According to a recent Pew poll, a surprisingly number of Americans fall into this group. Of the population, 30% polled take the Bible as the “literal word of God.” That 3/10 of Americans think the Bible can be taken “literally” leads to the assumption that at least 3/10 of Americans have no idea what the word “literal” means.
The problem with this is that the Bible cannot be taken literally, and the most obvious reason (and what should be the only reason) is that it’s not intended to be taken “literally.” The Bible is not a science book. Its history is no more real than Homer’s history. It’s a book of morality tales, of fables, allegories, parables, poetry, and metaphors. This is should be the only reason we need, but alas, it’s not.
So, in lieu of that, here are five reasons why you can’t take the Bible literally:
5. Failure of Fourth Grade Science: The Bible Is Not a Science Textbook20 All flying insects that walk on all fours are to be regarded as unclean by you.
Let’s get the obvious out-of-the-way first: the Bible is not a science book because it wasn’t intended to be a science book. A formalized scientific method didn’t come along until Roger Bacon, and he’s far younger than the oldest parts of the Bible. Because it wasn’t intended to be a scientific dissertation, it’s got all the accuracy of the Accelerated Christian Education curriculum that it inspired.
One of my particularly favorite examples is this, from Revelations:
10 The third angel sounded his trumpet, and a great star, blazing like a torch, fell from the sky on a third of the rivers and on the springs of water—
Read “literally,” this suggests that a great star will fall to the earth, endangering a third of the rivers. I assure you, if a star fell to the Earth, it’d be more than a third of all rivers in trouble. You can fit exactly 736.6 Earths inside of Jupiter, and you can fit 1000 Jupiters inside of the sun alone. And the sun is far from a great star. If Jupiter so much as a “fell to the Earth,” there wouldn’t be much of an Earth to fall into it; at these sizes, Jupiter’s gravity alone would do bad, unhealthy things to the Earth. A star of any size would obliterate the planet.
Some may say that “star” means “meteorite.” Which is all well and good, but we’re taking this literally. You can’t decide the authors are using “star” poetically to mean “meteorite.” The text clearly says “star.” Just remember that next time you say you take it “literally.”
4. Now With 50% Less Historical Accuracy than David Barton: The Bible Is Not a History Textbook16 He treated Abram well for her sake, and Abram acquired sheep and cattle, male and female donkeys, male and female servants, and camels.
I’m not spending too much time on this, because this should be obvious, too: the Bible is not a history book. The history contained within the Bible is the same sort of “mythic” history contained within the Greek myths. From the predictions that the Nile would dry up (twice; Ezekiel 30:12 and Isaiah 19:1-8) to the destruction of Egypt (Ezekiel 30:10-11), the Bible is full of these “future history” errors, calling to mind all the 60’s and 70’s science fiction that predicted a war with the Soviets.
I included the quote from Genesis because it mentioned camels. Camels have become stereotyped to the Middle East, and are mentioned in the Bible a few times. Very few people realize that the domesticated camel is not native to that region; in fact, according to FOX freakin’ news, camels didn’t arrive in the region until around 900 BCE. Meanwhile, they’re mentioned in the texts of Abraham, Jacob, and Joseph, which some date back as far back as 2000 BCE — I’ll leave you to do the math, but that’s a significant gap; almost as significant as the difference between FOX news Obamacare and real world Obamacare.
3. #Monolingual Problems: There’s No Such Thing as a “Literal Translation”
Most of the “Bible believers” are monolingual, and as a result, can’t appreciate the difficulty that goes into translation. When you translate, by necessity, you have to edit, and editing leaves open room for error. I’ll illustrate this with two relatively close languages I like to think I have a decent grasp on; Portuguese and English.
O ministro da Economia, António Pires de Lima, deixou ontem em Braga, uma mensagem de esperança aos empresários da região do Minho no sentido da retoma económica do país. (from Correio do Minho)
If I were to translate that into English, I’d translate it as: “The Minister of the Economy, António Pires de Lima, left a message of hope in Braga yesterday for entrepreneurs in the Minho region, regarding the economic recovery of the country.”
