Was Jesus a Biblical literalist?

By Kim Michaels

Obviously, we have to some degree answered this question already, because we have seen that Jesus was constantly attacked by the scribes and Pharisees. They were the religious fundamentalists of the time, and they obviously would not have attacked Jesus if he had not gone beyond their literal interpretations of the scriptures. Yet let us probe a bit deeper.

Imagine that at Jesus’ time there had been a group of people who said to Jesus: “Sorry Jesus, but we can’t accept your claim to be the Messiah. The Torah is clearly the infallible word of God, and thus it is complete and can tell us everything we need to know about God for all eternity. It simply isn’t possible that God would send you to tell us something that goes beyond what God has already told us in the Torah. Therefore, you must be a fraud. Have a nice day!”

If you see Jesus as the Son of God, as the Messiah or even if you see him as a genuine spiritual teacher, you would think such a claim to be ridiculous. Obviously, these people had turned the Torah into a closed box, and they were essentially saying to God that he could no longer talk to humankind and give us a progressive revelation of spiritual truth.

Yet now consider that many modern Christians actually believe the Bible in its present form is the infallible word of God and can tell us everything we need to know about life. They say that Jesus came to bring the final revelation, and thus God’s revelation to humankind stopped 2,000 years ago.

Even though society has changed so dramatically that it almost defies comprehension, God still does not have anything new to say to us. Even though modern people face a vastly different situation than people at Jesus’ time – and therefore have different spiritual needs – God has nothing new to offer us. Thus, we are left to interpret the existing scriptures. Yet we are not allowed to interpret these scriptures based on the expanded knowledge we have today. No, we are supposed to interpret them literally. Yet what exactly does that mean?

Here is the dictionary’s definition of the word literal:

1. in accordance with, involving, or being the primary or strict meaning of the word or words; not figurative or metaphorical: the literal meaning of a word.

2. following the words of the original very closely and exactly.

3. true to fact; not exaggerated; actual or factual: a literal description of conditions.

That seems clear enough, but here is the definition of interpretation:

1. the act of interpreting; elucidation; explication: The writer’s work needs interpretation.

2. an explanation of the meaning of another’s artistic or creative work; an elucidation: an interpretation of a poem.

Do you see that the word “literal” and the word “interpretation” are – literally – incompatible? Literal means that you do not go beyond the obvious meaning of the words, whereas interpretation means that you explain a hidden meaning. Thus, it makes no sense to talk about a literal interpretation. You can be literal about the Bible and you can interpret the Bible, but you cannot interpret the Bible literally—at least not if you want to be consistent.

Is this just a play on words? Well, consider the quote mentioned earlier:

But without a parable spake he not unto them: and when they were alone, he expounded all things to his disciples. (Mark 4:34)

Jesus is clearly teaching the multitudes in parables, but what is a parable? Here is the dictionary’s definition:

1. a short allegorical story designed to illustrate or teach some truth, religious principle, or moral lesson.

2. a statement or comment that conveys a meaning indirectly by the use of comparison, analogy, or the like.

A parable is a story that seeks to convey a point indirectly—meaning that a parable is not meant to be interpreted literally. If you interpret a parable literally, you will miss the point. Consider the following parable:

2. And the Pharisees and scribes murmured, saying, This man receiveth sinners, and eateth with them.

3. And he spake this parable unto them, saying,

4. What man of you, having an hundred sheep, if he lose one of them, doth not leave the ninety and nine in the wilderness, and go after that which is lost, until he find it?

5. And when he hath found it, he layeth it on his shoulders, rejoicing.

6. And when he cometh home, he calleth together his friends and neighbours, saying unto them, Rejoice with me; for I have found my sheep which was lost. (Luke, 15)

If you insist on interpreting this parable literally, you must reason that Jesus is talking only about shepherds and sheep. Thus, those of us who don’t own a flock of sheep should ignore this parable. A literal interpretation will not allow you to say that Jesus is talking about sinners as the lost sheep. Yet that is clearly Jesus’ intention, as revealed in the following verse:

7. I say unto you, that likewise joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, more than over ninety and nine just persons, which need no repentance.

