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Here are some common definitions from a dictionary for ‘literal’:

  1. Being in accordance with, conforming to, or upholding the exact or primary meaning of a word or words.
  2. Word for word; verbatim: a literal translation.
  3. Avoiding exaggeration, metaphor, or embellishment; factual; prosaic: a literal description; a literal mind.

So what does it mean then to ‘take the Bible literally?’ Which definition are we referring to when we say ‘I take the Bible literally?’

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"Words don't have meaning, people have meaning", and "The meaning of a word is determined by the context in which it is used". There is no way to say what a person means by, "I take the Bible literally", unless you probe them for further details about what they mean by their use of that phrase. Ten different people could make the same claim and mean ten different things, because there is no standard; there is no Bible verse that says "this is what it means to take the Bible literally". –  Jas 3.1 Jul 5 '12 at 20:15
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@Beska Some people say they take the Bible "literally" and mean that every statement should be taken as a propositional statement. Others say they take the Bible "literally" and mean they read it according to the rules of literature, which allows for literary devices such as parables and hyperbole. The second group says to the first group "that's not 'literal' that's 'literalistic'" and the first group says to the second group "that's not 'literal' that's 'liberal'". English dictionaries represent conventional uses, not absolute boundaries ... which is why they are constantly revised. –  Jas 3.1 Jan 28 '13 at 19:06
    
@Beska Perhaps not dictionaries, but hermeneutics books will speak of reading "literally" but not "literalistically". So on a Christianity website where an inquiry is being made about what "literally" refers to, the correct answer is "it depends." –  Jas 3.1 Jan 29 '13 at 1:51
    
@Beska - Is it possible to please delete your comments and take your conversation with Jas to a chatroom? Every time you add a comment I get an alert to read it thinking someone is asking me to clarify my question. But it is just a debate about something you disagree with from Jas which makes him feel a duty to respond to. This is not what comments are for. –  Mike Jan 29 '13 at 4:14
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7 Answers

up vote 18 down vote accepted

There is a spectrum of literal biblical reading, but basically it boils down to the degree to which one believes in the historicity (in the modern sense) of the Bible.

Archeological evidence only goes back as far as a steele mentioning the "House of David," so for modern academics, the historicity of say, Moses, Abraham, and Adam and Eve are all at least suspect. Opinion varies as to whether, say, a baby boy who should have been murdered was actually set adrift in a boat made of bull rushes. A literalist would say, yes, this literally happened, and a liberal would say that it is a mere birth narrative to set the tone for who Moses would be. Likewise, a liberal would say that clearly a few Hebrew slaves probably escaped across a "Reed Sea" (a swamp) whereas a literalist would, with no evidence to the contrary, state that in fact 525,000 Israelite men plus their wives and children pass through the Red Sea, with the waves held back on either side and Charleton Heston in front holding a stick. The same analysis holds for an actual Adam and Eve, whether or not a woman named Tamar really did seduce her father-in-law, and a whole host of other stories.

As one who is probably more literal than most, I would suggest there are a few categories in which to consider the question:

  1. Parables and other stories identified as such:

    When Jesus told the parable of the Good Samaritan, for example, he pretty clearly identifies it as such. Now, I've driven through the West Bank up from Jericho to Jerusalem, and along the way, you can pass the "Inn of the Good Samaritan." Some people will say that is in fact a real event in history. This is an extreme form of literalism which negates the possibility of Jesus using metaphor- a stance mostly restricted to ultra-conservatives.

  2. Historical events that have miraculous involvement:

    Very few scholars would now argue that there was no King David. Very few also doubt that there was a big Philistine named Goliath whom he killed. The question is typically along the lines of, "Was he really just a boy with a sling?" As a literalist who believes that God does intervene in history, I tend to view this as an actual event that occurs more or less as the Bible describes it. Could it have been four stones in his pouch instead of five? For me, that would be an irrelevant detail - for an inerrantist it would be a requirement. For a liberal, the entire story was probably an embellishment after a real knock down, drag out battle, and the details grew in the retelling.

