How literally should we take each word in the Bible?

By Barry Gittins

The books inside the Bible are the most read, and perhaps unread, spiritual literature of recorded history.

The Bible’s words, translated into hundreds of languages and dialects, represent divine revelation for the Jewish and Christian religions. Its teachings and stories have made a huge cultural, societal and legal impact throughout the greater part of Western civilisation for two millennia, shaping the lives, thoughts and practices of countless millions of people.

Along the way, many people have been murdered (“martyred”) because of how they have used, translated or perceived the book. Doctrine dogfights have seen people flee for their lives. Bible discussion still provokes strong responses today, with interviewees for this story using the terms “heresy” and “blasphemous”.

But, just how well is the Bible understood, even by those who try to live by its words?

Is the Bible the revealed word of God, or the work of humans? Is it inspired, or inerrant; a lifeline or a sword? Chockablock with timeless wisdom, or irrelevant to our society? Is the Bible without error, as some Christians believe? Is it to be taken literally?

The first point worth stressing is that the Bible wasn’t written by one person, at one time – it was written by many authors over a period spanning about 1000 years.

This leads to some curious inconsistencies and varying versions of events, according to Dr Monica Jyotsna Melanchthon, Coordinator of Studies – Old Testament, at Pilgrim Theological College.

“Given the fact that there were so many hands at work, coming from so many historical periods, and the meanings of words have changed over those periods, you will find contradictions,” she says.

“What is really beautiful about the Hebrew Bible [the 39 books of the Old Testament] is that whoever put these texts together did not seek to harmonise these positions. They allowed those differences to stay.

“I always tell my students that the Hebrew Bible is not a single book – it’s about cultures, it’s a library of books. These differences of opinion remain; there is a conversation happening between the books on various issues, whether it’s about women, about men, the Earth, the state or God or justice or violence or relationships with peoples of other faiths or cultures.

“On all these issues you find varying opinions of varying degrees. There’s a conversation happening between them.”

Rev Sally Douglas says “we need to take it (the Bible) seriously, rather than literally.”

Now, there’s an image – the Bible gives us a conversation, rather than an ironclad edict. That conversation flows from the written page to the men and women who read it, and the God who peeks out from its pages.

Rev Dr Robyn Whitaker, who is PTC’s Coordinator of Studies – New Testament, says: “When someone claims ‘the Bible says’ I want to ask ‘which Bible? Which part? Whose translation?’ because there is very little about which the Bible speaks with a singular voice.

“What holds these diverse texts in common is that they all speak about humans’ experiences of the divine. And not any deity, but a specific deity. A personal deity whose name is YHWH.

“And from the point of view of faith, what these texts reveal is a God who chooses to act with and through human beings in all of our absurdity, bias, sinfulness, hilarity, and messiness. This is the Good News Christians’ claim: That God chose to bind God’s very self to humanity, which means God’s very message, God’s word, is also deeply human.”

Rev Dr Sally Douglas says the Bible’s message is one of “justice, mercy and reconciliation”.

Sally, a researcher, author, lecturer and minister at Richmond Uniting Church, says believing the Bible to be without error is “peculiar, recent and blasphemous – it’s a much more beautiful, serious and complex text than that”.

“We need to take it seriously, rather than literally,” she says.

“Many older people went to Sunday School and were brought up in churches where they were taught to believe the Bible literally [and] without question. When that became suffocating, the only options they were given were to reject it all or to accept it all. We can have a much more sophisticated, complex conversation.”

Matt Julius, who has a Master’s degree in theology, says literalism misunderstands the Bible.

“What would it mean to take a poem literally, or what would it mean to take a letter figuratively?” he asks. “I don’t think that accords with what Christians have traditionally understood scripture to be. We have to treat each text on its own terms.”

Robyn says recent history has seen Christians handle the Bible in the secular space in two very different ways, “both of which are responses to modernity and an adoption of secular values”.

Rev Ian Ferguson says “there are so many different lenses through which we can read scripture.”

“On the one hand, conservative Christians have embraced the values of secularism in privileging science and have applied that scientific set of claims to the Bible,” she says. “So the Bible is no longer historical literature or sacred text, it is also science book. It is factual. It is literal.

“This view reads the poetry of Genesis 1 as a scientific claim that counters evolutionary theory. It reads ancient claims about gender and sexual behaviour as timeless truths even though they come from a pre-scientific worldview. Biblical truth has to be factual truth or it is nothing at all.

“Moreover, taking the Bible literally results in a flat reading, because one has to iron out the inconsistencies and contradictions to get one, authoritative, unified meaning.

