Thursday, July 28, 2011

Why Biblical Literalism Is Folly

Biblical literalism is the claim that presents Scripture as the explicit, literal, inerrant word of G-d.  It is the hermeneutics most commonly associated with Evangelical and fundamentalist Christians.  Such a reading of Scripture has brought about phenomena in American society such as the Moral Majority and the Creationist Movement, amongst others.  It seems straightforward and to the point.  What can possibly be wrong with it?

1) Translation issues.  The Hebrew Scriptures were written in Biblical Hebrew.  The Christian "New Testament" was written in ancient Greek.  When Christians read the Hebrew Scriptures, they are reading the translation of the Sepuginant, which is a Greek translation of the Hebrew.  That means that the Christian rendering of the Hebrew Scriptures is a translation of a translation.  As any linguist will tell you, translations are inadequate at best and shoddy at worst.  Why?  It's much more than worrying about any biases the translator might have.  It's because there are certain words that do not translate well [or at all] into the English language.  Chabad points out three such examples: צדקה ("charity"), תשובה ("repentance"), and תפלה ("prayer").  It goes without saying that there is hardly any Christian [in this country] that has some sort of working knowledge, let alone an awareness, of these linguistic intricacies.  That being the case, how can any Christian assert that they have the "literal, inerrant word of G-d?"  To close this point off with an anecdote.  I brought this point up with a Christian once.  His response was that "if English was good enough for Jesus, it was good enough for me."  I brought up that Jesus spoke Aramaic, not to mention the fact that English did not exist as a language during Jesus' time.  This did not shake the Christian's assertion.  Enough said!

2) Inevitability of interpretation.  What Biblical literalists do not understand is that even if you have a divine text, once humans get their hands on it, it is going to be subject to interpretation.  At the very minimum, you have to ask whether a verse is to be read broadly or narrowly.  What do I mean by that?  Does the verse apply to a specific context?  Does the verse apply to all peoples for all times?  Are we able to extrapolate a lesson, moral, or value out of a verse, whether it is in context or not?  

Furthermore, what do you do when two values are in direct conflict with one another?  Just to give an example, this is what one would try to figure out what "Honor thy mother and father" means if one's father is smoking two packs of cigarettes a day.  Do you respect your father's wishes, even though he is being self-destructive, or do you stop him from partaking in such behavior?   

Also, there are many verses that are ambiguous in the Bible.  A verse can offer multiple interpretations, and there can very well be some interpretations upon which we have yet to stumble.  In Jewish thought, we call this "eilu v'eilu."  In Jewish exegesis, there is an acronymic concept called pardes, which encompasses multiple forms of interpretation, including the surface reading of the text, the homiletic, the allegorical, the philosophical, and the mystical.  Being able to interpret a given verse with context allows for such diversity of opinion to exist.  For Christian fundamentalists to say that "this is the meaning of the verse" is as limiting as it is inaccurate.  

3) Scientific Issues.  The most prominent issue from a scientific standpoint would be the Creation story.  Literalists claim that G-d created the world in six 24-hour periods, even though science begs to differ.  This causes Christians to do anything from denying the scientific findings to opining that G-d planted dinosaur bones in the ground during Creation to "test our faith."  This literalism has caused a dialectical relationship between science and religion in this country, which creates the illusion that one or the other is correct.  As scientist Gerald Schroeder illustrates, the Torah does not have to conflict with scientific findings.  Maimonides even went as far to say that if a scientific claim is demonstrably true, then we are not to read it with its plain meaning (i.e., we read it allegorically).  This would mean that science becomes a significant measure for how we interpret the Torah.  Science does not have to negate religion, and vice versa.  It is all a matter of how we interpret the text.    

