The Hard Truth about the Bible
Why so called “literal” approaches to the bible have better alternatives.
– Rev. Paul G. Donelson –

When I was a small child, my mother told me bible stories about how the world was created in seven days, Adam and Eve were in a garden, Noah built an ark and put all the world’s animals on it to save them from a worldwide flood. And Mom also told me about Jesus, how his mother got pregnant with him without a human father, he walked on water, healed the sick, forgave sinners, raised the dead, was crucified, rose from the dead and ascended into heaven.

Of course, those stories were quite believable when I was a child. But, as I grew older I started to realize that those bible stories were simply the tip of the iceberg when it comes to presenting the Christian faith.

When I got into high school and started taking courses in history, physical science and biology, I had to come to some conclusions about some of those stories in the bible. I realized that either some of them were wrong or what I was learning at school was wrong.

Of course, I loved what the bible had to say, I didn’t want it to be wrong.  Church, Jesus Christ, and the Christian faith was an important part of my life. But, I couldn’t deny what history and science had to say that cast some doubt on the historical or scientific veracity of the bible. The mere fact that we can actually see the light of galaxies millions of light years away was proof that the universe is much older than the 6,000 years claimed by literalists.

On the other hand, I also realized that there might be another positively faithful way of understanding both the bible and science so that they didn’t contradict each other. Over the years, I leaned more and more in this direction until I became pretty convinced that this was the road to take.  I've found that many United Methodists agree with this approach.

In fact, one of my old friends, a former district superintendent of the United Methodist Church put it this way.  He said, "One day a member of my church asked me, 'Do you believe in the bible?'  I replied, 'No, I believe in God.'  You see, the bible is not God.  The bible is words about God.  The bible does not save you.  God saves you."

One of the biggest problems with taking the bible literally is what the bible actually says about itself, starting out in the first couple of chapters of the book of Genesis (See this, too). In chapter one of Genesis the trees, birds, and animals were created before humanity was created.  However, when you get to chapter two, the trees, birds, and animals were created after the first man was created; and then after the first man was created, the first woman was created. Certainly, there are other problems like this throughout the bible, but this is a good example.  And what is most interesting is that the bible starts out this way.  It is almost like the bible, itself, is telling us to be careful about taking it too literally.

For a compelling illustration of this problem, click here: http://bibviz.com/.

Literalists have done several things to explain any biblical discrepancy. Sometimes they ignore it, altogether, and dismiss anyone who might point it out.  On the other hand, sometimes literalists have invented explanations for how chapters one and chapters two of Genesis could both be scientifically and historically true.

For example, I knew a doctor in Pennsylvania who suggested that there had actually been two separate creations. The creation in Genesis, chapter one, didn’t work out and had to be erased. But, then God did the second creation described in Genesis two. Certainly that would explain the discrepancies between the two chapters, the doctor suggested. The problem with that explanation, however, is that it makes chapter one irrelevant and also raises questions about why the first creation didn’t work out and why it was written about in the first place.  The explanation for that is even more incredible and amazing! 

Another way literalists deal with this and other discrepancies is to suggest that over the years a lot of the texts that would have explained the discrepancies of the bible were somehow left out or simply lost.  So, much has been done by literalists to create lengthy scenarios and explanations to fill in the gaps. Sometimes these scenarios and explanations even become more difficult and complicated to believe than if they had just simply left the bible alone. One example is the thought put forth by Creationists that perhaps Adam and Eve might have tamed and ridden dinosaurs, like horses (see picture). Other literalists suggest that when God “stretched out the heavens," 6,000 years ago (Job 9:8; Psalm 104:2; Psalm 40:1-2 and others), God also stretched out the rays of light coming from the far off galaxies so that the light we see coming from those galaxies is only 6,000 years old (see http://creation.com/starlight-and-time-a-further-breakthrough)! Of course, these explanations make geologists, paleontologists, biologists, physicists, astronomers, and many of whom are Christians, weep or go crazy.

In fact, contradictions and inconsistencies can be found all through scripture. Those who are most critical of the Christian faith are the first ones to point this out. Of course, this tends to put such persons in the same camp as literalists. Denying contradictions for the sake of bible belief (as literalists do) is not much different than denying belief of the bible because of the contradictions (as atheists do).

