Taking the Bible Literally

February 6, 2013 § Leave a comment

Micah Bales recently wrote a post on his blog about taking the Bible literally. It’s a great post, as usual with Micah, and it got me thinking again about this topic. I started to comment on his blog and then the response got too long, so I have decided to post it on my blog instead and link to his, in case my readers want to see the original spark that got me going.

First of all, I don’t think that anybody really takes the Bible literally. What they really are doing most of the time is applying to a particular passage the meaning that they have been taught that it has, whatever the passage literally says. To take the Bible literally is, by definition, to not be very thoughtful about the Bible, and I think most people who “take the Bible literally” haven’t really thought much about what it means to take the Bible literally, either.

Because it is literally impossible to take the Bible literally.

For instance, which translation are you taking literally? Reading a translation means that you are not taking literally the original text; you are taking literally somebody else’s interpretation of the original text—and that interpretation is not likely to be a literal interpretation! To really take the Bible literally, you would have to be fluent in biblical Greek and Hebrew.

So you choose a translation—how? Most folks use the one that their community has settled on as the best. I like the NRSV when I can’t get to my Anchor Bible commentaries. But there will be problems no matter which translation you choose.

Take the NIV, for instance. I think it’s likely that the NIV gets taken literally more than any other version because it is a favorite translation among Evangelical Christians. Now the NIV routinely translates “Yahweh” as “the Lord”. Not only does this not “take the Bible literally”, but it also skews the identity of God away from the role of creator that is inherent in the name Yahweh (literally, “I bring into being what I bring into being”, or something along those lines) and toward “the Lord’s” role as a monarchical lord. I am not saying that Yahweh is not a monarch. I am saying that reading the NIV does not give you a “literal” rendering of a sacred text in an instance that has real significance—God’s name. And this is just one among uncountable instances.

Of course, the NIV is not alone in this. Compare any popular translation with one in a good commentary and you can see really big differences between the commentary and the popular translations. And who’s to say that your commentary is correct? One of the reasons I like the Anchor Bible series is that it’s the editors’ policy to include alternative readings for everything, though the translator generally settles on one as their best judgment; but at least you get to see the options and the reasoning behind the translator’s choice.

Similarly, what textual tradition lies behind the version you are taking literally? (Again, the Anchor Series always includes a review of the extant texts, a discussion of the options, and a rationale for the translator’s choices.) For instance, one of the textual traditions for the Book of Acts is hundreds of words longer than the others. (I think there are four or five textual traditions for Acts; I forget the actual number.) Our modern Bibles, I suspect, probably use this longer one because it’s longer and that seems more complete. But which one is truer to Luke’s original work? And—more important—who decided which textual tradition to use in the Bible that’s in your hands? You didn’t decide, and you don’t know anything about the people who did. You are taking literally someone else’s choices about biblical truth.

Then there’s lacunae. The physical manuscripts sometimes have damage that has eliminated words or whole phrases, so translators are forced to fill in these lacunae—these holes—with their best guess, based on context and their reading of the writer’s intent. So sometimes you’re taking literally a text that somebody literally made up, and unless you read a good commentary or a good study Bible, you don’t even know when you’re reading a lacuna.

Furthermore, about a third of the Bible is poetry. Taking poetry literally is almost an oxymoron; nobody thinks that the Lord (literally, Yawheh) is literally my shepherd. The whole of Psalm 23 is an extended metaphor.

So how can you take the Bible literally when there are so many questions and choices to be made regarding what you’re reading? People who say they take the Bible literally aren’t really thinking about what that means. They are just aligning themselves with a given theology.

So what matters, I think, is to read the Bible with spiritual integrity—that is, in the spirit in which it was given forth, as Friends would say. For me, the “spirit in which Scripture was given forth” includes, not just the Holy Spirit that inspired it, but also the spirit that received it—what I would call “the spirit of the times” in which the books of the Bible were written.

An example: “Love the Lord (literally, Yahweh) with all your heart and all your soul and all your strength.” We modern English speakers have inherited our anthropology of body symbology from the Greeks; like them we think of the heart as the home of the emotions. However, Jesus and the writers of the books of the Bible had a Semitic anthropology in which the heart was the home of the will, not the emotions. So “love God with all your heart” meant with all your will, that is, with assiduous study of Torah (or the gospel, in Jesus’ case), and with joyful, complete dedication to following it—not with complete emotional devotion. (Either way, of course, we are not taking “heart” literally here, are we?)

This is not to say, of course, that emotional devotion to God is not important. It’s just not literally what the Bible intended in this passage. Everywhere you turn, the Bible presents this kind of confounding depth. We could delve into what “soul” means to ancient Greek speakers like Matthew and Luke versus the ancient Israelites (the difference is quite significant), and then move on to “strength”, and so on, writing whole long articles about just this one line of Scripture.

My favorite area for this kind of problem is the Beatitudes, which, when you know Torah’s technical covenantal vocabulary well enough, turns out to be all about inheritance law. Furthermore, inheritance law is fundamental to Torah and to the Israelites’ covenant with God in ways that are almost completely unknown to us modern Gentile readers and quite alien, besides, to our modern, market-based (rather than peasant agrarian) cultural context. So we’ve given the Beatitudes spiritualized meanings that have nurtured Gentile believers for centuries, but which miss the original and very concrete intent of Jesus and we are also missing an important aspect of his gospel—how he promised to relieve the suffering of the poor and especially, of those who have lost their inheritance through foreclosure. (See biblemonster, my Bible blog, on the Beatitudes.)

If we assume that God intended something relevant to God’s first readers when these books were first written, then we have to understand the milieu of those writers and their readers. But this is notoriously hard to do with any certainty. Centuries have passed and redactors often have reconfigured the text for their own, later community. Often they themselves no longer understood the original milieu, but they did their best to pass the tradition on in a way that worked for their own readers. Then the text lay static in the canon for several millennia while successive societies of Bible readers went through countless changes until we came along. How much of the spirit of the times has been lost to us? A lot.

The only way to be faithful in our circumstance of distance and ignorance, since we are so far removed from the biblical writers’ own milieu, is to step back from the text a bit and open up to the Spirit that gave it forth. Because what you’re really looking for is not the literal meaning of the text—or even its original intended meaning—but what God wants to say to you.

For I completely accept the power of the Bible as a medium for divine communication. For one thing, the empirical evidence for it is overwhelming. And for another, it’s happened to me. And while I do think that really valuable openings come from understanding the original milieu of the text when you can—whole new layers emerge—you have to stay humble before what you’re reading.

For even if we become serious students of the Bible, so that we can recognize legal terms in the Beatitudes, or whatever, we are still in the same boat, with chance for wind and ignorance for our sail, because the Bible is so big and so deep and so confounding and so old—you can never know enough, and what you think you know could very well be wrong, anyway.

So you have to read the Bible as a spiritual discipline for opening to the Holy Spirit. And reading it literally—well that stands in the way of that Spirit, besides being foolish and impossible.

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