Define "literal"

From time to time the word “literal” comes up in discussions on this forum.

I invite anyone inclined to use the term in an argument to define it here, so that next time you use it I may have some idea what you mean.

Clearly many people here think that calling one’s interpretation “literal” confers some sort of advantage on it. But I think the word is so slippery that no such advantage actually accrues.

Edwin

For me “literal” as applied to the interpretation of the Bible means taking each…word by word in it’s most limited sense without metaphor or symbolic meaning… to me this is a very limited way of interpreting Holy Scripture… When we read the Bible say in English we are reading a translation of a translation through various tongues…The original intention of the writers could ergo be lost in translation as all languages use metaphor and symbols.

Interesting use of the word “limited.” I’m not sure it entirely makes sense to me.

without metaphor or symbolic meaning

“Literal” often seems to be defined this way, negatively.

My problem with this is that I don’t think language works that way. All language has symbolic resonances, by definition. A word is necessarily a symbol.

… to me this is a very limited way of interpreting Holy Scripture… When we read the Bible say in English we are reading a translation of a translation

I see this phrase “a translation of a translation” from time to time, and I don’t know what it means. That is not, generally, true. Most English translations work directly from the original languages. Traditional Catholic translations like the Douay-Rheims would be the major example, and it’s possible that some parts of the NT were originally written in Aramaic. Certainly some of the things recorded would originally have been said in that language.

through various tongues…The original intention of the writers could ergo be lost in translation as all languages use metaphor and symbols.

I think the best definition of “literal” was given by a poster in the thread in which this discussion started: “usual or most basic.” That is to say, most of us mean by “literal” the primary meaning a word has for us. That’s why, I think, we get the apparent absurdity of “literal” being used to refer to a metaphor (my favorite example was Rick Perry saying, in 2012, that the Iranians were moving into Iraq “literally at the speed of light”). If the metaphor is so common that it has come to seem like the basic meaning of the term, then we stop thinking of it as a metaphor.

The problem with a “literal reading of Scripture” in this sense is that, as you note, Scripture was written in another language by people of another culture. If we interpret the words of the English translation in the most basic sense they have for us, in our culture, we are likely to come up with something quite different from what the original authors intended.

The more technical exegetical meaning of the term “literal,” when we speak of the literal sense of Scripture, is the sense the authors intended. That would mean, paradoxically, that the literal meaning of a metaphor is the same as the metaphorical meaning (and Rick Perry wouldn’t, in this sense, be ridiculous at all, though the term would be rather redundant).

Edwin

When I use it I’m considering it as a fact - we take what the Scriptures say at face value. For example: I am of the thought that the Bible was created literally in 6 24 hour days with God resting on the Sabbath again a literal 24 hour day.

When Scriptures state that Jonah was swallowed by a big fish and was spewed out after 3 days I understand it as a literal representation of what exactly happened with Jonah.

Literal to me is something happened exactly as stated or written - not an allegorical story.

Hope that helps…

Rita

Not quite sure what you mean there.

  • we take what the Scriptures say at face value.

Doesn’t “face value” mean “the meaning that first leaps to my mind”? Why would you take Scripture in that way?

Considered as ancient writings by people in a culture far removed from yours, Scripture is unlikely to mean the first thing you, a 21st-century person, think it means.

Considered as the Word of God, Scripture is likely to be speaking of things so far above your normal experience that the “face value” meaning is likely to be highly misleading.

For example: I am of the thought that the Bible was created literally in 6 24 hour days with God resting on the Sabbath again a literal 24 hour day.

Right. In this case, you believe that the word “day” in the English translation has its “literal” meaning in the sense I was defending–the meaning that the word “day” most often has.

But why? This is a text describing the creation of the world. It’s quite likely that “day” (really “yom”) might mean something special here.

Furthermore, there’s a difference between the meaning of the individual words and the meaning of the text as a whole. If I tell my kids a story, and I say, “the brave princess lifted her sword and killed the dragon,” the word “sword” has its most usual meaning–a thing made of metal with sharp edges and a handle, used in fighting. But I do not intend them to believe that at some moment in the past of our world a princess such as I describe existed and did the things I am describing.

In other words, the questions of whether the word should convey to us what the word normally does, and whether the text as a whole is to be taken as describing events that really happened in our world in the sense implied by the usual meaning of the words in our culture, are separate questions.

When Scriptures state that Jonah was swallowed by a big fish and was spewed out after 3 days I understand it as a literal representation of what exactly happened with Jonah.

