Tag Archives: Bible

On the Myth of Scriptural Literalism

I recently read Sam Harris’ The End of Faith. It was an interesting, albeit laughably uninformed, manifesto against religion, but one aspect of the author’s fundamental argument struck me as particularly poorly conceived and communicated: the notion of “scriptural literalism.” In an effort to marginalize and dismiss the experiences and perspectives of more liberal and progressive religionists, Harris must build a case for the purity of the lived religion of fundamentalists, as well as the centrality of “scriptural literalism.” That is, Harris insists that those who adhere to the “literal” meaning, or the “letter” of the scriptures, are more pious and genuine practitioners of their faith. Those who reject that “scriptural literalism” are feeding off of secular insights and so are not true practitioners of their religion. “The doors leading out of scriptural literalism,” he insists, “do not open from the inside” (18–19, emphasis in original). Liberal religion is just religion mixed with non-religion; it’s corrupt religion. This is a rhetorical attempt to invalidate the contributions made to this debate by moderates and liberal religionists. Harris need only concern himself with the fundies, which makes everything so much easier to criticize and condemn.

The problem is that there is no such thing as “scriptural literalism.” It simply does not exist. It’s a fundamentalist claim that has no basis in reality (more on why Harris is adopting fundamentalist ideologies later). Here’s why:

First, we don’t really know precisely what the “letter of the texts” really mean. Texts don’t carry inherent meaning. They carry symbols that signify broad ranges of semantic senses for groups who have loose agreements about those signifiers. When we read a text, we call up in our minds our understanding of that agreement and use a variety of methods to try to whittle the possible meanings down to the one we think was intended by the author. This means the meaning of a text resides in and originates from our minds, not the text. The text just provides fuzzy outlines of semantic fields within which we think the intended meaning is to be found, and there are even a variety of ways that an author can actually undermine the expected meaning, violating those semantic fields. It’s a guessing game, really, and the further removed from the cultural and literary context of a text’s composition, the more it is a guessing game. So when we talk about the “letter of the texts,” we’re pretending that the letter and the meaning have a 1:1 correspondence, which they simply and objectively do not.

Next, in order to move from the letter to the meaning, we have to impose some lenses that help us focus on certain semantic fields over and against others in our attempt to whittle that potential meaning down. Our lenses come from our experiences with language and with literature and with culture and other things. This is why when an American reads the noun “boot,” depending on the region they live in, they will most likely impose lenses that whittle the potential semantic fields down to something like a cowboy boot. For someone living in Great Britain, though, the most likely whittled down meaning will be something like an army boot, if not the trunk of a car. Our experiences govern those lenses, and we best interpret texts from other times, languages, and cultures when we can approximate the lenses they would have been using. This is also a guessing game and thus makes it incredibly difficult—and sometimes impossible—to interpret ancient texts.

Conservative and “literalist” readers of the scriptures, whether of the Bible or the Quran, overwhelmingly tend to take one of two approaches to interpretation. One is to presuppose the ahistorical function of scripture and read them as if they were a contemporary composition directed specifically at them, in which case their lenses have them light years from the authors’ intended meanings. The other is to impose an historical set of lenses that serves the religious ideologies of the reader. In other words, they attempt to approximate the lenses used by the authors, but they do so in ways that attempt to protect (or legitimize) their presuppositions about the text’s meanings. For instance, conservative Christians often interpret the word elohim (god/s) in Psalm 82 and Exod 22:8 as references to human judges, and they claim that the word was honorifically bestowed in ancient Israel on judges and other special authorities. It wasn’t (see pp. 49–56 here). Elohim refers to gods, not to judges. There is no fundamentalist Christian anywhere that even approximates literalism when it comes to Psalm 82 (or the Song of Solomon, or 2 Kgs 3:27, or Matt 5:29, or Gen 6:2–4, or James 2:14–26, or dozens and dozens of other passages). To do so would be to contradict their reading of other portions of scripture that they believe deny the existence of other deities. This brings us to the next consideration: univocality.

Univocality means a single voice. It is the dogma that holds that the scriptures (Bible or Quran), as the inerrant and/or inspired word of God, represent God’s consistent and unified position and message. It does not contradict itself. This is a dogma. Both the Bible and the Quran, however, are thoroughly inconsistent. They are collections of texts composed by numerous different authors with numerous different viewpoints over long periods of time that have been edited and redacted by numerous others. They are empirically and objectively not univocal. In order to maintain the concept of univocality, however, “literalists” must massage their interpretation of certain texts to serve that concept and the overriding ideologies of their groups. If a seeming contradiction is identified, the passage that supports an existing ideology will be used as a lens through which to reinterpret the passage that conflict in a way that makes it agreeable. This absolutely precludes literalism, and it brings us to the final consideration:

Literalists are not literal about scripture, they’re literal about their ideology. Scripture is secondary. Religious groups don’t derive doctrine from the literal interpretation of scripture, they derive doctrine from negotiating between their group’s past, the needs of the present within a cultural context, and their interpretation of scripture. It’s very important to keep in mind that that last item serves the other two. Scripture is the authority to which religionists appeal for their beliefs. It is not the source of their beliefs. It is flexible and ambiguous and malleable enough to say what religious groups need it to say. There are ideological literalists, and scripture is their paint and palette. There are no scriptural literalists.

