I know that the question may seem a little bit self-referential but I ask it anyway:

There is often great controversy among Christians what parts of the Bible are to be interpreted literally and what parts are to be interpreted symbolically. The most prominent one that comes to mind is of course creation vs. evolution but there are many issue more throughout the Bible.

My question:
Which parts of the Bible are relevant to give some clues or even guidance what should be interpreted literally and what symbolically?

  • 1
    I edited your title because at first it sounded like a duplicate, but the body of your question actually had something different. What does it mean to comment on scripture with scripture?
    – Caleb
    Commented Sep 1, 2011 at 20:12
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    Yes, it is self-referential. Suppose I find a passage that says, "Take everything literally." How would you decide if you should take that one literally?
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Sep 2, 2011 at 2:13
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    @T.E.D.: Well, you'd start by determining which "everything" it was talking about. It clearly would not mean "everything" in "every book of the modern Bible" because it would have been written before the modern Bible existed... once you determine the context of the "everything" it referred to, you'd still have to answer the same question for whatever wasn't covered in "everything."
    – Flimzy
    Commented Sep 2, 2011 at 3:01

4 Answers 4


Jesus himself shows us that we should not interpret the Bible literally, but must always apply context ie. account for factors like genre, historical situation, cultural background, audience and author's intent.

He cures a sick woman rather than upholding an uncompromising law:

...whoever does any work on the sabbath day shall be put to death. (Exodus 31:15)

His priestly opponents challenge him and he responds:

a man was there with a withered hand, and [the Pharisees] asked him, ‘Is it lawful to cure on the sabbath?’ so that they might accuse him. He said to them, ‘Suppose one of you has only one sheep and it falls into a pit on the sabbath; will you not lay hold of it and lift it out? How much more valuable is a human being than a sheep! So it is lawful to do good on the sabbath.’ (Matthew 12:10-12)

It is hard to imagine how bewildering and shocking it must have been for those present to witness this reinventing of the rules, let alone the subsequent miraculous healing.

It might at first glance appear logical to use the literal approach for some passages but not others. Since it is not clear how to do this, we risk making arbitrary decisions, jeopardising our objectivity. One seemingly obvious route would be to treat the two Testamants differently, but the following pronouncement from Christ shows that this is erroneous:

"‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven." (Matthew 5:17-19)

In other words, if we want to take the New Testament literally, we must do the same with the Old.

Another unusual but important clue that the Bible gives us is its inconsistencies. If we are supposed to interpret it literally, then we should be able to pull out any two verses without them giving different accounts or contradicting each other. However, there are counterexamples such as:

Again the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel, and he incited David against them, saying, ‘Go, count the people of Israel and Judah. (2 Samuel 24:1)

Satan stood up against Israel, and incited David to count the people of Israel. (1 Chronicles 21:1)

Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, ‘Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.’ Having said this, he breathed his last. (Luke 23:46)

When Jesus had received the wine, he said, ‘It is finished.’ Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit. (John 19:30)

Even for theological doctrine, there are discrepancies unless we apply context eg.

Parents shall not be put to death for their children, nor shall children be put to death for their parents; only for their own crimes may persons be put to death. (Deuteronomy 24:16)

Prepare slaughter for his sons because of the guilt of their father. (Isaiah 14:21)

For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. (Romans 4:2)

Was not our ancestor Abraham justified by works when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? (James 2:21)

The Father and I are one. (John 10:30)

If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Father, because the Father is greater than I. (John 14:28)

If Scripture could be fully appreciated literally, then it would be so obvious as to leave no room for uncertainty or doubt. It would have the same implications as God appearing in all his majesty: faith would be rendered obsolete and free will would cease.

The danger of not applying context for every verse is that the Bible ceases to be a dynamic and evolving text and instead becomes outdated, inapplicable and irrelevant over time.


I take the Bible literally and here's how I discern. First understand the premise that Jesus cannot lie.

Ezekiel 17:2 NIV

“Son of man, set forth an allegory and tell it to the Israelites as a parable.

Allegory is a theoretical representation of a spiritual meaning through concrete or material forms.

Jesus is not lying in His parables, he's simply giving us a hypothetical. Jesus has also told hypotheticals through the prophets.

Hosea 12:10

I spoke to the prophets, gave them many visions and told parables through them.”

Parables are the equivalent to a hypothetical story, told by Jesus and His prophets.