Another obvious example is the following:

31. Another parable put he forth unto them, saying, The kingdom of heaven is like to a grain of mustard seed, which a man took, and sowed in his field:

32. Which indeed is the least of all seeds: but when it is grown, it is the greatest among herbs, and becometh a tree, so that the birds of the air come and lodge in the branches thereof. (Matthew 13)

Obviously, Jesus did not mean to say that the kingdom of God is like a seed or that its purpose is to provide a nesting place for the birds. Thus, how could one possibly understand the deeper meaning through a literal interpretation? It seems clear that Jesus’ disciples were not content with a literal interpretation:

Then answered Peter and said unto him, Declare unto us this parable. (Matthew 15:15)

It also seems clear that Jesus did not want his disciples to settle for a literal interpretation; he wanted them to find a deeper understanding:

15. Then answered Peter and said unto him, Declare unto us this parable.

16. And Jesus said, Are ye also yet without understanding? (Matthew 15)

Another example is Jesus’ long parable about the sower (starting in Matthew 13:3) whose seeds fall on different types of ground. Jesus goes on to explain the parable (Matthew 13:18), and his explanation goes far beyond what one could have gleaned from a literal interpretation of the actual parable. Yet why does Jesus even use parables, why not simply give people a direct explanation of his point?

10. And the disciples came, and said unto him, Why speakest thou unto them in parables?

11. He answered and said unto them, Because it is given unto you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it is not given.

12. For whosoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance: but whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken away even that he hath.

13. Therefore speak I to them in parables: because they seeing see not; and hearing they hear not, neither do they understand.

14. And in them is fulfilled the prophecy of Esaias, which saith, By hearing ye shall hear, and shall not understand; and seeing ye shall see, and shall not perceive:

15. For this people’s heart is waxed gross, and their ears are dull of hearing, and their eyes they have closed; lest at any time they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears, and should understand with their heart, and should be converted, and I should heal them. (Matthew 13)

Now compare this to what we have seen earlier, namely that Jesus challenged the scribes and Pharisees because they took a literal approach to interpreting the scriptures. Doesn’t it seem plausible that Jesus is deliberately using parables because so many people are trapped in the outer, literal approach to religion? He is using parables as a form of koan that is designed to confound the intellect, the linear mind that wants to interpret everything literally? In other words, Jesus is using parables that  must be interpreted as a tool to force people to go beyond a literal interpretation.

Is it not obvious that Jesus wanted his own disciples to go beyond a literal approach to spirituality? Is it not obvious that Jesus was not a Biblical literalist, as demonstrated by the fact that the scribes and Pharisees sought to use a literal interpretation of the scriptures to get Jesus to incriminate himself? Is it not obvious that you simply cannot understand the fullness of Jesus’ message if you insist on taking a literal approach? In fact, by doing so you will place yourself in the same frame of mind as the people who rejected Jesus and had him condemned to death. Once again, we see the choice:

  • Are you satisfied with a literal interpretation of the Bible? Will you allow Biblical literalists to inflate your fear and get you to close your mind to a deeper understanding of the fullness of Jesus’ message?
  • Do you want more? Do you want a richer understanding of what Jesus was really trying to tell us? Do you want to be one of the people about whom Jesus said: “Because it is given unto you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven?”

We now see that in order to understand Jesus’ parables, we have to go beyond a literal interpretation. And if we want to grasp the deeper truth that he taught to his disciples, we have to go way beyond a literal interpretation. Yet how can we find a deeper interpretation that is valid? How can we interpret Jesus’ teachings in such a way that we hear what Jesus wants us to hear and not what we want to hear?



Copyright © 2009 Kim Michaels