How Literal Is the Old Testament?

I asked a question like this recently but didn’t get much response, maybe because it involved a question about evolution, so I’ll try again, but differently.

I want to know how literal the various Old Testament stories are. For example Genesis - the creation account and the creation of Adam and Eve, the Flood, (did it cover the entire earth), etc.

There seems to be many voices today saying that these stories just don’t have any basis based on modern archaeology and science.

Any help appreciated. :slight_smile:

Well, the flood itself is an interesting inquiry. And from all I know, it is to be taken completely literally. However, there are other senses from which to interpret even literal events in the Old Testament.

There is a substantial amount of evidence pointing to a massive flood that occurred around 4000 BC…need to check the date…that is a very rough figure. I think some say 6000 BC. There is lack of consensus on the exact date.

There are four ways of interpreting Scripture. The Catechism lists them quite nicely for us in paragraphs 115-119. :slight_smile:

The accounts of creation are told to us in metaphorical language. That is, they are told as stories not as newspaper accounts of a crime scene. There was no intention on the part of the writer of the creation stories to be scientifically, or even chronologically, accurate. Science, as we know it, didn’t exist. Actually, the Church encouraged the natural sciences because the Church’s philosophy of theology is based in nature, but that’s a topic for another thread. :wink:

The Genesis stories are a compilation of creation stories passed down and gathered together into one account–that’s why there seem to be discrepencies where none really exist. Those who question them are reading the stories literalistically, which is not the same thing as reading them literally. Literalistic interpretation would be taking an expression like: “it rained cats and dogs” to mean that real cats and dogs fell from the skies. That is not the way the Genesis stories should be read. Nor is it the way the Church interprets them. The Hebrew people as well as the Church regard them as God inspired and thus beneficial to our spiritual lives and salvation.

What we accept without question is that there was a real Adam and a real Eve who fell from grace by disobeying God’s direct command. The story is told in metaphorical language, but telling a story in that way, whether that story be ancient or modern, fiction or non-fiction, says nothing at all about the truth the story is telling us.

The opening chapters of Genesis a complex study, not a simply matter of saying the Genesis stories are true or false. They are true, but they are not to be taken literalistically. Their purpose wasn’t to tell us the precise order of creation/duration of creation, but to tell us that God made all there is, that he created man in his likeness and image, that we are stewards of God’s creation, that we fell from grace, and that God has a plan for our redemption. That is their purpose–plain and simple. To impose other ideas onto them is bad exegesis and the cause of a lot of misunderstanding and useless speculations that damage people’s faith in God and in Christ.

When you say, “The Old Testament”, do you just mean Genesis, or the first five books, or the whole 73 or so books?

Because there are some books in the Old Testament that absolutely should NOT be taken literally. The Psalms and the Song of Songs come to mind. Those are poetry.

But within Genesis, I have heard that about the first twelve chapters or so of Genesis are “mythical” - they may or may not be literally true, but they point to an underlying reality, and not merely a spiritual one, that was not as easy to speak about.

After Chapter 12 - well, what happens? We begin to talk about Abram (or Abraham). Abraham is sort of the foundation of the covenant that Jews and Christians have in common. I do not remember where I got it from, but I am under the impression that everything in Genesis beginning with Abraham can be taken as being a bit more straightforward. The plagues in Exodus are quite possible. And the works of the Books and Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles are quite clearly intended to be history, and are corroborated by other histories.

Naturally, books, such as the Proverbs, or the aforementioned Psalms and the Song of Songs, as well as Wisdom and Sirach, are not meant to be taken literally. They’re general wisdom. Some of them are educational, teaching about things mentioned in other books. some are prophetic. (The Lord said to My Lord, sit at my right.)

Speaking of prophecy: this is one of the genres which I know least about. From what I gather, it can be difficult to figure out exactly what the prophet was predicting. Depending on how you read this or that prophecy, they may have been fulfilled, perhaps only indirectly, or symbolically, if at all. Prophecies tend to lead to a lot of strong opinions and feelings (especially among Protestants and atheists). Some prophecies even seem to be multi-layered. The prophecy about a son born of a “young woman”, for example, is said to refer to a king in Isaiah’s time. But Christians, especially ancient Christians, have also used it as evidence that Christ is the Messiah.

In short, the Old Testament is filled with genres which are to be taken in varying degrees and types as “literal”. The Historical Books are clearly history. The narratives of the Torah are probably largely historical. The myths about Creation, the Flood, the Tower, and everything else in the first quarter of Genesis are disputable, but have definite truth in them. The prophecies are always in dispute, and no satisfactory disproofs will ever be found there. And finally the Wisdom literature is meant to convey moral, spiritual, and practical truths more than history, and need not be read as being historically accurate.