Again, we aren’t talking about the meaning of individual words at that point but about the genre of the story.

Literal to me is something happened exactly as stated or written

But this is circular. You have to figure out what is being stated or written before that definition has any meaning.

Hope that helps…

Rita

It helps illustrate my point that the word is hopelessly complicated and that the way most Christians use it obscures rather than clarifying the issues, yes.

Edwin

In exegesis, a scriptural reading must be read in 4 senses. The literal sense is the face value of the story, the basis of any further discussion. For example, Abraham is about to sacrifice his son. An angel stops him. Abraham finds a lamb in the thicket and sacrifices it. This is a literal account of this old testament story. From this you would appreciate allegorical, moral and anatomical senses of this passage.

I also believe God created the universe in 6 days. If the scientists are correct in it taking billions of years…then maybe that’s why the Bible says with God a day is 1000 years & 1000 yrs. is a day! :shrug:

:thumbsup: :thumbsup:

More details from the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC).

*111 But since Sacred Scripture is inspired, there is another and no less important principle of correct interpretation, without which Scripture would remain a dead letter. "Sacred Scripture must be read and interpreted in the light of the same Spirit by whom it was written."

112 1. Be especially attentive “to the content and unity of the whole Scripture”.

113 2. Read the Scripture within “the living Tradition of the whole Church”.
*
*The senses of Scripture

115 According to an ancient tradition, one can distinguish between two senses of Scripture: the literal and the spiritual, the latter being subdivided into the allegorical, moral and anagogical senses. The profound concordance of the four senses guarantees all its richness to the living reading of Scripture in the Church.

116 The literal sense is the meaning conveyed by the words of Scripture and discovered by exegesis, following the rules of sound interpretation: "All other senses of Sacred Scripture are based on the literal."83

117 The spiritual sense. Thanks to the unity of God’s plan, not only the text of Scripture but also the realities and events about which it speaks can be signs.

  1. The allegorical sense. We can acquire a more profound understanding of events by recognizing their significance in Christ; thus the crossing of the Red Sea is a sign or type of Christ’s victory and also of Christian Baptism.84

  2. The moral sense. The events reported in Scripture ought to lead us to act justly. As St. Paul says, they were written “for our instruction”.85

  3. The anagogical sense (Greek: anagoge, “leading”). We can view realities and events in terms of their eternal significance, leading us toward our true homeland: thus the Church on earth is a sign of the heavenly Jerusalem.86*

If someone told you that “it was raining cats and dogs yesterday”

I am under the impression if I thought “it was raining very very hard.” That would be a literal interpretation of what was said.

If I thought that “cats and dogs were falling from the sky”. This would be a literalistic interpretation.:shrug:

Jesus wouldn’t say it was “raining cats & dogs” unless He really meant those animals were falling from the sky…and the people knew it!

Contarini wrote:

“I see this phrase “a translation of a translation” from time to time, and I don’t know what it means.”

I would say that a translation of the Bible that you have in your hand… could be a modern English translation or earlier …You mentioned “the Douay-Rheims”… I’ve read that translation some years ago but let’s consider it here… It was published over three hundred years ago… The Douay–Rheims Bible is a translation of the Latin Vulgate,** which is itself a translation from Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts.**

So you have a translation of a translation…

Most scholars today acknowledge that Jesus and His immediate disciples spoke the Aramaic … Later these teachings of Jesus were translated into Koine Greek…a translation of a translation. If you study the Greek and Aramaic languages … there some differences between these two languages …They are hardly “sister” languages. Latin is yet another language… A translation of a translation … of a translation…

Are there metaphors used in Aramaic that differ from those found in Greek… most likely… and so are there expressions in Latin and so on…

Contarini also wrote:

“The problem with a “literal reading of Scripture” in this sense is that, as you note, Scripture was written in another language by people of another culture. If we interpret the words of the English translation in the most basic sense they have for us, in our culture, we are likely to come up with something quite different from what the original authors intended.”

I can agree with that!:thumbsup:

  • Art

Exactly. That’s why I mentioned it. But Protestants have never been content with “translations of translations,” and most modern Catholics aren’t either. So this is hardly the norm.

Most scholars today acknowledge that Jesus and His immediate disciples spoke the Aramaic … Later these teachings of Jesus were translated into Koine Greek…a translation of a translation.

