Should the Bible be Interpreted Literally?

Recently, I was visited by Jehovah’s Witnesses and, unlike many people, I usually have a decent chat with them on the doorstep. I suppose I can recall about three separate occasions over the years when we have had such conversations.

What always surprises me is that they want to speak with me about the Bible when usually they have not actually read it themselves, let alone taken any time to try to understand what it contains. I appreciate this is a sweeping generalisation, but that has been my experience.

It took me about three or four months to read the Bible from cover to cover once I had determined to do so in that way. Before then, I had often dipped in and was already very familiar with certain passages. Over the years, I had studied various sections, but reading very quickly from book to book like that gave me a perspective on the central themes that has always stayed with me and stood me in good stead when speaking with people who want to take verses out of their proper context.

Personally, I think you would be much less likely to take the view that the whole of the Bible should be taken literally after reading it in its entirely. For example, there is a section in the Gospels that says we should cut off our hand or pluck out an eye, if they ‘offend’:

Wherefore if thy hand or thy foot offend thee, cut them off, and cast them from thee: it is better for thee to enter into life halt or maimed, rather than having two hands or two feet to be cast into everlasting fire.

And if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: it is better for thee to enter into life with one eye, rather than having two eyes to be cast into hell fire. – Matt 18:8-9

It is always worth taking a look at these passages within context for yourself, as I mentioned, but in this passage, I don’t think Jesus is seriously telling Christians to cut off a hand or pluck out an eye. He is attempting to impress upon his disciples the seriousness of committing certain ‘offenses’. Now this is an important point. Because either this passage is meant to be taken literally or it is not and if it is not (as I believe) then we have a precedent for interpreting the remainder of the scriptures.

If you are a Christian, you may receive teaching at your local church to the effect that the Bible should be taken absolutely literally. But if there is one thing you should learn to do for the benefit of your own spiritual growth, it is to engage in your own thinking especially on this matter. Understand that you are as well-connected with the divine as anyone who stands behind a pulpit or lectern. Begin to listen to that still small voice and let the answer to this question come to you from within.

Once you have learned this important lesson on how to interpret the Bible, you will be well equipped to read, learn and enjoy the scriptures in the way they were intended. For fundamental Christians, being liberated from feeling the necessity to defend a literal creation within six days, for example, allows the true meaning of Genesis to begin to emerge. It was never intended as a history book.

The Bible is an extraordinary book. Actually it is really a whole library of ancient literature, composed over thousands of years; sixty six books in total. When we read it, we need to engage our brains and meditate (think) about what it means. Always remember there is an important difference between ‘what it says’ and ‘what it means’ and you can always discern the difference by first considering the central themes of the Bible as a whole and by learning to listen to that inner voice.

2 thoughts on “Should the Bible be Interpreted Literally?

  1. Delton

    “there is a section in the Gospels that says we should cut off our hand or pluck out an eye, if they ‘offend’:”

    I don’t think the verse is telling anyone they “should” cut off their hand or foot nor to pluck out an eye. I believe it is telling us to never use any part of the temple of God,The Body” for unrighteousness. Yes, I believe it would be better to go through life without a hand, foot or an eye than to miss eternal life with God. But I thank Jesus for shedding his Blood which continuously cleanses us from all unrighteousness. Does that mean we should sin without sorrow that worketh repentance? I don’t think so. I believe we should live a life that will not require cutting off any extremities.

  2. Marty

    Many people I know interpret the bible literally true. For me, it depends what frame of reference we use for “literal”. For instance, a dream can be true for the person that experiences it. It doesn’t make the dream false. Many texts in the bible refer to dreams. Jesus spoke parables, or shall we say they are analogies in modern language. The analogy can be true as described even if it is a story used to illustrate a point.

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