4) Textual inconsistencies. There are differences between the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures that cause multiple contradistinctions between the two religions.  Just to name a few: One, Christianity believes that sin rules over man, whereas Judaism believes that man can rule over sin (Genesis 4:7). Jews believe that Satan is an "adversary" that can be overcome. Christianity believes that Jesus died for our sins, whereas Judaism believes that the individual has the ability to atone for his sins through his actions, prayer, and sincere devotion to make sure that the sin doesn’t repeat itself. Christianity believes in a triune deity (Matthew 28:19), whereas Judaism believes that G-d is One (Deuteronomy 6:4). Christians believe that man is G-d (John 10:30), whereas Jews believe that G-d is not a mortal (Numbers 23:19), as it would diminish His divinity and eternality. For Christians, Jesus is an intermediary. For Jews, G-d is accessible 24/7 (Psalms 145:18).  For a Christian looking at this honestly, the quandary is whether to either deny the claims of Hebrew Scriptures or those of the Christian New Testament.

In addition, you can find inconsistencies within the Christian New Testament itself, most notably in the story of the Resurrection.  This is telling because Jesus' sacrifice and resurrection is the cornerstone of Christian theology.  No resurrection, no Christianity!  Literalism is a problem with the Resurrection story because there are literally four different versions of the story.  The discrepancies of these versions do not have to do with emotions or any other facet of personal perspective.  They have to do with dates, times, and places.  Literalism is problematic here because no less than three of the Gospels are lying.  If the text is lying in this aspect, how are we able to trust Christian Scriptures as inerrant or "the literal word of G-d?"        

5) Moral Issues.  Reading certain verses literally is morally problematic from a Christian perspective. Jesus said that he was brought here to not bring peace [to earth], but to bring the sword (Matthew 10:34).  At least one of Jesus' followers took him literally and took up the sword (Luke 22:49-50).  Jesus also says that you have to hate your family in order to become a disciple of his (Luke 14:26).  The story of the fig tree is no less flattering of a depiction of Jesus.  If we were to take the story literally, Jesus comes off as an impudent child throwing a tantrum rather than a deity.  Another intriguing passage comes along in Mark 1 (verses 4, 9) where Jesus is baptized.  If the purpose of baptism is to wash away sin (Acts 22:12-16), then what sin did Jesus commit?  Does that not mean that Jesus himself, being a man, was imperfect?  

Postscript: Christians who subscribe to biblical literalism adhere to some non-existent disclaimer that the Bible has to be read their way.  They are incapable of explaining any of the aforementioned issues away without an inordinate amount of theological acrobatics, all of which are inexplicable to the rational mind.  And believe me when I say that many more examples can be cited to point out issues with biblical literalism.  So why would a Christian succumb to such a mode of interpretation?  Because it's simplistic and easy to do.  It does not involve much thought or work since all that the individual is doing is accepting the verse "at face value," whatever that may mean.  Interpretation actually takes time and effort, not to mention grappling with all sorts of realities that come from questioning and inquiring.  And since the premise behind being a good Christian is unquestionable faith in Jesus and his sacrifice, questioning and inquiring are anything but strong suits of Christianity.  

Biblical literalism is a product of the black-and-white thinking of fundamentalist thought.  One of the alluring facets of any fundamentalism is that it simplifies everything and gives the false notion of "having all the answers."  Biblical literalism is an attempt to insulate oneself from reality because with biblical literalism comes certitude.  Certitude is such a nice feeling to have in an uncertain world.  Escapism is easier than dealing with reality.  The desire for this level of spiritual comfort robs us not only of our senses, but of our rational faculties.  Biblical literalists, along with any other fundamentalists, will cling to their belief system, no matter what facts are presented, much like those presented here today.  Deluding reality is ultimately the folly of biblical literalism.       


  1. Interesting; wish I had time to read more fully, but to suggest that Christians see Jesus as an intermediary is wide of the mark of Trinitarian theology, basically that God was in Christ. You suggest "the premise behind being a good Christian is unquestionable faith in Jesus and his sacrifice." I assume you mean unquestioning, by your later comments in the sentence, but not all Christians understand Jesus death in terms of penal substitution, and many are quite happy to do as much questioning as you. Still, I agree with you regarding literalism and fundamentalism. Keep thinking and blogging. Thanks.

