Should We Read (All of) the Bible Literally?
How much of what the Bible has to say should Christians take literally? All of it? Most of it? Some of it? Or none of it? And, if all of it is not to be taken literally, how can one determine what should be considered literal, and what is not? This article will examine this topic and attempt to provide some answers to these questions.
First, Some Definitions
There are three words that we often use somewhat interchangeably regarding the Bible. But these words have distinct meanings and I believe it will be helpful to define them before proceeding.
According to the Oxford Languages dictionary, the word literal means, “taking words in their usual or most basic sense without metaphor or allegory.” Essentially, if you read something that is literal, it means just what it is saying; you do not have to search for hidden meanings or interpret figures of speech. The words you are reading are understood in their most basic sense.
A second word is true. This word is defined as “in accordance with fact or reality.” A true account is one that aligns with how things actually are. It is non-fiction.
The third word is accurate. This word means “correct in all details; exact.” This may sound like it has the same meaning as “true,” but there is a difference.
An example will help to illustrate the difference in these words. In the first chapter of Numbers, a census was taken of all the men over 20 years old who came out of Egypt, tribe by tribe. In Numbers 1:21 we see that “The number from the tribe of Reuben was 46,500.” And similar numbers are given for each of the other tribes.
Is this verse literal? I believe it does mean exactly what it says – that 46,500 men over 20 years old from the tribe of Reuben were counted in the census. Is it true? Many will debate the truth of this census, questioning how such a large number of people could have survived so long in the wilderness wandering. Is it accurate? Probably not. When you look at the numbers for each tribe, they seem, with one exception, to be rounded to the nearest 100. So, this verse is literal, it may or may not be true (I accept that it is), and it is likely not accurate.
This article is focused on the literalness of the Scriptural accounts rather than the truthfulness or accuracy of the accounts. The truthfulness and accuracy of the Scripture are certainly related to its literalness and are very important, but they are outside the scope of this article.
What Is the Bible?
The Bible is a collection of writings produced over a long period of time by a variety of authors. The Bible contains a variety of literary genres including history, narrative, and poetry. It records the history of God’s interaction with humanity, and it claims to be inspired by God and useful for life as a follower of Jesus (2 Tim. 3:16-17).
According to a recent Gallup Poll, 58% of those who identify as Christians believe the Bible is inspired by God, but not everything in it is to be taken literally. Twenty-five percent believe that everything in the Bible should be taken literally, and 16% believe that the Bible is an ancient book of fables. Unfortunately, this poll does not provide historical trends for Christian beliefs about the Bible. But the historical trend for all Americans is a downward trend for the literalness of the Bible and an upward trend for the belief that it is a collection of fables.
What the poll respondents understood “literal” to mean is unknown. But it is likely that they understood it as “literally true.” That everything the Bible says is historically and scientifically accurate. And that goes beyond the actual definition of literal. Nevertheless, this poll reflects that a declining number of Americans believe the Bible should be read literally.
The Language of Poetry
One of the primary forms of literature in the Bible is poetry. Approximately one-third of the Bible is poetic in nature. Poetry in the Bible paints a verbal picture of some truth. But in general, the language used is very imaginative and figurative. Taking this language literally can lead to some serious misunderstandings.
In the following long quotation from Psalm 18, David expressed the distress he was in when being pursued by Saul, and God’s response.
“In my distress I called to the LORD;
I cried to my God for help.
From his temple he heard my voice;
my cry came before him, into his ears.
The earth trembled and quaked,
and the foundations of the mountains shook;
they trembled because he was angry.
Smoke rose from his nostrils;
consuming fire came from his mouth,
burning coals blazed out of it.
He parted the heavens and came down;
dark clouds were under his feet.
He mounted the cherubim and flew;
he soared on the wings of the wind.
He made darkness his covering, his canopy around him—
the dark rain clouds of the sky.
Out of the brightness of his presence clouds advanced,
with hailstones and bolts of lightning.
The LORD thundered from heaven;
the voice of the Most High resounded.
He shot his arrows and scattered the enemy,
with great bolts of lightning he routed them.
