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Why Biblical literalism doesn't work


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Showing 1-25 of 91 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Dec 3, 2012 7:22:02 AM PST
Ambulocetus says:
"He who holds back his rod hates his son, but he who loves him disciplines him early."

This verse from Proverbs is interesting because of how many rhetorical figures appear in it. Hyperbole, for example: surely a father who refrains from the rod doesn't literally HATE his son.

Metonymy, where a part or an attribute stands for a whole thing, is here, too.
http://rhetoric.byu.edu/

When we say "all hands on deck" or "the pen is mightier than the sword," we are using metonymy. With regard to this verse, surely a wooden paddle or a bare hand could be used instead of a "rod." Similarly, I assume that daughters should be disciplined, and that mothers can provide discipline, contrary to what a truly literal interpretation of this passage would suggest.
http://rhetoric.byu.edu/

And that's the trouble. Even from within a Christian perspective, Biblical literalism goes against how God and his human representatives actually talk.

Jesus used plenty of hyperbole ("the plank in your own eye") and metonymy ("this cup is the new covenant"), and Solomon was similarly given to non-literal speech ("that which is crooked cannot be made straight," "all is vanity and striving after wind," etc.). Similar remarks apply, in spades, to the prophets.

Biblical literalism also never works because the reader decides HOW LITERAL is "literal." Thus, the verse I've cited is used to argue in favor of spanking. But if requiring a ROD is too literal, might we not also say that requiring SPANKING is too literal? Just look at how God dealt with Jonah's disobedience: he put him in a time-out, in the belly of a whale!

Biblical literalism tries to make it possible for Christians to interpret the Bible by themselves, without relying on tradition or authority, and to do so without falling into error or controversy. Clearly, it fails spectacularly in all these goals. This is why I would suggest that Biblical literalism, even within a Christian context, is a terrible idea.

I look forward to your responses.

In reply to an earlier post on Dec 3, 2012 8:03:12 AM PST
JosephusD says:
Biblical literalism isn't possible because we are attempting to take a literal meaning from a translation of a translation apart from any knowledge of the metonymical language of the day. The Old Testament was written in Hebrew, which was translated into Greek (the Septuagent), which was then translated into English. The Greek translators didn't always know the idioms of the Hebrew language.

I believe the Bible to be the Word of God, written down by men who were "inspired" (the words were "God-breathed" to them). God spoke in words, phrases that they could contemporarily understand. That is why it is important to study the Bible, not just from the words on the page, but from a historical context where possible, and always with the prayerful guidance of the Holy Spirit, Who reveals meaning and intent as He deems appropriate to the studier.

In reply to an earlier post on Dec 3, 2012 9:02:01 AM PST
mrs exp says:
Daniel Dickson LaPrade,
The parts of the Bible that contain figures of speech are interpreted just that way, the same as in piece of writing. And the parts that are literal are interpreted as literal. Prophecy is interpreted as prophecy.
exp

In reply to an earlier post on Dec 3, 2012 9:03:28 AM PST
mrs exp says:
Joseph R Durika,
I believe all Bibles from the KJV on go to the Hebrew for the OT. I don't know of any that don't.
exp

In reply to an earlier post on Dec 3, 2012 9:13:48 AM PST
In view of the differences among the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible done by Jewish scholars in Alexandria), the Samaritan Torah, and the Jewish [Masoretic] Torah, "Biblical literalism" is untenable.

The article at:

http://www.catholic.org/encyclopedia/view.php?id=10404

[ also at: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/13417a.htm ]

In the section "II. LITERATURE," under "A. The Samaritan Pentateuch and the Translations of It," the second paragraph starts with:

"A comparison of the Samaritan Pentateuch with the Masoretic text shows that the former varies from the latter in very many places and, on the other hand, very often agrees with the Septuagint."

I also recall reading that some biblical passages from the Dead Sea Scrolls are more in agreement with the Septuagint than with the Masoretic text. For one example, check the comparisons at:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Septuagint#Dead_Sea_Scrolls

In reply to an earlier post on Dec 3, 2012 9:54:07 AM PST
JosephusD says:
According to the footnoting in various Bibles, when a translator cannot suss out the Hebrew meaning, they default to the Septuagent. Which is just strange to me...

