How much of the bible is literal?

Hello, I’m kind of new here but I have a question. How much of the bible is to be taken literally and how much is to be taken symbolically? For example, was there really an Abraham, or is that just some sort of symbolic story?

I’m pretty confused, although I take the Genesis creation story as an allegory.

Are there any parts of the bible to be ingored entirely?

Just so you all know, I have an NAB St. Joseph bible (which is awesome).

So, how much is folklore and how much is truth?


The church requires belief in the exact literal reading of only a handful or scripture passages (the Eucharist, the resurrection, etc). You don’t have to do a literal reading of most of Genesis but you do have to believe the truths expressed in Genesis - there is much more to truth than historical truth. You might want to look at Dei Verbum (available online) for some help with this - it discusses the various literary forms in scripture and how the authors used their own manner of speaking to express the truths. Also the Instruction on the Historical Truth of the Gospels is appropriate.

Another reference for this subject is the text used in many adult education scripture classes: And God Said What?, An Introduction to Biblical Literary Forms by Margaret Ralph.

In summary, this is a complex, commonly divisive topic and you will get as many opinions on it as there are members of these forums.

The Church has a particular methodology we should use when reading the Bible. If we use a different methodology, we probably won’t arrive at the right conclusions, i.e., the truth.

The Church’s Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation (Dei Verbum), outlines how we are to view Scripture, etc. You can probably read it in one sitting.

Basically, there are three things to keep in mind when reading Scripture:

  1. Always read it as a totality (as a whole) rather than in snippets apart from the context of the whole. The Bible has a mystery of unity, just like the Trinity.

  2. Always read the Bible in light of Sacred Tradition, i.e., the oral teachings of Jesus given to the Apostles, who passed it on to their successors, the bishops, through 2000 years.

  3. Always read the Bible through the analogy of the faith, i.e., the teachings of the living Magisterium of the Church (the Pope and the bishops).

There is a unity among the Holy Trinity, whereby, wherever you find One Person of the Trinity, you necessarily find the Other Two. Always. The same applies to the Word of God. Wherever you find one element of Divine Revelation, you necessarily find the other two. Always. For example, wherever you find Sacred Tradition, you also find Holy Scripture and the Magisterium. Wherever you find the Magisterium, you find Holy Scripture and Sacred Tradition. Wherever you find the Magisterium, you find Sacred Tradition and Holy Scripture.

You can find a good explanation of this by Fr. John Corapi at the following link:

Just download the series “Word of God,” parts 1-6. They’re MP3 audio files. And they’re free. :slight_smile:

God bless! :slight_smile:

The word folklore refers to tales or stories created by men. The Bible had human authors but they were all inspired by God. That is the first thing to know. The second thing is this: The Church teaches Adam and Eve were our parents, the parents of all. They committed Original Sin. That is why Jesus Christ had to die for our sins.

Keep in mind that God, being God, can do things we cannot do.

“Genesis does not contain purified myths.” Pontifical Biblical Commission, 1909.


While some of the first three chapters in Genesis use figurative language, it is essential to know that Adam and Eve are our first real parents and that original sin was a real event.

Basic Catholic teaching **regarding Adam and Human Nature **is found in the
Catechism of the Catholic Church, Second Edition, ISBN: 1-57455-109-4
Paragraphs 355-421.

The good news of Jesus Christ follows in Paragraph 422, etc.

One can put the word paragraph and its number in the Catechism’s search bar in link

Entering topics is also very useful since the Catechism does expand on the basics and implications. Do check out the Index.

When one enters a paragraph number, like “paragraph 355”, and then clicks on the opening line, CCC Search Result - Paragraph # 355 the following is under the paragraph:

»Table of Contents


Genesis 1: 1

Along with everything else you’ll hear here, you need to keep clear in your mind the distinction between a *literal *reading of Scripture (the primary meaning and the one that the Sacred authors had in mind when they wrote the words down) and a *literalistic *interpretation (primarily used by fundamentalists who often disregard things like literary genre, historical and cultural conditions of the time, turns of phrases and figures of speech used by the writers, and the immediate and overall context of the verse, passage, and the biblical book as a whole and how it fits into the entire scheme of Divine Revelation)

Having said that, here is the guidance the Church gives us from the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

I’d highly recommend Mark Shea’s useful book about this topic, “Making Senses Out of Scripture.”

Here’s a short article by him to give you a taste of it.

The Jews refer to the first five books of the Bible as the Torah. Torah is commonly taken to mean “law” but the Jews resolutely point out that the word means “instruction.”

So, the Jews are a step or two ahead of Christians in making a clear distinction about the contents of those books of the Bible.

From the standpoint of archeology, nothing in the Bible can authenticated until the time of King David. And, then, they have only found some piece of pottery or rock that refers to David’s house, or something like that.

From the standpoint of biology and DNA analysis, modern Jews and other Palestinians are genetically indistinguishable, it is said. That runs counter to the general upshot of the OT history, that Abraham and his descendents came down to Canaan to live among an existing people.

A lot of scholarship puts the writing or re-writing of the Torah at somewhere around the time of the second Temple. Some of the Torah is very ancient, based on names of God, people, and places which are not found in later periods.

There are subtle inconsistencies in the Torah which suggest that parts of it were written by different scribes perhaps in different times according to different traditions, but later integrated without much attempt to smooth over the inconsistencies.