Does this help?

As a scientist and philosopher (and Catholic) I have been involved in this “problem” of religion and science for a very long time.

There are hundreds of books and articles. As a brief discussion on Genesis I can possibly recommend the following:

The article comes from a web site (The American Scientific Affiliation, A Network of Christians in the Sciences).

It might be too liberal for the conservative Christian. The Catholic Church is very open to the latest findings coming from the sciences. I can recommend many books by theologians, Christian philosophers and Christian scientists, if you are further interested.

I am a Catholic and a scientist. I accept everything held by modern science (Big Bang, evolution, quantum mechanics, etc). i just disagree about what caused these things. For example, I don’t believe evolution was driven by random chance (for one thing, this would violate the third law of thermodynamics because it holds that a disordered system gave rise to an ordered system (many times) without an external application of energy).

To the best of my knowledge, I remain a faithful to the teaching of the Catholic Church.

The existence of one original true real sole fully-complete human parents, lovingly known as Adam and Eve, is a Catholic doctrine. :thumbsup:

granny is right.

"Real History

"The argument is that all of this is real history, it is simply ordered topically rather than chronologically, and the ancient audience of Genesis, it is argued, would have understood it as such.

"Even if Genesis 1 records God’s work in a topical fashion, it still records God’s work—things God really did.

"The Catechism explains that “Scripture presents the work of the Creator symbolically as a succession of six days of divine ‘work,’ concluded by the ‘rest’ of the seventh day” (CCC 337), but “nothing exists that does not owe its existence to God the Creator. The world began when God’s word drew it out of nothingness; all existent beings, all of nature, and all human history is rooted in this primordial event, the very genesis by which the world was constituted and time begun” (CCC 338).

"It is impossible to dismiss the events of Genesis 1 as a mere legend. They are accounts of real history, even if they are told in a style of historical writing that Westerners do not typically use.

"Adam and Eve: Real People

"It is equally impermissible to dismiss the story of Adam and Eve and the fall (Gen. 2–3) as a fiction. A question often raised in this context is whether the human race descended from an original pair of two human beings (a teaching known as monogenism) or a pool of early human couples (a teaching known as polygenism).

"In this regard, Pope Pius XII stated: “When, however, there is question of another conjectural opinion, namely polygenism, the children of the Church by no means enjoy such liberty. For the faithful cannot embrace that opinion which maintains either that after Adam there existed on this earth true men who did not take their origin through natural generation from him as from the first parents of all, or that Adam represents a certain number of first parents. Now, it is in no way apparent how such an opinion can be reconciled that which the sources of revealed truth and the documents of the teaching authority of the Church proposed with regard to original sin which proceeds from a sin actually committed by an individual Adam in which through generation is passed onto all and is in everyone as his own” (Humani Generis 37).

“The story of the creation and fall of man is a true one, even if not written entirely according to modern literary techniques. The Catechism states, “The account of the fall in Genesis 3 uses figurative language, but affirms a primeval event, a deed that took place at the beginning of the history of man. Revelation gives us the certainty of faith that the whole of human history is marked by the original fault freely committed by our first parents” (CCC 390).”

Science is limited to material causes and what can be detected using devices and our senses. It cannot comment about the involvement of any supernatural force at all. The Church adds the rest of the story. God actually did things.


I deeply appreciate the comments by the scientists among us. Thank you. :tiphat: As for me, I speak as a writer, especially one who writes mythologically based stories. I don’t use the term fantasy because to so many it means fairies and toad stools. Mythology, however, tells us truths, be the story itself fiction or non-fiction. In the case of the opening chapters of Genesis it is mythology in the sense so defined.

From all I’ve read and learned I surmise that the stories came down from the memory of man of the creation and the fall of man, but as gathered together and written down by Moses and later compiled by the Hebrew scholars, they were refined and inspired by the Holy Spirit into the word of God. Men would remember how we came to lose paradise, but those memories often can get blurred, hence the fantastic stories of the pagans about Zeus and the panatheon of gods, etc.

In the writings of the Hebrews, however, we see the truth of these stories because God chose Abraham and Moses to speak to his people, and thus to us through them. That they used existing memories passed down should reinforce the veracity of creation stories of Genesis, not question them. If there had been no fall of man and no command of God why remember it? Why invent such stories? Why invent gods in the pagan world if there were no one to whom we need to answer, who made man?

