Dictionary.com defines literal as: “being the primary or strict meaning of the word or words; not figurative or metaphorical.”
If the question, “is the Bible literal” were polled, it would be interesting to see the results. The mere mention of the Bible can be polarizing, especially when the discussion is whether, ALL of the writings should be taken as literal.
Before we begin the discussion on whether the Bible should be taken as literal, let’s examine the history of the Bible for historical context.
The Bible is separated into two sections: The Old Testament and the New Testament. The Old Testament consisted of thirty-nine books, which became known as the Hebrew Bible. Scholars have concluded the first five of these books were written by Moses. The remaining thirty-four books were written over centuries by prophets and church leaders. These sections are also referred as B.C and A.D. B.C as “Before Christ” and A.D referring to “After Death.”
The New Testament; which is comprised of twenty-seven books, supposedly was written, about 50 to 100 years A.D. It was divided into two sections; the Gospels, which told the story of Jesus, and the Epistles or Letters, which presumably were written by leaders of the Church.
In A.D. 325, the Council of Nicea; which comprised of Christian church leaders gathered to determine, which books should become permanent within the Bible, however, it still took decades of debate, before Saint Jerome was given permission to publish the final sixty-six. The question becomes: Why so long?
Professor John K. Riches, Professor of Divinity and Biblical Criticism states “the biblical texts themselves are the result of a creative dialogue between ancient traditions and different communities through the ages, and the biblical texts were produced over a period in which the living conditions of the writers – political, cultural, economic, and ecological varied enormously.”
Timothy H. Lim, a professor of Hebrew Bible and Second Temple Judaism at the University of Edinburgh, “says that the Old Testament is a collection of authoritative texts of apparently divine origin that went through a human process of writing and editing.” He further states “that it is not a magical book, nor was it literally written by God and passed to mankind.”
What are we to believe? Are we to believe, that the bible is a collection of stories that may or not be true? Have what we have been reading for centuries merely a collection of myths? Does it seem feasible that humans and animals were sacrificed in the name of God, and if Revelations is to be believed, then we are awaiting our final days of doom and our destiny is eventual hell.
The literally true writings in the Bible are generally in the form of telling about historical events, even if it’s written about differently than we write about history today. Can we believe the Bible when it comes to its history?
If you don’t believe the Bible literally, does that mean you must conclude that Christianity is based on biblical myth – literally fiction and stories passed down, generation to generation, from our ancient ancestors? That the only way to read the Bible is to read it metaphorically or metaphysically?
Absolutely not. There’s great history recounted in the Bible. But the Bible is more than just history. It is a book of faith written by people who had undergone a transforming spiritual experience or who believed they had “seen” their God at work in their history. Biblical people tried, as best they could, to put that experience into words,
It is the same with the Psalms, for example. Verses in the Book of Psalms were written as praises or songs to be recited, chanted, or sung at temple festivals. Why do we think their references (e.g., to angels) are more literally true than lyrics to one of our songs or poetic verses in a Hallmark greeting card?
So, what can be established as being literally true in the Bible?
Speaking in the broadest of brushstrokes, I think we could conclude the following to be pretty accurate:
• The overall history and culture of the Patriarchs, most of which was recorded from Chapter Twelve to the end of the Book of Genesis. This is the time of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and their culture, which is very similar to and very influenced by the Code of the Babylonian king, Hammurabi.
• A great deal of I-II Samuel and I Kings – stories about Samuel, Saul, David, and Solomon – most of which was recorded by the Court Historian.
• Historical references, overall events, and cultural undertones in the Old Testament during the Schism between Israel and Judah and their independent exiles – Israel to Assyria and Judah to Babylon.
• Stories of Jesus’ teaching during his two-year ministry – especially his cynic-like one-liners and his many parables of the new, inner Kingdom of Heaven.
• Jesus execution in Jerusalem just prior to Passover.
• The general history of the times reflected in Paul’s original eight letters – I-II Thessalonians; Galatians, I-II Corinthians; Romans; Philemon, and Philippians.
Heaven and Hell: Heaven and hell are here on earth, not just in the hereafter. If you have a loving relationship with God, as you understand God, while you’re physically alive – that relationship will continue after your physical death.
The Second Coming: The general consensus among scholars, both Christian and Jewish, leads us to conclude that virtually all the references to some form of final destruction refers to a final destruction of life as the audience knew and understood it. For example, many Jews, Christians, and Jewish-Christians all believed the Roman destruction of the Jerusalem temple in 70 C.E. or Common Era, was the beginning of the end of the world.
The Jews believed it was a final punishment of God. Christians and Jewish-Christians believed it was the coming of the Lord Jesus, as predicted by the Apostle Paul, who thought it was just around the corner. So, he counseled people not to have sex, not to complete business transactions, and other admonitions.
Theologically – not literally – it was the end. It was the end of the Jewish Temple-State of Jerusalem. It was the end of life as Jews, Christians, and Jewish-Christians knew and understood it at the time.
The Virgin Birth: The Virgin Birth became an important doctrinal belief as the derived Doctrine of Original Sin became more and more defined. Of course, there are always stories about the birth and childhood of any significant public figure.
However, as the Doctrine of Original Sin was being written several hundred years after Jesus’ death, the concept of the Virgin Birth took on a new significance. If Original Sin were true fact, then no person could be born naturally without being in Sin. Jesus could not be in Sin if he were to save us the way the theology was proclaiming. Therefore, he wasn’t born “naturally.”
It becomes important then to understand a little about the biblical culture, the authors, their audiences, and the events they were addressing. This lets us “see” the people of the Bible as real people. “Seeing” the people of the Bible, the same as us, allows Spirit to touch our hearts just as it did theirs.
So, we end as we began, asking if the Bible should be taken literally? That question should be answered by the reader. However, it is hoped, that you would continue to read and apply the principles; that are important to you. Yes, Revelations, can be quite scary, however, between Genesis and Revelations, there is so much to be taken and used on a daily basis.