Taking the Bible Literally

Some years ago, a co-worker expressed her frustration to me. I don’t know how we got on the topic, but she said she just wanted someone to tell her exactly what was in the bible and what it meant. I didn’t make a comment about this, as I wasn’t actively religious. I just remember thinking – isn’t that the point of continued church attendance and study? To find meaning for oneself?

It seems to me that this is part of the reason people spend their entire lives studying the bible (whichever version they study). When I worked at a bookstore chain, there was an entire row filled with different versions of bibles. The King James Version (the version the Utah LDS church uses), the New International Version and others. I knew (from seminary) that Joseph Smith had “started” his translation of the Bible, but I never knew he had finished it. I believe that the Community of Christ (formerly RLDS) church uses this translation, and you can purchase it from them.

In this post, we were discussing gay (human) rights and what makes an organization a hate organization. While some of the bible verses taken individually may be clear about being gay, many other parts of the bible are difficult to relate to and understand in our current culture. I broke out the NIV and read Leviticus 18:22.

I would just like to point out the verse right before it, Leviticus 18:21 “Do not give any of your children to be sacrificed to Molech…”

*What about the dietary restrictions? Some of those may have made sense over two thousand years ago, but do they make sense now? The previous chapter of Leviticus (Leviticus 17) appears to be about not eating blood – about draining the blood from animals before you eat them. It also has a good piece of advice, to not eat anything found dead or torn by wild animals. For example, eating shellfish like lobster or crab (Leviticus 11:10).

*Or teachings about killing witches/sorceresses (Exodus 22:18).

*Or teachings about slaves or slavery (Leviticus 25:44 – 46), (Colossians 3:22 – 25).

I thought one of the parables of Christ was when he went into the fields on a Sunday to get food. Wasn’t it recorded that he said that the law was made for man, not man for the law? (Luke 6:1-6. 6:9) (the exact quote is ‘which is lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do evil, to save life or to destroy it?’)

Many LDS do take parts of the bible literally.

I (personally) don’t understand how someone can take the book of “Revelations” literally, but I know some people do.

My reason for this post is to try and better understand why believers take some parts literally, but do not follow other parts. I think many Christians and believers understand that parts of the bible were not divinely inspired; while still believing other parts to be divinely inspired and true.

They may have been parts of the culture (like dietary restrictions) that just don’t have the same meaning in the twenty-first century. Some parts may even directly contradict themselves. There may have also been parts that were lost in translation.

The bible was translated from Hebrew to Greek and then English (right?) and the King James Version is notorious… Not only that, but in the second century, I thought the current version of the New Testament was put together by the early Christians, weeding out books like the book of Mary. I am not an early Christian scholar by any means, this is what I remember reading about.

So is this approach contradictory? Is this even possible?

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7 Responses

  1. aerin says:

    This is what I get by spending so much time looking through bible scriptures and not taking enough time editing my post….the part that says: For example, eating shellfish like lobster or crab (Leviticus 11:10)….what I meant to say is that not eating shellfish is a dietary restriction that I’m not sure makes sense any longer.

    And I don’t know many believing Christians that follow that restriction.

  2. No.

    If memory serves, the LDS view is that the events in the Bible are the stories of real people that literally happened in mostly the way the Bible says, although parts of the text may not have been transmitted 100% accurately. (There are some exceptions to this, e.g. Mormons often consider Job to be allegorical, though they think he might have existed.)

    I tried to take this approach as a Latter-day Saint, but soon found myself having to defend absurdities and counter-factuals. Old Testament stories (in particular Tower of Babel, Creation, Ark, the Egyptian captivity) do not square with facts on the ground, nor does the Book of Mormon.

  3. It seems that there’s actually two questions here:

    (1) When should someone take the Bible literally and when should someone take it metaphorically? The Book of Revelation is a good example of a text that most people see as being laced with metaphor, while the resurrection of Christ is generally held to be a literal, physical event. (But of course there are exceptions to both of those.) Job is a good example of a text with a lot of people on both sides of the question wherein the answer probably does not matter all that much.

    (2) When should prohibitions and guidelines be seen as permanent and binding when others are regarded as cultural prohibitions that don’t apply anymore? In 1 Cor. 11, Paul commands women to wear head coverings in the assembly. He even grounds this rule in the creation order and states that it applies to “all of the churches of God.” Yet very few evangelical churches today have put this practice in effect. However, most of us believe that the prohibitions on homosexuality (Lev. 18:22, 20:13; 1 Cor. 6:9-10; Rom. 1:26-28) are permanent and binding.

    You seem more interested in discussing the second question, Aerin, but I don’t see that as a question of when to take the Bible “literally.” I think that when Paul recommended head coverings and Moses commanded the Israelites not to sacrifice their children to Molech, they weren’t talking about metaphorical head coverings or sacrifices; they meant what they said.

    Am I reading you right? I want to be sure before I proceed.

  4. aerin says:

    Thanks Bridget! I am actually hoping to discuss both questions. I think both discussing when the bible should be taken as a metaphor (like the Garden of Eden) is worthwhile. Likewise, I would like to discuss your second point, when something was a guideline to the Israelites, and really may not make sense today in the 21st century. I have no idea who Molech was, and if most people even know who that is.

    I appreciate everyone’s participation, and I hope this controversial topic can be treated with respect for different viewpoints where possible.

  5. chanson says:

    It sounds like your colleague would like a general overview of what is in the Bible. I can understand her frustration — you can easily go to church for years and not get a clear picture of what’s in the Bible and what it’s about.

    There are probably plenty of books on the subject, though, that would be helpful background before diving into the text. Otherwise, she could take a class on the subject, either through a church, or perhaps a Bible-as-lit course through a local community college.

  6. aerin says:

    thanks chanson. It’s true, there are plenty of classes and books on the topic. I think for my colleague, her issue was that someone in her life (her son) made claims about the bible, and she (my friend) wasn’t sure what to believe OR what she believed.

    I guess part of what I was hoping to discuss was the process where believers and branches of religions figure this out. Figure out: first, what the bible says, and then second, what prohibitions and guidelines to believe and what is not “permanent and binding”.

    Because I don’t think that’s completely clear and is a topic many religions/people disagree on.

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