Should we take the Bible literally?

Published on 23 Aug 2016
Noah's Ark Nuremberg Chronicles 1439

There are obviously many passages in the Bible where God is described metaphorically, and not literally: ‘A mighty fortress is our God’, ‘The Lord is my shepherd’, or   ‘Our Father’, or as the ‘vine where we are the branches’.

I suspect that the question is not focussed on metaphors (or parables), which we can easily use and are not likely to misunderstand by taking them literally. The Good Samaritan is not presented as a historical person. The problem arises more with the literary genre of whole passages in the Bible.

Let me give a contemporary illustration. George Orwell’s novel 1984 gives a dramatic account of pigs who start off genuinely trying to help the worst off on the farm, and end up as utterly cruel self-serving tyrants, persecuting even a total innocent and well-meaning donkey. Orwell is presenting, as dramatically as he can, a truth about some human political movements which start off with the best of intentions and end up utterly betraying their own principles. He is not purporting to write an extraordinary set of events in some unfortunate farm in rural England.

There are many biblical texts which do the same kind of thing; these would include the infancy narratives in the gospels of Matthew and Luke, which explain for two very different audiences, how Jesus is to be taken as the Messiah; and the account of the Last Supper in John which sets out the theology of the presence of the risen Christ in the Church.  The BBC once published what they took to be a terrible fact that almost 60% of Christians did not believe in the Magi or in the Flight into Egypt. The same totally mistaken assumption would doubtless have revealed that nobody believed George Orwell’s claim that pigs could speak and form a  political party.

The trouble is that Christians for centuries were ill-informed about the cultural forms in which Biblical texts were originally written; and then have been nervous at accepting that we have often been very mistaken in how we read them.

Gerard J Hughes SJ