Reading the Bible Literately Rather than Literally

“So you will find favor and good repute in the sight of God and man. Trust in the LORD with all your heart and do not lean on your own understanding.  In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make your paths straight.”  Proverbs 3:4-6

Spoiler Alert: If your Christian faith depends on believing literally every book, chapter and verse of the Bible, you probably shouldn’t read this. Doing so might make you uncomfortable. It might even make you mad at me, and I don’t want to make anyone mad at me. However, if you don’t believe the world is just 6000 years old and that dinosaurs once coexisted with mankind, you are welcome — read on.

If you are reading this, you probably understand that the two words, literal and literate, while related, have very different meanings. If you don’t know this, by the time you finish this story, you should.

We have a beautiful and smart great granddaughter who is a second grader this year. She often spends afternoons, evenings and sometimes whole days and nights with us. We consider ourselves blessed to have her so often. When she is with us, we always ask her about school. We often help her with her homework and, even more often, we read with her. I’m amazed at how well she can read already, due in part, I think, because she loves to read and because she wants to please us. She has read all of the children’s books, over and over again, that we have here for her. So, now, she’s reading to us from a children’s book of Bible stories. So far she’s read the Creation Story and the Story of Noah and the Ark. After each she asked me, “Opa, is this really true?” Both times I told her that some people believe these stories are ‘literally’ true. Some people believe that they are not true at all. And some people, like me, I told her, believe that they are stories that are not literately true, but stories which tell greater truths from within. She’s still struggling to understand what I mean by this. But then, she’s only seven years old – excuse me – seven and three-quarters.

I suggested a reading session while dinner was being prepared the last time she spent the night with us. She said, “Okay, Opa. But this time I want to read from a ‘real’ Bible.”

“A ‘real’ Bible? Oh, you mean one like your Oma and I read from. Okay,” I said, and I picked up an old, small, ‘red letter’ Bible from the book section of our three-section wall unit. The books in it include a set of Funk and Wagnall encyclopedias that have not been disturbed since we discovered Google on our computers, our cell phones and iPads.

“That was my grandmother’s personal Bible,” we heard my wife say. She had been watching and listening to us from the kitchen. “Please be careful with it.”

“We will, Oma,” we said, almost in union.

I sat with my granddaughter on my lap in my recliner chair and carefully unzipped the precious little Bible. Looking for nothing in particular, I opened it to a book in the Old Testament section, I Samuel, and started reading out loud.

“Gee, those are strange sounding names, Opa.”

“Yes, honey. Most of these names are hard to pronounce, and we would have to read quite a bit from this book of the Bible before any of it would make much sense. Samuel, the author of this book, is telling us about God’s establishment of a political system in ancient Israel, one headed by a human king. The first king’s name was Saul.

Let’s turn to something more familiar, something from the New Testament. This is the part of the Bible that tells us about Jesus and his ministry.”

“I know that, Opa.”

To that, I could not help but crack a smile; Obviously, I thought, my granddaughter’s Sunday school teachers are doing a good job. I turned to the Gospel of Matthew, figuring that we could find something easier here, one of the Gospels, to read and to understand. Right off my granddaughter noticed the red letter text.

“Why are some of the words red, Opa, and some are not?”

“The publisher of this particular Bible decided to help us see what the original author claimed to be the actual words of Jesus, honey.”

“So, this Matthew guy actually heard Jesus say these words?”

“That’s what we believe, honey. Matthew was one of the original disciples, one of Jesus’ apostles.” And, with that, my granddaughter started reading before I could select an appropriate chapter and verse. She started reading from Chapter 5, verse 29: “And if thy right eye offends thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell.”

Oh, oh, I thought.

“And if thy right hand offends thee, cut it off, and cast it from thee…”

“Opa, does this mean I have to cut off my hand to go to heaven?”

“No, honey, I don’t believe that’s what Jesus was really saying, [if in fact He actually said these exact words. Some people might believe that whatever member of the body sins must be sacrificed. But people who know the Bible best tell us that Jesus was speaking metaphorically to stress how important it is that we not sin. Surely Jesus knew that sin originates from within, not by the body member used in the commission]. He was telling his disciples that they should obey God with all their hearts, souls and minds. He was saying that we can’t just love some neighbors and not others.”

I did not actually say the words in the previous paragraph that are offset by brackets. Had my granddaughter been a bit older, I might have. Likewise, we did not share the following dialogue which is offset by brackets.

[“What does metaphorically mean, Opa?”

“A metaphor is a figure of speech or a way of speaking in which a term or a phrase is used which it is not literally true. We sometimes use metaphors to suggest a resemblance. Like I might say, ‘I love you to the moon and back.’ The phrase, ‘to the moon and back,’ helps me express how I love you a whole lot. Speaking metaphorically means using metaphors.

A parable is a metaphorical story from within which a truth is revealed. The story doesn’t have to be literally true, and sometimes it’s even more effective if it isn’t.  Jesus, we know, used a lot of parables to reveal truths about the nature of God and the Kingdom of Heaven.”]

We did share the following dialogue…

“I’m glad I won’t have to cut my hand of to go to heaven, Opa. But, y’know, we have one neighbor that I really don’t like very much.”

“That’s okay, honey. It’s hard to like some people. God knows that. But loving people isn’t a matter of how we feel about them. Loving people is all about how we treat them.”

