I Read the Bible Literally

Carrying Bowling Balls

Years ago I heard a woman on the radio talking about some students she worked with. Her class was made up of teens who had reading processing problems, and she used a lot of tools to work with them on it. One way was to read to them and then get them to talk about what they heard.

One story she read had a passage that included the line: “He carried his anger into the room and dropped it on the kitchen table like a 16-pound bowling ball.”

One student immediately asked, “When did he decide to go bowling? That wasn’t in the story before.”

Hermeneutical Bowling Balls

Hermeneutics is a broad name covering methods for interpreting or understanding a text, and while we usually read it in context of understanding the Bible it can apply to any type of text. It is a method for getting at the meaning of what someone else wrote. The student who asked where the bowling ball came from needed to develop a proper hermeneutic, although his teacher probably never used that word. I think this is the last time I will use it either, except to say that a lot of people in God’s kingdom seem to drop their hermeneutics on the table like a 16-pound bowling ball.

On Taking the Bible Literarily

I’ve seen the phrase “For those who take the Bible literally” come up more than once recently, both in writing and a sermon. It’s not like I’ve never heard the phrase before, but what got me was that one speaker immediately amended it and said, “for those who take it seriously.”

Reading the Bible literally is a loaded concept, isn’t it? It sounds so simple at first, yet I’ve found that often two people can use it in the same conversation and mean two different things.

Do you mean giving the Bible’s words their plain meaning? Then you’ll have to tell me what you mean by “plain meaning.” Or perhaps you mean following the Bible’s instructions to the letter? Then you’ll have to tell me if your church lets men grow their hair long, or allows women to cut theirs short. (1 Corinthians 11:14-16.)

You see, for me taking the Bible seriously means taking it literally. But my sense of literal is more basic. I go back to the Latin root litteralis for the original meaning of pertaining to letters. I want to look at the meaning the original writers gave to the letters they put on the scrolls.

This can mean recognizing differences in genre. Hebrew poetry is a powerful way to write, but it’s a lot different from how we write poetry today – not that many people today even read poetry. History, in turn, relates information in a different way from prophecy. Wisdom literature has still another literary purpose. Then there’s analogy, metaphor, diatribe, love song, lament, and more. Insights into the etymology of the Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek words used can also be eye-opening. Add in the cultural, political and social contexts that applied over the ~2000 years of Bible writing and you have a bigger mix of things than one person could ever hope to sift through entirely.

The bottom line is that if I tried to read all these different types of literature as if they were the same, I’d be missing the point of the original letters entirely. So to read them literally means reading them in the genre of literature they originally occupied, with as good an understanding of the context I can muster. That’s why I’ve come up with a new word: I read the Bible literarily.*

Two Examples of Reading Literarily

Old Testament: In 1 Kings 18, there’s a showdown between Elijah, the Prophet of the one true God, and the prophets of the false god Baal. In verse 28 we read that the prophets of Baal “slashed themselves with  swords and spears, as was their custom, until their blood flowed.” It sounds rather gristly, and totally unnecessary too in contrast to Elijah’s later straightforward prayer to God.

But those false prophets weren’t merely acting on a hopeful whim. They were reenacting one of their ancient tales of Baal himself, where he died and was then mourned by two lesser deities whose mourning was accompanied by marring their own bodies. After these mourning ceremonies, the myth goes, Baal rose again and was given sovereignty over all. The false prophets with Elijah were trying to invoke the same response in hopes of showing Baal’s superiority to the Lord God. It didn’t work, of course.

New Testament: In Mark 11:12-14 and 20-21, Jesus sees a fig tree “in leaf” and, being hungry, approaches it to see if there is any good fruit on it. There isn’t any, because “it wasn’t the season for figs.” Then Jesus does a curious thing: he curses the tree and it withers to the root.

To understand why, we need to know two things. One is that this tree, being in leaf, displayed itself as if it did have fruit. Not only was it not the season for figs, it wasn’t the season for a fig tree to be in leaf. Later in the season, when the leaves come along, a fully leafed tree is a sign of a fully fruited tree.

