THERE are Jews today who still tie phylacteries (little boxes with biblical verses) on their foreheads and hands. Are they guilty of taking their scriptures (Dt. 6:8) too literally? Most of us would think so. There are sections of Scripture that are not expected to be taken literally. But does that mean that we must not read our Bibles literally?
An article by Karen Armstrong, published recently in The Straits Times, urges us to take this direction. But are we to take her suggestions literally? She faults the literal reading of Scripture as the unhelpful result of modern science’s influence when she writes, “Preoccupation with literal truth is a product of the scientific revolution, when reason achieved such spectacular results that mythology was no longer regarded as a valid path to knowledge.” She therefore appeals to pre-modern times when “Jews, Christians and Muslims all relished highly allegorical interpretations of scripture”. We need to examine this more closely.
One of the centres in the ancient world that promoted the allegorical reading of Scripture was Alexandria in Egypt. And one of its famous sons was Philo (20 BC – 50 AD), a Hellenistic Jew of great learning. Philo was familiar with how Greek philosophers had tried to interpret ancient Greek poetry depicting the unacceptable behaviour of the gods, by interpreting them allegorically. As a Jew deeply influenced by the fashionable Greek culture of his day, and he was not a Christian, Philo tended to read his scriptures allegorically. He therefore saw the account of the fall of the human race in Gen. 3 allegorically, where Adam, Eve and the serpent represent various spiritual realities.
However, even the allegorically-inclined Philo did not encourage his fellow-Jews to give up the literal observance of the Law. In fact, he argued that to think that spiritual and moral virtue could be achieved without obeying the Law literally would be arrogant and misguided. He elaborated, “We shall be ignoring the sanctity of the Temple and of a thousand other things if we are going to pay heed to nothing except what is shown us by the inner meaning of things.”
It is important that we interpret the Bible properly. As Paul wrote to Timothy, we need to be like a “workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth”. (2 Tim. 2:15). To do this we must answer two basic questions.
What is the Bible?
Our starting point is creedal – our fundamental belief – that the Bible is the “God-breathed”, Holy Spirit inspired Word of God (2 Tim. 3:16-17). In this sense, it is “Holy Scriptures” (as our Methodist Articles of Religion say) and has authority over our lives. It should not be reduced to an anthology of folk tales which we are free to interpret in any allegorical way we like.
As a collection of 66 books, the Bible contains different types of literature. When the Risen Christ explained the Scriptures to His disciples, He went through the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms (Lk. 24:44-45). The Bible has different sections in the Bible that may have to be interpreted differently. A didactic (teaching) passage e.g., the epistles of Paul, would have to be interpreted differently from some of the poetry of the Psalms. We know that the rivers have no hands to clap (Ps. 98.8), but we also know that, “And whatever you do … do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus” (Col. 3:17), means what it plainly says.
Because the Bible is God’s Word, Bible reading is a spiritual act. It requires the illumination of the Holy Spirit, described in Lk. 24:45 as Jesus opening our minds. Without God’s enabling, we cannot truly understand the Bible.
This brings us to the second question we must answer:
How should we read the Bible?
We need to humbly turn to Church Tradition and its long history interpretation. The ancient Church Fathers are particularly useful and authoritative guides.
They taught that the Bible should be read in four ways: literally, allegorically, devotionally and ethically. We do well to pay close attention to them.
THE first two ways demonstrate what was discussed above – that the Bible uses different kinds of literature and therefore needs different tools for proper interpretation. In the early church, there were two major centres of biblical interpretation: Alexandria (allegorical school) and Antioch (literal school). Both had their illustrious champions. Antioch focused on the careful study of the text, context, language, history and culture in order to arrive at the meaning of the text – quite akin to modern biblical scholarship. Alexandria focused more on the underlying spiritual meaning of texts.
In reality though, it was not an either-or option. Origen, the biggest allegoriser of all, appreciated the literal meaning of texts, while the interpreters in Antioch were aware that biblical texts may have several layers of meaning. This careful and multi-pronged approach would do better justice to biblical texts.
For example, we may not take some parts of the Sermon on the Mount literally – e.g., plucking our eyes or cutting our hands to fight temptation ( Mt. 5:29-30), but that does not mean that the rest of the Sermon should not be approached literally. The listeners of Jesus and the early readers of the New Testament would have had fewer problems than we in deciding when to use which interpretive tool.
The Fathers’ devotional and ethical ways of reading the Bible focus on the effect our Bible reading should have on us. It should produce godliness and devotion to God, and holiness in life. The issue is not just how we interpret the Bible but also how we live as a result. Reading the text, listening to God, and obeying God are parts of a whole process in which we approach the Bible (cf. Mt. 7:24-27).
We are thus to approach the Bible with multiple tools, and a literary reading of Scripture is one of the key tools. As John Wesley wrote, we should take the “plain, literal meaning of any text, taken in connexion with the context”. And as we approach the Bible, we would realise that more important than our reading and interpretation of the Bible is its reading and interpretation of us.
‘We need to humbly turn to Church Tradition and its long history of Bible interpretation. The ancient Church Fathers … taught that the Bible should be read in four ways: literally, allegorically, devotionally and ethically. We do well to pay close attention to them.’