Book X, Chapter Y, Verse Z...?

The question is simple: take any verse from any chapter from any book in the bible… how does one find out if it is to be taken literally, or allegorically? The point is that using any verse as a substantiation of an argument which is disputed by the believers - the first (and mostly the only) so-called “argument” is: “you are not supposed to take that verse literally”. It is never followed by an explanation concerning that verse, namely why is that verse not supposed to be taken literally, and what is its “real” meaning when taken allegorically?

So I am asking: is there a general method to separate the literal and allegorical verses? Obviously, if the church would declare the “status” of each verse, it would be helpful. But there is no such “annotated” bible. So, where do you (the believers) go for help? I suspect you just use the “simple” method: “if an atheist says something - it is wrong”. Can you prove me wrong this time? Is there a general method to find out about any arbitrary verse in the bible if it must be taken literally or allegorically?

Well, since I’m here, I will say probably, yes.
Usually you are told if the story or point is a parable. Then it is not literal, but it illustrates a still true truth.
Sometimes metaphors are used, these also highlight a true thing. They are obvious, though. I am the gate, vine, etc.
Then there are verses which tell a truth but do not expand on the details of how and why, these are nevertheless important truths; i.e. The Son of man indeed goeth, as it is written of him: but woe to that man by whom the Son of man shall be betrayed: it were better for him, if that man had not been born.
This one is not a allegory, or metaphor or a parable. Its a direct warning and statement of a fact. It is as it sounds.

But usually to avoid any confusion a warning is given in advance; such as; ‘The kingdom of heaven is like…’, or ‘To what shall I compare it…’; or ‘There was a story…’; or ‘Listen to this parable…’ .
To further avoid confusion some teachings were returned to later; ‘…the yeast of the pharisees…’. Just some thoughts.

No. God is not a machine.
We are used to machines. You put a cloth in a machine and it tell whether it is red, green or blue. You put a ticket in the machine and it tell whether it is vlid or non valid.
The Bible cannot be put into a software which will discover: alegoric, non-alegoric.
You need to study the Bible, to dedicate your life to God so that you recognize the many messages of God speading allegorically, half allegoric, really but allegoric, allegoric but real and so on, the many nuances of messages of God to us.

Many passages of the bible are being discussed for years where are they real or not.

But I tell you a rule of thumb: for me, it only needs to be real the birth, death an ressurection of Christ. All the remaining may be allegoric. My faith would be exactly the same.

Isolating one verse would make it very difficult. The first step, I would think, is to perform basic literary analysis. We know the Bible contains many books from different eras and authors using different styles. It helps to identify the author, the audience, the common styles from the era in which he was writing, etc. And then determine whether the author was intending to be literal or not. Is he writing a poem/song? Is he intending to record history? This should be done with each book within the Bible collection considering the vast differences in the authors, eras, audiences, etc. This doesn’t even begin to address the problem of language and translation. Ultimately you may die never knowing for a certain verse whether the author intended to be literal. And that’s okay sometimes.

There is a preferred method of reading the Bible that solves your issue, I believe.

The Church’s document, Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation - Dei Verbum, outlines the preferred method. In summary, the following three principles are to be followed:

  1. The Bible is to be read as a unified whole, not in snippets, out of context. In general, the Old Testament prefigures the New Testament. And the New Testament fulfills the Old Testament. They go hand-in-hand.

  2. The Bible is to be read in light of Sacred Tradition. Sacred Tradition is the oral teachings of Christ handed down from the Apostles to their successors, the bishops, for almost 2000 years now. When Jesus walked the earth, He taught orally. He never wrote a book, nor did He tell anyone to write a book, as far as we know. He did command the Apostles to go teach “all” that He taught, however. (see Matt 28:20) SOME of what they taught got written down. We call that the New Testament. Most did not get written down. (See John 21:25)

  3. The Bible is also to be read in light of the teachings of the Magisterium of the Church. The Magisterium is the living teaching office, established by Christ, consisting of the Pope and the bishops in union with the Pope. When teaching on faith and morals, God prevents them from teaching in error. The best summary of their teachings in writing can be found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

There are actually things that can be considered - is a verse obviously hyperbole, etc. but generally considering a verse in isolation will not work.

For example, somewhere it says “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” That could easily be a literal statement about every single human, or it could just be a general statement about humanity with the possibility of some (although not, by the wording, very many) exceptions. How do you tell?

If you take the verse by itself, you can’t really. But if you take it together with the facts that Christ is human and definitely sinless and that the author definitely knew and did not dispute this, then you end up in the second case.

Which actually illustrates the closest we get to a general rule pretty nicely - interpret any verse so that it agrees with the teachings passed down from the time of the Apostles and guarded by the Holy Spirit. If you suddenly “discover” that the bible says something that contradicts what the people who have been using it and preserving it for centuries claim it says, chances are you’re wrong.

Note though that this is for individuals reading it, I am not trying to speak about how the Church itself interprets it.