The other thing to know is what happened between the cursing and the withering. In Mark 11:15-19 we read the familiar story of Jesus driving the merchants out of the temple courts.  The particular court they were in was the Court of the Gentiles, the outermost courtyard. This was as close as non-Jews who wanted to worship God could get. It was their worship center. The merchants, in the guise of selling animals acceptable for sacrifice to Jews headed further in, interfered with the worship of those who could go no further in. The merchants looked as if they were there to facilitate worship but really intended nothing more than to see what they could make off those trying to approach God.

Just like the fig tree, the merchants were full of nothing but false promises, fit to be cursed and driven from the roots of Jewish worship, the temple of God.

Literally Deeper

Which leads me to two questions:

Has reading the Bible literarily ever led you into a deeper relationship with God?

Is there a passage in particular that comes alive because you know the context?


*No, “literarily” is not a made up word. Then again, perhaps it is since all words are made up words. But you can find it in the dictionary as the adverbial form of “literary”.

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38 Responses to I Read the Bible Literally

  1. LOVE this post! I’m eating it up! (Literarily, not literally, of course.)

    “Has reading the Bible literarily ever led you into a deeper relationship with God?” — I’m going to ponder this. Very good question.

  2. Oh, I love the bowling ball analogy!

    For the past few years I’ve been soaking in the gospel of John, so to speak, and its literary quality is the best argument I know of for the truth of its message. These words had to have come from somewhere, and the only explanation I can think of is that the Word really did become flesh and mentored this fishmerman-poet. =)

    Lately, I’ve begun to suspect that he is playing with the synoptic accounts in some pretty sophisticated ways. About a month ago, I blogged about what I think John’s doing with the temple cleansing.

    Now I’m wondering what’s going on with Mary of Bethany. Did he really remember things so very differently from Luke… or is he drawing out a theological unity between the story of the harlot who annointed Jesus’ feet and the story of Mary and Martha?

    • Tim says:

      Great points, Elena. The other thing I see in the account of the woman anointing Jesus’ feet and the account of Mary sitting there as he taught, is that they each usurped a place usually taken by a man. From what I’ve read, a men who dedicated himself to a rabbi’s teaching would take as close a position as possible during the teaching sessions. That meant literally sitting at his feet. I wonder what the men in those rooms thought of their precious positions of pedantic proximity* being occupied by women?

      *Where are the alliteration police when you need them?

  3. Mary Anne says:

    I always think of what C.S. Lewis said in his book on the Psalms, when people react with dismay to some of the cursing scriptures like “Happy is he who takes your infants and dashes their brains out on the rocks!” and other such hair-raising verses. Here’s his take on it:

    I know things in the inner world which are like babies; the infantile beginnings of small indulgences, small resentments, which may one day become dipsomania [alcoholism] or settled hatred, but which woo us and wheedle us with special pleadings and seem so tiny, so helpless that in resisting them we feel we are being cruel to animals. They begin whispering to us, “I don’t ask much, but”, or “I had at least hoped”, or “you owe yourself some consideration”. Against all such pretty infants (the dears have such winning ways) the advice of the Psalm is the best: knock the little bastards’ brains out. And “blessed” he who can, for it’s easier said than done.

    My “literary” reading of a lot of the more troubling verses is “What is this saying to me in particular, and how does it apply?” And if I go around muttering at times, “Knock the little bastards’ brains out,” well . . . it’s something I must do, early and often. 😉

  4. arkenaten says:

    Why people have the biggest difficulty in relating to the bible on literal terms is because there is the misconception it is a factual historical document.
    Once one acknowledges that the bible is merely a story it makes reading it so much simpler as there is no need to delve for hidden meanings any more than one would when reading a book like Lord of the Rings for instance.
    “Happy is he who takes your infants and dashes their brains out on the rocks!” A line such as this when read as fiction is still not nice, buit it holds no stomach turning religious implications.

    To accept the bible story as anything but fiction is as absurd as believeing the moon is made of green cheese.

    • Tim says:

      Thanks for coming by, Arkenaten. Your take on things is always interesting, to say the least!


      • arkenaten says:

        No problem. Religion always perks my interest, Christianity more so. BTW.
        You going to tell me what type of Christian you are?
        Not crucial, but it helps to get a ‘handle on things’ as the vernacular goes.

      • Tim says:

        Labels often get in the way. If I were to say I’m a five point Calvinist, or a holiness Pentacostolist, or Eastern Orthodox, each of those will raise presumptions. My own doctrinal beliefs are in my writings, so you can glean them there.

