WHY I AM NOT A LITERALIST – How to read the Bible.


In Japan, they say, “Even a head of a sardine can be a beginning of a religion.”  I know we live in a free country and you can believe in anything so long as you don’t harm others.  Nevertheless, I just don’t understand how people can insist that we must read the Bible literally and accept every word in it as the Word of God, true and correct and historically factual.  I think such literalists can be crazy and dangerous like Muslim extremists and the Koran burning Christian fundamentalist preacher.  I don’t believe in such a way to read the Bible.  But to be sure I am a Christian and believe that the Bible is the most important book for our faith.  I believe that the Bible contains (not “is”) the word of God.  Nobody can accuse me of being a non-believer.  The following is how I believe in the Bible.

The Bible was written by humans.  They are a collection of the selected few from the pieces of work by many writers.  They were selected because they represented the belief system of the majority of bishops of the fourth Century Church in Europe and North Africa.  Their views prevailed in the Church Council.  Those who did not agree with the majority were banished or went into exile.   And they started  different churches, like the Nestorians in China.  There had been much variety in Christian beliefs in early church.  As recently as 1950’s, manuscripts of several Gospels were uncovered in Alexandria, Egypt that had not made the cut.  They did not fit the belief system of the majority.   Those books were excluded when the Church declared the selection in the current Bible to be the “Cannon,” the authorized official Bible.   Nobody knows how many such books were excluded.  They were often burned or destroyed. This shows that from the beginning the Bible was a creation of humans.

It is a collection of writings in many different forms, but all were the attempts of the people who were sincere in search of the spiritual truth and the will of God.  None of them saw or heard God, so those writings were the result of the best and earnest imagination.  They take the forms of stories, poems, accounts and interpretations of collective, national, and personal experiences; legends, myths, oral traditions passed down from ancestors for generations.  None of them were interested in historical accuracy as we insist on it today.  Least of their interest was scientific proof: they did not know what science was and didn’t care.  Spiritual significance was more important to them than mere facts.  Therefore, they felt free to change some facts to fit their belief.  They were creative people in search of truth, perhaps more creative than many of us who are obsessed and stuck in historical and scientific facts.

Another factor to keep in mind is: all of the Bible had been oral traditions stored in the memories of elders and prophets (or teachers) before they were hand-written by scribes.  Printing press was invented as late as the seventeenth Century.  Until then, the Bible was always transcribed by hand.  You can imagine the possibilities of mistakes and omissions in such processes, both in memories and copying.  Some parts of text were even changed and/or forged to fit the opinions of scribes.  This is why identifying authentic manuscripts is an important continuous work of Biblical scholarship.

For those reasons alone, I think it is absurd to believe every word of the Bible is to be believed as a factual truth.  It is not meant to be such.  It is supposed to give spiritual messages.  This is to say you cannot mix science and spiritual metaphors.  An enlarged heart means you are sick.  It is ridiculous to say that since you have a big heart, you are a generous person.   A “New Yorker” writer, A.J. Jacobs exposed this literalist absurdity by trying to live according to every dictate of the Bible.  His book, “A Year of Living Biblically” is a hilarious account of his life trying to live biblically without compromise.  He had a trouble with his wife during her period, because he refused to sit on the same chair his wife had sat on.  He realized also that he would run into serious trouble with the law if he tried to follow all commandments of Leviticus.  You cannot strike your son to death when he speaks against you.  In the U.S., it is a capital crime.   When certain parts of the scriptures are impossible to follow, one has to use one’s own interpretations to make them workable.  This is a slippery slope.  Once one’s discretion is used to decide if one should obey or disobey the law, where should one stop?  This is the fundamental flaw of the literalist’s argument.

Number is another problem.  Though we don’t think about the meaning of numbers seriously anymore, in many cultures they still convey messages.  They say in Japan turtles live ten thousand years and cranes one thousand years.  Of course, they don’t live that long.  It means they are animals that bring you good luck.  They send the images of turtles and cranes with “good wishes.”  The official name of the Great Wall of China is “Ten Thousand Mile Long Wall – Ban Rii no Choh-Joh”.  Rii is approximately one mile.  In fact the Wall is half that long.   Ten thousand miles long mean “very, very long almost without end.”