In reply to an earlier post on Dec 3, 2012 10:14:17 AM PST
M. Simonson says:
"the parts that are literal are interpreted as literal"

Yes, but not everybody is in agreement about what those parts are. A good example is those who take the parable of Lazarus and the rich man and try to paint a hyper-accurate picture of the afterlife. Is everybody really able to yell and scream back and forth at Father Abraham? What a grand mess that must be!

In any case the expression "take the bible literally" is unfortunate and confusing. Some of them say "unless it's obviously a parable or obviously symbolic" but the same things aren't obvious to everybody.

In reply to an earlier post on Dec 3, 2012 10:19:50 AM PST
Last edited by the author on Dec 3, 2012 10:50:21 AM PST
M. Simonson says:
"they default to the Septuagent. Which is just strange to me..."

Yes, it does seem unusual, however every good translation work looks at other translations especially older works. With OT translation we can't just go to Jewish folk or Hebrew scholars because they don't all agree on some of these matters. Some translations place in their own words and phrases like the NLT and we have the paraphrase versions like the NIV, which also put in words and phrases that aren't in any old text.

Posted on Dec 3, 2012 1:24:10 PM PST
Last edited by the author on Dec 3, 2012 1:32:00 PM PST
W.T. Keeton says:
Literal or not? That seems like a false choice, because it all depends on the context of what the reader is taking literally.

Obviously there is a difference between believing that documented events "literally" happened as recorded while allowing for the use of artistic language to more accurately capture the truth of the moment, and taking as "literal" things that were clearly intended as metaphors (or in some cases, similes) more in the vein of what we today call "figures of speech", thus often missing the point that the author is trying to make.

It's important not to lose that basic level of comprehension. For example:

"Yea doubtless, and I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, AND DO COUNT THEM BUT DUNG, that I may win Christ, (Philippians 3:8)"

When Paul says human righteousness (for lack of a better umbrella term) is to be treated like dung, clearly he intended something other than to say it was literally a pile of feces. Getting hung up on the literal language of Paul's simile would cause a reader to entirely miss the point of his statement.

But in the broader context, it's another topic altogether whether this guy named Paul literally wrote (or at least had transcribed) this letter as it appears at face-value, so that it represents a legitimate historical article. One can believe in the literal accuracy of the historical artifact, while reading the letter itself as it was intended, complete with expressive language.

Obviously, it gets much more difficult in some places to decipher what is intended as metaphorical language, especially in some of the Old Testament books. But the same guiding principle that seems so obvious when reading a Pauline letter still applies when reading Genesis or Exodus.

It is entirely possible to read Genesis as literally true, but still recognize that it is written with metaphors. This is something MUCH different than saying that it is not literally true, but merely a symbolic work.

The difference is this: The former still captures the essence of actual historical events while using metaphorical language to describe events beyond the ability of a human mind (especially a more primitive one) to directly explain. The latter does not attempt to convey actual historical events, but is a fictionalized account designed not to deceive, but to illustrate "higher" truths. These are two distinct ways to read Genesis. One is still technically a "literal" reading, and the other is not.

Sometimes we get polarized to the point that the only two choices are that every single word in Genesis is exactly literal with no use of expression or metaphor, or the entire book is wholly symbolic and contains nothing actual to history. But in truth, there are ways to read it that are in the middle, if you will, using simple common sense and and understanding of language to discern the intent (and in that way, it's not any different in principle than reading ANY challenging book!).

In reply to an earlier post on Dec 3, 2012 3:39:47 PM PST
mrs exp says:
Joseph R Durika,
Yes I've seen that in the margins. I wish they would translate the Hebrew the best they can and if they want put the LXX in the margin.
exp

In reply to an earlier post on Dec 3, 2012 3:41:46 PM PST
mrs exp says:
M Simonson,
I don't think Lazarus and the rich man are the point of that parable. I think the point is that if they don't believe Moses and the prophets then they won't believe even if someone rises from the dead. And Jesus did rise from the dead and they didn't believe. IMO
exp

In reply to an earlier post on Dec 3, 2012 3:49:16 PM PST
the bible is not literal except in very few parts
and yes it is full of errors omissions contradictions exaggerations parables allegories similes metaphors symbolism figures_of_speech idiom and unknown words that cannot be translated as well as reference a number of secular documents that would be needed to understand the biblical passage noting them as would be needed dictionaries and cultural knowledge for context

In reply to an earlier post on Dec 3, 2012 5:09:19 PM PST
Last edited by the author on Dec 3, 2012 7:21:04 PM PST
M. Simonson says:
mrs exp,

Yes, I agree with the point of the parable. But some take everything so literal I would use the term hyper-literal. For example I saw a tape where Les Feldick drew the earth with a circle of the core in the middle then split it in half with apparently a great gulf between the two hemispheres; he labeled one the bosom of Abraham.