Again, had my granddaughter been older, we might have shared the following in dialogue. But we did not. With the following, I am editorializing to express my opinion, my belief about the Bible, how it came into being, and how we should interpret it.

[“Why do you say, ‘if in fact He actually said these words, Opa?’”

“We believe that Matthew, the tax collector, one of Jesus’ apostles, was the author of this book, but we have no way of proving this. It could have been some other Matthew who wrote it or someone wanting us to think the real Matthew wrote it so that we might more readily believe what is written. And, even if the original Matthew did write it, he would have written it sometime after Jesus spoke about this to his disciples. He could have remembered it perfectly, verbatim, or he could have used his own words. Without primary sources of evidence, it’s impossible for us to know. There is also the fact that, so far as we know, the Gospel of Matthew was originally written in the Greek language. It was then translated to Latin before being translated to English and other modern languages. Matthew, like Jesus, spoke a different language, one called Aramaic. Did the Apostle Matthew study and learn Greek? For what purpose? Or did he know the language all along? We do not know. But, if he did not already know it, how long did it take him to learn? How dim in his memory might have the exact words of Jesus been before he wrote them down?

It is possible, and I choose to believe this, that the book we now call The Gospel According to Matthew was actually written or revised from the real Matthew’s writings in 325 AD during the First Nicean Council. This council was called by the emperor Constantine I of Rome. According to historical accounts, Constantine was an unbaptized catechumen, or neophyte, but he presided over the opening session of the council and took part in the discussions. As emperor, he called for the council of Christian Bishops to solve a problem which was created in the Eastern Church by Arianism, a belief that Christ is not divine but a created being. Constantine, in my opinion, wanted a reconciled Christian faith to help unify his empire.

So, the story of this book of the Bible, The Gospel According to Matthew, and the whole Bible for that matter, is something of a mystery, a controversy among Christians like me. Christians like me endeavor to reconcile what we know to be true owing to science (knowledge and reason) with what we choose to believe from scripture and tradition. We accept that passages and whole chapters of the Bible incorporate pagan beliefs, myths and parables such as the creation story, Noah and the great flood, God’s tormenting of Job, Jonah being swallowed whole by a fish and surviving. But, we can still believe the truth contained within these stories, can we not? Yes, we can. Do I personally believe that Matthew and the rest of the Bible is the Inspired Word of God? Yes, but metaphorically speaking.

I am a United Methodist and we United Methodists have the Wesleyan quadrilateral to guide our understanding, our beliefs about God. We have Scripture, Tradition, Knowledge and Reason. Scripture, we believe, is primary. But United Methodists are not required to believe that the Bible is inerrant. I am one who doesn’t.

Basic literacy is one’s ability to read words and understand them literally. Functional literacy is being able to use one’s ability to read, understand the words in context and apply this understanding usefully in daily and professional life. This is a skill which people possess in varying degrees. There is also a kind of functional literacy called “rational” literacy. This is literacy that allows learning, growing in our understanding of the world and all of God’s creation. To learn, we must have an open mind, one that is open to unlearning. It’s the kind of literacy that scientists must have.”]

Now, for you my reader, I will tell you the truth. This exchange with my great granddaughter really happened. But it happened Friday afternoon. I am writing this three days later, on Monday morning. I don’t really remember the exact words that my granddaughter and I exchanged. I have exaggerated some and expanded our dialogue some too. I have done so to make this a better story, one that communicates a message. But I have endeavored to be truthful where I have done these things. Yes, I have editorialized to communicate my beliefs about the Bible. My story is not word-for-word, literally true. My belief is that the Bible is not word-for-word, literally true either. The Bible is not a science book. Neither is it a collection of its many authors’ affidavits. It is a truth book rather than a true book. There is a difference.

So, what should we make of the introductory passage from Proverbs…”Trust in the LORD with all your heart and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make your paths straight?” Does this mean that we should take everything we read in the Bible literally? Should we do whatever any preacher, prophet or king tells us to do? Cut off our own hand? No, I don’t believe so. When we lean on our own understandings we are using our abilities to see, hear, taste, touch, and reason. God gave us these abilities, so why shouldn’t we use them? Well, our own senses sometimes fail us. Our reasoning sometimes leads to wrong conclusions; we are fallible.

Those words, “lean not on your own understanding,” were written several thousand years ago, we believe by King Solomon, reputedly, the wisest man who ever lived. Why would he write them? Well, kings in those days had a habit of telling other people what to do, and sometimes punishing them, even killing them if they disobeyed. Most people couldn’t even read in those times, but they could hear what others read to them — a decree from the King. By telling people not to think, he made himself God’s chosen leader and supreme decision maker.  Brilliant — if not so wise for all times!

What then are we in this day and age to do with this? I say, an appropriate interpretation of that passage, which surely was inspired by God, might be: do not lean “only” on your own understanding. Leaning implies putting all or a significant amount of your weight on something which, if moved, might cause you to fall. So, if something confuses you — doesn’t make sense to you, ask others what they think, friends, pastors, other Bible scholars, linguists, philosophers – and not just people in your own like-thinking circle of acquaintances. Just know that all will not agree. Google it. And after all of this, take it to God directly. Pray about it. Acknowledge Him, trust Him, and He will make your paths straight. He will give you clarity. About that, I believe Solomon was right.

Please feel free to post a comment in response to this story. I would enjoy discussing it.

Published in: on September 5, 2016 at 12:26 pm  Comments (1)  

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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. Enjoyed your story!

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