We need to keep in mind that God works in and through nature. One aspect of human nature is to pass down truths in the form of stories–it makes them easier to remember besides being compelling. It’s why God gave us Christ through the Incarnation. What could be more memorable than the birth of the God-man to a humble Jewish maid and after giving himself in teaching and healing, to die a horrible death, but then more, to rise from the dead? It’s the story that is the essence of mythology, but it’s not fable, it’s true. It’s not blurred memories or invented ideas, it is witnessed and confirmed in history. It’s so compelling even non-believers celebrate Jesus’ birth every year with good will and gifts. What better way for God to reach out to us than through that which speaks to us at the deepest levels?

If you refer to accounts in the OT that refer to outright public “miracles” or even seeming logically impossible happenings … then I am not aware of any that a good Catholic must believe as literally true.

God literally did miraculous things in the Old Testament. Jesus speaks of events in the Old Testament as literally true and “in fulfillment of the prophecy” appears in the New Testament. The prophecies of that time were not through the will of men but God speaking through them.


Such as?

Mutations seem to be random before the filter of natural selection kicks in. We haven’t found any evidence of any useful mutations coming up, triggered by certain needs of the organism.

Because we see mutations as random events it doesn’t follow that they are random from God’s point of view. I think of the minuscule chance of my grandfather having met and married my grandmother - a “random” event in our eyes.

That’s what Theistic evolution asserts. It is undistinguishable from evolution as being driven by natural causes alone, but we believers think that God is behind the whole process, in a way which is not detectable by us. Same as my grandfather having met my grandmother “by chance”.

Since the OT was written by the Jewish people, for the Jewish people, we should consider how they interpret it.

It is only after we have Jesus that we see that God has come into the world to be with all people. The Gospel is for all people.

I think it is important that we retain an understanding of the OT since Jesus makes many analogies to it in the NT. That is to say, one cannot understanding what Jesus is saying unless one also understands the context of the references he makes to the OT.

But none of the references that Jesus makes require that you hold to a literal-only understanding of the OT. Jesus treats the OT the way the Jewish people did, where it has meaning on many different levels, especially in a mythological sense.

By mythological I mean that the real people or events described contain a universal principal or truth that applies to all.

For the Catholic Church, literal is not the real issue. How the Torah is interpreted is not the real issue. Nor are all 50 chapters of the book of Genesis the real issue. In today’s society, when one puts together Catholicism and the first three chapters of Genesis, one refers to the duly defined Catholic Doctrines which flow from those chapters.

Catholic doctrines, dear gentle readers, is the real issue. It would be interesting to know how many basic fundamental Catholic doctrines, including the mystery of Christ, flow from the first three chapters of Genesis in some manner or form. The Catholic Church knows very well that we cannot tamper with the revelation of Original Sin without undermining the mystery of Christ.

Information source. Genesis 2: 15-17; Genesis 3: 11; Romans 5: 12-21;
1 Corinthians 15: 21-22; I Corinthians 15: 45; CCC 389; CCC 410-411.

There is no scientific evidence of a recent worldwide flood. None at all. Local floods, yes, but not a year-long worldwide flood.

Answers in Genesis are not a reliable source because they explicitly say that they will ignore any scientific evidence that does not conform to their interpretation of the Bible:

4.6 By definition, no apparent, perceived or claimed evidence in any field, including history and chronology, can be valid if it contradicts the scriptural record. Of primary importance is the fact that evidence is always subject to interpretation by fallible people who do not possess all information.

– AiG Statement of Faith

Geology and genetics both show that there was no recent worldwide flood. AiG ignores the inconvenient evidence. You would do well not to follow them; ignoring evidence will lead you to incorrect conclusions.


There is absolute consensus that there was no worldwide flood.

This does not contradict our Catholic faith.

Hmm. this leads me to a question…(I’ve been away from this tread for awhile)…So does this mean that there was a flood, but it was not world wide? The bible does not say it was world wide per se, does it?

Originally Posted by Hans W View Post
There is absolute consensus that there was no worldwide flood.

To say that there is “absolute consensus”. That is a rather BIG statement, don’t you think? It seems that logically it might not be able to stand, but perhaps it depends on how you mean it.

This does not contradict our Catholic faith.

How did you smuggle this sentence into my post and use it as my quote??

To answer your question: There is absolute consensus amongst historians, palaeontologists, geologists, biologists, etc.

You only insist on a worldwide flood if you demand that the Bible has to be taken as a historically and scientifically accurate record.

Sorry about that… :o

Anyways, so you are saying that there is some evidence of a great flood in localized areas of the third planet from the Sun.??

I have not researched this topic myself, so I have no definite opinion on it one way or another.

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