Another good one is Luke 16:16 when we have " The law and the prophets were until John: since that time the kingdom of God is preached, and every man presseth into it". I have heard Chuck Missler and other dispensationalists use the first half of that verse to claim that this was the dispensational marking point (that would make it the beginning of the Church age).

These aren't guys I don't like or don't respect, but they have drifted from taking the bible seriously into hyper-literalism.

In reply to an earlier post on Dec 4, 2012 4:36:03 AM PST
BV says:
DD - "When we say "all hands on deck" or "the pen is mightier than the sword," we are using metonymy."

Wouldn't the pen be a metaphor?

As far as "All hands on deck," if the sailors are "deck hands," and they want them all on the deck, it would be literal.

In reply to an earlier post on Dec 4, 2012 5:37:22 AM PST
Last edited by the author on Dec 4, 2012 5:39:54 AM PST
Ambulocetus says:
"Deckhand" is a word (which I had forgotten about entirely!), but etymologically, it comes from metonymy (deck + hand). Now, the expression "all hands on deck" could be interpreted either literally or metonymically.

"Pen" and "sword" could be seen as metonymies and/or as examples of personification. Thus, just as "the press" (viz., the printing press) was first a metonym for journalistic institutions (one which has desires, goals, fears, etc.), "the pen" and "the sword" are metonymically associated with the activities that they are typically associated with. Compare: "Hollywood has more cultural power than Washington," "The Cross and the Crescent Moon, like all brothers, fight constantly."

"The parts of the Bible that contain figures of speech are interpreted just that way, the same as in piece of writing. And the parts that are literal are interpreted as literal. Prophecy is interpreted as prophecy."

This is the mindset that makes Biblical literalism possible. There is a clear distinction between literal and figurative, and texts just interpret themselves when left alone long enough. But recall the example of "rod" in the OP. Is that a narrow metonym for corporal punishment, or is it a broad metonym for discipline more generally? Is Jesus's talk of Gehenna a metonym and a metaphor, in which a garbage-burning facility is used to stand for all sorts of spiritual torment? Or is it JUST a metaphor, in which garbage : Gehenna :: human souls : Hell?

There is no sharp cutoff between literal and figurative, as the examples of "deckhand," "press," and "rod" show. As Sperber and Wilson say, it is better to talk about a literal-loose-figurative continuum:
http://www.dan.sperber.fr/wp-content/uploads/2009/10/SperberWilsonMetaphor.pdf

Particularly given the extraordinary difficulties involved in defining literal meaning:
http://preview.tinyurl.com/cvnnzpp
Metaphor and Thought

Not only is Biblical literalism a bad idea given what we know about how God and is spokesperson use language, then; it is also a bad idea given what we know about HOW LANGUAGE WORKS.
http://www.tau.ac.il/~mariel/wordoc/writings/Ariel2002_JoP3_Demise.pdf

In reply to an earlier post on Dec 4, 2012 9:54:20 AM PST
BV says:
DD - "But recall the example of "rod" in the OP. Is that a narrow metonym for corporal punishment, or is it a broad metonym for discipline more generally?"

You would have to take the whole spirit of God's Word into context. If the rod example was to be taken completely literally, it could be interpreted that if you loved your child, you'd have to beat him with a rod every day as a matter of routine procedure, regardless of his behavior. It could be concluded that the main points would be correction and discipline, and if corporal punishment is what is needed in a particular situation, so be it.

Posted on Dec 4, 2012 11:20:17 AM PST
The bible is all symbolism and parables and is meant to be taken like the Greek myths IMO.