“At the other end of the spectrum, liberal or progressive Christians have retreated from making any kind of truth claims based upon the Bible. In some versions of this, the Bible becomes a personal self-help book or the perfect meme – something you pick up for personal inspiration, when you need a little comfort, or a word of encouragement.

“Worst, still, liberal Christians have so removed the Bible from the central place of faith it is no longer studied and we have raised a generation of Christians who do not know what is in the book.”

Rev Ian Ferguson, minister at Brunswick Uniting Church, says it isn’t always wise to apply the books of Bible directly to our world.

“We have to read them in their historical context and literary style, and interpret them on that basis,” he says.

“There are so many different lenses through which we can read scripture; so many different scholarly techniques of interpretation. Most of them, not all of them, are valuable.”

A central issue in reading the Bible and applying its teachings is the question of what to do when the various accounts or edicts don’t add up; what do we do when the Bible seems to contradict itself, or to contradict contemporary scientific knowledge?

Rev Dr Robyn Whitaker say “what holds these diverse texts in common is that they all speak about humans’ experiences of the divine.”

The Earth is much older than seven days. The Sun does not revolve around our planet. Homo sapiens in all likelihood did not emerge from two very productive proto-parents.

What do we do when things don’t add up?

“I think we get excited,” Sally says. “That’s what I love about being a biblical scholar and preaching from these texts in a parish as well. It’s so exciting when we begin to break ground and crunch down into the differences, because then we get to see the agenda of each author.”

For Matt, being concerned that the Bible may contradict itself conjures “an assumption”.

“What’s the problem with contradiction?,” he asks.

“The reality, when you look at scripture, is that we have different revelations to different people at different times in different social contexts, with different cultural contexts and social strata – there are bound to be different perspectives.

“So, it’s not, what is this one unified truth because the Bible is about the ‘livingness’ of God in our local communities and personal experience.”

“It’s not, what is this one unified truth because the Bible is about the ‘livingness’ of God in our local communities and personal experience,” says Matt Julius

Sally says the Bible has to be looked at “through the Word of God”. “And the Word of God, for Christians, is not the biblical text. The Word of God is Jesus,” she says.

“Whenever we pick up the biblical text, whether we’re reading the Old or the New Testament, Christians are to look at it through the lens of Jesus.

“Saint Augustine said that if the literal sense of the reading doesn’t lead to more love of God and love of neighbour – and I would add love of self – then you read it metaphorically. That’s what Jesus reveals. The heart of life is loving God, loving neighbour and loving self.

“Each gospel author starts with a description of what Jesus does in his public ministry. It misses the point when we try to work out which gospel incident happened first? Which of the other three were lying? Or got it wrong? It’s much more about that they all believed Jesus was the God One – what they’re all trying to do is focus on their particular understanding of what that meant.

“The Bible is entirely relevant to our lives.”

Robyn agrees, saying the Bible “is not a fairytale, as some say, and belief in God is not akin to believing in aliens or sky fairies”.

“Christian faith is grounded in a long tradition, lived out by communities who have wrestled with, conserved, rewritten, edited, rewritten, collated their texts about God and then attempted to live out the truths therein.

“It is not science and it is not provable, but neither is Christian faith mere superstition or delusion. It holds up to critical enquiry and it continues to transform lives.

“The effect of a modern secular worldview has been to convince people of faith that their faith is an optional, private, individual and personal affair, something best kept in domestic or discreet spaces.

“The problem is there is nothing private, individualistic, or domestic about the Gospel. Nothing. Jesus’s message was public, always communal, and utterly world-transforming. It touched on economics, justice, health, and community responsibility.”

The Bible represents God and humans in conversation. We may be getting around on planes, buses or electric cars now, rather than on the back of a camel or on a sailing ship, but the messages of the Bible writers can still be intelligently applied to our lives.

“The Bible reminds us there is another way to view the world – God’s view – and that we don’t have to accept the status quo nor unquestioningly assume the values of the world,” Robyn says.

Recognising the depths of complexity, the Bible is not an easy read, nor easily contextualised. Ian warns that “to read the Bible as a roadmap or a guidebook or a rule book … well, we’ve seen throughout history how unhelpful that approach can be, and it can be unhelpful today”.

The Bible provides comfort, inspiration, moral courage and ethical insights. It points to a God who loves us.

But the only way to discover that for yourself is to read it. All of it.

“The Bible needs to be read – not in small discreet sections on Sunday mornings only, but read in its fullness,” Robyn says.

“We need to read the hard parts and the parts we don’t understand. We need to question it and let it question us. Those of us who claim to be Christian need to know that this story is our story.”

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