I've noticed a lot of questions about how to interpret the Bible since the four Catholic
came out questioning a literal interpretation of the Bible and stating that it may not be accurate. I've also read posts where people
assume Christians bounce between symbolic, figurative or literal interpretations in order to support their argument best.
First, I would like to say that the Bible contains all three of these, symbolic, figurative and literal speech. There are even some points that
contain multiple literary techniques. I would also like to point out that some people take things symbolically while others take the same things
literally. Just because one person looks at it literally and another symbolically doesn't mean Christians as a group are changing the interpretation
to serve the argument. You have to look at that individual's previous conversations regarding that aspect of the Bible to make that claim, and even
then it can only be directed at that individual, not the group as a whole.
To start off, I would like to address visions. Personally, I find these to be fascinating. From Isaiah standing before God when the angel touched his
lips with the ember to Peter seeing the vale being torn and all animals coming forth, visions are symbolic. That's why I find it so interesting that
so many people take John's Revelation as literal. If it is, in fact, literal, and all the things John wrote that he saw come to pass, it will be the
only vision (that I know of) in the entire Bible that prophesized exactly what was going to physically happen. Personally, I don't believe Revelation
is to be taken literally, but for a long while I did. I think it would be very interesting to go back to about 300 BC and ask a rabbi if one of
Daniel's visions was literal or symbolic. Revelation is really the only prophetic vision that hasn't been fulfilled yet. As such, it makes me wonder
if unfulfilled prophetic visions are typically taken literally until they are
fulfilled, at which point we can look back and think, ohhh,
what that meant! It would also explain why so many of the Jews in Christ's time expected the messiah to be a physical conqueror taking
land for the Jews instead of conquering death. Those that I've talked to still think that's what he'll be.
Now we come to the Pentateuch, or first 5 books of the Old Testament. For the most part, Christians take Exodus through Deuteronomy as a literal
account of the Jew's flight from Egypt into the land of Canaan, or present day Israel (plus quite a bit more of the surrounding land). Genesis gets
quite a bit of contention, though, particularly Adam, Eve and Noah. Many believe that the story of Adam and Eve is exactly that, a symbolic story.
Others take it literally. Even those who take it literally disagree on some things, some people believing the importance of Adam and Eve being God
breathing spirit into them rising them above the animals which at the time included humans. Others believe Adam and Eve were actually the first two
people created on the planet. The story of Noah was taken literally for a long time until geologists and archaeologists started telling people there
was no evidence that a flood took place. At that time, Christians started making a shift to believing this to be symbolic as well. While this may be
viewed as compensating, it is important to note two things. First, there is still a large belief in Noah's flood being literal, and second, those who
take it symbolically don't fall back and say it was literal when convenient, and those who take it literally don't change their interpretation of it
to be symbolic when convenient. Interpretations can change as we come to understand more of the Word and more of the world around us; that's not the
same as changing your interpretation because it's convenient. For the most part, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob's tales are taken literally.
Then we get into the prohpets. For the most part, these are taken literally as accounts of Hebrew history at a time when a great or minor prophet was
risen up by God. There are elements within that are not to be taken literally as such, such as visions and dreams. However, they are clearly marked as
visions and dreams, so in a sense they can be taken literally. The person did, in fact, have a vision or dream, and what is written is what was
contained in the vision or dream. The actual contents of the vision or dream, however, are not to be taken literally. Note, however, that a lot of
figurative language is used throughout these books. Just because in Lamentations it says, "In His winepress the Lord has trampled the Virgin Daughter
of Judah" doesn't mean that God came down, turned the Hebrew people of the city of Judah into a single woman, stuck her in a winepress and started
stepping on her. Metaphors figure big in Biblical writing.
The New Testament is a slightly different beast than the OT. It, too, starts out with the core like the Old Testament, but accounts what happened with
the early Church after Christ's resurrection, has many letters written by various individuals to one another or to churches, and finishes with
The Gospels are literal. However, there are many parables that Christ tells during the four Gospels, and many people take these out of context and try
to apply a literal interpretation to them when talking with Christians about their faith. When it is explained that that is a parable or symbolic, the
Christian is accused of changing their interpretation. Make no mistake, the Gospels are literal when taken in context
. On top of this, Jesus
speaks in metaphors at times; He speaks figuratively, not literally. He literally did say it, but what he said is to be taken figuratively. For
example, Jesus said He was the Bread of Life. That does not mean His body was composed of flour, water and yeast. He also said He came to bring the
sword. Out of context, it would appear he's making a battle cry, yet if you continue to read it becomes clear that He meant the sword in the sense
that He would be causing division instead of unity with the world.
Acts is typically taken literally, as well. I haven't talked to any Christian that thought the book of Acts was symbolic, but I haven't talked to
every Christian out there. Of course parts, like Peter's vision, aren't to be taken literally, but the fact that a vision took place is. It is a
historical account of the Church's beginnings, or how Christianity began to spread first in Israel then throughout the known world.
The Epistles are letters written to others. They are guidance, and explanations by some of the first preachers of Christianity. They operate more as
instruction for how to interpret the faith, and as such should be taken literally.
So there's a very brief explanation. I'm sure there are many things I missed, and there are gaping holes that I left out due to time constraints.
Really, books could be (and probably have been) written on this subject, so this is just a very brief synopsis. As always, I'm happy to answer any
questions and would love additional input and for others to fill in some of those holes and that which I forgot.