It amazes me that so many people who are otherwise intelligent believe a snake really did talk, a guy really did put two of every animal on Earth into an ark, a whale really did swallow a dude and spit him out unharmed three days later, a guy really did walk on water, etc...

Of course, these same people would laugh and jeer if someone said that they believed Zeus really did live on Mount Olympus.

In reply to an earlier post on Dec 4, 2012 11:48:40 AM PST
BV says:
Prunella - "a guy really did walk on water"

Well if you think Jesus is just "a guy," then yeah, I can understand why you think it's ridiculous.

In reply to an earlier post on Dec 4, 2012 12:47:48 PM PST
Do you really think that Jesus was a real actual person?

Look at the evidence: he was born of a virgin, performed miracles, had 12 followers, killed and resurrected after 3 days, known as "the light of the world" and "mankind's savior" etc...

The Persian god, Mithras, has the exact same story, born of a virgin, performed miracles, 12 followers, killed and resurrected after 3 days, etc..600 years before Jesus was supposedly born. Coincidence?

Hundreds of years before both Mithras and Jesus, Krishna was baptized in the River Ganges, crucified between two thieves and resurrected 3 days later, and worshiped as the "savior of men". He also proclaimed himself the "Resurrection" and the "only way to the Father." Sound familiar?

Thousands of years before Krishna, Mithras, and Jesus, there was the Egyptian sun god Horus. He was also born of a virgin, his birth was announced by a star in the East and attended by three wise men, he performed miracles and raised a man named El-Azar-us, from the dead. Not only did Horus walk on water, he was also crucified, buried in a tomb, and resurrected.

Horus was known as "the Way", "the Truth", "the Light", "God's Anointed Son", "the Son of Man", "the Good Shepherd", "the Lamb of God", and "the Word."

There are several more old gods with the same basic story. Jesus is just the latest incarnation of the sun god myth IMO.

In reply to an earlier post on Dec 4, 2012 12:52:46 PM PST
mrs exp says:
M Simonson,
I too have heard that parable described as the life between death and resurrection with no mention of the Moses, the prophets or the resurrection. As pure fact.

It's bound to happen, we just have to use our common sense.
exp

In reply to an earlier post on Dec 4, 2012 12:56:31 PM PST
Last edited by the author on Dec 4, 2012 1:07:03 PM PST
mrs exp says:
Daniel,
"Not only is Biblical literalism a bad idea given what we know about how God and is spokesperson use language, then; it is also a bad idea given what we know about HOW LANGUAGE WORKS."

What do you suggest we use instead?
exp
PS: I think your sites have to much time on their hands, half to publish or perish. If I ask for an apple and someone gives me an orange I know they did not understand my request.

There are many places in the Bible that are hard to understand which is why you have to consider the whole Bible in understand those places. But some things are very clear.
exp

In reply to an earlier post on Dec 4, 2012 1:02:12 PM PST
mrs exp says:
prunella,
It wasn't a whale; it was a great fish especially created for the purpose.
exp

In reply to an earlier post on Dec 4, 2012 1:03:42 PM PST
mrs exp says:
prunella,
There are many false gods and religious around. Part of Satan's tactics.
exp

In reply to an earlier post on Dec 4, 2012 1:40:52 PM PST
M. Simonson says:
mrs exp;

Yes, we have to use common sense but perhaps just as important to be respectful of scripture and understand that we don't always understand.

As one example I have heard some use the parable of Lazarus and the dead man and state that yes, there are resting places analogous to the bosom of Abraham and a less pleasant place, but no, folks can't yell back and forth at the antecedent fathers. Jesus just said that to tell a story and paint a picture. That may be true but look at what they have done; they have gone with a half literal (if that isn't an oxymoron). They have decided to take one part literally and not another from a parable, which is a symbolic tale.

That is one trap that the fundamentalists often fall into. Since the Bible is the Bible it should be preached with authority! But they get too proud and arrogant of their own limited understanding and absolutely insist on it. So what distinguishes the fundamentalist is that Archie Bunker "I'm always right and everybody else is always wrong" attitude. That's what separates the fundamentalist from the serious respectful Christian.

In reply to an earlier post on Dec 4, 2012 1:43:04 PM PST
Joe W says:
mrs exp: "...especially created for the purpose."

???
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