Literal Interpretation of Scripture

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Once upon a Bible translation

About 12 years ago I was doing some web work for the church I was attending, and as a part of that I was posting sermon notes on the website every week. Pastor would send me his notes, and I would take the scripture references and look them up and paste the verse into the text, so readers wouldn’t need to do that. The problem at the time was that the pastor used NASB as his normal version, and I couldn’t find a free electronic copy of that translation. So while I was casting around for free electronic bibles I found the New English Translation – the first free and open source bible translation. Since I was doing work on the ‘net, I felt that the NET bible was a good choice. I asked pastor and some elders to review key passages to ensure that they were comfortable with the translation. I am not a bible scholar, nor have I studied Greek or Hebrew, so felt incompetent to speak to the quality of the translation.

Over that past period, I have come to love the New English Translation because of the extensive notes that the translators injected into the electronic version. I had used study bibles in the past, but they gave me insight to the teaching that was behind the scripture, and helped me find companion passages. The NET bible’s notes were specific to the choices made by the translators. When the translators made a difficult decision, they would annotate that decision, and the annotations are part of the version that we can read. Over the years I have really come to love those notes, because they explain why different English translations of the scripture often read so differently.

My first bible when I was saved was a vernacular translation of the new testament by Charles B. Williams published by Moody Press in the first half of the 20th century. It has a sub-title “In the language of the people” – which means to me that the translator put the “cookies on the bottom shelf” and made it easy for ordinary folks to get the ideas. It is not unlike the J.B. Phillips paraphrase, or the Living Translation, or the “Amplified” Bible. It was not translated to be read by scholars, it was translated to be read by simple folk.

Literal Interpretation

When most people say literal interpretation, then mean something like: “using the most common meaning of words, without metaphor or allegory”… And that makes sense. But when it comes to religion and scripture, the most common meaning of words is nonsensical. How can I use the most common meaning of words to describe something that has no common meaning. Moreover, the Bible is full of allegory, metaphor, and parable – all using familiar concepts to allude, describe, and explain less familiar topics.

Because of this, it doesn’t surprise me that people who are not familiar with Christianity react strangely when we Christians say that we read the Bible “literally“.


When Christian Scholars say they read or translate literally, they are referring to historical-grammatical method, as opposed to the historical-critical method of interpreting and translating text. These are technical textual analysis methods that are applied to ANY ancient text when translating it into a modern language.

There is also the notion that bible scholars refer to as exegesis or reading the bible as a consistent whole, and interpreting the text of each phrase in light of the whole, rather than picking pieces apart and interpreting in ways that “create” inconsistencies. Exegesis is reading out of the bible, only what is actually in the text, rather than reading into the bible, ideas and concepts from our current culture which are not explicitly in the text at all.

These methods are part of any translation of ancient text, or inter-cultural translations. Different cultures represent concepts with different words. But the thing is that some of the concepts we read in the Bible, are not “of this world”. The Bible passages seek to explain the nature of being, whether the universalities of the human condition, or the cosmological context we find ourselves in. They are concepts equally hard for philosophers to explain. Philosophers make up new words and metaphors in their attempts to explain the nature of being.

So why should we expect that humans writing words in a language we no longer speak, for an audience with a culture that no longer exists, can write words that can be understood using their most common meanings…

Our Reading

There are two ways to read the Bible. One can read it from a perspective of belief (either that it is “The Word of God”, or that it is a silly superstitious myth). One could alternatively read it with no expectations whatsoever, as if one merely found a book lying in the street and had no opinion about it until the first reading. In the Western World, it is hard for us to do the second one. We are all very aware of the Bible, and we are aware of the history of the Church, and we all (almost all) have strong opinions one way or another.

I suppose that there is a third way to read it, as a scholar, simply trying to prove once and for all, that there is no validity in the religions that claim that the Bible is God’s authoritative word to mankind. In doing that, I would find every passage that was non-nonsensical, or appeared through my understanding to be flawed or false. I would seek out the inconsistencies, the obvious problems in the text. But then, I would have to attribute those problems to something – either human authority (somebody made this up and its wrong) or cultural authority (it made sense in the culture when it was written, but in our culture it no longer holds true), or political manipulation (sometime between the original and the current transcription, error was introduced intentionally for gain to some party).