        If you want to get creedal, I’d say the folks who wrote the Apostles’ Creed got it right. Same thing with the council in Nicea in 325, Constantinople in 381 and Chalcedon in 451.


        • laruspress says:

          in response to dialogue with Arkenaten – Labels are horrendously problematic as they are loaded with assumptions. Then we go right back to the start re Hermeneutics. Conversations, like history, seem bound to cirular convention!!

      • arkenaten says:

        If you want to get creedal, I’d say the folks who wrote the Apostles’ Creed got it right. Same thing with the council in Nicea in 325, Constantinople in 381 and Chalcedon in 451.

        Yes, always puzzled me why it took so long to thrash out the details.
        Was probably that naughty Marcion and Arius and all those other heretical Bar Stewards. that kept throwing the proverbial spanner in the works I expect. Was his mum a virgin or wasn’t she? Your call, Eusebius and hurry up, the pub closes in an hour!
        Even then they had to put down lots of naughty heretics for years who had the temerity to disagree with their version of Jesus and God. Those bloody nuisances the Albigenenses. What a bunch, eh? Was no teddy bear’s picnic running the church in the good old days that’s for sure.
        Oh, well, thank goodness Constantine lit a fire under their bums in the first place, eh otherwise left to our own devices who knows what we might have ended up believing?

        Don’t know if I can glean too much but I’ll take a stab at born again.with a side of evangelism – served with a small glass of creationism (but no talking serpents or donkeys, thank you). Shall we just say ‘Reborn’ for short? 🙂

      • Tim says:

        Don’t forget all those people who lived after the councils who needed shaping up too, arky!


        P.S. I slightly edited your post to delete comments about my wife. Some things are simply not done, you know.

    • arkenaten says:

      “Don’t forget all those people who lived after the councils who needed shaping up too, arky!”

      The ‘shaping up’ was the problem. The church didn’t mind a little (lot?) leg pulling providing it was them who were pulling the legs.
      For the expansion of Christianity,independant thought was considered a health hazard for thoses who indulged in it. There has always been more at stake – or rather at THE stake than few know-it-alls.
      Even for one like you – being reborn had a rather different meaning in the good old days.

  5. Jeannie says:

    Thanks for this post, Tim, it’s really challenging. I was just about to make my comment when arkenaten commented so I’ll just modify mine slightly to say: just as the absolute literal view can get us in trouble (we start wondering what actual city the Prodigal Son went to, or why “Train up a child in the way he should go and when he is old he will not depart from it” isn’t true for OUR wayward child), the absolute fiction view won’t work either because we know the Bible does actually contain factual historical material (just as it contains poems and parables and proverbs and letters). I’m no scholar, that’s for sure, but I think it would be just as irresponsible to call something fiction which has been shown to be historically true, as it would to call something fact when it’s clearly not meant to be taken factually. I just don’t think the Bible lets us off the hook that easily — in either direction.

    To answer your 2nd question: the Prodigal Son parable came alive for me when a small-group leader taught us that in the context Jesus was speaking in, a man would never run to greet his homecoming child — he would remain dignified, hold back, and let the other person approach him. So the picture of the prodigal’s father running uninhibitedly to welcome the son has enriched the parable for me. A small detail that teaches me something about the Father’s love.

    • Tim says:

      Those are great distinctions between the various genres in the Bible, Jeannie. On the prodigal story, I’ve heard a couple of speakers point out that it is really the father who is most prodigious: He gives his younger son a huge share of the family’s wealth, and then acts even more generously in the welcome home scene. They say this could be called the story of the Prodigal Father, which brings the spiritual application even more front and center.

  6. Aimee Byrd says:

    I often have conversations about this with my side of the family that is very dispensational. They like to play the “literal” card with me when discussing the end times (which doesn’t go so well for them anyway), but I always like to ask them if they think that Jesus is made of wood and has two hinges since he says he is the door 🙂 They see my point.

    • Tim says:

      I know. Back when I was in Law School there was a Carman song where he had some lines about God protecting us with his feathers and wings, but that didn’t mean God is a great big chicken.

      Next time you are having those conversations with your family, any chance you can surreptitiously dial your phone and let the rest of us listen in? I bet it would be quite the conversation!

  7. KSP says:

    Great minds do think alike. 🙂 I have always said I take the Bible literarily. Or maybe its simply minds that think alike, too. Either way. Here’s to all the genres of the Bible!

