What does it mean to take the Bible literally?

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People often ask if Christians should take the Bible literally. Some people complain that Christians take the Bible too literally, others complain that Christians don't take the Bible literally enough. What should we do?

What does literally mean?

First, we should look at what we mean by the word 'literally'? The word 'literally' is formed from the word 'literal' and the suffix '-ly', which turns the noun into an adverb. The word 'literal', comes from mediaeval English via Norman French, which in turn comes from Latin 'litteralis', which means related to letters or to writing, which in turn comes from the Latin 'litera' meaning a letter, from which we get the word 'literature'. The words 'literal', 'literally' and 'literature' are related. So, we could say that the word 'literally' literally means according to the literature, but is often used to mean according to the exact meaning of the word.

When 'literally' isn't meant literally

A problem here arises in that words have meaning in context, and not always according to the strict dictionary definition. Effectively, 'literally' can mean either the meaning according to the exact word used, or the meaning according to the literary style or genre. This is confused by the fact that some people also use the word 'literally' to mean 'figuratively', for example if someone says 'That was so beautiful I literally died', which of course they didn't. This is nothing new, Charlotte Brontë wrote in Villette, published in 1853, 'she took me to herself, and proceeded literally to suffocate me with her unrestrained spirits', which of course she didn't. Likewise we should be aware that when Christians claim to be taking the Bible literally, they may not always be doing so.

Styles of Literature

The issue with the Bible is that the Bible includes many different styles of literature, and the meaning of words and phrases depends upon the context of the literature, and of the historical and cultural context of the writer.


Poetry crafts words to build a picture. Poetry is not meant to be read literally in the sense of word for word meaning, but is meant to be read literally in the sense of according to the literature. When we read in Isaiah 55:12 that 'all the trees of the field shall clap their hands', this should be read according to the poetic literature. Large chunks of the Bible, not just Psalms and Song of Solomon, are poetic. Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and various songs known as canticles, and some passages, are also poetry in Hebrew, although that is not always apparent in the English translation.


Some parts of the Bible need to be put into geographical and historical context. Often in the Bible when it talks about the 'world' it does not literally mean the whole planet but their 'world', like when we say 'my world was collapsing'. One only has to think of the verses which say there was famine over all the earth (Genesis 41:56), the whole world sought an audience with Solomon (1 Kings 10:24), and there were people of every nation under heaven at Pentecost (Acts 2:5), to know that we do not have to believe this meant the whole planet.

A good example is the well-known passage often heard at Christmas, which tells us that 'there went out a decree from Cæsar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed' (Luke 2:20 KJV). This is literally what the Greek says, but it is not literally what the Greek means. In context when this says that 'all the world' should be taxed, it means the Roman world i.e. the Roman Empire, because Cæsar could not tax areas outside his Empire. The New International Version (NIV) translates this as 'a census should be taken of the entire Roman world', by inserting the word 'Roman' to make it clear. Either translation is literal - one translates literally according to the words, and one literally according to the meaning.

Taking verses out of context

Some people claim they are taking bits of the Bible literally, when actually they are not. For example Leviticus 17:12 forbids eating blood in the context of dietary rules, and so some take this to ban blood transfusions, claiming they are taking the verse literally. Yet 'eating' literally means digesting something via the mouth and it being processed by the stomach, which of course does not include blood transfusions. So using this verse to ban blood transfusions is not taking it literally, but adding quite a new unintended interpretation.


Another aspect of language is that there are many forms of wording where the meaning of the words is different to those words at face value. We know in English that there are idioms like 'raining cats and dogs' where it does not literally mean that pets are falling from clouds. It is an idiom.

In the Bible, there are many idioms which should not be read literally according to the words, but not literally according to the meaning. For example the phrase 'the blind leading the blind' (Matthew 15:14) refers to a situation where people lacking in a particular skill are led by others who are equally inept. The phrase 'an eye for an eye' (Exodus 21:24; Lev. 24:20) was literal in one sense, but came to refer to seeking revenge or justice in a fair and equitable measured way (Matthew 5:38).