  3. Prehistorical / Other more figurative:

    Genesis 1 -11, parts of Daniel, Zechariah, and Revelation are special cases, in that scholars often disagree as to whether or not these were meant to be understood as history or legend. Along these lines, Job appears in the section of the Old Testament called the "Ketuvi'im" or "Writings" alongside Psalms, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes. It may be that the original author intended this as a story all along, or it could be real, or it could be "historical fiction." As there is no title page on the book of Job, it could be analagous to finding one of Shakespeare's plays - and that could mean anything from Henry V to Romeo and Juliet. Imagine if you had no historical reference to figure it out. Likewise, Daniel is not billed as historical (it's in the Nevi'im), and yet it has more historical detail in certain points than many textbooks.

The question with all of this then is the degree to which a reader ascribes historicity to a narrative. Keep in mind that prior to Thuycidides, even the very notion of a story that attempts to merely describe historical events (while still making a point) wasn't really even an idea, and you'll see why there is controversy. People can argue hermeneutics (the science of how a text should be interpreted) and archeology all day long - the fact is that there is a choice that must be made a priori, and understanding the implications of that for one's theology is the real heart of the matter.

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I think this more or less identifies the issue correctly spanning a lot of areas in few words. I am a literalists but I think it is important not to confuse that with opposing metaphors. I take the metaphors of the Bible literally as well, as you have described them. For example, if Revelation says Jesus is on a throne, I literally believe He is Lord, but I do not think he actually sits in a physical throne, or that there are beasts in heaven. Being literal does not mean you do not understand metaphors, it means you take them as the author meant them, literally. –  Mike Jul 5 '12 at 14:45
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@Mike I think you're missing the point on what "literally" means. To say you "take the metaphors of the Bible literally" makes no sense. The term "literal" is used to describe a scenario that could reasonably be taken metaphorically, but should not be. For example, if you were a literalist, and Revelation says Jesus is on a throne, you would believe it means that he is on a throne (along with whatever else that may imply). No more, no less. –  Beska Jul 5 '12 at 15:01
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@Beska - Not true. This is common confusion. The primary meaning of literal is - Being in accordance with, conforming to, or upholding the exact or primary meaning of a word or words. This may be figurative or non figurative words as long as you whole the primary meaning of what is meant by the author's word, you are taking them literally. This was implicit in my question and I accept this answer to it. I am drawing attention to this commonly confused subject and I think this answer rises up to the real issue. –  Mike Jul 5 '12 at 15:16
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@Mike Understanding "the primary meaning of what is meant by the authors word" is not what literally means. The definition of "literally", from dictionary.com: "actually; without exaggeration or inaccuracy." More telling is the definition for metaphor, which specifically notes that metaphors are not to be taken literally: "a figure of speech in which a term or phrase is applied to something to which it is not literally applicable in order to suggest a resemblance, as in 'A mighty fortress is our God.'" –  Beska Jul 5 '12 at 17:05
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+1 for "Charleton Heston in front holding a stick." (I'm kidding... +1 for a good answer.) –  Jas 3.1 Jul 5 '12 at 20:20
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Those who claim to interpret scriptures "literally" will otherwise propose this means to "accept the plain meaning" of the text, rather than seeking a symbolic, allegoric, or otherwise subtle hidden meaning.

Of course the "plain meaning" itself can be subjective, causing differences in interpretation based on the "literal" approach.

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What does it mean to interpret the Bible literally? It means to read the bible and believe what it is saying.

People who take the bible literally would (for example) claim that the Earth was created in 6 days. Time is relative to speed, and the speed has been slowing down. Why couldn't 20 billion years happen in a day?

That the Genesis story is not a parable and that it's historically accurate; however these are the types of people I consider "hard core" literalists. Whereas some people would rationalize the story by saying that 6 days is not the same as 6 days is now. If you would like, research the speed of light slowing down.

Non-literalist would say that the story is to be reflected on and not taken as actual fact. They point to the words in the bible about Jesus: Ok.

