Reading The Bible As Literature

Is there a reason so many debates about the Bible just miss the point? Let’s talk about it on Deeper Waters.

Okay. We get it in the atheism/theism debates. Some people believe the Bible is reliable. Some do not. That’s fine and until the return of Christ, that’s not going to change. Yet I have been pondering lately that the way we talk about the Bible is part of the problem, and this isn’t just how atheists talk about it, but also how theists talk about it.

It seems while we speak about if the claims of the Bible are true, which we should, there is a lack of the recognition that the Bible is a piece of literature. It speaks with allegory, hyperbole, metaphor, simile, etc. It uses poetry and narrative and proverbs and apocalypses to make its point. The Bible exists in one book, but it is itself a collection of many books, books written by different authors in different times and locations.

Considering all of this, the Bible is not going to be an easy book to understand! Add in that it comes from languages different from our own, a culture different from our own, a time different from our own, and a place different from our own.

I started pondering this the most recent time I saw someone describe the Bible as a book of fairy tales. This is a common claim, but quite frankly a strange one. Fairy tales are really wonderful works of literature that show a richness of imagination and insight into the human predicament. What kind of person would laugh at a fairy tale for being a fairy tale? Yet this kind of statement is not an insult to the Bible alone, but it is also a lowering of the kind of writing that is a fairy tale.

Now why do many atheists say this? I suspect it’s because our culture has been heavily influenced by scientism. We have this idea that all truth should be amenable to the sciences and that science is the highest way of knowing anything if not the only way of knowing anything. We expect then the Bible to speak in scientific language because we are a scientific people.

It doesn’t, and that’s not because the Bible is anti-science. Many of us are not anti-science and we don’t speak in scientific language. The Bible has a totally different purpose. Even if you don’t think it is from God, the authors at least were really trying to make a message about God and they did not have to do it in a way that is convenient to modern listeners. They would write in ways their immediate audience would understand.

Besides, how many of us would really like to have many events described in scientific language? Consider for instance the union of man and woman in the act of sex. Which account would you rather here to describe what happens in the event? Would you prefer a purely scientific account or would you prefer to get an account perhaps from the lovers themselves? (Naturally after they’re done. There won’t be much desire to explain in the midst of the act.)

If you choose the first one, I pity you. I really do.

What needs to be done is to wrestle with the literary forms of the Bible and see if maybe our modern ideas of what the text means are wrong. Perhaps the Bible is not interested in the questions we are interested in. Perhaps one really needs to wrestle with the text to understand it. Still want to disbelieve it? Fine. At least do your part to really try to understand it as a text.

I’ve spoken about the atheists, but frankly, I think the theists are just as guilty. In fact, in many ways, I think my fellow theists are more guilty than the atheists are because we’ve set the standard that the atheist will follow.

For us, it really boils down to one word.

Literal.

Immediately, some people reading this who are Christians are going into a defensive stance because I have just made a statement that is going to dare to suggest that we don’t take the Bible literally. Why I must just be a liberal Christian who rejects miracles and inerrancy and everything else.

On the contrary, I believe we should ALWAYS take the Bible literally.

Why?

Because literal really means “According to the intent of the author.” If the author meant the text to be taken straight forwardly, then do so. If he meant it to be a narrative, then do so. If he meant it to be a metaphor or an apocalypse or a generality, then take it that way as well.

Too often, we have taken literal to mean something more like a wooden reading of the text. That’s not what a literal meaning is. That’s why in today’s parlance if I was asked if the Bible is the Word of God to be interpreted literally, I would say no, because sometimes the Bible is not straight forward.

Why should this surprise us? Jesus told his own parables in a confusing manner. In fact, he did so purposely. Job in his book talked about the search for wisdom and compared it to mining and digging deep for great wealth. It would not be easy to understand and considering all we’ve said about the Bible, why should it be?

Thus, when we hear Christians talk about the literal interpretation, too often it sets up atheists who think that this is always the way the Bible should be read and when read in that sense, they reject most of it as nonsense, and who can blame them? In fact, none of us take it that way or else in reading the words of Jesus, we’d all be blind and have no hands. (Too many people heavy into inerrancy fall into this trap of literal interpretation.)

In fact, when I put a short form of this up on Facebook, what happened immediately but a debate started about Genesis 1, which shows the problem! It’s immediately jumped to that Genesis 1 must be read in scientific terms! Surely this is what the author of the text meant to convey!

But maybe it wasn’t! Could it be someone like John Walton is right with his interpretation of Genesis One. Of course he could be wrong, but isn’t it worth listening to to consider first instead of assuming our presupposition is correct?