As other’s have stated, verses in the Bible were not given to us by God to be interpreted by themsleves in a vacuum. They have to be intepreted in light of the Bible as a unified whole.

You will not find a catalog of Bible verses and their meanings with attributes such as literal/alegorical. God is the primary author of scripture and he is a little deeper than that.


My own view personally? I believe the entire Bible is allegorical in nature. There’s a lot of myth and fiction involved that has the intention of conveying a greater meaning. This probably explains why there are a number of strong similarities between biblical stories and mythology that emerged from surrounding civilizations. For instance, Noah’s Ark and the Flood has parallels to the Epic of Gilgamesh. Many biblical scholars have pointed out that it is incredibly likely that the Epic of Gilgamesh influenced the story of Noah’s Ark. Professor Andrew R. George of the prestigious School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) once remarked that: “. . .] the Flood episode in Gen. 6-8 matches the older Babylonian myth so well in plot, and particularly, in details, few doubt that Noah’s story is descended from a Mesopotamian account” (The Babylonian Gilgamesh Epic: Introduction, Critical Edition and Cuneiform Texts). It is now widely accepted across academia that the story regarding Noah’s Ark is fictional, and is predicated on the basis of earlier myths handed down through the generations.

Even Jesus’ own “biography” has not escaped the influence of myth. A consensus has developed amongst historians that the Star of Bethlehem was conjured up by the author of the Gospel of Matthew. It is not mentioned anywhere else in the Gospels. The reason it was conjured up was most likely to have been to establish early the belief that Jesus was the Messiah. It is also important to see the contextual environment in which the Gospel of Matthew emerged. The Gospel of Matthew was written at around AD 66, the same year Halley’s Comet crossed the Earth. Given the lack of scientific understanding at the time, it is highly likely the author was influenced by the event (not to mention the fact that Magi went to Rome to witness the astronomical phenomena).

I believe many stories in the Bible emerged from looking at history in a divine light and attributing events to a “divine hand”: When the Israelites lost a war, it was because God was angry; when the Israelites won a a war, it was because God was happy. It bears some resemblance to the early Pagan beliefs that when crop failures occurred, it was because they angered the gods. At its core, it is no different from Karl Marx’s methodology of assigning the progress of history to class warfare (a methodology he called “historical materialism”). To attribute historical events to a divine purpose is inherently incorrect as it rests upon a false doctrine called historicism. Not many respected historians believe in historicism anymore. Karl Popper attacked the doctrine vociferously in his magnum opuses the Poverty of Historicism and “Open Society and its Enemies”. The Bible is therefore a composition of allegory, myth and pious fiction which are very loosely related to actual historical events. They were exaggerated, sometimes even containing a few lies here and there, to make it seem as if God, or a god, was sovereign over the world and had an ultimate destiny in mind for Mankind in the grand scheme of things.

So there is no such general method. I would be happy to see a direct dividing line: verse “x” is literal, and verse “y” is allegorical. But even that seems too much to ask for.

The idea: “read the bible as a unified whole” makes no sense. The bible is a compilation of all sorts of texts, many times contradicting each other, while other times simply reciting nonsense. If one wishes to find support for anything, a careful selection will yield the proper results. Do you want to support slavery? It is easy as a breeze. Do you want to find excuses for genocide? Child’s play. Do you want to show how noble it is to sacrifice oneself for others? It is there, too. There is no unified “theme”.

The point is that it was written by humans and interpreted by humans. When one looks at the atrocities of the old testament, those “literal texts” are discarded nowadays as “misunderstandings”, or “incorrrect” translations or “allegories” - after all today it is not politically correct to speak of “eternal fire and brimstone”. What is “allegorical” about God ordering Abraham to sacrifice Isaac? It is one of the most horrifying stories - the pinnacle of child abuse and cruelty. And, of course, since God needs to “test” Abraham, it clearly contradicts God’s assumed omniscience. God gives Job over to the devil to inflict all sorts of maladies and atrocities on him, and see if he will fail? What a horrible concept - and not presented as an allegory.

Sure, there are quite a few clear-cut allegories: for example in Luke 19, culminating in 19:27, where Jesus himself says: “and for those enemies of mine who do not want me to reign over them, bring them hither and slay them before me”. Very “loving”, wouldn’t you say? And the meaning is obvious: the king in the story is God himself. After all Jesus only said parables about God, and no one else.

And since not even the church comes clean and tells: “this verse “x” must be taken literally”, you are not in the position to discard anything as “allegorical”.

When I first “discovered” this I was quite surprised. I was reading Gilgamesh and when I got to the flood story for a moment I had to wonder if I were still reading the same story or if some one had stuck something biblical within.

But I don’t think the bible is to be taken literally either. I’ve seen some argue that specific parts are literal because if they were not literal then they don’t support some other event in the bible. For example, if Adam and Eve were not real people and did not commit the original sin then it raises questions on why vicarious redemption is necessary to save us from the inherited consequences of an event that never occurred.

