Biblical Scholar, Seminary Professor, Episcopal Priest

On Biblical Literalism

I was invited to participate in a forum on Creationism in the NY Times. You can find the whole conversation here. (Note that a subscription is required after 10 free articles a month.

Here is my contribution:

Biblical literalism usually emerges from a faithful impulse, deeply meaningful faith in God, Jesus and scripture in Christian tradition. (Corollaries exist in Judaism and Islam, but I will confine myself to Christianity.) That faith is frequently buttressed by experiences with God and the Scriptures that shape and reinforce their meaning. Denial of any of those elements is for many rejection of the God of the Scriptures.

What often goes unexamined are the assumptions that underlie biblical literalism about the intent and genre of the text: Specifically, biblical literalism requires reading all of the bible as having the intent to relay a series of historical (and theological) facts. This ignores what we know about language, that there are many kinds (genres) of speech and writing (rhetoric) which we use in infinite combinations without thought to make our points: irony, exaggeration, puns, sarcasm, riddles, proverbs, quotes in and out of context, etc. Insisting on biblical literalism flattens out the richness of the text and of its multiple contributors. In addition, there are many texts and books now bound as “the Bible,” yet no single Bible: there are differing number of books in different sequence in Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant and Anglican Bibles. For example, the King James Bible that has become standard in Evangelical and much of Protestant Christianity has had a number of books removed from its original Anglican formulation, with most of its adherents non-the-wiser, though Anglicans and Episcopalians still use them.

Literal readings of non-literal texts can also lead to fraudulent readings of the text, dogmatic tenacity to ahistorical or unscientific claims and the loss of credibility for those who insist on nonsensical interpretations.

I teach a 3-point interpretive paradigm shifting from “is the bible true” to “how is it true.” Determine: 1) what the text says; this requires knowledge of original languages since all translations are unreliable at points, 2) as much as possible what the text may have meant in its originating contexts; i.e. euphemistic expressions and evolving language, 3) and, what the texts says in our contexts, what values and themes transcend time and which do not. Determining the genre, rhetoric and interpretive possibilities of a text is hard work and many prefer simplistic formulae. But even literal readers accept that the earth does not have four corners though that was the literal meaning when the texts were composed and transmitted.

8 Responses

  1. I have been leading my church in a series on interpreting the Bible, as well as sharing more info on my radio program. You have succinctly stated all that I have tried to teach. When I had them read Psalm 137: 9, many were at a loss as to what to do, and many were surprised that God would put such a text in the Bible. Thanks for helping us to think critically.

    16 August 2013 at 11:50 am

  2. Very well expressed.

    17 August 2013 at 10:04 am

  3. The word used for “corners” is related to word for “wings”. I think it means something more like “four winds”

    19 August 2013 at 11:20 am

    • Wil

      Dear Susan,
      You are partially correct about one element of the semantic range of one word. One sense of כַּנְפוֹת in Is 11:12 and Ezek 7:2 is “edge” and can refer to the soft edge of a garment. That is not the sense in those texts. The ancient Near Eastern cosmology included a flat table earth with corners held up by pillars, “hence the expression the pillars of the earth,” see 1 Sam 2:8; Job 9:6; Psa 75:3. In Rev 7:1 and 20:8 γωνία is hard-edged corner, like a street corner. I stand by my statement. The references to the four corners of the earth reflect the literal view of the biblical writers and their intended audience that the earth was indeed flat which is of course, not literally true. Thanks for the opportunity to clarify.

      19 August 2013 at 11:53 am

      • Thank you for your reply. You certainly have more knowledge in this regard but I would like to point out a trend I have noticed. It seems to me that biblical scholars are suddenly opposing literalism using the same examples. “Four corners” and “pillars of the earth” are making the rounds on all the biblical scholars blogs. While I agree that literalism should be debunked, I think that the ancients were not as clueless about cosmology as our translations would suggest. The Greek translations could not possibly encompass the most ancient knowledge from the Horn of Africa.

        How could a lamed vovnic be a pillar? It is the strength of righteousness (justice) that holds the world aloft.

        20 August 2013 at 1:06 pm

        • Wil

          My last on this. The tendency to use simple, obvious examples does not disqualify. I also speak (in other contexts) of the claim that demons cause deafness and epilepsy and, that men plan seeds in women to make babies. And we’re not limited to “Greek translations” for our understandings of the ancient world. There are plenty of maps and compendia and cosmological treatises describing the flat earth, its supportive pillars deeply rooted in the Pit/Abyss/Sheol, the dome of the heavens above complete with windows to access the primordial sea. I don’t get your last sentence, there may be a typo (lammed-vav-what?). The notion of righteousness supporting the world is a metaphor based on the literal understanding of the pillars. The broader point is that not even the ancients considered everything in the scriptures to be literal and some of what they did we do not read literally across wide interpretive paradigms. Thanks for the conversations. ‘Til next time. Best to you.

          20 August 2013 at 1:25 pm

  4. These maps, etc. do not come from African sources. Since you do not wish to discuss, it is hard to use any examples that are not “simple”.

    A masteba is not a pillar – it is the grave of a righteous king or patriarch. Also, I did not misspell but I do not have Hebrew fonts. 36 pillars (lamed vov) is a very ancient concept that is also seen in the Karnak temple. Thank you for your reply.

    20 August 2013 at 2:11 pm

    • Job 26:7 He stretcheth out the north over the empty place, [and] hangeth the earth upon nothing.

      Job most ancient book of Bible.

      22 August 2013 at 12:49 pm

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