So strike any of those as such, not to be taken literally. The one instance that Jesus gives a parable that I do not believe to be hypothetical is the rich man in the lake of fire and lazarus in paradise. Because Jesus chose to use a specific name, I believe He was telling us the truth.

Is truth the situation or the statement?

Here's another area of discernment that you need to look for. But first, another premise: The Bible is the inerrant and/or inspired word of God.

This discernment deals with testimonies of individuals. Lets take the three gospels that discuss Christ on the cross. We have three accounts, each of which give us a different interpretation of the sign above Jesus.

So what is true about this? Is the fact that the disciples stated what they saw, true, or is what they stated true?

God is all about leaving witnesses and their testimonies about Him untouched. God would have no reason to modify a witnesses testimony. Therefore it can be concluded that what is true about these gospels, is that each disciple witnessed the events and testified to what they saw and remembered.

The fact that Mathew said the sign says X is true, but the sign actually saying X may not be true.

So how do we take this? Well, just like we take the story of Joseph and Potiphar's wife. The fact that She lied about Joseph was true, but what she said was not true.

So when reading the bible, pay close attention to who is talking and decide whether or not you can trust that person.

Some additional things to keep in mind.

  • Inerrancy allows for a 'wait and see' approach.
  • Inerrancy allows for the ordinary language of everyday speech.
  • Inerrancy allows for loose or free quotations.
  • Inerrancy allows for variety in details in explaining the same event.
  • What do you mean by the second point "Inerrancy allows fo rhte ordinary language of everyday speech" ?
    – Pacerier
    Commented Sep 5, 2011 at 14:31
  • @Pacerier He means that God used the speaker's manner of speech. Whether refined like Isaiah's or rougher like a sheepherders, God preserved their ordinary speech patterns.
    – Steve
    Commented Aug 2, 2014 at 17:02
  • @Jonathon, Pertaining to your post, How do you reconcile this with lost of context? For example, I'm not lying when I say "this webpage takes forever to load". People in this age will never interpret that literally. However, now is AD 9999. So, 8000 years has past and during this duration, much context has been lost. People don't even have a computer in their museum, let alone hear of a "webpage". In fact, they don't even know what "forever" means since new words that are less-ambiguous have been invented, and re-invented, and re-invented......................
    – Pacerier
    Commented Aug 3, 2014 at 20:46
  • @Johnathon, ......................So without the luxury of context, How should they know to interpret my statement literally or figuratively?
    – Pacerier
    Commented Aug 3, 2014 at 20:50

The literal vs. figurative paradigm is all-in-all a problematic way to do hermeneutics. It comes from bringing your own theological and philosophical frameworks to the text, rather than taking the text on its own terms and letting it be what it wants to be. For example, we may approach Genesis looking to establish truths about astronomy, biology, and chronological sequencing of events because these are questions of central importance to us. Like it or not, Genesis 1 was not written to answer these questions. It was written to demonstrate God's creation of the universe from the standpoint of God's own enthronement in the universe, God's cultural mandate on man, the image of God applied specially to man, the fall into sin including the federal headship of Adam for the human race, the basis for Satan, and the foundations of the coming savior who will crush Satan's head. When we approach the text asking it to make statements that it wasn't making, we end up getting progressively absurd conclusions, like, "If man is in the image of God, God must be a primate too."

It's really a pretty straightforward, but not easy, process. What did the author intend to say to the original audience?

Here is a video that deals with this question in further detail in regards to Genesis.



The Bible gives us many clues to indicate figurative events. For instance, Jesus clearly tells us when accounts are parables in Matthew 13, giving the parable, then giving the interpretation.

Revelation tells us if something was figurative, such as 1:20. The "sign appeared in heaven" in 12:1 "and another sign" in 12:3 tells us that the whole account in 12:1-17 is figurative, but relating to something that will come true in a physical way later.

Rev. 13 has a lot of figurative language which we know is alluded to in Daniel's prophecies, with the figurative parts getting some more details in his book.

Jesus many times refers to historical events in the OT as though they really happened or the people were real people in history, such as Solomon in Matt. 6:29, Jonah in the great fish being real in Matt. 12:39-40, speaks of the creation of Adam and Eve as literal events in Matt. 19:4-6, quotes Daniel as a literal prophet in Matt. 24:15, Noah, the ark and the Flood as literal in Matt. 24:38-39.

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