Matthew 13:34 NIV: Jesus spoke all these things to the crowd in parables; he did not say anything to them without using a parable. Yes.

This causes a problem with taking the bible literally, how can you take the stories literally when Jesus himself spoke in parables? It becomes a reciprocating problem. Not if you understand the parables.

The problem is, where does it stop? For example, if I believe that the world wasn't created in 6 days, or that Jesus didn't really walk on water, where do you take the bible literally? You've just jumped down the rabbit's hole. Sure, logically until more is thoroughly explained things that appear unbelievable, then become logical. I became an Atheist, after reading Genesis as well. I overlooked the six day start, but got snared by Cain running into the mountains to marry his wife. I was like no way did dude marry his Mom on a mountain. That seemed to me illogical, I would rather yank out my eyes and sand off my tongue, then marry mo Mom. Interesting thing happened though. I was writing a computer program that take sections of DNA and meld them together. The process I found exciting, I liked the idea of creating a real dragon to kill. Note: I'm not so into that idea anymore.

Anyways, In my DNA research I found that paternity tests where not limited to Father Son. You could do Grandpa to Grandson, Great Grandpa to Great Grandson, and 1000 Greats Grandpa to 1000 Greats Grandson. I found that it pointed to One Man, not once but twice. The first branch being Adam, and the second being Noah. So I did a little more research and found out that Cains sisters where not mentioned. In fact very little history about women was recorded at all. So the Idea of Cain grabbing a sister and running seemed more realistic. Not that I have any sisters, but I watched a lot of Porn in my life, and Brothers and Sisters do do it.

So, somethings in the bible are to be taken literally and something are to be taken as a parable. Which passages are which? Who knows, we'll find out when we get there. This does complicate the teachings, I'll not deny, but I have found that all the parables are analogical stories. So a simple, "Is he making an analogy?" question simply needs asked before deciding the correct interpretation. Also, the answer key as to understanding the parables was given within the text, so anyone really listening to what he was trying to say would see the pure truth to what he was revealing. (Matthew 13:35)

So what about the Six Days? I recommend watching a movie called "The Genesis Code" I highly suggest you watch it. It shows how both Science and 6 Days are both correct with simple logic. Personally I feel that Correct Science will have Religion back it up, and Correct Religion will have Science back it up, for science is only a description of what God does, and how he does it.

Why should it be taken Literally? For Truth to be True, it must describe itself truthfully, and it must Truly represent Truth. An incorrect representation of the truth is not True. Therefore since the Position that God has taken as "described" by himself, is that he speaks Truth, if that where to be True. Then all that is said is a True representation of the Truth. Not literally taking what is said, is by nature a misrepresentation of the Truth and is not True. If you do not Truly do this, then you cannot Truly get the Truth that he is trying to deliver.

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2Ti 3:16 All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness:

2Ti 2:15 Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.

Literal interpretations tend to mean "exactly what is said nothing more nothing less" from which one builds an idea of the meaning based on their understanding of the definition of the words and grammatical structure as well as context.

I believe the Bible literally. However, I do not literally believe the Bible in English as it was not written in English nor was it designed specifically for English. As both of the above 2nd Timothy references show the God's word is designed to be profitable to be used for doctrine.

Building doctrines based on single words like day in Genesis 1 or another verse from Genesis is not good exegesis as the Old Testament was written in ancient Hebrew and some if not all of the oldest copies we have were written in ancient Greek. Our understanding of how and what the words in the Bible are and mean has changed over thousands of years. What God originally said to and through Moses as Moses's understood to the best of his ability and recorded perfectly with God's help may be vastly different than the way we understand Genesis. The word itself hasn't change but we have changed. It makes interpreting the word soundly and rightly dividing it more difficult as time passes. I do believe the Bible has no errors or flaws factual or historical but it does have limitations. The Bible cannot and does not explain itself most of the time. There is great freedom even in literal interpretations of the word as supplied by the language and usage of the original words.