The irony of Harris’ claim is that he has to adopt a fundamentalist dogma in order to serve his own ideology (“Religion bad!”). This is a habit with a long and storied history in ideological bickering. It’s a lot easier to criticize religious traditions if you adopt the fragile and brittle worldviews of the most fundamentalist and uncritical groups within that tradition. Then the more reasonable and informed and complex perspectives can be dismissed before they complicate your arguments and make you think too hard. This is a tactic employed frequently by apologists of all kinds, including, evidently, the dogmatic and belligerent apologists from the New Atheist movement. Dogmas, whether religious or anti-religious, are a lot easier to proliferate when they’re black and white and reducible to small conceptual chunks that are easily digestible for young white males in trilbies who are infatuated with the transcendence of their own genius.

EDIT: Added some links and cleaned up some syntax.

Jacob Wright’s Free Online Course on the Bible!


Jacob Wright

I am halfway through the first week’s set of lectures for Jacob Wright’s new free online course on the Bible entitled “The Bible’s Prehistory, Purpose, and Political Future,” and I thought I would pause to share some thoughts. The course is hosted by Coursera and Jacob’s own institution, Emory University, and a certificate can be earned for completion of the course and the requisite quizzes (for those who wish; the quizzes are not mandatory). So far the lectures—which should take a couple hours a week to complete and can be viewed at the students leisure—have so far provided excellent historical and conceptual foundations for understanding the rise of Israel and the origins of the Bible. I would highly recommend the course to anyone interested in learning more about the history and future of the Bible. Check it out!

The History Channel’s “Bible Secrets Revealed”

Bible Secrets Revealed

As several bloggers have already noted, this coming Monday, November 11, Wednesday, November 13, the History Channel will begin airing a series called “Bible Secrets Revealed.” A sneak peak is here. I plan to live-tweet the shows. If you’re interested, you can find my Twitter feed here. I will be using the hashtag #BibleSecretsRevealed.

UPDATE: The first installment of the series has been moved to Wednesday, November 13.


Monotheism and the Bible: An Interview with Nathan MacDonald

A friend of mine named David Burnett has a new blog up entitled The Time Has Been Shortened. His most recent post is an interview with Nathan MacDonald about monotheism. It provides a good overview of the issues and challenges associated with discussing monotheism in the Bible. Check it out here.

Trusting in the Bible vs. Human Reason

James McGrath shares some reflections on that all-too-common trump card appealed to by fundamentalists: trusting the Bible vs. trusting human reason. He makes two good points, and I think the cartoon he shares is representative of pretty much all of fundamentalism (and not just Christian).

Hobbins on Jewish and Christian Canons

John Hobbins has revised and expanded a collection of posts from 2007 into, bar none, the best blog post I’ve ever seen on the biblical canon. It limits itself, chronologically, to the Greco-Roman period, but that’s really all that’s necessary when it comes to the origins of the notion of a canon. If you’re interested in the development of the Jewish or Christian canons this is absolutely a must-read.

The Reason Project Misses the Mark

Joel points to a very cool graphic recently developed by the Reason Project which shows contradictions in the Bible (download the graphic as a PDF here). Joel also points to a couple other blogs which comment on it. As Joel and the former of the two blogs I linked to point out, it is a bit overambitious. I’d like to suggest that in that zeal they rather undermine their entire point.

I’ll start off by broadly agreeing with the Reason Project that the Bible is full of contradiction. It is a compilation of heavily edited texts written by numerous human authors from a variety of viewpoints and with a multiplicity of motivations over a very extended period of time. The creation accounts in Genesis 1 and 2 come from different authors and different traditions, which each align with a different account of the flood and the genealogy of the patriarchs. Jeremiah 7 states that God did not command Israel concerning sacrifices and offerings in the day that Israel was taken out of Egypt. Exodus says otherwise. Any perspective which holds to complete and utter unity from beginning to end is uninformed.  Having said that, here are some concerns I have with the Reason Project’s presentation.

