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What does it mean to take the Bible literally?

Although I consider myself a Bible literalist, I do not take each word it contains as being literally true. While this may sound like a contradiction, let me explain the difference.

The Bible is composed of various types of literature. There are books that are to be taken as literal history but there are also fictional works, poetry, apocalyptic literature and collections of proverbs.

The key to understanding the Bible and inerrancy is to read it and understand it in the sense it was understood by its original audience, the ancient Jews and early Christians to whom it was written.

Much of the Bible, most of it, can be understood exactly as it is written. God created the universe in six days, a worldwide flood destroyed humanity in the time of Noah, the patriarchs, the judges, the kings, Jesus, the Acts of the Apostles, etc. Although this is to some degree a matter of faith, more and more archaeology is uncovering evidence to support the accuracy of the Bible as a historical record.

However, as mentioned above, there are different genres on the Bible and not all of them are to be taken absolutely literally.

Poetry

Take this passage for example:

“He [God the Father] will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart.”  [Ps 91:4, NIV]

God is a spirit. He does not have a physical body at all, much less wings and feathers. The people understood that this was a poetic rather than a literal description of God. The passage is speaking of God’s protection.

Works Intended as Fiction

There are also fictional writings in the Bible. The most well-known of these are the parables Jesus told. They are fictional stories used to teach moral. There was no real Good Samaritan or Prodigal Son. His listeners understood that.

The Catholic Old Testament, and possibly the shorter Protestant version, also contains fictional writing. Bible scholars tell us that the literature of the time indicating that a work was not to be taken as literal truth by including something that was obviously not true. There are, at least, two books in the Catholic canon, Tobit and Judith, which identify themselves as fiction by purposely identifying the wrong person as the leader of an empire.

In Tobit 1:1 and Judith 1:1, Nebuchadnezzar is identified as the king of the Assyrians when he was actually the king of the Babylonians. This would be the equivalent of identifying Abraham Lincoln as the first president of the United States. It is an intentional error to indicate that the work is not to be taken as historical truth. Tobit is also said to be 158 years old at a time when people did not live that long.

One other Old Testament book might fit into this category: Job. The reason for this is that none of the various nations mentioned in Job have ever been mentioned anywhere else. Like the countries visited by Lemuel Gulliver, they may have been made up by the author.

Of course it could be that they exist but have not yet been uncovered which is why we cannot be certain that the book is a work of historical fiction. It could very well be historical fact. Job is a very old book, possibly even pre-dating Moses by some 500 years, so contemporary sources would be scarce. It will take more discoveries to arrive at a final answer.

Apocalyptic Literature

There are several examples of apocalyptic literature in the Bible (parts of Daniel and the book of Revelation) and others that were not included in the Bible. (One of these, 1 Enoch, is quoted in the New Testament Letter of Jude.) They are characterized by the use of unusual symbols and are, therefore, not to be taken as absolutely literary. They are inerrant in the sense that the symbols were known to the original audience so they understood what the author was saying.

Unfortunately some of these symbols are lost on us. I remember in his book, The Late Great Planet Earth (1970), Hal Lindsey wrote that the locusts of Revelation 9:3, 7 were helicopters flown by the US military. Sadly many ate this nonsense up including myself at the time. Lindsey’s mistake was that he forgot that the Book of Revelation was intended to be understood by its 1st century AD readers who couldn’t possibly conceive of a helicopter.

Proverbs

The book of Proverbs in the Old Testament – and the book of Wisdom in the Catholic and Orthodox Old Testament – is a collection of sayings designed to impart wisdom to the reader. The problem is that some readers take them in an absolute sense.

The book of Proverbs contains two literary types: the wisdom sentence and the admonition. The wisdom sentence is an observation based on the author’s experience. The admonition is a command, either a positive command to do something or a negative command to avoid doing something. In addition, many of the proverbs use a poetic form. (Ancient Jewish poetry did not use rhyme but the repetition of an idea in different words: The water is wet, it is not dry.)

Proverbs tells us that God used wisdom to form the universe (Prov 3:19). However, since the Fall (Gen 3), the universe is disordered and God’s wisdom is not going to work out in practice the way it would have had Adam and Eve not sinned. Therefore we cannot always expect the proverbs to work out in practice the way they would have had mankind not fallen.

Summary

The Bible was written to be understood by the people of its time. That does not mean that we cannot understand it but that we have the difficult task of viewing it from the point of view of people from a culture foreign to our own. This is where Bible commentaries are useful.

Sources

Akin, Jimmy. 01 Jul 2003. Saving Judith and Tobit.

Lindsey, Hal. 1970. The Late Great Planet Earth. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Books.

Parsons, Greg W. 1993. “Guidelines for Understanding and Proclaiming the Book of Proverbs,” Bibliotheca Sacra, April-June 1993.

Text © 2018 Gary J. Sibio. All rights reserved.

Image is in the public domain courtesy of Pixabay.

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Written by Gary J Sibio

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