Right, but the texts were written in Greek. Where they report Jesus’ or his disciples’ exact words, yes it’s a translation of a translation. But that would account only for some of the shorter, pithier sayings in the Synoptic Gospels. Jesus’ speeches in John, and probably most of the longer discourses in the Synoptics, are almost certainly not direct translations of the original Aramaic words he uttered. (And I wouldn’t rule out the possibility that at least some of the dialogue recounted in the Gospels was originally spoken in Greek. The conversation between Jesus and Pilate, for instance, and probably any conversation with a Gentile, would almost certainly have taken place in Greek.) And of course the Epistles were written in Greek.

I’m pushing back on this because it seems to me that non-academics use the term “translation” very loosely, and are generally far too concerned with the problem of how our English Bibles are related to the “original manuscript,” and not nearly concerned enough with the much more difficult 'higher critical" questions of how the original texts relate to the events that they describe.

If you study the Greek and Aramaic languages … there some differences between these two languages …They are hardly “sister” languages.

Right. They’re completely different.

So if your statement referred to translations from the Vulgate and/or passages in the Gospels that have an Aramaic original, then sure, your phrase was accurate. I just wanted to be clear on what you were talking about.

Edwin

Good example. I was thinking about this very example in terms of the distinction between the literal meaning of individual words and the interpretation of the passage as a whole.

The second reading, which you call “literalistic,” takes the words in their “literal” meaning–i.e., in the meaning they have in normal usage. (If cats and dogs somehow become extinct and all references to them except for this idiom disappear, then in my usage of the term the “literal” meaning will have changed.) The first reading understands the words as metaphorical, and thus manages to read the phrase as a whole “literally”–i.e., in the sense normally intended by people who use such a phrase.

So, for instance, if I encounter the phrase “it’s raining cats and dogs” normally, I take it to be a description of something that happens fairly often in the world of Primary Creation (what people less influenced by Tolkien would call “the real world”). But if I encounter the phrase in a children’s picture book, accompanied by a picture of real cats and dogs falling from the sky, then I understand the words to be literal and the text as a whole to be a quirky fantasy.

That is relevant for the point Rita raised about Genesis 1. The reading that takes the words “day” to be metaphorical is actually a pretty conservative reading which takes the text to be a description, with some metaphorical language, of the origins of the universe as described by science. Most scholars would understand the words themselves to be literal (i.e., intended to evoke the images in our minds that they normally invoke) and the text as a whole to be a mythic or theological account of creation telling us something other than how the physical universe originated at some point of past time.

Edwin

As one who once believed that the Earth is 6000 years old and that God created the Earth in six 24-hour days, I wholeheartedly agree with this point!

And it would be funny:whacky:

A literal interpretation of a Bible story simply means reading it and interpreting it as is. it does not mean, however, taking it as a historical fact (which is a literalist reading).

A story, even a fictitious one, if taken literally, often has a very basic moral lesson to be drawn.

A deeper reading may reveal prophecy, for example Jonah in the belly of the whale prefiguring the three days Jesus spent before His resurrection. The Jewish tradition was very good at this form of exegesis, peeling away the layers of a story like an onion. The outermost layer would be the literal meaning.

A good way to approach this is through the practice of lectio divina.

Well, I don’t know about your use of the word “here”. (I can’t be in this conversation without thinking of the Evangelical Protestant who once told me that the literal meaning of Matthew 23:9 is: Do not call any religious leader father.)

But anyhow, I’m reminded of the American poet who wrote “singing songs and carrying signs, mostly [to] say ‘Hurray for our side’.”

I’m not particularly surprised to hear “Interpreting the bible literally is so great” from Christians who interpret it literally … nor am I particularly surprised to hear “Interpreting the bible literally is so wrong” from Christians who don’t interpret it literally.

:hmmm:

And I can’t be in this conversation without thinking of those who tell Baptists that they are “not taking Jesus at His Word,” just because they don’t interpret John 6:53 literally. Don’t get me wrong, I believe in the Real Presence. I just don’t believe that combining proof-texting with intimidating rhetoric is good apologetics.

=Contarini;12975223]From time to time the word “literal” comes up in discussions on this forum.

I invite anyone inclined to use the term in an argument to define it here, so that next time you use it I may have some idea what you mean.

Clearly many people here think that calling one’s interpretation “literal” confers some sort of advantage on it. But I think the word is so slippery that no such advantage actually accrues.

Edwin

“As AFFIRMED by the facts”:thumbsup:

God Bless you,

patrick

Well, I think my example was better :cool:, but that’s unimportant: the point was simply that polemics based on the word “literal” are not a specifically Catholic trait. There is no “here” here.

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