The theist, you see, is often guilty of not treating the Bible as literature as well and not really being able to wrestle with the text and ask the hard questions of the text. Some of us have this idea that we should not question the Bible. I disagree entirely. We should question the Bible with every question we can bring to it. In doing so, we can best find out what it is the text is saying.

Ironically, the two sides mentioned both have similar mindsets. Both of them tend to view the Bible always in a straight forward sense and both assume the Bible was written in a way that is directly fitted for modern 20th and 21st century people in a Western civilization.

Maybe it isn’t.

That’s not the fault of the Bible then. That’s the fault of us for wrestling with the text.

If you are on a debate site and you are arguing about the Bible, then for this part, it doesn’t really matter what side you’re on. You owe it to yourself to wrestle with the text as literature and seek to find out what it means and why you think it means what it means. If someone questions that, then it’s up to you to defend your position and if you can’t, be open to changing your mind.

Will we still disagree about the truth claims of the Bible? Absolutely! Yet if we follow a procedure like this, hopefully some of us will have instead better informed disagreements as to the nature of the text and what it is saying rather than a quick dismissal of it all or a quick embrace of it all.

In Christ,
Nick Peters

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15 Responses to “Reading The Bible As Literature”

  1. JLAfan2001 Says:

    The koran is the word of god, the Bhagavad Gita is the word of god, the book of mormon is the word of god. The roman creation account is right, The greek creation account is right, The egyptian creation account is right.

    They are not historical or scientific accounts but they were meant to be taken as metaphor or allegory. They make have inacurracies but they are meant to teach theology and shouldn’t be taken literally.

    Now, what would the difference between the bible and these books be? Why should I choose the bible over them? If I posit metaphor then any holy book or account can be true. There would be no fundamental difference. Either the bible is the true word of god or it isn’t. I challenge you to refute me on the truthfulness of any holy book over the bible.

    • apologianick Says:

      And here is exhibit A of the problem.

      Nowhere in here did I even state the Bible is the Word of God. The Bible could be inaccurate and the argument would still stand. How should each of the other books be read? Read them as literature as well. Read the Koran as literature. Read the Bhagavad Gita as literature. Read the Book of Mormon as literature. Read everything else as literature and try to figure out what it is saying first.

      Looks like you’ve fallen for the same literal hang-up.

      If you’re convinced that you want to challenge me, I do debates at TheologyWeb.com. There’s a section called Deeper Waters there and you can find this post there as the OP of a thread. Feel free to come there. If you want a formal debate there, I will debate you on if Jesus rose from the dead in the formal debate section.

      Your choice.

  2. Luis Says:

    I don’t want a debate. I just want a good reason why I should follow christianity and the bible over all other religions especially if the bible isn’t the word of god but just some human document.

    • apologianick Says:

      Well I prefer to not talk of the Bible as the Word of God, as that is reserved for Jesus, but I prefer to talk about it as Scripture.

      Yet if you want to know why I am a Christian and why you should be, it is because the resurrection of Jesus is the best explanation I have for the rise of the early church.

      Feel free to give any counter-reason and why you find it more persuasive.

  3. Luis Says:

    OK. I as I said I’m not looking for a debate but since you are allowing me to ask questions then I will.

    First question: Why should I believe the gospels if we don’t even know who wrote them? For example, I heard that it’s unlikely that Matthew wrote his account. A good piece of evidence to back this up is the fact that they were written in greek and not hebrew or aramaic as their native tongue was.

    • apologianick Says:

      Sure, though the Gospels are not the route I’d take. Before answering this question, let me ask you one back. Do you have a methodology in seeking to find who wrote an ancient document? For instance, none of the biographies Plutarch wrote have an author attributed to them in the documents yet I know of no ancient scholar who doubts Plutarch wrote them.

  4. labreuer Says:

    A few book suggestions on this topic:

    • Yoram Hazony’s The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture
    • Donald E. Polkinghorne’s Narrative Knowing and the Human Sciences
    • Mark Turner’s The Literary Mind: The Origins of Thought and Language
    • James Hillman’s Healing Fiction

    Perhaps the Bible is not interested in the questions we are interested in.

    Perhaps it is interested in more foundational issues, such as human nature. I’m reminded of one of my DW comments, in which I dig into how terrible educated people’s conceptions of human nature were in 1963. Steven Pinker turned me onto Anton Chekhov’s comment:

    Man will only become better when you make him see what he is like.

    What if the Bible is more focused on foundational issues like this, so that we can build on a foundation of rock instead of a foundation of sand? (Mt 7:24-27)

  5. Luis Says:

    “Do you have a methodology in seeking to find who wrote an ancient document? For instance, none of the biographies Plutarch wrote have an author attributed to them in the documents yet I know of no ancient scholar who doubts Plutarch wrote them.”

