The “Biblical literalist” or “believer in the God inspired” text needs to answer several questions. First, what is the literal meaning of a parable? What is the literal meaning of a symbolic narrative?
When I stand in line at the grocery store, I cannot help but notice the sensationalized magazines on the stands. For instance, the National Enquirer and Star Magazine which uses heavy doses of hyperbole to stir the gossip pot. There are good reasons as to why reasonable people do not take the headlines of the National Enquirer as dogma. As children of the Enlightenment, we have cultivated modes of testing and questioning in order to meticulously scrutinize with the goal of determining what conclusion(s) are most probable. So when the headline reads, “Doctors Say Bruce Jenner Has Baboon Genitalia,” we are in a better epistemic position to reason our way through the possibilities of fact/fiction compared to our bronze aged ancestors. In contrast, when a doctor suggests chemotherapy to treat an ailing cancer patient we expect that her suggestion has gone through the rigorous matrix of scientific investigation employed by methods verified by testable data. In modernity, we are in a better position to utilize methods and ask the right [or better] questions in order to employ proper skepticism while glancing through preposterous headlines from articles.
When it comes to the Bible we should proceed with the same calibrated caution as we would while standing in line at the grocery store. There are 3 major reasons:
1. The New Testament was not written by eyewitnesses.
2. We have no authentic original manuscripts from the New Testament.
3. New Testament scholars agree that, we have over 200,000 variations (at minimum) of New Testament writings.
The “authors” Matthew, Mark, Luke and John never identified themselves as the actual authors. The followers of Jesus, as we learn from the New Testament itself, were uneducated lower-class Aramaic-speaking Jews from Palestine. The gospels, however, were not written by people like that. The actual authors of the gospels were highly educated, Greek-speaking Christians of a later generation. Just to make sure we are on the same page: Jesus spoke Aramaic and the Gospels are written in Greek.
But wait, don’t we have original manuscripts of the Gospels that tell the story of Jesus? Actually, we have no original manuscripts. Also, the very first surviving account of Jesus’ life was written around 35-40 years after his death. Our latest canonical gospel (John) was written 60-65 years after his death. That’s a lot of time for stories to develop and morph. To bring this issue to modernity, John F. Kennedy died 51 years ago and we still have numerous conflicting stories, such that, any written biography of his life would definitely stir conflicting narratives.
As of today, 94% of our surviving Greek manuscripts of the New Testament date from after the ninth Christian century. That is 800 years (years!) after the so-called originals. What good do these late manuscripts do us? They do us a lot of good if we want to know what text of Mark, Paul, or 1 Peter was being read 800 years after the originals were produced. But they are of much less value for knowing what the authors themselves wrote, eight centuries earlier.
One more reason to raise our suspicion is that even though we have over 5,000 manuscripts from the Bible, scholars since the 16th century have found over 200,000 variations. It might be helpful for us to know the famous passage in John 8 that provides us the catch phrase, “He who is without sin cast the first stone,” is nowhere to be found in the earliest manuscripts. Pentecostals and snake-handlers in rural Kentucky should know that the last 12 verses in the book of Mark is gone as well. Much doctrine has been built off of those 12 verses that were later inserted hundreds of years later. Then there is the infamous I John 5:7-8 where we find the complete trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Trouble is that later scribes inserted this in the text to justify their own views- hundreds of years later.
I want to provide a caveat here to address a very common remark that apologist make when confronted with mistakes in Scripture. Their claim goes like this: “Well, there may be small mistakes in the Bible, but the core principles are all there.” First, we don’t know what was really there because we have no original manuscripts. Second, we have enough information in our manuscripts today to show that Jesus did not consider himself to be God (see Bart D. Ehrman’s “How Jesus Became God”). Third, as I already mentioned: we have over 200,000 variations!
One core doctrine that is in conflict is that of salvation by faith or works. Paul – who never met Jesus – spent his time propagating a high Christology of that salvation coming through faith, not works. Romans is filled with this doctrine. Yet, my favorite passage in all of Scriptures turns Paul’s theology upside down. In Matthew 25:31-46, the author is describing the Son of Man separating his sheep (“Christians”) on his right with the goats (non-Christians) on his left. Take a look.
“For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in; 36 naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me. 37 Then the righteous will answer Him, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, and feed You, or thirsty, and give You something to drink? 38 And when did we see You a stranger, and invite You in, or naked, and clothe You? 39 When did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’ 40 The King will answer and say to them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me.”
As you can see, Jesus excludes faith and shows that the fruits you bear through good works is what makes you a sheep rather than a goat. Contra to Paul, salvation is through good works. This comes as no surprise to me. I spent 3 years in seminary with one of the best Koine Greek scholars, and the amount of linguistic gymnastics used to harmonize the New Testament is simply unbelievable. But when belief-driven indoctrination has metastasized to the heart, it easily distorts judgment. This is why it should not surprise us that millions of Christians, Mormons, and Muslims believe extraordinary things with little evidence. The most prevalent spiritual gift of religion is intellectual gymnastics.
All this to say we should be careful to assert that the Bible is “God-breathed” or “God inspired.” Rather, the Bible is inspired by humans communicating meaningful stories within their own historical matrix. I am not saying that the Bible is irrelevant or should be discarded. To the contrary, the Bible should be affirmed and held in high esteem in a metaphorical way.
The woman caught in adultery (John 8) who is unfairly judged can teach a moral lesson about the dangers of judging other people. And Matthew 7:5 can challenge us to remove the telephone post in our own eye before we try and remove the splinter in someone’s eye. And how does the Bible – and Jesus – empathize with our struggles? Well, just as Jesus had to go through the dangerous and forbidden Samaria, so we too go through our own “Samaria” with the hope of a future peace. Samaria can represent loss, grief and the pain we go through in life. Did Jesus speak of a literal splinter in someone’s eye? Did Jesus ever go through Samaria? I don’t care. I don’t even care if we find proof that Jesus never existed.
The point is the meaning we get from the passage. When we can get to the point of seeing meaningful metaphors, we can stop using Scripture to indoctrinate and use it, rather, for personal flourishing.