#7 is repeated at #9. This is not really a big deal, but it shows the editing was done rather quick and dirty. ##263/264 and 323/324 are also repeats. There are a number of spelling and typographical errors, too, like #404’s “For How much did David by the threshing floor?” These problems are easily remedied, but will the Reason Project remedy them? I’ve pointed out rather simple and clear errors in their presentations before, and the responses were, without exception, antagonistic. No changes were ever implemented. If the past is any indication, “it’s good enough” will be the response. Good enough for what? For communicating their message. The chart is about rhetoric, not about perfect accuracy. Inconsistencies will be overlooked in light of the sufficiency of the chart to get its point across. The Reason Project may prove me wrong here, but we will have to wait and see.

Next, many of the contradictions aren’t really contradictions, but unnecessarily rigid and myopic readings being juxtaposed. For instance, #218 asks “Can God stop iron chariots?” contrasting Judg 4:13–16 and Judg 1:19. The former describes Barak’s defeat of Siserah and his chariots. Judg 1:19 says that Yhwh was with Judah, so that he was able to take possession of the hill country, but Judah was unable to drive out the inhabitants of a region because they had chariots. Did the writer mean to infer that Yhwh was unable to defeat the chariots, or did the writer simply attribute Judah’s victory to Yhwh’s aid without consciously extending the concept of Yhwh’s aid over his defeat? It seems to me the person responsible for including this contradiction knew it was fudging a bit, but decided it was “good enough.”

In #133 the chart suggests Luke’s claim in Acts 1:1–2 to have told Theophilus all that Jesus did and taught is contradicted by John 21:25’s statement that the world could not contain the books which would have to be written to contain all Jesus’ acts. This is an incredibly myopic reading of Luke’s use of the word “all.” The author did not use the term “all” in its narrowest sense, just like he did not use the term “every” in its narrowest sense in Acts 2:5 when he said there were devout Jews from “every nation under heaven” living in Jerusalem. Obviously his use of “all” must be qualified in Acts 2:12 where he states, “all were amazed and perplexed,” but in the next verse states, “but others sneered.” The Reason Project is unwilling to let the biblical text function as it was written, as literature and not strict and unrhetorical history. It may only function within the rhetorical framework of their antagonism. Ironically, the Reason Project is likely to defend the chart as accurate enough to get the point across. It’s rhetoric eclipses its inaccuracy. The same courtesy will not be extended to ancient authors.

#304 asks, “Who owns the earth?” contrasting texts which state God owns the earth with Matt 4:8–9; Luke 4:5–6; and Ps 115:16 (N.B. the chart relies on an old and mistaken reading of Gen 14:19, 22). The two NT texts reference Satan’s proposal to deliver to Christ all the kingdoms of the earth. I don’t find these particularly relevant, since we would have to accept that “earth” refers in each occurrence cited to the geographical, demographic, and political entities within it.  Additionally, it presumes that the author is presenting Satan as telling the truth. The verse from the psalm states that Yhwh has given the earth to human beings. The chart must understand this to mean a legal transferal of ownership. If the psalm is speaking of the delivery of a stewardship, the contradiction falls apart. Again, the chart imposes a very restrictive and intentional lens on these texts and blames the text when the carefully determined semantic ranges don’t fully overlap.

Elsewhere the chart determines contradictions based on an exclusively fundamentalist view of scripture. #359 asks, “Is all scripture inspired by God?” and then cites 2 Tim 3:16 against 1 Cor 7:12, 25. The contradictions rests upon the identification of 1 Cor 7:12, 25 as scripture, but did the author identify it as such? No, he did not. Paul was not talking about his epistles in 2 Timothy 3. The chart thus finds the contradiction not in the Bible, but in its modern interpretive framework. What then is the chart criticizing?

In the end, the point of creating this chart is to provide an overwhelming and visually striking number of contradictions, whether or not each contradiction can be adequately defended. It is the confluence of contradictions that is the message, not the individual ones. This rhetoric sounds an awful lot like traditional Christian description of the single message which arises from the confluence of ideologies in the Bible. The Reason Project wants to paint a picture, and the problematic minutiae of its composition will be overlooked as long as the final product communicates the message effectively. It obviously succeeds, as pointed out by one of the blog posts Joel linked to:

Some of the contradictions are less “contradictions” and more or less a misunderstanding of the biblical text. But of course, when you’re trying to inspire skepticism, “understanding the text” as well as the point of the biblical literature isn’t what’s important. Pointing out apparent “fallacies” works if you’re simply trying to… 1) Preach to the “choir” (albeit an atheist choir) or 2) Discredit scripture.

The authors of this chart and many of those who read it are aware of the rhetorical nature of the chart, but ignore the rhetorical nature of the biblical texts. Why? Because modern fundamentalists present the Bible as literature which cannot be evaluated as rhetoric. This chart fails to evaluate the Bible on its own terms, and instead evaluates it on the terms it’s set for its battle against Christian fundamentalism, which is its real target.


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