"Don't read bible literally"?


I came across a comment that I am not certain I understand. In it, the author was stating that he reads the bible literally, and the hardest part for him, who is in formation for the diaconate, was to be open to interpret the scripture differently, so he can minister to all His children.

Can someone explain this to me better? Is the author saying that because the bible was written over 2000 years ago and in a different language, we may need to adjust what we interpret what is being said? Sort of like if I said it was raining “cats and dogs” that doesn’t mean cans and dogs are literally falling from the sky, but someone 2000 years from now, who speaks a different language may not understand that.



Traditionally, Catholics believe that there are four “senses” which can be applied to every passage of the Bible. These are:
The literal sense
The allegorical sense
The moral sense
The anagogical sense

Everyone understands the literal sense of the reading , so the job of a good preacher is to reveal the other three senses. It sounds like your friend is having trouble getting to that point.


It’s not just the language barrier. The scriptural books are all products of a time and culture different from what most of us are living in right now.

I think Errham’s comments are spot on. I’d actually just build upon what he had said. Actually, I won’t say “everyone understands the literal sense of the reading.” Very often, when some people say they read Scripture ‘literally’, they really mean something like ‘read it like it was written by contemporary Western authors’ or ‘read it like the daily newspaper’ - they fail to take into account that these writings were all written by Middle Eastern-Mediterranean people who lived two to three thousand years ago. Familiarity breeds contempt here, I guess; the West had been Christian for as long as anyone could remember and the Bible has been an icon for as long as that time. I mean, nobody reads Homer’s Iliad as if Homer was an American writer who just released his book a few days ago, but the Bible tends to be the exception.

Of course, there are some things that are pretty straightforward, but there are also things in the literal reading that would not make any sense or would sound unfamiliar/weird unless you know a thing or two about the culture (stuff like all those kissing as a way of greeting people, for example).


Thankfully we dont have to figure out on our own what’s metaphoric language within the ancient texts of Scripture and what needs to be understood straight to the letter because we have as Catholics 2000 years of saints and theologians and expositors, who even many spoke Greek as their first language, such as the Greek Fathers. Even our Bibles have footnotes that will point out the not so obvious idioms and metaphors thanks to professional translators. Its not up to us to decide and decipher, because there are no passages in Scripture that have not been dissected and thoroughly examined and clarified by 2000 years of saintly exposition.


So are you saying that everything is now set in stone and that the Holy Spirit’s “job” of guiding us is now, and has been for quite a while, over?

It is called the Living Word, not the set in stone Word, correct?

God still speaks to us personally and not just thru “saints and theologians and expositors”.

And as far as “literal”, there are things in the bible that are quite literal and there are things that are not literal.

Actually, some of the things in the bible that are literal are beyond our human understanding to conceive of as being literal and yet are quite literal.

It is my opinion, that the Eucharist being Jesus and God being a Being of Love are two of the literal things in the bible that are beyond any human’s comprehension.


Before tackling passages from the Bible I ask the Holy Spirit for the power of discernment. To comprehend the context and message. IMHO, quite a lot is to be taken ‘literally’, but there are also, for instance, many passages perhaps more to be approached as parable or allegory.

I recommend the use of Lectio Divina, particularly if others are also partaking.


Good post.

I remember when I was very young asking my Polish father about whether the story about Adam and Eve was true. All he said in response was “Ah, translations.”


God inspired the bible writers …and it was to be for all time, not only for the time period it was written.

We don’t need any revisions! :nope: :tsktsk:


Indeed…the wisdom of St. Thomas Aquinas is certainly hard to argue with! He was, the original “Deep, Fat, Friar”!

Peace and all good!


I agree that we don’t need revisions, but that we do need to understand content and context - and discernment never did anyone any harm.


This is true. We don’t need revisions. But I don’t think anyone is asking for revisions.


I have often been reading the Bible and had a passage I’ve read numerous times all of a sudden “speak” to me. But it’s speaking on a very personal level, not on the broader theological level. I think we can trust the Magisterium and Tradition on the broader theological themes and trust the Spirit to guide us on the more personal themes. This is strictly my opinion.


… I wouldn’t put money on that one …


Note also (as I learnt in this very forum, last year) that “the literal sense” has a special meaning within Catholic theology: the Catholic theological usage refers to the authorially-intended sense, whereas the basic English usage refers to the textually-expressed sense.


Fair enough, but at least, many people at least have an awareness (or try to put up a pretense of being aware) that stuff like the Iliad or the Epic of Gilgamesh are all products of different times and cultures and treat them as such. But when it comes to the Bible …


I know what you mean - “If English was good enough for Jesus”, etc - and there is a difference in how widely the Bible is read and thus in the educational level of the average Bible reader versus that of the average classic literature reader, but the same sort of thing still happens far too often with classic lit.


Reminds me of that time when Jesus came 13th on a list of the greatest Americans who ever lived.

At least sensible readers of classic lit know that Cicero did not speak English. Or American. :stuck_out_tongue:


Wow, really? Oh dear.

I really don’t think that I want to know who beat him.

At least sensible readers of classic lit know that Cicero did not speak English. Or American. :stuck_out_tongue:

Generally, but then there are the American publishers who alter the spellings of British writers. :mad:


Apparently Ronald Reagan was first on the list. Yes, that’s right. Jesus had to share 13th place with Bill Clinton, apparently.

(Now I don’t know what’s more funny: that the Son of God was just beaten by Reagan, or that He was even on this list in the first place.)

Generally, but then there are the American publishers who alter the spellings of British writers. :mad:

Because nobody would recognize ‘theatre’ if it isn’t spelled ‘theater’. Same goes for ‘aluminium’ - ‘aluminum’.


Everyone who knows how to properly read and interpret the Iliad should also know how to properly read and interpret scripture.

The trick is to perform close reading, which involves the reader abandoning his intellectual baggage, diving into the culture of the times, viewing things from only that culture’s point of view.

The modern cultural viewpoints which so many foolishly use to interpret scripture, is what makes so many foolishly believe that scripture condones rape and murder. :mad:

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