The Limitations of Literal Interpretation

Any interpreter of a foreign language recognizes the importance of knowing the culture, setting, and context. Sometimes, “Google translate” results in hilarious translations. For example, in Latin, “adversus solem ne loquitor” translates precisely to “don’t speak against the sun.” A literalist would condemn those who complain on a hot August day. Someone who understands Latin, however, can explain that this phrase means, “don’t argue what is obviously wrong.”

The Bible involves many levels of interpretation. First and foremost, it is a spiritual document, not a scientific or mathematical document. Secondly, it was written in a variety of languages, long ago, in cultures that no longer exist. In other words, there are many layers of interpretation involved, often making literal or verbatim analysis absurd on many levels.

Saint Augustine of Hippo, writing 1600 years ago, interestingly had the same problem in his youth that many today have with the Bible. He writes in Confessions that there were “many difficult passages in the Old Testament scriptures” which he “taking them literally, had found them to kill” (Confessions 88). Ignoring the ironic fact that “to kill,” of course, should not be taken literally, Augustine was simply facing the same dilemma of many Bible readers today. Noah did not put two of every animal on his ark, Jonah did not literally live inside of a whale, etc. When Augustine finally heard from a wise man expounding on the Old Testament spiritually rather than literally, he writes, “I now found fault with that despair of mine, caused by my belief that the law and the prophets could not be defended at all against the mockery of the hostile critics.” Augustine did not treat Genesis and scripture as science.

Life of Brian – Blessed are the cheesemakers


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