If all the bible is only to be understood literally, and if the bible contradicts itself time and time again, then the bible is, indeed, false. Atheists gleefully point this out in numerous articles, including:

Yet, there are many of us very serious, bible loving Christians who totally disagree with the proposition that the bible can be believed (or not believed) on the basis of its literal, historic, or scientific accuracy! In fact, many very honest Christians agree that the bible is chocked full of sacred truth, though not necessarily literal truth. In fact, we United Methodists, while not necessarily taking all of it literally, embrace the bible to the extent of even calling it “our book.”

John Wesley, founder of the Methodist movement, made it very clear in his writings that Christians generally base their understanding of God on four things. Known as the “The Wesley Quadrilateral,” they are 1.) scripture, 2). tradition, 3). experience, and 4). reason. All Christians use this method to discern their faith.  Even literalists use this method, whether they know it or not.

Certainly, United Methodists believe that scripture contains all the information anyone needs for salvation. Nevertheless, in order to understand scripture properly, the teachings of the Church about the bible through the centuries (tradition), the way we see Christianity working in our lives as a church (experience), and using the bible in a way that makes sense (reason) is very important for us to take very seriously. We have to study these things so that we may grow in our faith.

On top of this, United Methodists do not believe in “going it alone” when it comes to what we believe. We believe in something called “holy conferencing,” which is something that has been done since the earliest days of the church. This is when Christians get together on a regular basis to talk about what they believe and make decisions about the beliefs they agree to share as the people of God. As a church we do this every week in Sunday School and worship, every year in church conferences and annual conferences, and every four years in General Conferences. The process is done prayerfully and with trust that God’s Holy Spirit is guiding us.

In fact, this is one of the reasons we require our pastors to attend seminary for three years after graduating with a bachelor’s degree. We realize that in order make the best effort to understand scripture it is important for pastors to study the scriptures, the traditions of the church, to know how Christ is working in the world, and to know how this can all fit together in a logical, reasonable way.  For more information on how United Methodists interpret scripture go to http://www.umc.org/what-we-believe/scripture.

The fact is there are many different kinds of biblical literalists. The ironic thing about it, however, is that literalists just about always disagree with each other on numerous biblical things. One would think it would be easy for everyone who takes the bible literally to come away agreeing with each other about what the bible says. However, that is simply not what happens:

United Methodists do not always agree with each other. However, what we do agree on is that the bible is the sacred library of the people of God. It is our beloved book. We believe that just as God inspired persons to write the scriptures, God inspires us as we read the scriptures. Sometimes what we read is what was written. But, sometimes what we read is wholly different than what was written, nevertheless inspired as it is read. We acknowledge that many of our church teachings, while biblically based, are also affected by tradition, experience, and reason. In this regard, we’re probably no different from other denominations, even those who claim to believe the bible literally. And it is important for us consider well that such a discernment does not usually take place in a vacuum.

So, what is the bible, and how should it be interpreted?

The bible was written by numerous authors over a 1200 year period, starting with the Hebrew scriptures. During the writing of it’s various books, it was compiled and edited again, many times. By the time of the early church, in the 1st century after Christ, holy scripture consisted of a Greek translation of only the Hebrew scriptures, put together by a team of 70 translators. It wasn’t until the mid 2nd century that Church leaders agreed upon the contents of the New Testament, all of it written in Greek. It wasn’t until the late 3rd century that the bible was translated into Coptic, Syriac, and a Latin version that was accepted and used by the Christians of the Roman Empire.

The thing that many people do not understand is that once something that was originally written in one language is translated into another language, it is no longer literal. In order to have done the translating, persons (usually a group of scholars) had to sit down with the original text and make choices as to which words to use in the translation and even how to construct the sentences and paragraphs. Very often, the decision wasn’t simply one of linguistics, but a theological decision, as well.

