Should We Interpret the Bible Literally?

I ask this question because I think there is much confusion surrounding the issue of “literal” interpretation. Historically, literal interpretation of the Bible was the method opposed to allegorical interpretation. The school of Alexandria (whose greatest theologian was Origen) promoted an allegorical approach to Scripture. This method sought to go beyond the text’s literal meaning to find the deeper spiritual truths that it represented. The problem, however, was that there were no controls on how these deeper spiritual truths were discovered. It basically amounted to the interpreter reading into the text creatively whatever he or she wanted to find. The allegorical method of interpretation is still around today in many pulpits. I once heard a Father’s Day sermon on Ezekiel’s vision in Ezekiel 1 with the four-faced creatures and the wheels with eyes all around. The point of the sermon was that fathers must often present different faces to their children, and they should do so with the “I’s” of integrity and several other words that begin with “I” that I can’t even remember now. It was the most creative sermon I think I have ever heard, but of course, it had no connection to the text upon which it was based. Plus, the fact that the word “eye” in English sounds like the letter “I” is a completely illegitimate point, since this passage of Ezekiel was written in Hebrew in the first place! Anyway, as you can see, I am not a fan of the allegorical approach to Scripture, even though in my younger days I dabbled in it from time to time.

The literal approach to Scripture was that of the Antiochene school, whose greatest theologians were probably John Chrysostom and Theodore of Mopsuestia. In contrast to the allegorical approach of the Alexandrians, the Antiochenes argued that the Scripture must be interpreted as it presents itself. To interpret the Bible “literally,” in the historical sense of the term, does not mean to interpret it literalistically. In other words, if a passage presents itself as historical narrative, it must be interpreted as such. If it presents itself as poetry, then it must be interpreted as poetry. If it presents itself as apocalyptic, it must be interpreted as apocalyptic. The interpreter must always take into consideration the conventions of whatever genre of literature he or she is reading. The Reformers brought the literal interpretation of the Antiochene school back into a prominent place in the church at the end of the Middle Ages.

In our day, the word “literal” has undergone something of a shift in meaning. Today, “literal” is often opposed to “figurative.” “Jesus died on a cross” is considered a literal statement, but “God’s mighty right hand brought Israel out of Egypt” is considered a figurative statement, because God does not have a material body, which means necessarily that he does not have a right hand, at least in the way we normally conceive of right hands. I believe these distinctions must be recognized when one approaches Scripture, and if one prefers to use the term “literal” in opposition to “figurative,” then I have no quarrel with that use of the term. In this sense, then, many parts of the Bible should be interpreted literally and many parts should not. Passages of Scripture must be interpreted in the way they present themselves, which requires a knowledge of the literary conventions of each biblical genre. When we read the front page of the newspaper, we know that we are reading what purports to be factual accounts of real events. When we flip over to the comics, we understand that they are fictional. Our brains make the transition automatically because we automatically recognize the different genres. The same should hold true for the Bible, except for the fact that we probably will have to work a little harder to make our brains shift into an understanding of Ancient Near Eastern and first century literary forms.

Sometimes, however, I hear the word “literal” used in another sense, and it is this sense that I think is wrong. Some people say, “Do you take that literally?” to mean, “Do you think that text should be applied to our lives as it stands?” An example of this usage of the term would be to say, “I do not interpret 1 Timothy 2:11-15 literally because I think women should not be forbidden from serving as pastors today,” or, conversely, “I interpret 1 Timothy 2:11-15 literally because I think women should be forbidden from serving as pastors today.” In actuality, the word “literally” does not belong in this kind of conversation.

Let me give an example. I interpret Leviticus 11 (about clean and unclean foods) literally. Does this mean that I argue that we should only eat meat from animals that have a split hoof and chew the cud? No. I interpret this passage literally in the sense that I take it that God actually gave these commands about clean and unclean foods to the Israelites, and the Israelites in turn were expected to keep these commands. When read in the context of the full canon (especially Mark 7 and the letters of Paul), I understand that I am not bound by these regulations, since I do not live under the terms of the Sinai Covenant. However, that does not mean that I don’t interpret the terms of the Sinai Covenant literally. To interpret something literally does not directly address the question of whether or not a certain biblical passage applies directly to one’s life today. It pertains only to how one understands the text to present itself. The question of application of the text is a separate one and should not be confused with literal interpretation.

So, I can go with “literal” in its historic sense, which means understanding the text as it presents itself (in contrast to the allegorical method of interpretation). I can also go with “literal” in the sense that is opposed to “figurative” and recognize that both kinds of language exist in the Bible. But I think it is illegitimate to stretch the meaning of the word “literal” to address questions about the Bible’s application to our lives. This is not what literal interpretation is about.


7 Responses to “Should We Interpret the Bible Literally?”

  1. Wayne Leman Says:

    Stimulating post, Aaron. Thanks for it. I identify with your concern. I have linked to it from my latest post at the Better Bibles Blog.

