Both Bible believing Christians and critics of the Bible make the same blunder when attempting to make sense of the pieces of ancient literature now called the Bible.
The Bible may be sacred literature for Christians but literature nonetheless and so must be read, basically, as one would read any piece of literature responsibly (ancient or modern).
In High school literature class one learns to first try to determine what kind or genre of literature one is about to read or study. Is it on its face, poetry, history, drama, a novel, fiction, non fiction or what? Other basic issues would be, who is the author, to whom is the document written, when and to what purpose or with what end in view?
With special reference to the Bible, one needs to reckon with the easily forgotten fact that it is a translated book into English and other modern languages from the original Hebrew or Aramaic [a sister language to Hebrew] for the Old Testament and Greek (plus the odd Aramaic/Hebrew word or expression for the New Testament.
Of critical importance too in reading responsibly are some neglected factors such as the popularity of idioms, figures of speech, in all languages and in all kinds of literature plus the general writing conventions at work in certain kinds of literature in the time when the piece of literature originated.
With all of this in mind then, saying that you prefer to read the Bible literally is not a complimentary boast in that you could not defend that position if you are reading a portion of the Bible that is, on its face, poetry or a figure of speech.
To read every text in the Bible literally or every text figuratively is to misread the Bible because some texts purport to be poetry and ought not to be read literally while others may appear to us moderns to be figurative or unhistorical when. by the known writing conventions of the era of those texts, they are plain history.
Try taking literally the text in Matthew that says “If your right eye offends you pluck it out…” and you end up as a kind of Cyclops because the non-literal language of the text means ‘deal decisively with anything that blocks your growth in godly living’!
A JTS classmate of mine was preaching in a Missionary church in rural Hanover in the 1970s and while treating with the meaning of a particular New Testament text said “Brothers and sisters the King James Version says a,b,c but the Greek text says x,y,z.” At that point an elderly gentleman stopped him in his tracks and with his KJV Bible held up in the air shouted at him “Gu weh wid yu Greek tex a man rite dat a Gaad rite dis.” It was a riot when our classmate shared that with us on returning to campus.
The fact that the Bible has been translated into English means that at times to get clarity on certain texts one must explore language features in the text. I just finished a mini seminar in Barbados on the “end times” and a re-reading of the Olivet Discourse (the little Apocalypse) in Matthew 24, Mark 13 and Luke 21. Since most Evangelicals take these texts as having to do with our 21st century world and the 2nd Coming of Jesus, I began with an introductory note on time terms in the Bible, this way:
“The ancient Jews, into the time of our Lord. had a double-edged view of time, the present age and the age to come. The New Testament documents seem to make a striking modification of this view especially of ‘the present age’ so we read about ‘last days’, ‘latter time(s), ‘end of age(s).”
Then I read a few KJV texts all of the 1st century AD/CE;
1 Cor. 10:11, “Now all these things happened unto them for examples: and they are written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the world are come.”; Acts 2.17, “And it shall come to pass in the last days, saith God, I will pour out of my Spirit upon all flesh: and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams…”; Heb.1.1-2, “[God spoke in past times to the fathers by the prophets but ]Hath in these last daysspoken unto us by his Son…”
1 Jn. 2.18, “Little children, it is the last time: and as ye have heard that antichrist shall come, even now are there many antichrists; whereby we know that it is the last time.”; 1 Pet. 1.20 “Who verily was foreordained before the foundation of the world, but was manifest in these last times for you.”
I then went on to say: “Remember this simple yet crucial point, the last days, last times, end of the world/age began in the 1st century with our Lord’s coming in flesh. We today are simply in the later portion of these time expressions.”
Most clergy persons and lay preachers need to revisit the text and context of the Olivet Discourse in Matthew 24, Mark 13, and Luke 21 to appreciate that this discourse is not primarily about the 2nd Coming of our Lord and tribulation in the modern world but primarily (though not exclusively) about the AD 30 prophesied destruction of Jerusalem and the Jewish Temple. The fulfillment of this prophecy happened in AD 70.
When the average Bible critic charges that if the Biblical Exodus really happened, it should have been mentioned on some Egyptian stele somewhere, ignorance is at work. Such a critic needs to know that Pharaohs never document defeat, indeed, they sometimes exaggerate their victories. But then again, hyperbole (exaggeration for effect) was the norm in Near Eastern military reporting, and this is evidenced in the biblical book of Joshua as well as on Pharaoh Merneptah’s stele.
To the end of reading the Bible literarily I recommend to Christians and Bible critics the CD Reading the Bible Meaningfully (available by calling 876-521-5052 or 246-831-5980 or downloading from www.thechisholmsource.com ).