If you translate that literally you get: “The minister (of the) Economy, António Pires de Lima, left yesterday in Braga, a message of hope to(s) entrepreneurs (of the) region (of the) Minho (in the) sense (of the) return economic (of the) country.”
You cannot literally translate that sentence. It’s an unreadable train wreck if you do.
Then there’s the context you miss: “meu amigo” and “minha amiga” both translate as “my friend” without context, even though one implies a male friend, and the other a female friend. “Ser,” “estar,” and “ficar” all mean “to be,” but don’t think “Eu sou (ser) gordo” means the same thing as “Eu estou (estar) gordo” — one suggests that being fat is an part of who you are, and the other suggests you’re stuffed from eating too much.
Both of these languages are members of the Indo-European language family. Hebrew and Aramaic are not members of this family; as such, attempting a cross-translation between the two languages will need even more editing to make it readable. And that’s the difficulties of a one step translation. In translating the Bible, the translators first translated it from Hebrew and Aramaic to Greek. Then, later, they translated the Greek version to Latin. Finally, they translated the Latin version (with help from the Greek version and the Hebrew version) to the Early Modern English version. And there were hundreds of years between these translations; plenty of time for language drift.
Which brings me to my next point.
2. From Vous to You: You Can’t Take a Language “Literally” If You Don’t Understand that Language“I thee thou, thou traitor!” – Sir Edward Coke, to Sir Walter Raleigh
The gap between Early Modern English and Modern English is substantially smaller than the gap between English and Portuguese, but ask any high school student or college student how they feel about that gap when they’re attempting to read Shakespeare in his original tongue. The King James Version of the Bible is written in Early Modern English as well, and it’s the version many of the “Bible Believers” will swear by.
But here’s the thing: you can’t take a book “literally” if you don’t understand the language it’s written in. And many of the so-called “Bible Believers” likely do not understand Early Modern English. In particular, I point to the second person pronoun, “thou.” Today, that sounds antiquated and thus, formal to us. However, “thou” was originally the familiar second person, while “you” was originally the formal second person.
Students of French will recognize this: it’s called the T-V distinction. In French, this is “tu” (tew) and “vous” (voo). In English, it persisted right up until the early modern period as “Thou/Thee” and “You/Ye.” It’s “you“, not “thou“, that was formal. Come the early modern period, this usage was fading, and classist distinctions had gone so far as to turn “thou” and “thee” in insults, as Sir Coke highlights above.
When the KJV was written, the authors chose to hew as closely and conservatively to the language as possible. This means that when God is using “thou,” God is being informal, and displaying a degree of familiarity and closeness as a result. But that gets lost on people who don’t know the story of the second person pronoun, because, and let’s face it, that’s something everyone gets excited to learn about.
And if you don’t know that God is being informal, familiar, and friendly, what else are you missing, and how can you claim to take it “literally” if you don’t even know the context?
1. “Literal” Means Figurative: You Can’t Take Any Language Literally, At All
Lastly, I wanted to take a look at the word “literal” itself. In our every day parlance, we use “literally” in every way but to mean something is literal. We say “man, that was a hell of a game; we literally slaughtered them.” We’ll say “that drink was so strong, it literally knocked me off my feet,” or “I swear, I literally went out of my mind at work today.”
You didn’t “literally” do any of those things. Those statements are all figurative; in fact, all language is figurative to some degree. What about a “table” says “table?” Why can’t it be “dog?” Because of how language works; we collectively assigned that word and meaning, “table,” to the thing we built that we called “a table.” Because those meanings aren’t attached to anything permanent, they can, and do, shift over time. For instance, “mesa,” which means “table,” in Spanish, is used to describe a land form in English. Thou, from the previous section, is a great example. Originally informal to the point of insulting, now we use it only when we want to sound stuffy, old-fashioned, and formal.
But it’s literally that’s the best example of why you can’t take language, and anything written in it — like the Bible — literally. What about “literal” says that it has to be “In accordance with, involving, or being the primary or strict meaning of the word or words; not figurative or metaphorical: the literal meaning of a word?” Nothing. Not even current usage reflects the definition. In fact, current usage often reflects the exact opposite of it.
Because of the word literally, you cannot take anything, including the Bible, literally. And that’s, well, the literal truth.