Prepositions, nouns, and verb tenses in Greek and Hebrew (as is true in most languages) don’t always translate directly into another language. For example, the Latin word for the the preposition "of" may be best translated as "about" in English.  This is important when using phrases such as "word of God" (or "word about God"?) and "book of Moses" (or "book about Moses"?)  In fact, several translators working in the same publishing house often differed significantly in the translation of certain passages. When that happened, discussions had to take place between the scholarly translators. If there was significant disagreement, a bishop or other church leader may have been called in to settle the argument. Even then, various language versions of the Bible did not agree with each other in many details.  And this is true, even today, as we compare bible translations of various languages.

Therefore, claiming to understand the bible literally presents problems for the person making the claim. If the person was really reading the literal bible they would have to be reading it in Greek and Hebrew. Even then, they would have to be reading the original manuscripts (which no longer exist).

Before the printing press, the bible was not one book. Rather, it was a collection of scrolls, or smaller books – a library. In fact, today, Christian Bibles range from the sixty-six books of the Protestant canon to the eighty-one books of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church canon. The invention of the printing press allowed for all of the books of the bible to more easily fit between two covers.

Before the printing press, each of the pages of the bible were hand written copies, each of them taking months to create. Those who did the scribing were highly trained bible scholars who were well versed not only in the art of writing, but well acquainted with the commentaries that had been written by leaders of the early church to help people understand the scriptures.

The scribes worked together in fairly large church-run publishing houses. The books they scribed not only included the bible, but the works of various scholars and theologians of the Christian faith. The publishing houses they worked for were very powerful and wielded a lot of influence in the church, in the centers of learning, as well as in politics.

So, one can imagine what the effect of the printing press had when it was invented in 1440. Very quickly, the scribes who had been working in the publishing houses either had to learn how to set up and operate a printer or move on to another profession. Because a printer could turn out volumes of books within a pretty short period of time, many of the scribes suddenly found themselves unemployed. The economics of the publishing business changed things almost overnight.

Within just a few years of the invention of the printing press, millions of bibles had been printed in the Vulgate Latin. The church-run publishing houses that printed this version of the bible continued to have a powerful influence on churches, universities, and politics.  It was the bible of the Roman Catholic Church. Any other versions of the Bible being published, especially in the languages of the people, were seen by the Church as an attack on their lucrative monopoly.  In England John Wycliffe in 1384 as a consequence of translating the Latin Bible into Middle English.

Martin Luther sensed the importance of the power of the publishing houses. When Martin Luther translated the bible into German and had it published (O.T. in 1516 and N.T. 1522) it was popularly received in Germany and became the basis for the rise of the Lutheran Church and the beginning of the Reformation. Publication of William Tyndale’s English translation took place beginning in 1525 (which led to Tyndale's execution). Other translations into French, Spanish and Italian soon followed. Each of these publications faced serious opposition from the publishing houses of the Roman Catholic Church, who, for seventy-five years had been making fortunes from printing the Vulgate Latin version of the Bible.

Since it was a lucrative business requiring much financial investment, each publishing house made claims for their own version of the bible. Of course, the greatest claim any of them would have made was, “This is the word of God.” Before publishing houses were competing with each other, this claim was rarely made about the bible. But, in the mid 1500's, when millions of persons were looking for a bible they could own, calling their book “the word of God” became a popular selling point and even a synonym for the word “bible.”

English translations of the bible followed one upon another. Unlike earlier English translations from the Vulgate Latin, Tyndale’s printed version of the bible was a translation of the Greek and Hebrew texts, and therefore more accurate. Based on Tyndale’s work, King Henry VIII authorized the Great Bible. The Geneva Bible soon followed in 1560, the first bible to be divided into chapters and verses. In 1568 Queen Elizabeth made an attempt to authorize the Bishop’s Bible. Then the Douay-Rheims Bible was published by the Catholic Church, beginning with the NT in 1582 and the OT 1610. The King James Version was published in 1611 and authorized for use in the Church of England.

Since then many other English versions of the bible have been published. Many of them, such as the Revised Standard Version were translated by groups of scholars who would work together to get the best translation they could, using the oldest and most trusted Greek and Hebrew texts available. Since the early 1900's great advances have been made in biblical translation because older and older texts, including The Dead Sea Scrolls, have been discovered in various parts of the world. The fact is that the older a biblical manuscript is, the more likely it is to be more faithful to the original writing. In fact, bible scholars categorize Greek and Hebrew manuscripts (otherwise known as “codices”) into family groups, based on their inherited idiosyncrasies.