  2. Luke Says:

    Dear Aaron,
    I agree with much of your post. I think you make an important observation when it comes to correctly interpreting the scriptures. I do think you are entirely fair to Origen. It is simplistic to paint such broad characterizations of the “Alexandrian school”. What’s more Theodore was deemed by the church to be less than satisfactory in his Christology which is why we have so few of his writings. The birthplace of the allegorical interpretation is not of course the Alexandrian school. Paul uses this approach as an example in Galatians. And perhaps the case can be made that Jesus uses such an approach with Jonah. I think you would agree, at least I hope you would agree that a text can have both a literal meaning and an allegorical meaning eg. Isaiah’s prophecy of the virgin birth.


  3. Aaron Says:

    Thanks, Wayne and Luke.

    Luke, I should have provided a disclaimer in my post that I was oversimplifying things some. It wasn’t my purpose to get into the nuances of either Alexandria or Antioch.

    I don’t think either Paul’s interpretation of Sarah and Hagar or Jesus’ reference to Jonah qualify as “allegory,” properly speaking. I know Paul uses the term “allegorically” in Galatians about his approach to Sarah and Hagar, but what he actually does with the text (and what Jesus does with Jonah) is closer to what we know today as “typology.” Typology is extremely important in the interpretation of Scripture. In fact, some have said that the Antiochene approach to Scripture was “typological” as well as “literal.” Typology differs from allegory in that it picks up on patterns from real historical events that find their fulfillment in Christ. Allegory, on the other hand, gives a one-to-one correspondence to characters and what they represent. The problem with the allegorical approach to Scripture that the Alexandrians promoted was that the deeper spiritual truths they found in the text did not arise from a canonical reading of the text itself. Typology, on the other hand, does have canonical warrant and is subject to canonical controls. (For example, it is typologically justifiable to see the Day of Atonement as a ritual that points to Jesus’ sacrifice; the whole canon points us in that direction. It is not, however, typologically justifiable to identify Rahab’s scarlet thread as a symbol of Jesus’ blood; nowhere in Scripture are we led to that conclusion.)

    When Jesus talks about the sign of Jonah, he doesn’t mean that Jonah wasn’t a real person or that when one reads Jonah, one should understand that Jonah corresponds directly to Jesus himself. That would be an allegorical interpretation of Jonah. A typological interpretation, on the other hand, finds a pattern in Jonah’s experience of three days in the belly of the whale that points to Jesus’ three days in the tomb, after which he emerged as the risen Lord, just as Jonah also emerged from the whale.

    Some parables of Jesus and some figures of speech in Scripture do, I think, qualify as allegory, but this should be distinguished from typology.

  4. Cogito Says:


    I’m glad to have read your post, and like the other Luke, agree with almost all of it.

    But my question is, how far would you take the statement:

    “The interpreter must always take into consideration the conventions of whatever genre of literature he or she is reading.”

    Would you also grant that the interpreter must also consider the author and purpose of the writing?

  5. Aaron Says:


    Of course I would, inofar as that can be determined (for example, Paul’s purpose in writing Galtians is quite clear, but we do not know exactly who wrote the book of Judges). An author’s purpose must be determined in part by the genre(s) he chose to use as his form of communication.

  6. Cogito Says:

    If you were interpreting the bible in such a manner then it wouldn’t matter at all whether, say, Marks’ Gospel or Luke’s Gospel contains what Jesus actually said on the cross (historically speaking). Perhaps, as Ehrman would argue, the author of Luke didn’t like the ending of Mark’s gospel and changed the Psalm that was quoted. Certainly neither author was there (or were they…?).

    Would it matter that we have two inconsistent accounts? Not really, because the author of Luke was writing to different people, with different purposes, with a similar message with slightly different details.

    Now this goes back to the last post, which I apologize for not responding to (Thanksgiving got in the way). My problem with the term “inerrancy” is well described in Luke’s blog-response. For most people, they think “inerrant” as “without mistake” or “completely consistent”. The fact of the matter it is not…literally (literarily?) speaking. One need only look again to the synoptic gospels to see this.

    But most Christians have no idea that the Gospels don’t agree 100%. They must, because the Bible is inerrant, right?

  7. Aaron Says:

    You are misunderstanding inerrancy. Inerrancy does not demand the kind of precision that we expect in our society. In the first century, standards of precision were not as high, but veracity was still valued. This is why I don’t believe the Gospel writers simply made things up to put on the lips of Jesus, but their Gospels were written to faithfully represent actual historical events in accordance with their own purposes and the standards of precision expected of them in the first century.

    Jesus probably did not speak Greek as his first language anyway, so the fact that we don’t have his actual words is no problem at all. His words were translated and shaped for the particular purposes that the Gospel writers had in mind, but I don’t believe any of his words were created by Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John (and by the way, John was there at the cross, as was Mary, who in all likelihood would have been a source that Luke interviewed when he produced his Gospel; see Luke 1:1-4).

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