could be
    metaphorical rather than literal, even if you believe that the Bible is
    the unerringly true Word of God.”

    Here’s a reason. When we speak metaphorically, we use a sentence which does not express our meaning (it need not be false, it could be trivially true, as in ‘Fred is a man!’ or ‘Fred is an animal’) to convey our meaning to the audience. But successful communication by metaphor relies on the audience being able to guess our meaning from our sentence (seeing that it is either blatantly false or trivially true or in some other way an odd thing to say) given the context in which we say it, which in turn depends upon the audience noticing the things in that context that we have in mind when we say our piece. There is plenty of scope for misinterpretation.

    If the Bible is the Word of God, one would assume (or I would) that God had some things to say to us that He wanted us to understand. He would therefore have wanted to say them as clearly as He could. He would therefore have avoided metaphor as much as possible (I take your point that metaphor infests our language; but there are degrees of metaphor). God would therefore have avoided metaphors, except for the most humdrum (dead metaphors) in order to get His message across clearly.

    As you say, some things are beyond the understanding of our limited minds. In those cases God would have had to resort to some abstruse metaphor or, perhaps better, remain silent. But He would not have used a metaphor where a more literal expression was available, because that, surely, would have defeated His purpose.

    This has an implication for Biblical interpretation. Suppose that someone says ‘this obscure (or puzzling) passage in the Bible is metaphoric, but God’s intended meaning is that p.’ We should reply: if God meant that p, He would have said that p. He would resort to metaphor only where it is not possible to give a literal rendition of His actual words.

    • Jeff Sylvester

      I think the issue is less metaphor, and more context.

      People who wrote in the Bible were writing to a certain audience in a certain culture with certain expectations. But a lot of the time we read the English text divorced from all of that, and we end up with wildly different meanings.

      An example of this is Jesus talking about divorce when he says that the only reason for permissible divorce is adultery. In plain English, this means that divorce is only allowable for adultery. Yet, we have examples of other contemporaries of Jesus using exactly the same words (as in, word for word identical) that we ALSO know believed there were other grounds for divorce such as desertion, neglect, and infertility. For those words to mean what they appear to in our translations would mean Jesus would have had to use the same words, in the same context, and mean something different from his contemporaries. That obviously doesn’t make sense.

      Reading the Bible in tough passages is a responsibility. It’s a collection of documents written in many different cultures with timeless truths, but you have to be respectful of history and context or your are liable to make some rather large mistakes. The example I cited isn’t resolved by “metaphor”, but it is resolved by taking time to learn more about the cultural context.

      • I agree with all of that, Jeff. The points I made still stand. Let’s go back to Biblical times. God is speaking to those people back then, so He would (I presume) have spoken in language that they understood (even though it takes us a lot of trouble to understand it). God would not have used metaphors if He wanted to make himself clear (which I presume He did), except in cases where He could not have used a literal expression, and even in those cases one might think that He would rather have remained silent than said something inscrutable that would be sure to lead to dissension and sectarian strife.

      • Do you happen to have any sources on the Jesus-divorce commentary? I have never heard that before, but find it interesting to explore.

    • Jameson Graber

      Maybe you’re wrong in your assumption that God wanted everything to be clear. What if God wants things to be obscure, at least sometimes? For example, the forbidden tree in the Garden of Eden was the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Apparently God didn’t trust Adam and Eve with that knowledge. In order to thwart the construction of the Tower of Babel, God confused the people’s speech and gave them different languages. When you take the Bible as a whole, it is clearly full of riddles, and often it revels in mystery (see especially Ecclesiastes and Job, but by no means are these the only examples).

      If we have a tendency to dispute the meaning of the Bible with one another and thereby cause division and strife, maybe that is just our problem. Maybe it would be more fun if we could accept that there are puzzles that can’t be worked out in this lifetime.

      • Actually, I don’t know what’s in the Bible: I have never read it and I have never been a Christian (or a member of any other religious group, except that I was a Marxist for a few years as a teenager, which is much the same thing). The sort of thing you say may (for all I know) be said by some adherents of Christianity and other religions that go back centuries or millennia. But it is a form of irrationalism that I would not condone. I am an agnostic rather than an atheist, so I do not think it is irrational to form and discuss hypotheses about God. But the idea of a good God who speaks in riddles to confuse us and thereby encourages internecine strife seems to me to be inconsistent.

        • Jameson Graber

          If God spoke only in riddles, I suppose the universe would be a sad and scary place (and it sometimes is). But I don’t think God speaks *only* in riddles. I’m not an irrationalist, but I am, I confess, an anti-rationalist–that is, I believe very strongly in the limits of reason. This is one of the reasons why Hayek, his agnosticism notwithstanding, is one of my intellectual heroes.