The Dead Sea scrolls are the oldest manuscripts of the Old Testament. The Septuagint in Greek was composed later (as I recall reading), and the text used by the Jews today is the Masoretic text, whose copy is dated to somewhere in the eighth century AD (or CE).

The first creation account, in Genesis Chapter 1, is a very poetic construction, very carefully arranged. Even in English you can see the repetition of words and the emphasis on the use of the number seven, e.g. seven days of creation.

But, in Hebrew, the verses are composed of seven words or multiples of seven words.

Seven is the number of days for anything important that occured in the ancient times. It would have been unbelievable or unseemly for creation to have been anything but seven days. Weddings, funerals, coronations, parties (see Esther), etc. were seven days duration. It took so long to travel, a one-day wedding would have been unthinkable, for example.

The second account of creation starting in Gen Chap 2 is so different from the first, you have to throw away your pencil assuming that these accounts are literal. They’re something else. They’re Torah. They’re instruction.

Alright, thanks to everyone who replied! Lots of useful links and information. :slight_smile:

If I have any more questions I’ll post them here, so thanks again. :smiley:

All of the folklore in the Bible is truth.

This much more recent teaching from the Pontifical Biblical Commission may also help:

Taking the Genesis creation story as an allegory is a proper first step to take and a step which will at least lessen the confusion. For example, what really IS the tree of knowledge of good and evil? No such thing exists literally. Do a search: The First Scandal.

The tree of the knowledge of good and evil symbolically evokes the insurmountable limits that humans must freely recognize and respect with trust

As a creature, the first human Adam could live in the friendship of God as long as he freely submitted to the commands of his Creator. Adam was dependent on God and subject to the laws of creation and to the moral norms that govern the use of freedom. Adam let his trust in his Creator die in his heart and abusing his freedom preferred himself to God. By his act of disobedience, Adam chose himself over and against God and against the requirements of his creaturely status.


Our first parent Adam was the apple of God’s eye.
(example of reality and figurative language)

I don’t quite agree with this. For example, Holy Scripture says the seventh day is to be kept holy. But we find Sacred Tradition saying we keep Sunday holy.

Is that the official teaching of the Catholic Church, from its Magisterium? Are you saying that in the first 3 chapters of Genesis, the real characters/events are only Adam and Eve, and original sin, while the rest are not real or did not actually happen as narrated?

This is a very good post. We need to remember that what Protestants mean by “literal” is not what we mean by “literal”. The Protestant “literal” is usually what people think of when they hear the word.

I’m curious. What is a “purified” myth? Does this mean 100% myth? So, Genesis is not 100% myth, but only part myth and part real?


I did the search and was directed to a blog that contained the most ridiculous suggestion for interpreting the Adam and Eve story that I have ever come into contact with. You can’t possibly be in earnest in suggesting this.

It has been my understanding and experience that the Church does not use the Bible for teaching. As a matter of fact I spent 12 years in Catholic school and never once opened the Bible. I read that the official doctrine is the Church or the Pope super-cedes all teachings over the Bible. As far as the Bible being true - Jesus said of His Father - Your word is truth - concerning the existing Hebrew scriptures because the scriptures pointed to identifying Jesus as the Messiah. Also Jesus made many references to the scriptures including the flood, Sodom and Gomorrah, and Adam and Eve. If these were just “allegories” then what Jesus taught could not have been - truth - an effective illustration - a method to reach the heart of the people. I firmly believe the accounts in the Bible are true and historical accounts written for people then and now to come to know who God is and his purpose for man. If the Bible was not true than why even use it?

I am very sorry to hear that you spent 12 years in a Catholic school and never opened a bible. If that is true, then that school needs to drastically improve its RE.

This is simply not true, whoever wrote this was either misinformed or being deliberately misleading.

No one has suggested that the Scriptures are untrue. The Catholic teaching on this matter is that the bible is in fact inerrant. The questions is, how do we arrive at this truth.

  1. A strictly literal interpretation of all the passages, paying no mind to their various purposes and forms.

  2. A reading which takes seriously, what it was that the author intended to say (and therefore, considers the genre and purpose of the piece). (The church takes this approach).

This being said, I would be reluctant to nominate any bible story, and disregard it completely as ‘non historical’. Rather it is a passage which expresses a historical truth through the normal mediums of speech / story. It utilises different forms, puts words on the mouths of characters, uses various literary devices (metaphors, anthropomorphisations etc). The bible is true, when read properly. If anyone say’s that one gains the truth of scripture by reading it literally, let them explain the many contrary interpretations given by various protestant churches.

Every Sunday at the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, the Catholic Church reads two passages from the Old Testament and one from the New Testament. Then the priest gives a homily on the readings. One passage from the Old Testament and one from the New Testament are read at the weekday Masses along with a shorter homily.

As a child, I learned Scripture from listening at the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass even though I did not read the actual Bible. While we may not have opened a real Bible in school, we did learn all about the life of Christ and the early Church in addition to the key figures in the Old Testament.

For years now, Catholic schools including the lower grades have been using Bibles. Parishes often have study groups. EWTN has had various shows on the Bible. The Rosary is based on Scripture.

Catholic Dogma is proclaimed on the basis of Scripture and tradition. The Pope and Bishops are the teachers of Catholic Doctrine along with priests, religious communities, and lay people.

What you posted about the Bible is very true. Thank you.


John 3: 16&17

DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in these forums do not necessarily reflect those of Catholic Answers. For official apologetics resources please visit