Modern Challenges to the Ancient Faith: How can you Take the Bible Literally?
Modern Challenges to the Ancient Faith
“How Can You Take the Bible Literally?”
If your brother told you he literally died of embarrassment when the girl he liked read his Valentine’s Day card, you would not marvel at his resurrection. But if he told you he was contemplating suicide because he was so heartbroken at her rejection, you would do well to take him literally. Both literal and figurative language can describe reality.
Is It Inconsistent to Read Some Texts Literally and Others Not?
Our lives are littered with metaphors. We bust our gut working. We love with our whole heart. Recent research in communication studies has verified what poets have known for millennia: we humans find metaphors memorable, persuasive, and moving.
In a 2014 survey, US preachers were asked which of the following most accurately reflected their view of the Bible.
“The Bible is the actual word of God and is to be taken literally, word for word” (28 percent).
“The Bible is the inspired word of God but not everything in it should be taken literally” (47 percent).
“The Bible is an ancient book of fables, legends, history, and moral precepts recorded by man” (21 percent)
To “take the Bible literally, word for word” is often to miss the point. When Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd,” he is not claiming to be a farmer. He is inhabiting the metaphor of God as shepherd: “The Lord is my shepherd,” declared the Old Testament shepherd-turned-king David (Ps. 23:1). The same is true when Jesus says, “I am the true vine” (15:1)
We make metaphors by noticing connections: love is a sickness; life is a marathon; parents are like helicopters. But God did not notice fatherly love and decide to call himself our Father. God created fatherhood, so that the best in human fathers could give us a glimpse of his nature. God did not notice the intimacy of sex and marriage and decide to call Jesus the Bridegroom and the church his bride. Rather, God created in the sexual relationship and marriage the imagery of his passionate, sacrificial, unconditional love.
As with any conversation, some parts are intended literally, others not. Usually it is easy to tell.
But there are times when people who take the Bible seriously disagree on whether a statement is literal or metaphorical, history or parable. Such as the rich man and Lazarus. Is it a real account or a parable?
But, the nature of a parable is that it can be true. Every parable Jesus told could have literally taken place in reality. That distinguishes it from a fable - a fable generally has talking trees or talking animals like the tortoise and the hare. It includes events that cannot take place in reality.
But the whole Bible is not fable; it is not myth. The Bible as a whole presents itself as history with some fables thrown in, and parables, and other genre of literature. And much of that history can be verified from external sources.
There are times when people who take the Bible seriously disagree on whether a statement is literal or metaphorical, history or parable.
Isn’t the Bible Full of Contradictions?
Skeptics, and perhaps others who just don’t want to think too deeply, often accuse the Bible of being full of contradictions. For example, they challenge Moses - or the author(s) of Genesis (because they don’t believe Moses wrote Genesis) - with writing two accounts of the creation: Genesis 1 and Genesis 2. Of course, there are similar accusations leveled against Jesus with supposed contradictions between Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John which we’ll talk about in just a moment.
But various accounts of the same events are normally theologically rather than chronologically ordered, and they are juxtaposed to give us bifocal vision.
Let me give you another example. Jesus is considered our high priest. He is also considered our sacrificial lamb. Yet, He is also considered the mercy seat above the ark of the covenant where the lamb was killed. How could He be the priest, the sacrifice, and the location of the sacrifice? Well, that’s the power of metaphors and, I think, you and I recognize that each one of these picture a different aspect of Jesus and His role in redemption.
New Testament professor Bart Ehrman has written extensively about these differences and concluded that the Bible is irreconcilably contradictory. Some of his examples, however, betray observer bias and lead him to draw unnecessary conclusions. For instance, Ehrman notes that in Matthew’s Gospel Jesus declares, “Whoever is not with me is against me” (Matt. 12:30), while in Mark he says, “The one who is not against us is for us” (Mark 9:40). Ehrman asks: “Did he say both things? Could he mean both things? How can both be true at once? Or is it possible that one of the Gospel writers got things switched around?” (Bart D. Ehrman, Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (And Why We Don’t Know about Them) (New York: HarperOne: 2010), 41.