In the case of the Bible, only the cultural authority flaws can be tolerated – because the text itself ascribes authority to an infallible omnipotent God. An infallible God would not include error in the original version. An omnipotent would not allow His authority to be manipulated or otherwise overruled… So the only source of flaw must originate in the reader, not the author.

So to study the Bible, one must then understand the culture into which it was written, and do a “cross-cultural” translation, as well as a literal translation.

Semantics and Spiritual Realms

When we read the bible, or any text, the words we read relate to things we have experienced. Words are symbols that are assigned to entities and events that we perceive or experience. The meaning of those words comes from our experience, not from the word itself. If I read the Bible correctly, some time before the time between the time of Noah and Abraham, God confused human language, because “civilization” had become too advanced and proud (Genesis 11:1-9). This is to explain why different people from different cultures have different words for the same experience.

Yet there is a fundamental problem when we are talking about experience that goes beyond the physical realm. The Bible talks about God Himself, and God’s relationship to the Earth and the Cosmos. These are entities and events that it is impossible for use to have experience of. We can experience the Earth, but even we cannot experience the entirety of it. We can experience the “heavens” but we cannot experience the entirety of it. Our direct experience is so limited, that any description of it is limited to symbolism and analogy – the expressing of unfamiliar concepts in terms of familiar ones.

We say “the heavens” but our mind goes to “the cosmos” – the clouds, the stars, the skies – because that is what we can experience. When we say that God lives in “Heaven” it is clear that God lives “out there” somewhere – but our human experience cannot really comprehend what that means. We say that God is eternal – but we ourselves are bound in time. We have a beginning and an end – we cannot experience “eternity” in our current physical form. We struggle to understand what eternity symbolizes – beyond a really, really, long time. A clever person might imagine that an eternal being is not bound in time the way we are, so can “move through time” the way humans can move through what we perceive as physical space.

Interestingly enough, in most cultures, however primitive or civilized, there is a concept of the “spiritual” realm, and beings from that realm – be they Gods, or angels or demons are a part of our language and culture. These concepts appear to be mostly universal – yet very few people in any culture have claimed “direct” experience with this realm, or with these beings.

The only way we can share these symbols is for those who “claim” direct experience – to share their experience with us – through words. The words that they use, however, must be familiar enough to us, that we can attach some meaning to them. The absolute best that can be done without direct experience is metaphor or analogy. So when I hear Christians ask for a “Literal” reading of the scripture – the truth is that it can only be literal for those who have that experience – the “common” meaning of those words – is out of the realm of experience for the vast majority of people.

The Kingdom of Heaven

When Jesus walked among us, He spent time talking about the “Kingdom” of heaven. Culturally, his countrymen, and in fact, the entire Roman Empire deeply understood the dynamics of human Kingdoms. Today, in our American culture, we don’t understand the concept very well. Even the Monarchies that exist today are different than those that existed 2000 years ago. A king had absolute unilateral authority within the kingdom – something that we don’t understand today. We equate this with totalitarianism, and with tyranny – because that is what we have been taught. The American “democracy” was a reaction to the tyranny that was expressed by the European monarchs during the Renaissance and the age of enlightenment. We have been systematically taught that concentration of ruling power is bad, because it can lead to oppression.

The people Jesus was talking to in Israel were very familiar with tyranny – and oppression, yet they also believed that God was a benevolent actor (at least benevolent to Israel) and so they understood the notion of a benevolent King. They also understood that conquering Kings would “subjugate” the conquered people. They understood that “citizens” of the kingdom were the King’s “subjects” – as they were “subject” to His authority. That in that subjugation, they would also benefit from the protection of that king from any raiders or attackers. That they would benefit from any economic programs that the king was clever enough to develop, and that if the King went on to conquer other “peoples” that they would benefit from future expansions of the kingdom. They also understood that anyone who “rebelled” against the King would be dealt with harshly as a traitor. Rebellion and treason were the worst crimes, much worse than crimes against other citizens. So what you read in the 10 commandments is the hierarchy – Sins against God, Sins of Pride or rebellion, and sins against each other.