    • Tim says:

      Yeah, but you already knew what the word “literarily” means. I thought I was making up a new word for today’s post until I checked it out before clicking on the publish button!

  8. Sarah says:

    I read the Bible literarily too. But I believe the proverbial big fish in Jonah’s book was a big fish. It isn’t an issue for me to know HOW God did this 3 day thing, any more than it’s mine to comprehend that He made the world in seven days. Are they 24 hour days or 1000 year days (which wouldn’t satisfy the branch of scientists who are atheistic anyway)? The point is that God made time and He was before time. Days didn’t even start ’til after the 3rd day… But I digress.
    I suppose the point that Tim has sparked in me is to say is that when we limit our understanding of God’s Word through our limited experiences and education, we filter our understanding of the Bible. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons He asks us to come to Him like little children – because little children have endless questions but they are open to the answers given, unfiltered, not doubting, untroubled by the feasibility.
    God’s answers are present in His Word to the questions we have… when we look long enough we’ll find them. I believe Tim has given us a ‘first step’ which is to convey we need to take away our assumptions and look to see what is right there in front of us (issues with translations are perhaps another topic altogether). When the gospel writer says Jesus told a parable, it is called a parable. When he’s recounting an incident, he doesn’t call it a parable. For me, Jesus did turn water into wine. And fed 5000 with a bit of bread and fish….
    So, I guess I read the Bible literally too.
    God bless! Perhaps the most important first step is reading the Bible!!

  9. Srirup Chatterjee says:

    Hallo Tim, I have been reading this post and the comments and responses with great interest.

    I come from a tradition where the question of whether a story in the scriptures is “literally” true or not is of not much relevance. (Well, I have to be careful here because I have dispensed with a lot “traditional” baggage in my travels and travails). In other words I never get into any argument about whether something actually did happen as a historical fact. Hence I loved your take on reading the scriptures “literarily” which is more or less what I think I have been doing since I was a little boy.
    I am also reminded of the time someone related a scriptural story and then said, “Whether you take that as fact or not is up to you, but it is the TRUTH”.

    Taking off slightly tangentially from your second example I would like to relate an experience from a few weeks ago when I went to visit a place of supposedly great spiritual significance (you realize I am using the word “supposedly” to hedge my bets). I found the place so oppressingly enveloped in commercialism that I wanted to run away. So when I had the opportunity to interact with a person of spiritual bent, the same person referred to above, and whom I have great respect for (those do not necessarily go hand in hand with me) I referred him to the Jesus’s action in driving out the money lenders from the temple and suggested that we needed a Jesus figure to do the same here (hinting that he might take up the challenge). He told me “Yes let’s do it: you be the CEO and I shall be there with you as chairman of the board.” I was suitably chastised and enlightened. If I want to clean up any rubbish – external or indeed internal within me – then I shall have to endeavour to do it myself , and the guidance and support will be forthcoming.
    Tim, you can judge (yep) if this story has any bearing on the two questions that you posed at the end of your blog.

    • Tim says:

      Srirup! I am so glad you popped over from Pemberley!

      That story is exactly the type of thing that my post was getting at. What a great lesson to learn, and what a wise friend you have.

    • laruspress says:

      I really respect Srirup’s honesty in his comment… we can so readily see a problem and yet aren’t necessarily predisposed to take responsibility to fix it. Maybe that’s a bit like ‘faith without works is dead’? Not quite but there is a connection.
      Laruspress = Sarah Tun

      • Tim says:

        Precisely, Sarah. One thing about reading the Bible literarily is that it is impossible to do so and come away without seeing that God calls his people to care for those around them.


        P.S. The link you put for laruspress is broken. It had two dots (..) between laruspress and com, so that it read laruspress..com, but I fixed it on your comment here. I’m looking forward to seeing the site when you have it up and running at full speed!

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  15. shimosi says:

    Fascinating take on 1 Kings 18… could you furnish sources for more in-depth study? I’d love to pursue it further.

    • Tim says:

      I read a very good resource on it in the NIV Archaeological Study Bible. If you can find a copy at your church library just turn to 1 Kings 18 and you’ll find an excerpt from an ancient manuscript on the Baal legends and see how his priests mimicked him in this slashing practice.

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