          • I should have been clearer. I am a critical rationalist or a limited rationalist a la Popper and Hayek, so we are on the same page. There is lots that we cannot hope to understand; but we can try by forming hypotheses and criticising them. Clarity is essential for that, as is avoiding self-contradictions. But the following strikes me as self-contradictory:

            ‘God is good and he told us important things about what we ought to do, but he told us in language which is very obscure and wide open to rival interpretations so that, predictably, people engage in disputes, often violent ones, over what should and should not be done.’

            But, as I said, I am not religious, so I am probably out of my depth here.

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            Speaking for myself only, God (assuming there is one) could have laid out all moral truths at Mt. Sinai (or wherever), so that all we had to do was follow them eternally and blindly. But, I believe He wanted to allow for a little moral progress on our part (how would you occupy yourself otherwise?).

          • A good while back my reflections on metaphysics led me to become a theist, for about three years. I had nothing to do with any organised religion or any religious group. My view was that, as in mathematics, science and philosophy, so there had been progress in the moral and religious views of mankind, which had over the centuries become more subtle and refined. I thought that the pinnacle of that sophistication OUGHT to be found in the churches, with the clergy leading the way with advances in religious and moral enlightenment. But in fact the churches lagged behind because of their adherence to a historical creed, a sacred text, an ossified dogma. That, I thought, may be one reason why, in the advanced countries, the churches are declining while new forms of spiritualism are springing up. The churches have fallen below the general level of moral and religious understanding. I concluded that, for the churches to have a future, they would have to view their “sacred texts” as contributions to religious thought from a primitive time that are now open to critical discussion, re-interpretation, modification and, in some cases, rejection.

            So, I agree with you about moral progress. But if there is, or were, a God, I do not think that He would have spoken to us. Language is always open to rival interpretations, especially as time moves on, and that would be a source of dissension and strife. And, even if He did speak, He would not have used metaphor, because that would only exacerbate the problem.

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            Danny, I’m sure you recognize that we must separate clerics’ understanding and interpretation of sacred texts from their “objective” meaning, i.e. what God (if there is one) meant to convey to us through them. All great literature is subject to multiple interpretations, and on some theories that’s what makes a work “great.” I’m afraid you are therefore in the position of condemning a book without having read it. But, don’t worry, I’m not yet ready to burn you at the stake.

          • “All great literature is subject to multiple interpretations”

            But that underscores my point. If the literature is supposed to be the word of God and concerns what ought to be done (thou shalt this and thou shalt not that) it will generate internecine strife. A good God would not have issued words if they were going to do that. Therefore no ‘good book’ can be the word of a good God. The Bible is a collection of sayings, stories and such like from people from an unenlightened and barbaric time. Some of those people may have had some insight into the human condition from which we can learn. But whatever is written in the Bible is not only open to diverse interpretations, but each of those interpretations should be held open to searching criticism, just like every other hypothesis.

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            Okay, I’m pretty sure “internecine strife” predated the Bible, and will continue even if the Bible is long forgotten, so I believe your objection is speculative. And I agree about the “searching criticism.” But, I’m happy to agree to disagree on this one.

          • Yes, the internecine strife was there already; but if it had not been, it would soon have emerged once someone claimed to have ‘the word of God’ concerning how we should live, even if everyone agreed that the words in question came from God.

            I’m always happy to agree to disagree. What matters is progress, not consensus; indeed, consensus is a barrier to progress. As Popper says, ‘the growth of knowledge depends entirely upon the existence of disagreement.’ He might have added: so long as it is not disagreement about the interpretation of the word of God.

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            There are things in the Torah (Hebrew Bible) and I believe in other sacred texts that might reasonably be seen to reduce the strife that would otherwise prevail. For example, the Torah clearly teaches that ALL people are made in the image of God, not just Jews or nobles. And, the prohibitions in the Ten Commandments apply to all: you can’t murder anyone, or steal from anyone, etc. In judging the relative balance of harmful aspects of the text and salutary ones, it helps to deeply immerse yourself in the text itself.

          • No, Mark. I think you have not fully appreciated my point. Every text is open to interpretation. Let’s look at examples.

            “ALL people are made in the image of God”

            So an ancient Jew looks at other Jews, then he looks at black Africans, then he looks at some Chinese. Well, he thinks, if I and these other Jews are made in the image of God, those black Africans can’t be! Nor those Chinese. They look nothing like us! They are made in some other image. Therefore, they are not people…

            “you can’t murder anyone”

            Does ‘anyone’ include animals? Martians? Black Africans? Locusts? Where does one draw the line?

            Further, even if everyone were agreed on the literal interpretation of the words, it would be open to some to claim that the words were used metaphorically, and then propose some surprising metaphorical meaning which he/she argues for on the basis of his/her prejudices.