The Kingdom of Heaven is an exquisite analogy – but we cannot read it today using a literal thought process – because our own culture values rebellion against all concentrations of power. Even so, it is difficult to imagine that God (as King) will act like a human king. It is merely an analogy that expresses the authority that God has and wields. The Bible contains all kinds of expressions about God’s wrath – yet most of the time, He is shown as “holding back” the wrath that we ultimately deserve. He is seen as giving all humans who rebel (and we all do) a chance (many chances) to repent and “honor” Him as our true King. Even in the Old testament, God is seen as being patient – not expressing His wrath the moment some nation “stepped out of line”… He even sent his prophets to warn them and give them a chance to repent (turn things around).

When we read the Bible “literally”, we must understand when the Bible is describing earthly “history”, and when spiritual sources are “attributed” for intervention in that history, and when spiritual concepts are being defined or described. I think that this example is easy for most of us to understand. But when we go deeper into the scripture it continues to be enriched. For example during the period of Judges when the nation of Israel demanded a human King. Look how their royal line of Kings ultimately degraded and led them to ruin. The whole theme of kingdoms in the bible is instructive. Both about the nature of God and about the nature of man.

The Creation Story

I think the creation story is much harder for “modern” people to swallow. But think of the primitive “mind” of the human to whom God first gave this revelation. He had no knowledge of modern science. Perhaps God showed him a vision and this is how he interpreted it. In any case, God was limited by the words (symbols) that that mind was able to use to describe creation. God chose not to explain “How” creation happened. I am left with understanding that it was He who “Spoke” into the void as the causal agent. Creation happened because God chose it.

Science today cannot explain either “why” it happened any more effectively than the Bible. I am also “dubious” about what some call “creation science”. As I have said elsewhere – scientific method proposes hypothesis (which is an opinion) supported by facts, and as soon as new facts appear the hypothesis is invalidated. The hypothesis is useful as a way of explaining the observed phenomena or facts. Hypothesis allows us to propose technology that allows us to overcome difficulties. But when hypothesis becomes an article of faith it ceases to be science.

In the creation story, God was reported as saying that He created the world in 6 days. We struggle with the facts as we can observe them. The science we have places the age of the earth at millions of years, while the Bible at thousands. Looking at the rest of scripture, we are led to a literal interpretation of a “day” as a 24 hour period. However on the first day, God separated light from darkness – there was no “spinning earth” which would provide a temporal reference. The “world” as we understand it now is different than the world as one to whom God had revealed this creation story to. He wouldn’t have had the words. That man measured time days and seasons and years and human generations. He didn’t have large numbers. What words could God have spoken to that man to make him understand a longer period of time that could be “literally” interpreted.

While I would not deny that an omnipotent God had the power to create everything in 6 days as he said, they physical evidence as we understand it would have us believe otherwise. Since the physical evidence, and the story disagree, I am forced into one compromise or another. On the one hand, I can say that God created so that it would appear different than it actually happened, some form of deception. Since deception is not compatible with the character of God as the rest of scripture expresses it, I have to reject that compromise. On the other hand, it could be that our current time-space science is deficient and as our understanding of time and space advances we will understand how our time could be warped or escaped to allow God (who is eternal, exempt from our laws of time) to have created it as he said. This can neither be proved or disproved, so I have no evidence from observation or from scripture that this is the case. So I am forced to trust God on this count.

My last appeal is from purpose for inclusion. So I ask why is it important “to me” that God created the heavens and the earth in six days? When I find things in the scripture that I find difficult to parse, or understand, I have to ask myself why is it there at all. God said, “All scripture is God Breathed, and useful for something” in the life of a believer. So why is this useful? Why do I care that God created the heavens and earth in any specific amount of time? What is that information useful for? I find two things: first, it goes to the absolute power and authority of God. Not that it would be any less magnificent if it said that God created the heavens and earth in 600 billion years, but it says that God spoke and creation happened. The way it is stated is instructive. The story is about authority and industry. God is not idle, and he is the “author” of the universe. He is an active God, not a “bystander, sitting on His heavenly barcalounger just watching the clouds. Since we are created in the “image” of God, we are to be active, industrious as well. Then it tells us that God rested. It didn’t say that He was tired, it says he rested and looked at his creation and was satisfied. In this we can understand that we should work, and take enjoyment from our work, and reserve some time for rest. God also gave us a specific ratio of work to rest; a pattern to follow. God is saying, since you are created in my image I want you to emulate or imitate me. It is most evident from this passage that He meant this as an object lesson, to teach us the value of hard work and rest in a specific ratio – which is promoted as a guiding principle for human endeavor in both old and new testaments. So rather than getting hung up on proving a literal interpretation of scripture that is incompatible with physical evidence I can take this approach and leave it at that.