Hyperbole and Figures of Speech

Other times language uses exaggeration, hyperbole and figures of speech, to emphasise a meaning. In 2 Chronicles 1:15 when it says about Solomon that the 'king made silver and gold as common in Jerusalem as stones' it is like the English expression 'the streets were paved with gold'. It does not literally mean that silver and gold were as common as stones, but it is a figure of speech, which gets over the idea that Solomon was rich and Jerusalem was wealthy.


The Bible also uses metaphor. Metaphor is a figure of speech which does not literally mean what the words say, but makes an analogy. One common metaphor is to call God a shepherd, and even today some church ministers are called pastors, which literally means shepherd, even though they don't work with sheep. In the Song of Solomon the author uses a metaphor to describe his beloved's hair as 'like a flock of goats descending from Mount Gilead' (Song of Solomon 4:1). When Jesus says 'Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother's eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?' (Matthew 7:3-5 NIV) he does not literally mean that people have planks in their eyes. He is using a metaphor and exaggeration to point out that it is hypocrisy to identify a minor sin in another person, when you have a worse sin.

Reading the Bible more deeply

However, Christians do not just read the Bible literally, in any sense of the word. Christians often read the text in deeper ways too. Exegesis is the critical interpretation of the biblical text to discover its intended meaning. Hermeneutics, or the study of biblical interpretation, often identifies different ways of reading the Scriptures typically described as the literal, the moral, and the spiritual. Sometimes we may derive a principle which we then apply to another situation. Hermeneutics is a skill which many Christian do unconsciously without thinking about it, but not always consistently. In Mark 7:6-13 we read that Jesus was not impressed with the Pharisees who used logical gymnastics to rationalise away commandments they did not like, which did not match their traditions. He complained that they nullified the Word of God by their traditions (Mark 7:13). Jesus was not impressed when they took their traditions more literally than the Scriptures they were supposed to be defending, which sometimes Christians do too.


Some parts of the Bible are read in the literal sense, particularly the narrative sections. However, sometimes some stories are read in a moral sense. When Jesus told parables, we do not read them as literal stories that actually happened. Whether or not they are stories which Jesus made up, or were real events he recounted, we do not know for sure in every case, and it does not matter. We read them as stories which tell a moral. Parables like 'the Prodigal Son' and 'the Good Samaritan' are not meant to be true stories which we take literally. They may or may not be based upon true stories, but they do not need to be literally true, for them to tell a truth. Even the disciples had to ask Jesus what they meant sometimes (e.g. Matthew 13:10 and 15:15).


Sometimes, some stories are also read in a spiritual sense, which can be allegorical or even mystical. For example in Matthew 12:40 Jesus quoted the story of Jonah in the large fish as an allegory of being in the tomb for three days. This is common in Christian theology where some Old Testament passages are seen as 'types' or foreshadowing of events in the New Testament. Whether or not the original story was an actual event or not, does not matter, because the nature of an allegory does not require it.

Commands that were meant to be taken literally

When Jesus spoke he used many forms of speech such as metaphor, exaggeration, parables, hyperbole, idioms and allegory etc, but nevertheless there are many things Jesus said that he almost certainly wanted us to take literally. Jesus said that we should love one another (John 13:34-35), forgive others (Matthew 6:14-15), not judge others (Matthew 7:1-2), give to the poor and needy (Matthew 19:21), be humble (Matthew 20:26-28), and love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us (Matthew 5:43-44), love God and love our neighbours as ourselves (Matthew 22:37-39). He meant these literally. Rather than argue about which bits of the Bible should be taken literally or not, we would do well just to take literally those commands which we know are literal.

Should we take the Bible literally?

So, should the Bible be read literally? Some parts of the Bible should be read 'literally' just according to the words, such as many of the commands from Jesus, which in fact Christians do not always obey. The Bible should always be read literally, in the sense of according to the style of literature it is in, and according to its meaning in context. Of course, the challenge here comes when we may interpret some things differently. In that case, when St Paul recommended us to not quarrel over disputable matters (Romans 14:1), and to not judge others who interpret things differently (Romans 14:13), we should bear in mind that he meant this literally!

In reality, Christians do not just read the Bible literally, simply because for most Christians the Bible should be taken much more seriously than that.