            And so on. I make this point in my ‘Freedom’ paper, here:


            Yeah, I know you have seen it. But I mention it just in case there is someone else reading this who might be interested.

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            Danny, I was/am reacting to this statement of yours: “If the literature is supposed to be the word of God and concerns what ought to be done (thou shalt this and thou shalt not that) it will generate internecine strife. A good God would not have issued words if they were going to do that. Therefore no ‘good book’ can be the word of a good God.”

            You seem to be suggesting, w/o even reading it, that it is impossible that the Bible or other sacred texts might actually reduce “internecine strife” below what would otherwise exist. I do not understand this argument, since at least in principle the Bible might contain moral principles, however expressed, that would cause people to behave better. I have already pointed to a couple, but there are many others. I do not understand how your last comment responds to this point.

          • My thought it this. It is possible that an insightful piece of writing about what we ought to do will have a generally good effect and that its good effect comes about through the controversy that it causes. But if that piece of writing is declared to be the word of God, it is thereby declared unassailable, not open to dispute. So if you are not doing what it says you ought to do, you are a so-and-so. If you reply that the word of God is being misinterpreted by others and that you have the right interpretation and are acting in accord with that, then you will think that people who act contrarily are acting against the word of God and are thus so-and-sos. So, we have a recipe for war. The problem is not disagreement. The problem is authoritarianism; in this case, that some set of words is given divine authority.

            Now, I guess you could respond as follows. People could accept that different people will interpret the word of God differently and just agree to disagree about what the word of God means. But that seems to miss the point of declaring some set of words to be the word of God. Surely, the whole idea was to identify something that could not be impugned, something about which there could be no disagreement. Otherwise, it is just words that people can use, or not, in pursuing their own enquiries.

            So, we seem to have two facts. The word of God, if there is such a thing, must be indisputable. No set of words is indisputable, not least because every set of words is open to multiple interpretations. That conjunction entails that no set of words can be the word of God.

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            I’m sorry, Danny, but you have read tolerance and respect for others right out of the Bible, and I don’t see how you can do this without engaging with the text. For all you know, the correct reading of the Bible is identical to your moral code. And believers would be “forced” to abide by that code for the betterment of all. And, I raised long ago the possibility that the Bible authorizes moral progress. That, in any event, is my interpretation of it. So the “indisputable” commandment would be something like, “go and learn how to improve the human condition.”

          • It seems as if one of us isn’t getting something. I do not know which one of us it is. That’s life…

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            Probably me.

          • You are too modest, Mark.

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            You’re the only one to ever say that!

          • You’re mixing in the wrong company.

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            I don’t regret having kids for one second, but part of the price is that you not only lose most of your “company,” but can’t replace it with new. Since we’re sort of on the subject, I suspect that some people affiliate with organized religion because otherwise they might go a whole year without more than a “good day” with any adult other than their spouse.

      • A. Alexander Minsky

        I can’t recall who said it, but there is a quotation that I think might be helpful here: It is not those parts of the Bible I don’t understand that bother me. It is those parts I do understand with perfect clarity but don’t comply with that keep me awake at night.

  • Jameson Graber

    Is this a response to something in particular?

    • Rob Gressis

      Kevin Vallier was talking about a biblical literalist (named Kent Hovind, IIRC) on his FB page. Maybe that’s why Jason thought of this.

  • Daniel Carroll

    The literal hermeneutic, as it is called, allows for metaphor and allegory. Adherents call it a “normal” or “plain” reading of the text. It is not universally held by protestants, or even by protestant evangelicals. It stems (mostly) from a protestant sect called dispensationalism, which originated in the Church of the Brethren but cross-pollinated to other denominations, namely the Southern Baptists. It was popularized by the Scofield Study Bible around the turn of the century, where the bible verses were annotated in the margins with commentary, as well as a handful of bible institutes and seminaries starting late in the 19th century. Dispensationalists are best known for a literal rendering of end times prophesy, particularly the book of Revelation, dating of the apocalypse around a generation after the establishment of the state of Israel, and their belief in a rapture and a premillenial return of Christ. Some of their doctrines have been reformed in recent years.

  • Chris Thomas

    I have often thought this same thing, in virtually the same terms. I suspect that what is typically meant by “biblical literalism” is more like “biblical infallibility.”

  • R. Kevin Hill

    The problem here is that there *are* no actual “literalists” in the suggested sense. No one thinks “my cup runneth over” means “hey! I’ve got a beverage here, man!” (It occurred to me the other day that even Kierkegaard, who is quite hostile to Hegelian non-literalism is himself a non-literalist of sorts.) But it also seems tolerably clear that many events in the Bible are being purported to have happened more or less as described, and that among them are events which could not possibly have happened as described. I find it baffling that anyone thinks that the events of Genesis 1-2, or the Book of Job, or Revelations are *meant* to be taken literally, but I’m not sure how defend that impression to the many times many people for whom it is quite obvious that they are meant to be taken literally. Not sure what any of this has to do with libertarianism… apart from the thought that the libertarian conception of human freedom probably has one of its origins in the book of Exodus.