    I don’t have any way of knowing who wrote what in ancient history. As you said, Plutarch may have written things that were not signed by him and noboby doubts that he wrote them but I also don’t base my entire wolrdview on his writings. Christians seem to do that with the bible so we better know who wrote them. Many scholars doubt the gospels were written by the disciples which means that they were not eyewitness accounts. This is hearsay which is not admisable in court.

    If you don’t start with the gospels then what do you use to validate the life and miracles of Jesus?

    • apologianick Says:

      Well with the Gospels, I don’t think that them being in Greek is a problem. Josephus is thoroughly Jewish and he wrote in Greek. If Matthew was a tax collector, he certainly knew Greek.

      But my honest starting point is the social culture. I just accept the known facts about the historical Jesus such as His crucifixion and move from there. I ask skeptics to give a better explanation for the rise of the early church.

  6. tildeb Says:

    Now why do many atheists say this? I suspect it’s because our culture has been heavily influenced by scientism. We have this idea that all truth should be amenable to the sciences and that science is the highest way of knowing anything if not the only way of knowing anything. We expect then the Bible to speak in scientific language because we are a scientific people.

    No. This is not it at all; it’s a criticism that people don’t read the bible as they would a fairytale but literally… as if the claims it makes – historical and causal claims – were actually TRUE when they are not (and demonstrably not true). It is this rejection of literalism (called inerrancy) that atheists accept because these kinds of religious claims are known to be historically and scientifically false. This is why atheists say this and has nothing whatsoever to do with this imaginary ‘scientism’ you like to attribute as the motivation for religion’s critics.

    • apologianick Says:

      And another case of exhibit A. Did you even read anything else that was said?

      Inerrancy does not equal literalism. Sorry.

      And as for made-up scientism. No. It is not made up. It is a reality I come across constantly.

      • tildeb Says:

        Oh, I understand perfectly well that inerrancy is redefined by apologists to be ‘true’ but buried/hidden by an assortment of literary devices that has to be take the factually wrong claims and carefully sifted and separated and strained to come out as a Just So version of ‘true’.

        But the brute fact of the matter is that all religious believers – after all the metaphysical justifications are parsed to the bone – hold certain fundamental and literal claims to be historically and causally true… core beliefs striped of all flowery and nebulous terminology. (Only the specific fundamental historical and literal beliefs differentiate one religion from another.)

        Believers don’t like to talk about these core beliefs taken on board solely by faith and contrary to the way we know the universe operates any more than woo-meisters of New Age spiritualism and alt medicine like to admit their causal claims that are truly weird and contrary to the way we know the universe operates must be ‘true’ because quantum mechanics is pretty weird, too, so the terminology gets thrown into the so-called justifications. The trick shared by both beleivers and woo-meisters is to obfuscate the claims held to be ‘true’ with enough terminology to sound earnest and sophisticated enough to avoid having to simply demonstrate how they come to ‘know’ their claims and deserve confidence. Biblical inerrancy is a similar shell game and just as devoid of knowledge.

        This game has nothing whatsoever to do with reasonable people who want compelling reasons based on compelling evidence to justify a belief… you know, the supposed atheists who believe in your ‘scientism’.

        I, for example, hold great merit in mythology as a teaching tool. So I can gain tremendous benefit from my reading of the Genesis myths. This has nothing whatsoever to do with any kind of Christian apologetics or a reliance on science; the myth stands alone and makes zero causal claims describing reality. It describes me… the reader, and teaches me about myself. That doesn’t make the myths inerrant; this is a category mistake. It makes the myths useful to me exploring myself because I’m human. Claims of inerrancy are entirely misplaced when it comes to causal claims about reality derived from myths. They are not true: they are symbolic representations that possess meaning I give to them.

      • apologianick Says:

        Yep. Just redefine Inerrancy. It now not only means the Bible is true, but it means the Bible must be interpreted literally because…..well…it’s the Bible! It just has to be!

        Thanks Tilde for coming and confirming the point!

      • labreuer Says:

        But the brute fact of the matter is that all religious believers – after all the metaphysical justifications are parsed to the bone – hold certain fundamental and literal claims to be historically and causally true…

        Hi tildeb, what’s your empirical evidence for this “all” claim? Surely you have comprehensive scholarly sources? I mean, you are absolutely sure of what you say, here. So whence the source of that surety?

  7. Faith Is Not A Virtue | Deeper Waters Says:

    […] is the greatest book of all? Then do yourself a favor and actually study it and treat it like a a piece of literature instead of treating it […]

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