I think that some of the meaning for some parts may have been lost or eroded from the world changing to a different culture than the culture in which the bible was existed.

Properly interpreted, there are no contradictions in the Bible.

To take a book (the Bible) which is really several books compiled over many centuries written by several authors inspired by God, then interpret it into English, with absolutely no background in the culture, language of the times, and historical context, is ludicrous. It’s like if today, I was talking to a group of 1000 Catholics in a speech which was recorded and put into a time capsule. I might begin, “My dear brothers and sisters, I am so happy to see 1000 of you turn out for this great event…” And, then, 1000 years from now, when the use of the language has changed completely, someone listened to my speech and remarked, “Wow! He had 1000 brothers and sisters! His daddy must’ve been something! I’d sure like to have met him!” How incorrect would that have been?! And if some scholar who DID understand what was going on pointed it out, and the person persisted, saying, “No! It SAYS right there, ‘MY dear brothers and sisters…’ so it had to be they were his siblings! It says so right there!”

So, getting all hung up on “what the Bible says” without education or trusting the organization that put it together in the first place, is ludicrous. Jesus didn’t write a book. He founded a Church. The Catholic Church, which preceded all other Christian churches by 1000 years. If you want to know what Jesus taught, listen to what His Church teaches. And if you insist on reading the Bible, read it according to what His Church says it means. Not alone, out of historical, linguistic, cultural context.

Funny how this thread is indirectly proving the point that Sacred Scripture needs an absolute authority for interpretation :rolleyes:

Leaving aside some of the things you said with which we obviously disagree (God being cruel or what have you) I just want to point out that calling a passage allegorical does not mean you get to wave it away.

So, for example, rather than writing the Isaac thing off as horribly cruel and discarding it, it may be worth trying to see the what it actually says and why, and what that episode says about God with God assumed to be as we know He is from other sources.

That is, if all you knew about God was that at some point he asked some dude to sacrifice his son and then changed His mind, you actually wouldn’t know much of anything at all and what little opinion you did form probably wouldn’t be good. But that story is not all we know, and we read that story with what we know from everything else in mind.

This is what “reading it as a whole” means. Different times, different styles, different people. One Subject.

Why? Are you planning on doing some Scripture study?

Reading Scripture is less an intellectual enterprise than a spiritual exercise. One passage may lead you to one understanding one day and a different one next month and both can, of course, be true.

Single verses don’t have much to do with anything. Regarding the Bible as a unified whole isn’t very useful. Spending your time on message boards trying to prove that people of faith are idiots and you are smarter than they, just means you need a hobby or a health club membership.

If you’d like to know Jesus, since you seem to be fascinated with Catholicism and to have rejected your own spiritual nature at this moment, try reading Matthew. Ask the God you don’t believe in for enlightenment.

That is a good point about Abraham and Isaac.

Many claim that it shows God’s cruelty, but the the story actually started back in the Garden with Adam and Eve and ends with Christ in the Cross. Any one of these three events - eating the fruit and being thrown out of the Garden, the sacrifice of Isaac, and the crucifixion of Christ - are not fully understandable without a thourough understanding of the others, and further, how they each fit into the entire narrative story of the Bible as a whole.

The Bible is a story, but some want to treat it like a dictionary or encyclopedia.

It’s like pulling a single sentance out of a random chapter of “Gone with the Wind” and either claiming that they know what it means or demanding that other’s tell you what it means. You might be able to figure out something about what the sentance means but the fullest and clearest meaning is available only to those who read the whole book and undersand the story. And you certainly can’t understand all there is to understand about one of the characters by reading just one sentance, or even reading random sentances out of order. Again, the Bible is a story!

Book X, Chapter Y, Verse Z? Tell me what the 19th sentance of the 8th chapter of the second book of the Lord of the Rings trilogy means. :shrug: It’s a game you can’t win.


That would be said to be idiomatic, and there’s a good bit of differences of interpretation that comes from that too. Ex: under some interpretations “I am that I am” is treated as an idiom that in modern times might be translated as “Never mind what my name is.” That’s not one of the popular interpretations (not that popularity generally implies correctness).

Why do you want to identify exactly which verses are literal and which are allegorical?

And why would you think it would be relatively easy to do that?

Exactly my point. It is just a story, nothing else.

Last time I heard the Lord of the Rings was pure fiction, not the “inspired, unchanging word of God” . I am quite happy with accepting the bible as a mildly interesting fiction written up by simple goatherders and fishermen.

Because I am tired of seeing the cop-out: “the bible is not supposed to be taken literally”.

That is not relevant. The protestants take every word of the bible literally -and we all know the problems that approach entails. Catholics take a different method, they argue that only the church is “qualified” to interpret the bible. But the point is that the church does not do it.

I did before, but he is notoriously aloof and quiet.

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