The valleys of the sea were exposed
and the foundations of the earth laid bare
at your rebuke, LORD,
at the blast of breath from your nostrils.”
This passage paints a very vivid picture of God’s deliverance – a picture that stirs the reader’s imagination, drawing them to see God’s deliverance of David in ways that a literal narrative account could not approach.
In this poem, God is pictured as a mighty warrior, taking up his weapons, and fighting against David’s enemies. God is described in human terms with ears, nose, mouth, and feet. He mounts the cherubim like a horse or chariot. His voice thunders and he shoots arrows of lightning that rout his enemies.
That this passage is not literal does not detract from its truthfulness. Instead, it enhances the message that we can take away from it. The imaginative language of poetry does something for us that a strictly literal narrative could never do.
The latter prophets wrote in a time of moral, social, and spiritual decay in the life of the Jewish kingdoms. Their words were generally a call to repentance, as well as a warning of impending doom for Israel and her neighbors should they not repent.
As you read their messages, you find that most of them are in the form of poetry; and what is true of Hebrew poetry is true of their message. The prophets were painting verbal pictures that would excite the imaginations of those who heard them. Their language was often figurative, metaphorical, and hyperbolic. The following prophecy against the nation of Edom illustrates the prophet’s use of these figures of speech.
“Edom's streams will be turned into pitch,
her dust into burning sulfur;
her land will become blazing pitch!
It will not be quenched night or day;
its smoke will rise forever.
From generation to generation it will lie desolate;
no one will ever pass through it again”
Edom’s streams did not turn into pitch nor her dust into burning sulfur. And her destruction was not forever, with no one ever passing through the land again. But the picture of destruction that Isaiah paints here is a very vivid one. Its impact is much greater than if he had simply said that Edom would be destroyed.
That this passage is not literal in no way detracts from the truthfulness of its message. On the other hand, trying to understand this passage as literal will lead to some serious difficulties. How do you reconcile a passage that literally says no one would ever pass through the land again with the reality that people are currently living in the land?
Much of the Bible depicts historical people and events in a narrative form. While we might be quite willing to accept that the third of the Bible which is poetry is not always literal, the historical narratives are different. Poetry is not meant to be taken literally. But the historical narrative is.
The narrative portions of Scripture do contain figurative and hyperbolic language. In John 12:19, the Pharisees claim that the whole world had gone after Jesus. Clearly, that was not literally true since they themselves were not following him. This exaggeration does not detract from the passage. Rather, it makes clear the alarm the Pharisees felt over Jesus’ increasing popularity. It is also worth noting that this was a figure of speech used by the Pharisees that was simply recorded by John. So, the Bible has a literal record of the figurative speech used by the Pharisees.
But, unless you are dealing with an obvious figure of speech, the narrative portions of the Scripture should be taken literally. There is no reason to suppose that the authors of these passages expected their readers to do otherwise.
The following are some guidelines for determining if a passage of Scripture should be taken literally or not. These are only general guidelines, not absolute, but will hopefully provide some direction.
- What type of literature are you reading? If it is poetic, then it is likely not literal. If it is in narrative form, it probably is meant to be understood literally.
- What was the original author’s intent when he wrote? Is it reasonable to assume that he expected his words to be taken literally? If so, we should understand his words in a literal fashion.
- Is there any other reason not to understand the words in a literal fashion? 1 Peter 1:10-12 tells us that the message of the prophets went beyond their understanding. Their message might be taken literally in one sense. But there is a hidden meaning in their words that is only revealed in Jesus.
In summary, while much of the Bible is not intended to be taken literally, and may not always be accurate by today’s standards, it is always truthful. Allow the message of the Bible to speak its timeless truth to you without trying to make it be something it’s not.
Photo credit: ©Getty Images/Roter Panther
Ed Jarrett is a long-time follower of Jesus and a member of Sylvan Way Baptist Church. He has been a Bible teacher for over 40 years and regularly blogs at A Clay Jar. You can also follow him on Twitter or Facebook. Ed is married, the father of two, and grandfather of three. He is retired and currently enjoys his gardens and backpacking.