The Literal Meaning of Literal

by Apr 3, 2014Exegesis, Linguistics, NTScholarship, Piety, Theology1 comment

Open Bible by Ryk Neethling Flickr

In the American South, it can still feel natural to have religious discussions with strangers. My last was with a friendly and professional C-Dry Basement services salesman. Standing in my mildly leaky, retirement-age home (b. 1948), he told me confidently, “You can’t take the Bible literally. It’s all metaphorical and allegorical.”

I replied with a question he didn’t seem ready for: what does “literally” mean?

And I think the question could be helpfully specified further—and then bifurcated, if that’s okay. (Bifurcating is double the fun.)

Here are my two more specific questions:

  1. What do non-Christians like this salesman mean when they say you shouldn’t read the Bible literally?
  2. What do Christians mean when they say that you should read the Bible literally?

1. Non Christians and “Literal” Bible Interpretation

The C-Dry guy means, I think, that Jonah didn’t get swallowed by a whale and that no miracles in the Bible ever really happened—not the way basement leaks happen, anyway. Jonah is a metaphor; so is Jesus walking on water. Jonah teaches us that God will bring you to the depths of despair if you don’t obey; Jesus teaches us that God can keep you on your feet in unsteady times. (Basement leaks teach you that you need more money.)

But if you present this salesman with most other statements in the Bible, I think he’d have a hard time even coming up with a metaphorical or allegorical sense. It takes some real creativity. Like this verse:

As a door turns on its hinges, so does a sluggard on his bed (Pro 26:14 ESV).

This is already a simile, and a pretty funny one. I’m honestly not sure how to invent plausible layers of metaphorical meaning. My C-Dry salesman attends church regularly at what he called a “very liberal” congregation; he’s religious. But if the Bible is all metaphorical and allegorical, his daily devotions must take a lot of energy, because he’s not allowed to read any of it straightforwardly. Even the parts very liberal congregations like. “The meek shall inherit the earth”? No, no—what does that really mean?

I think, of course, that the C-Dry guy was uttering what must politely be called a canard. Christians may disagree over the tenor of a particular metaphor: does “you are the salt of the earth” refer to salt’s distinct taste or its powers as a preservative? But no one thinks that Jesus, in saying this, changed the chemical make-up of the disciples to sodium-chloride. (Of course, if God does want to literally do—and literally communicate—such a thing, He can: Gen. 19:26.)

Every Christian I know recognizes implicitly, along with all other English speakers, that metaphor is fundamental to human language. From “I’m feeling down today” to “So far, we’ve learned three things,” metaphor is actually unremarkable.(1) The HBO film “Temple Grandin,” which features an autistic woman who misunderstands “up with the roosters,” shows hilariously that normal people can be relied upon to interpret metaphor correctly—unless, perhaps, the metaphor is very obscure. “I gave you cleanness of teeth in all your cities” (Amos 4:6) may take a little explaining: their teeth were clean because they had no food; God had sent them a punitive famine. But even today’s newspaper contains metaphors which might require explaining. Language sometimes demands processing power; obscurity is one of the tools good writers are allowed to use on purpose.

My advice, if you hear this particular canard, is to courteously pull out your Bible, turn (at least initially) to some passage other than Jonah or Genesis 1, and read it out loud. Ask the person what its (supposedly erroneous) literal meaning is and what its (supposedly accurate) metaphorical meaning is. I think both of you will find it a clarifying exercise. Your C-Dry salesman is not opposed to literal interpretation; he’s opposed to anything in Scripture that runs counter to his existing belief system.

2. Christians and “Literal” Bible Interpretation

Conservative Christians, however, generally use “literal” to mean that you ought to read (or translate) the Bible “straightforwardly” like you read (or translate) any other text. You read metaphors straightforwardly as metaphors (“I am the door”); you read prosaic statements just as straightforwardly (“he came down with them and stood on a level place”). I prefer “straightforwardly” to “literally” because of the misunderstandings attached to the latter—or rather the general failure of most people to bother to think through what they mean. People are much better users of language than they are analyzers of it.

But I’d actually like to discuss one especially illuminating situation faced by conservative Christians: the use of “literal” by Bible teachers. When a sermon or Sunday School lesson uses the word “literal,” it’s often in a context like this:

The word “striving” here in Colossians 1:29 literally means “agonizing.” Paul was agonizing to complete the workGod had given him to do.

What could possibly be wrong with such a salt-of-the-earth homiletical statement? I like the answers in this insightful paragraph by linguist and biblical scholar Mark Strauss:

Most claims—in both popular and scholarly literature—about the “literal” meaning of a word are wrong….  Sometimes “literal” is used in the sense of primary or most common meaning.  More often, literal means “the first meaning taught to beginning Greek students,” as in “the literal meaning of psychē is ‘soul’,” or “the literal meaning of the preposition en is ‘in’.”  Unfortunately, this meaning is often cemented in the student’s mind as the “real” meaning of the word.  All others are derivative, somehow less precise and accurate. (2)

I repeat this academic point about a common homiletical error not because I want people to become arrogantly critical of their God-given shepherds, but because both preachers and their listeners could feasibly eliminate this error. And the effort would be worthwhile, because this fallacy is almost as bad as that of the C-Dry guy. Even if it rarely ends up promoting heresy, this fallacy suggests a hidden layer of meaning behind the Bible text to which only the cognoscenti—those who have taken a semester of Greek—have access. It suggests that the rest of us can’t really see what’s going on in the Bible.

If the word meant “agonizing,” why didn’t any of the bright English translators who produced the embarrassment of riches on our Christian bookstore Bible racks use the word “agonizing”?

This discussion could go on to massively greater length, but let’s limit it to one point: Bible interpreters, especially those teaching others, shouldn’t use the word “literal” in such a way as to undermine people’s basic confidence in their good Bible translations.

I think it’s worthwhile to preserve a place for the word “literal” in preaching. There are metaphors in Scripture which are so difficult that some translations characteristically translate the whole metaphor, sometimes in fact by making the language “literal”! Amos 4:6 is a good example. The NIV reads,

I gave you empty stomachs in every city (Amos 4:6 NIV).

That’s a hum-drum, literal way of saying what Amos said with some metaphorical panache. I can readily imagine a situation in which a pastor feels it necessary to say, “In the Hebrew, this literally reads, ‘I gave you cleanness of teeth.'” He could then go on to explain the original metaphor—and he might want to make a comment about the character of “dynamic equivalent” translations like the NIV.


I don’t like to quibble with a native speaker’s instinctive use of English. People can mean what they want by “literal.” But I do care about the Bible, about interpreting it with reverent care. Neither the liberal criticism of “literal” interpretation nor the conservative abuse of it (a much more benign sin) treat the Bible with appropriate deference to the way language, God’s invention, really works. Liberals can’t consistently claim that the whole Bible is to be read figuratively. And conservatives shouldn’t talk as if there is some “literal” meaning that good Bible translations habitually obscure.

But of course, this whole post was only a metaphor.


(1) I borrow both of these examples from a fascinating book, Metaphors We Live By.

(2) Mark Strauss, “Form, Function, and the ‘Literal Meaning’ Fallacy in Bible Translation,” unpublished paper,

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1 Comment
  1. John Turner

    helpful. thank you.