    • A. Alexander Minsky

      There is a joke in some Evangelical/Fundamentalist circles that you aren’t a Biblical literalist unless you believe that everything in the Bible is without error- including the maps.

  • Keanan Guillory

    I’ve heard basically this same argument in the opposite. People claim that either a Christian believes in a literal 6-day creation event or they believe that the rest of the Bible is metaphor, therefore rendering everything else in scripture as benign. I don’t understand why we can’t get the useful, immediately-applicable ideas out of the Bible (or libertarianism for that matter) without jumping to extremes.

  • stevenjohnson2

    The issue is not literalism as such, but bibilical inerrancy. The “fundamentalist” commitment is quite compatible with acknowledging metaphors. The literalism first arises when texts in the Bible do not suggest a natural interpretation as figurative language, but in context are clearly meant as factual claims, primarily historical but occasionally about the physical world. Something like the book of Job has commonly been identified as an edifying fiction by inerrantists, who insist only that it is lesson with the authority of God.

    On the other hand, it is not clear that Genesis is meant as metaphor. It seems to me that those who argue it was meant as a metaphor are doing bad interpretation. Thus inerrantists have often opted to insist against the evidence that Genesis is literally true for the good reason the text apparently does not mean to be figurative.

    The long held analysis that Genesis simply retails two slightly conflicting natural histories of Creation, consecutively, with no pretense at reconciling them, is anathema to inerrantists. In particular, the notion that the biblical texts are creations of human editors is generally conceived as incompatible with a doctrine of plenary inspiration, which regards the writings of the prophets (anyone who wrote a text of the Bible) as essentially dictation from God. Of course, this is biblical inerrancy again, in a form that attributes the inerrancy to the only One who can be inerrant, God. The need to attribute inerrancy to the text is so strong that there has been great resistance to the notion that the Pentateuch wasn’t written by Moses despite the way it ends with the description of Moses’ death and burial in a secret grave.

    (But insisting on the literal truth of Genesis also has a great deal to do with denying the perceived insult to dignity by accepting man’s kinship to the animals. Wounded vanity is at work. I suspect it’s more important than a theoretical committment to something called inerrancy.)

    Even more important is the Gospels’ and Acts’ claim to historicity. But it is a bold conjecture indeed that these were intended merely as figurative language.

    In the Old Testament, there is a boast that the great bronze “sea” in the Temple courtyard had a circumference three times the diameter. I don’t think there’s much doubt that the intent was to say it was a perfect circle. We know that the ratio of circumference to diameter is approximately 3.14 Many theologians simply acknowledge that this was written with the knowledge of the time, with the error consequent to the limitations of knowledge at that time. Presumably, you could say the same thing about Paul’s reference to the “third heaven” as reflecting errant geocentric ideas of cosmology in his era.

  • You know, it’s funny, but I’ve never seen anyone who says “religion is a metaphor” explain what it’s supposed to be a metaphor *for*. But if you don’t explain what the sentence actually means, you’re making it meaningless even if you *claim* that there’s an (unexplained) meaning somewhere.

    • martinbrock

      Religion is not a metaphor. A religion is a formal system typically incorporating metaphors. In a monotheistic religion, God is a metaphor for existence or the universe or something similar. “God’s will” is a metaphor necessary consequences, so a statement like “God visits the sins of a father on his children” does not describe the decree of a ruler imposing unjust penalties on children for crimes committed by their father. It’s only another way of saying, “Misbehaving fathers harm their children.” It’s a warning to fathers, not a justification of their harmful effects on their children.

      In a polytheistic religion, gods are metaphors for particular aspects of existence, like the Sun or the Earth. Of course, “the Sun” itself is only a symbol aggregating many recorded experiences. The Earth does not orbit a single thing, and a human being can only imagine what it orbits.

  • martinbrock

    This subject is like porn. No matter how repetitive the presentation, people will watch.

  • Roderick T. long

    You don’t need imaginary examples. There are at least two places in the Gospels where someone takes something Jesus said literally, and he has to explain that it was a metaphor:

    “Jesus answered and said unto him, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God. Nicodemus saith unto him, How can a man be born when he is old? can he enter the second time into his mother’s womb, and be born? Jesus answered, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again.”
    John 3:3-7

    “In the mean while his disciples prayed him, saying, Master, eat. But he said unto them, I have meat to eat that ye know not of. Therefore said the disciples one to another, Hath any man brought him aught to eat? Jesus saith unto them, My meat is to do the will of him that sent me, and to finish his work.”
    — John 4:31-34

  • JW Ogden

    Here is a book on that subject: