Reading the Bible. Simple enough, right? From those of us who have been reading the Bible for years on end to the beginners among us, a great question arises: are we reading the Bible correctly? What I mean is, have we really been doing the text justice by just simply “reading it” and taking it at face value through our favorite English translation(s)? What has helped me in a huge way to better understand and interpret the text of the Bible is to read it not as if I’m reading a newspaper, etc. and just praying before hand, but rather putting in the time to understand how to read it properly.
What many of us as Christians fail to realize is that the Biblical text is actually made up of many different types of literature and then gathered into a set known collectively as the Bible and as such should be read with that in mind. Identifying what type of literature the text we are reading actually is and learning the characteristics of that type of literature goes a very long way in understanding it properly. This in turn helps us interpret a particular text in a consistent way. Consider the following concerning this particular topic from Doug Stuart and Gordon Fee in their standard work “How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth,”
“One of the most important aspects of the human side of the Bible is that, in order to communicate his Word to all human conditions, God chose to use almost every available kind of communication: narrative history, genealogies, chronicles, laws of all kinds, poetry of all kinds, proverbs, prophetic oracles, riddles, drama, biographical sketches, parables, letters, sermons, and apocalypses.”1
Biblical Literary Examples
We can see that there are many types of literature that make up the Biblical records such as those listed above, and as such we really need to put in the work of learning what the characteristics of each of these types of literature are. For example, the phrase “Chan lassoed the moon” can mean two different things entirely depending on its literary genre. If used in reference to my wife in a poetic sense, then I’m simply using it as a metaphor to express to her that I would do anything for her, no matter how daunting or impossible it might seem. However, if taken literally, then I would need to be on medication if I actually believed it to be true! The same is true with the Bible, because if we read poetry as if it were historical narrative, or a historical narrative as poetry, then we really will devalue the text and come to very wrong conclusions. I will provide some general tips below, as I thought it beyond the scope of this article if I explored specific examples rather than just writing what I will call an “awareness article,” where I just want to make one aware of the issues. Having laid the foundation with this article I may write articles in the future concerning specific examples and use this article as a reference or introduction so as to save space in those articles.
Here I want to mention a specific resource for engaging this issue in reference to the Gospel records of the New testament. In the Gospels we find some differences/difficulties (some claim contradictions, but that is way too hasty it seems after one surveys the issue) that many have tried to harmonize, or show them as compatible. How would knowing the literary genre help with the Gospels? An invaluable reference on this topic is Dr. Michael Licona’s book Why Are There Differences in the Gospels?: What We Can Learn from Ancient Biography. What Mike proposes through his study of ancient biographies (which is what type of literature the Gospels seem to best as belonging to) is that ancient biographers used certain literary devices to emphasize certain points and none of them were considered being dishonest or a contradiction, etc. although they aren’t using the precision we are accustomed to using today. So once we examine the Gospels we find some of the exact same literary devices being employed! This helps to account for seeming difficulties/differences in the Gospels, although by no means does it clear up all of them (which Mike makes clear in his book).
The Book of Revelation
This one is interesting to say the least! Learning to read Revelation in this way certainly helps (even though it can still be a difficult book!). I mention Revelation as an example for two reasons:
- I find the book has much practical wisdom for Christians today (even if one opts for futuristic interpretation) that is sadly overlooked by much of the church at large.
- Revelation is a great example of mixed literary types.
Many of us would generally classify Revelation as the paradigm for what is known as the apocalyptic literary genre. However, Revelation starts off as historical narrative, then transitions to epistles (letters) and then into apocalyptic literature. So treating each section as it is intended to be will go a long way to interpreting it properly/responsibly.
There are other types of literature in the New and Old Testaments, but I wanted to provide just a few tips to help us see the importance of literary genre rather than write more about it using specific examples, because there have been entire books devoted to the subject.
Culture, Language and History
With the biblical text there are other challenges we face as well because they are ancient documents, written in different cultural and historical settings and backgrounds, and we also need to be very mindful of the language barrier. This is because the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible was written in ancient Hebrew (with portions of Daniel and Ezra written in Aramaic) with the New Testament being written entirely in Koine Greek. This is why it is critical if we are serious about the Bible and its truths (and any other text for that matter) to take all of these factors into consideration so we can arrive at the most reasonable, responsible interpretation of a particular text as possible. Remember, practical application can only begin where proper interpretation ends. So this isn’t all just a bunch of high minded academic bloat, rather it has huge practical implications for us and those around us.
I offered all of the above information to lead to answer this question (as suggested by the title), “Should the Bible be taken literally?” I hope after reading my brief survey above that one would answer the question, “The Bible should be read literarily, which means only literally when it demands to be read that way.” We do this by identifying the type of literature it is drawing upon the wisdom of those experts in the cultural, historical and linguistic background of the particular book of the Bible we are reading. We then identify, based on those factors, the type of literary genre or type that it is, and evaluate it based on characteristics of that type of literature. I pray this helps to encourage you in your studies and your enthusiasm about the Biblical text! Having done this for several years now, I can personally attest to the amount of growth it will contribute to your Christian walk and evangelism due to a much better understanding of the text of the Bible. You won’t regret putting the time into it!