Consider the opening line from a work of classic literature: “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.” Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities. Do those statements contradict? No. Not if they are referring to the “times” from two different perspectives. We all recognize that.
Some puzzles arise from the assumption that Jesus did things only once. For example, Matthew and Mark present Jesus clearing out the money-changers from the temple at the end of His ministry - Matthew 21 & Mark 11. But John presents the same event at the end of Jesus’ life. So, the common approach is to believe that John moved the event for theological reasons. But, is it possible that Jesus ran the money-changers out of the temple twice - three years apart? Certainly. If Jesus had done it once and then, three years later, did it again, could that help explain why the Pharisees and other religious leaders were so indignant at Jesus’ behavior? Yes, it would.
The common perception is that the sermon on the mount - recorded in Matthew 5-7 - is the same sermon as the so-called sermon on the plain recorded in Luke 6. But then they say, “This was moved here and there and Matthew left out this and Luke added that…” But, isn’t it very likely that Jesus taught the same thing many times? Isn’t it possible that Jesus repeated Himself in the same sermon? Isn’t it possible that Jesus said the same thing in the same sermon but in two different ways and Mark maybe recorded one way Jesus said it and Matthew or Luke recorded a different way Jesus said it? We do that all the time; I do it in every sermon I preach. Why couldn’t Jesus have done the same thing?
What about the Other Gospels?
Dan Brown’s historical novel The Da Vinci Code popularized the idea that the four Gospels included in the Bible were selected at the expense of other accounts that painted a more authentic picture of Jesus. But, critical as he is of the Bible, Bart Ehrman acknowledges that the New Testament Gospels are “the oldest and best sources we have for knowing about the life of Jesus,” observing that this is “the view of all serious historians of antiquity of every kind, from committed evangelical Christians to hardcore atheists.” Bart D. Ehrman, Truth and Fiction in The Da Vinci Code (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 102.
The political correct suggestion nowadays to make is that the excluded “gospels” represent a more feminist version of Christianity that was squeezed out by the early church.
While other writings about Jesus were circulating in the early centuries of the church, there is good evidence that the four New Testament Gospels were closer to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, in terms of both date of composition and connection to the apostles who witnessed these events. From extant manuscripts, it seems that the New Testament Gospels were far more widely read than the other writings, even before the formal establishment of the canon, and that they were being bound together as a collection as early as the late second century.
How confident can we be that the Gospels included in our Bibles today are close enough to the events of Jesus’s life to be reliable sources?
Jesus and the Eyewitnesses
Ehrman stands in a long line of academics who have argued that the Gospels are internally inconsistent and poorly aligned with known history, because they are products of extended oral traditions that were theologically manipulated by later generations. For some time, this view prevailed in academic circles.
In the book Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, British scholar Richard Bauckham uses his knowledge of contemporary norms for citing eyewitnesses to illuminate name-dropping in the Gospels, arguing that many of those named were eyewitnesses who told their stories “as authoritative guarantors of their traditions. Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2008), 39.
With our modern sensibilities, it is easy to miss the significance of women being the first witnesses to the resurrection at all. In contemporary Jewish culture, the testimony of women was not deemed credible. There is no way the Gospel writers would have chosen women as key witnesses in a fabricated story. But, see Luke 24:10.
If there is a God who created the universe, we cannot exclude the possibility of miracles. The One who made the laws of nature in the first place can surely intervene when he chooses. The One who brought life in the first place can surely bring life to the dead.
Next month: Doesn’t Science Disprove Christianity?￼
1 Lydia Saad, “Three in Four in U.S. Still See the Bible as Word of God,” Gallup, June 4, 2014, http://news.gallup.com/poll/170834/three-four-bible-word-god.aspx.