What does it mean to read the Bible literally? Many people who profess to read the Bible literally do not read it that way do not really read it literally.
The word “literal” has several usages. Basically, to read literally involves the ordinary or usual meaning of a word. For example, the literal meaning of “know your ropes” means you “know a lot about ropes.” The figurative meaning of the phrase means “to know a lot about how to do something.”
In writing to the believers in Rome, Paul writes that their faith is “spoken of throughout the whole world.” (Romans 12:8 KJV) Should we read that literally or figuratively? In order to be consistent, a literalist must believe that every person in the world was speaking about the faith of the Roman Christians for that is the literal meaning of the words used. To read it other wise is to read it figuratively. I believe that is hyperbole, a form of exaggeration to make a point and it cannot be read figuratively.
According to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary, another use of the word “literal” means “completely true and accurate; not exaggerated.” Referring back to Paul’s statement, is it completely true, accurate, and not exaggerated?
Both Matthew and Mark state, “everyone thought John was a prophet.” (Matthew 21:26; Mark 11:33) Does that mean everyone in Israel thought that or do the writers mean a large segment of the population thought that? There are many similar examples in both the Old and New Testaments.
To read the Bible literally is to believe the Bible contains nothing but a collection of facts and that the writers never used literary devices like metaphor or hyperbole. Literal reading of the Bible means we discount the many sections that are poetic. Poetry, metaphor, hyperbole, and other literary types and devices are ways to express what is not easily and adequately expressed in factual statements. They cannot be read literally.
The authors who penned the Bible were real people, writing in real places, and at real times. They had an agenda. They had a story to tell about where we come from as humans, why we are here, and where we are going. Their writing reflects the style, vocabulary, and thought patterns of their day. Material was chosen that told their story and other material not essential to the story they wanted to tell was left out. They were not writing literally.
For example, in 1 Kings 11: 41, the editors commented, “Everything else that Solomon did, his career, and his wisdom, are all recorded in The History of Solomon.” In writing about King Hezekiah, the compilers commented: “Everything else that King Hezekiah did and his devotion to the Lord are recorded in The Vision of the Prophet Isaiah Son of Amoz and in The History of the Kings of Judah and Israel.” (2 Chronicles 32:32) Who wrote, edited, and/or compiled these other documents? No one knows and there are no copies available to us, but they were available to the authors and editors of the Old Testament.”
The New Testament writers also had documents that they researched, documents that are not available to us. For example, Luke comments that
Many have done their best to write a report of the things that have taken place among us. They wrote what we have been told by those who saw these things from the beginning and who proclaimed the message . . . because I have carefully studied all these matters from their beginning, I thought it would be good to write an orderly account . . . so that you will know the full truth about everything which you have been taught. (Luke 1:1-4)
In John’s Gospel, the writer tells us that “Jesus performed many other miracles that are not written down in this book.” The reason for writing the Gospel is “in order that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah the Son of God, and that through your faith in him you may have life.” (John 20:30) In conclusion, the Gospel writer states that “there are many other things that Jesus di. If they were all written down one by one, I suppose that the whole world could not hold the books that would be written.” (John 21:24)
All this is to say that a literal Bible presents difficulties. For example, how many women were at the tomb on the first Easter morning? Two? (Matthew 28:1) Three? (Mark 16:1) Unspecified? (Luke 24:1) One? (John 20:1) Can each Gospel be literally true? There is a way of non-literal reading these different accounts with no discrepancies, but that will wait for a later blog.
In the next blog I will discuss inerrancy. Stay tuned until next time!