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Pete Enns & The Bible for Normal People

We Literally Do Not Read the Bible Literally

The Bible for Normal People

Pete Enns, Ph.D.

Peter Enns (Ph.D., Harvard University) is Abram S. Clemens professor of biblical studies at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He has written numerous books, including The Bible Tells Me So, The Sin of Certainty, and How the Bible Actually Works. Tweets at @peteenns.

With all the press around Kim Davis and her refusal to issue a marriage license for gay couples, blog posts like this and news articles like this, are flying off the proverbial shelves. Each of them defending or dismissing those who “take the Bible literally.”

May I ask a favor?
Can we please all just stop using “literally” to talk about our religious reading habits? 

That goes for those who say they do read it literally, and for those who say they don’t. In the words of famed linguist Inigo Montoya: “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”inigo1

It’s confusing.

In fact, I think it’s safe to say everyone I know reads most of the Bible literally. And no one takes all the Bible literally. So when we say we “read the Bible literally” or that we “do not read the Bible literally” we are saying nothing important at best, and are wrong at worst.

If we are going to talk intelligently about the Bible it might help to avoid politically-charged catchphrases and start speaking more accurately about what we mean.

When the Psalmist says “God is my rock,” we do not “take it literally.” That is, we don’t think that the God we worship is a literal rock. That would be weird. Instead, we (rightly) read it figuratively.

The same goes for Jesus’ parables. No one thinks that the Jesus was referring to an actual son who ran away from an actual father in the parable of the Prodigal Son. No historian is spending time trying to find the money that the wicked servant buried in the ground. We (rightly) read those as parables or allegory.

What’s more, if it is allegory or parable, then we would actually be wrong to read it literally. On the other hand, when we read, “Then David became king of Israel,” we read that literally. We do not think that’s a metaphor for something. We think that the story is trying to say that a man, named David, became a king over a nation called Israel.

Since using the phrase “reading the Bible literally” isn’t that accurate, what might be? In my experience, here are three things that people usually mean when they say they “read the Bible literally” (though there may be more, which just furthers my point).

(1) “I agree this actually happened.”

(2) “This injunction is still valid for today.”

(3) “The correct interpretation is obvious.”

These are not what “taking something literally” means. So, instead of saying we or someone we disagree with “reads the Bible literally” try one of these alternatives:

(1) “I/they agree historical accounts in the Bible happened in the way the Bible says it happened.”

(2) “I/they believe certain laws in the Bible are still valid and should be enforced in today’s world.”

(3) “I/they believe that the Bible is easy to understand so attempts to deny #1 or #2 usually means I/they probably don’t have enough faith or are uneasy with the demands of Christianity.

Personally, the more I study the less I believe the Bible is easy to understand, but if that’s what you think, then by all means feel free. But just say that. Because when you say “I read the Bible literally” you are not saying that, you are saying something completely different.

The sooner we can leave off with labels and catchphrases, the sooner we can begin engaging in useful dialogue about what the Bible is, what we can expect from it, and then how we should be reading it.

“‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’ ‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’”

— Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass

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