I have been coming back to a similar theme in recent months on how we read and interpret the Bible. I have noted that fundamentalists and atheists tend to read the Bible in the same rigid way. The only difference is that fundamentalists believe all of it, and the atheists believe none of it. They both assume and insist that the Bible must be read literally, even though everyone knows that many passages can’t be taken literally.
For instance, when Jesus said he is the vine, he obviously didn’t mean he was a plant. We have to use some common sense and understanding to determine when the text is intended to be metaphorical, and when it is meant to be literal. Sometimes, it might even have both literal and metaphorical meanings. We can’t rigidly assume that the Bible must always be taken literally if we are serious about understanding it.
Some people think that either the Bible must be taken literally, or not at all. This is a false dichotomy. We don’t read other literature that way. Frankly, when we approach the Bible in that way, insisting that it be read literally, we are doing the Bible a disservice, and we are failing to take the Bible seriously enough. We are insisting that the Bible speak to us the way we want to be spoken to, rather than trying to understand what the Bible is saying on its own terms, not ours.
Christians need to understand that the Bible is “God-breathed” and inspired, but it is written through people to whom God revealed Himself. The Bible isn’t like what the Qur’an claims to be: it doesn’t claim to be dictated word for word from God. Many people who were inspired by God wrote the various portions of the Bible over a long period of time, and they wrote what they were inspired to write through their own lenses that were colored by culture, personal experience and knowledge.
Imagine, for a moment, how you would convey universal truths that would apply throughout all of time and to all people through a 1400 BC Bronze Age man that would be as relevant and understandable to 1400 BC Bronze Age people, 1st Century Hebrews, 5th Century Byzantines, 17th Century Europeans and 21st Century modern westerners. The Bible does that.
It also speaks to Chinese worshipers in home churches, Latin Americans, Russians, Indians, Aborigines, Pygmies and even scientists. If you were going to write in a way that could be universally understood by people of all ages and cultures, you couldn’t be dogmatic about how the writing must be read. You would have to write in a way that anyone from any background could understand the core meaning of it. The Bible does that.
We should start with how the original people would have understood what was written, and go from there. In the following interchange, we get an example from a well-recognized Old Testament scholar, John Walton, how we should recognize and understand hyperbole in the Bible:
The discussion highlights just a few examples of the way we should understand the Biblical text on its own terms, through the lens of the people who wrote it. We make a big mistake when we insist that the ancient text speak to us like a 21st century text, a scientific text or other standard we want to use. Even 21st Century text has its own idioms, and those idioms change from culture to culture. Scientific literature has changed through the ages. We naturally understand these things and adjust for them. We should do the same with the Bible.