  2. I'm not a fundamentalist, but I was raised one, which led to exactly the dialectical science/faith relationship you discuss, which led to a whole lot of strife and needless hardship in my life. I lost my faith, and while I was eventually able to regain it - and a souped-up improved version of Faith at that! - my fundamentalism was long behind me.

    You said:
    >>Christian Scriptures are no less bothersome in this respect. Jesus said that he was brought here to not bring peace [to earth], but to bring the sword (Matthew 10:34). At least one of Jesus' followers took him literally and took up the sword (Luke 22:49-50). Jesus also says that you have to hate your family in order to become a disciple of his (Luke 14:26). The story of the fig tree is no less flattering of a depiction of Jesus. If we were to take the story literally, Jesus comes off as an impudent child throwing a tantrum rather than a deity. Another intriguing passage comes along in Mark 1 (verses 4, 9) where Jesus is baptized. If the purpose of baptism is to wash away sin (Acts 22:12-16), then what sin did Jesus commit? Does that not mean that Jesus himself, being a man, was imperfect? <<

    I'm sure it's accidental, but those points are all a little bit disingenuous. In much the same way as the Talmud apologizes away the whole "Stoning a son" thing you cited, so Christianity has explanations for each of these things.

    "Not peace but a sword" refers to the strife between those who accept the new way and those who don't, families arguing with their children, broken marriages. New things and old things don't get along well. When Peter actually attacked a guard in the Gospels, Jesus is recorded to have miraculously healed the guard, and of course He famously said "he who lives by the sword dies by the sword."

    "Hating your family" refers to loving a new belief enough to cast off family and tradition, which, I would imagine, would be very difficult for anyone, particularly in a not-at-all secular society like the one He was speaking in. (Certainly it was hard for me to cast off my Christianity when I became a nonbeliever. Certainly it was easy for me to jump back into the faith when my faith issues cleared up). The Fig Tree is a metaphoric gesture about people who promise stuff, but don't deliver. The gospels themselves ask Jesus why He's being baptized, and He explains it as setting an example for others, not that He needs it.

    My point is not to argue theology with you, in fact I agree that hyperliteralism is actually contrary to the spirit of scripture and the faiths that arise from it. I'm just pointing it out to show that every group practices apologetics whether they're aware of it or not.

  3. Dear Republibot 3.0,

    I want to clear up a couple of points you make. The first is that you said I was being disingenuous. If I had said that "this is how all Christians think" or "this is THE traditional Christian interpretation," then yes, I would be disingenuous. What I was doing was highlighting passages that pose a problem for biblical literalists when read literally. The second is that as soon as any individual takes a stance on definition, apologetics, by definition, are inevitable.

    I mostly want to thank you for your post. Not only do you illustrate that there is more one way to interpret religious texts (particularly in a Christian context), but that being a faithful Christian doesn't mean having to read passages in a simplistic manner, and that a Christian can still be considered a good Christian by reading certain passages figuratively.

  4. Steve,

    I missed your point the first time through, and I apologize. Re-reading it with your stated intentions in mind, I totally see what you were going for, and I feel like a dope. Thanks for clarifying.

    Anyway, yes, hyperliteralism is quite a problem, and I get into a lot of occasionally-heated discussions with my Christian brethren about just this since there are some things that simply *can not* be taken literally. Jesus' parables, for instance, are clearly figurative, the entire book of Job, the Psalms - how does one take a poem literally? - How can a simile be weighed against a historical fact? The Apostle Paul himself states on occasion that he is speaking allegorically. So, what, we're supposed to force his words into a box?

    It's problematic. I don't think it's evil, I think it's very well meaning, but it is definitely occasionally annoying. There are some somewhat-valid historical reasons as to why this situation arose, and why it's largely an American phenomenon, but as a practicing Christian and a former missionary, even *I* find it's gotten out of control much of the time.

    So: it bugs me too. What bugs me most about it is that hyperlitralism is so often used as a way to end the conversation, as opposed to finding a way to do anything useful with what we're reading.

    Thanks again for the reply! I appreciate your taking the time to set me straight, and I apologize again.