In the Bible, likewise, numbers often have meaning and you have to take note of what those numbers represent: one signifies oneness of God, the one and only; two is credible evidence with two witnesses agreeing; three means completion; seven – divine perfection; twelve – divine governance; seven times seven mean forgiveness, etc.  They don’t necessarily represent actual numbers.  They even changed the numbers to convey the message they wanted to convey.  So the world was created in seven days:  Seven being the perfect divine order.   After Judas betrayed Jesus and committed suicide, one disciple had to be elected in order to complete the number to twelve in order to make the group of disciples a sacred organization.

Another serious problem is the fact that the Bible we have today is all translations from other languages.  There is no Bible that prints the original Jesus’ words, because he spoke in Aramaic, and the Aramaic Bible does not exist.  The Christian Church authorized the Old Testament in the Greek translation though it had been read for more than a millennium in Hebrew by Jewish people.  The New Testament was also originally written in Greek, not in Aramaic or Hebrew which Jesus and his disciples spoke.  And as we all know translating one language into another inevitably changes meaning.   Some words in one language do not exist in another, or have more synonyms. The word love, for instance, has at least three words in Greek in the New Testament.  The Catholic Bible chose the word “Charity” instead of Love.

French language has two words for “you” – vous and tu, in German, sie and du, depending on the degree of intimacy.  It’s your judgement call to decide the nature of relationship in order to decide which word to use.  French Biblical scholars decided that our relationship with God is very intimate hence chose “tu” to address God.  Likewise, “thou” in older versions of the English Bible is an intimate “you”.  I don’t think many people today think of your relationship with God as though he is as intimate as your spouse is.  At any rate, that’s how translators decided the nature of our relationship with God.  It was a human decision.  Japanese has 16 different words to say “I”.   Choose a wrong word you may exalt or insult people depending on the circumstance and the nature of relationship.  I know two languages, Japanese and Sesotho, that do not use a word for “no”; instead you say something like “yes, but” or “sort of”, etc.  They believe a negative word like “no” sounds very rude and disrespectful.

If you have to insist that the word of the Bible is the word of God, you have a problem of the translators using their judgement to pick the words which they think most faithfully expressing the original meaning.  Nevertheless, it’s a personal decision.  You could be wrong, because you are a mere human.  There are so many possibilities of mistakes and subjectivities.  Problems of translating languages are numerous.  No, every word of the Bible cannot be the word of God.

The more serious factor that must be taken into account in reading the Bible is the fact that it is a collection of writings which are all culture, geography, and time specific.  Often they are contradictory because of it.  Each book was written at a specific time addressing a specific issue to a particular people in mind who lived in a particular culture.  An example: “Thou shalt not kill” sounds a definite and universal commandment, but it is contradicted by God many times in the Bible.  An example: King Saul and David were ordered by God to exterminate a certain tribe.  Saul had mercy on them and did not kill all of them, therefore he fell out of favour of God.  David on the other hand, followed it and committed genocide hence he became a favourite of God. (1 Samuel 15 and 2 Samuel 1)  Likewise, the governments justify killing, so do religions.  It all depends.  You cannot understand what the lesson of this kind of story is unless you know the historical context.

There are two creation stories: another example.  Genesis chapter one depicts the God who simply commanded by word to create the world and everything in it.   Using hands was beneath God’s dignity, while chapter two describes God who worked by hand shaping creatures from mud.  Those stories even refer to God in two different names.  Chapter one uses the generic word for God “Elohim,” so the English Bible prints the word “God” in its place.  The chapter two refers to the name of God by writing it as “YHWH” without vowels and translated into an English word as “Lord.”  You can tell immediately that the Book of Genesis has at least two different, sometimes contradictory, sources.  Again in such situation, one has to use one’s judgment to sort them out and find what the writers were trying to say.

How then can you read the Bible and find the will of God in such perplexity.  There is a core message in the Bible that never changed, like love, faithfulness and trust.  The trick is to find such a core value of our faith and put them on like you do a pair of eye glasses to read the Bible.  We have to find the core value of our faith: therein in the way to read the Bible.

There is nothing wrong reading the Bible critically so long as we look for the truth as though we look for a pearl in the mud.  The reformer Martin Luther put it another way and said, “Reading the Bible and find God is like finding the Baby Jesus in a bunch of dirty, smelly pile of hay in the stable.”  Do not throw out the baby with smelly hay (or bath water).  What then are the eye glasses to see the pearl or the baby in the murky bewildering muddle?  Jesus put it succinctly, “Love God, and love your neighbour as yourself.”   Therein is the ways to read the Bible.  It is love, but it takes a lot of work.





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