For instance the word world was in many cases taken to mean the immediate surrounding region of a nation. Cesar taxed the whole world when Christ was born. The Bible literally means the world was taxed but its idea of the world and our idea of the globe/world are two separate things. It is possible that in Genesis 6-9 account of Noah's flood also was literally the whole world but the Bible means a local region flooded rather than what we perceive as the whole globe.

This is how I interpenetrating the God's word literally and somewhat how my group (Word of Faith) views the issue of a literal interpretation of the scripture.

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People who take the bible literally would (for example) claim that the Earth was created in 6 days. That the Genesis story is not a parable and that it's historically accurate; however these are the types of people I consider "hard core" literalists. Whereas some people would rationalize the story by saying that 6 days is not the same as 6 days is now. Non-literalist would say that the story is to be reflected on and not taken as actual fact. They point to the words in the bible about Jesus:

Matthew 13:34 NIV

Jesus spoke all these things to the crowd in parables; he did not say anything to them without using a parable.

This causes a problem with taking the bible literally, how can you take the stories literally when Jesus himself spoke in parables? It becomes a reciprocating problem.

The problem is, where does it stop? For example, if I believe that the world wasn't created in 6 days, or that Jesus didn't really walk on water, where do you take the bible literally? You've just jumped down the rabbit's hole.

So, somethings in the bible are to be taken literally and something are to be taken as a parable. Which passages are which? Who knows, we'll find out when we get there.

Further reading: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Allegorical_interpretations_of_Genesis

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The easiest example is that of Creation, the very first part of the Bible presented as historical fact. Some believe that the Creation story is more of a myth or legend, and never really happened. Some, on the other hand, will say that the word "days" used there doesn't mean "days", but rather refers to spans of thousands or millions of years, during which time the earth was actually evolving, not being created as the Bible says.

A literal interpreter, on the other hand, will take the story at face value, believing that in seven days (that is, periods of 24 hours), God made the earth and all that is in it. They won't believe that he used some sped-up evolution. They will interpret "created" to mean that out of nothing, God made something just by speaking it in to being. That is a literal interpretation.

That is just one example. There are many stories and historical events mentioned throughout the Bible that can be interpreted as being allegories or myths or legends, not fact. A literal interpreter, however, will always take the words of the Bible at face value.

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This is incorrect. Hugh Ross, for instance, considers himself a "literal interpreter", and he does not take Genesis 1 to mean 24 hour periods. I think he sincerely attempts to interpret the text literally, taking parables as parables, history as history, poetry as poetry... I think he just uses a different hermeneutic than a YEC (like me) would use. Conversely, any Biblical literalist would say "a day is like a thousand years to God" is not actually saying we can multiply the number of days by 365,000 to see how long it has been for God. –  Jas 3.1 Jul 5 '12 at 20:24
    
You make a good point about interpreting various parts of the Bible as they are presented (history as history, poetry as poetry, etc.), but with Hugh Ross, I think he is not taking this specific example of Genesis literally, even if he does so with the rest. Literal means as described, and there is no indication in Genesis that the days are anything but days as we know them. There are several different proofs for that, but those are for another Q/A. –  D. Strout Oct 10 '12 at 14:42
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@D.Strout I take the Bible literally and Genesis 1 literally but I also am aware that the Bible doesn't specifically say day in Genesis 1. In Hebrew it does not say 24 hour period it uses a very generic word meaning time period regardless of how you feel about evolution your example is faulty. –  caseyr547 Jun 14 '13 at 20:47
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A literal interpretation is often in contrast to a symbolic or metaphoric interpretation. A literal interpretation accepts the text as written to be historical and factual, while a metaphorical interpretation will often reject the historicity of a particular account and accept the moral or principle of the account.

This does not mean that literal interpretations force everything to be historical, like the parables of Jesus, but it accepts narrative as historical, poetry as poetry, and prophecy as prophecy.

When the Bible says God created Adam on the sixth day, a literal interpretation accepts that as historical and factual, while a metaphoric interpretation would likely see the whole creation account as unhistorical.

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Are there objective grounds to understand what genre any piece of writing is? –  user5197 Jul 29 '13 at 8:38
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