The King James Version of the Bible, while having used existing Greek and Hebrew versions of the bible in its translation, also depended heavily on the Vulgate Latin Bible. Over the centuries, the translation became outdated, especially with the discovery of older codices. Thus, a few years ago, the New King James Version was published so that it might include information from the older codices while keeping a sense of the rhythm and style of the older version.

For more details about different versions of the English Bible go to http://www.godonthe.net/evidence/versions.htm on the Internet.  The United Methodist Church generally advocates the use of either the New Revised Standard Version of the bible or the Common English Bible.  (For clarification on this, click here)

How can anyone take the bible literally?

The fact remains that no original manuscript of the bible exists to this day. The earliest texts in existence are handwritten copies of copies of copies of copies of copies of copies of copies of copies of copies of copies. And even those copies have discrepancies with each other. So, once a copy was made of the original text, the result was that at least one or two steps were taken away from having the original text.

The fact also remains that most biblical literalists read translations of those early manuscripts. But, when a translation takes place, the literalness of the resulting text takes at least one more step away from the original text.

Then, as versions of the English translations come about, even more steps are taken away from the original text, especially as we notice differences between the versions.

Of course, literalists may argue that God makes sure that when we read the bible we are getting the true sense of what the original author intended by the power of the Holy Spirit, even though the subsequent manuscripts and translations might have wandered a bit. We can try to believe that in all of the copying and translating and discussions between biblical scholars, God was somehow able to make the bible mean what it is supposed to mean.

Such an argument does not, however, explain the vast differences between the beliefs of persons who claim to take the bible literally. If it was true that God makes us believe what the bible is supposed to mean, or that the various versions of the bible accurately convey what God intends, then all the literalists would agree with each other. But they don’t.

What so called “literalists” really do is read the bible while being influenced by teachers, preachers, popular television and radio religion and talk show hosts. Their “literal” interpretation is colored completely by others, by their own version of tradition, experience, and reason. But, sometimes it is questionable whether persons who claim to take the bible literally have really seriously and critically studied the bible, at all.

So how can you be a Christian if you don’t accept the bible literally?

The problem with many atheists and literalists is they believe that if some of the bible is not literally (historically and scientifically) true, then none of it can be true, at all. It's either all or nothing.  Someone, either a literalist or an atheist, will point out that if the universe really is 13.7 billion years old then the biblical account of creation in Genesis 1-2 must be totally wrong. Therefore the whole bible has to be incorrect. They'll say, “You can’t pick and choose! Either it is all correct or it is all wrong!”

Using this argument, either atheists refuse to become Christians, OR literalist Christians simply stay at the literal stage of spiritual growth, afraid to consider other alternatives, OR, tragically, Christians have left the faith in droves, OR Christians have moved on in their faith to believing that the bible is an ongoing accumulated sacred account, written by God’s people, of that holy struggle to know more about God.

As I grew up in the United Methodist Church I attended Sunday school and worship services with my family every Sunday. I also studied the bible and read it through from cover to cover, many times. I knew the stories. I knew the commandments. I also noticed there were several different versions within the bible of the same stories. Sometimes I wondered why. For instance, I noticed that there were at least two separate stories of the creation in Genesis, and that other accounts of the creation were in the bible, as well (see http://www.reasons.org/articles/the-major-biblical-creation-texts-creation-accounts ).

In spite of that, my love for Jesus and respect for and belief in the bible never wavered. In spite of the problems in the bible that were pointed out to me by Christians and non-Christians, alike, I decided to believe it, anyway. I had faith that rather than focusing on where any particular chapter and verse was true or false, it was much more important to focus on the overall story laid out by the whole bible, realizing that the bible is the ongoing accumulated sacred account of God’s people for the past 3,000 years.

So, what does the bible tell us?

If one reads the bible, encountering it as a whole, rather than in little tiny pieces, studying it in the light of tradition, experience, and reason, this is the what the bible says:

We may not literally believe everything in the bible.  However, we can believe that the bible is true.  After all, it's our book and with God's help God's people are still writing it and caring for it even though we can't always agree on what it is.