The Problem of Prophecy

In the Bible, in the old and new testaments, prophets see visions, and express what they saw. Isaiah, Ezekiel and Daniel are most known for their visions in the OT, while the New Testaments Peter and John both see visions. How are we to interpret these visions “literally”? Did these prophets literally see these visions? I believe that they did. But is what they described literally what they saw? If we saw the same vision, would we describe the vision the same way? We have different words, and a different understanding of both the physical world and a different historical perspective. So it is unlikely that we would describe the vision identically. So to understand the meaning of the vision, we must understand the words that they used, in their time, and their world view and understanding of the physical world, and their historical perspective. Prophets are often describing the mechanics of a spiritual dimension, which we clearly don’t have “common” words to adequately describe. So here, again, a literal interpretation can only get us to – this is how they described what they saw, not what it means to us.

The Problem of Application

When I hear people “complain” about taking the Bible literally, one of the main things they are talking about is “applying” the rules of the Bible to our current culture. People who argue for a less literal interpretation of scripture, often argue based on their understanding of the principle of applying any law or rule in the Bible literally. My favorite complaint is “so if you take the Bible literally, then you believe that we should kill men who have homosexual intercourse, right? Like it says in Leviticus 20:13?” So how do we interpret old testament law as applicable to our lives today, if not “literally”? This is a problem of covenants, and of purpose. The old testament expresses the agreement that God made with the nation Israel, and how Israel would be governed. The law He established for them defined righteousness. It still does, in it’s prohibitions. But the sacrificial system described in the law, has been satisfied by Jesus sacrifice on the cross, once for all. And the punishments prescribed in the law, were designed to keep God’s servant nation pure, and holy (separate from the other nations). Most of the behavioral prohibitions were a reaction to or in opposition to the common practices of the goyim (nations) that Israel displaced and conquered when they inhabited the land.

Bible scholars have established principles for understanding how to apply instructions, exhortations, promises and prohibitions to our lives without taking things “out of context”. On the surface, the notion of being able to take these things from the Bible out of context, goes against the principle of a purely literal interpretation. When I think about it, though – it is not the interpretation that is not literal, it is the application. So from this perspective, literally interpreting the bible is very different than “indiscriminately” applying it. Application is different than interpretation. Did God literally mean that the Hebrews should kill men who practiced homosexual intercourse? Yes. Is that instruction applicable to the Church today? What about to non-believers? Probably not. So while we agree that there are no unusual meanings should be applied to God’s prohibition or instructions around homosexual intercourse, whether we should apply those prohibitions or instructions in our current culture are less clear.

Furthermore, I don’t see a literal interpretation of the prohibition or instructions directed at homosexual urges, or tendencies. Only upon acting on those urges in specific ways. Even in the old testament, God didn’t condemn the person for those feelings, only for acting on them.


I think that most Christians who reject a literal reading of scripture haven’t spent enough time studying the Bible to understand what that really means. I think that they react to passages of scripture that they don’t understand how to interpret, or that they find inconvenient or unpopular, so they reject the literal reading for that reason.

I think that most non-Christians who react negatively to the notion of a literal reading of scripture get confused between reading and applying, and fail to understand the nuances of interpreting ancient texts as a scholarly exercise regardless of whether the text is scripture, history, or literature.

I think that many Christians who insist on a purely “literal” interpretation of scripture, and then insist on reading from a King James bible whose language is so anachronistic as to introduce its own issues with interpretation versus current English usage are misguided at best, although they mostly have been schooled in how to correctly apply biblical principles and promises and prohibitions based on proper application of context.

I am certainly no trained Bible Scholar. I have no degree or seminary training. But I do hold these opinions about the viability of living my life based on applying the principles found in scripture and living to glorify God because of what He has done for me.

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