Can the Bible Be Taken Literally?

burning witch at stakeNot long ago, I attended an unusual Jewish ceremony — five adults were officially converted to Judaism in a b’nai mitzvah.

Judaism is not a proselytizing religion, so conversions are infrequent. The reading of the Hebrew Torah, what Christians call the Old Testament, is the central feature of the ceremony, as it is in every Jewish service.

Each person prepared a commentary on the passage to be read in the synagogue that week, which contained rules for the ancient priesthood from Leviticus. There was a sentence about how adulterous women should be put to death, Leviticus 21:9 “And the daughter of any priest, if she profane herself by playing the whore, she profaneth her father: she shall be burnt with fire.” But the words I keep thinking about excluded various kinds of handicapped people from full religious rights as Jews.

In Leviticus 21:18-20, the Lord tells Jews that the following people were not allowed to make offerings to him: “A blind man, or a lame, or he that hath a flat nose, or any thing superfluous, or a man that is brokenfooted, or brokenhanded, or crookbackt, or a dwarf, or that hath a blemish in his eye.”

The rabbi, Barry Marks, like the other participants in the service, wanted to be clear that he disagreed with these ideas, because they represent attitudes which have caused untold grief in this world and which we have recently learned how to get beyond, if not yet fully successfully. He also offered a way of understanding the very different people who lived under those rules and what they might have been thinking so long ago.

There are many passages in both the Torah and the New Testament which represent ideas and beliefs that I reject, and that American society for the most part rejects, officially and personally. For example, in Deuteronomy, God demands that Jews kill anyone who tries to entice them from proper worship of Him as the only God. That seems to contradict His other injunction, “Thou shall not kill.”

In my course on the Holocaust, which I will teach again in the fall, I quote this passage about Jews from John 8.42-47, said to be from the mouth of Jesus: “If God were your Father, ye would love me … Ye are of your father the devil  … ye are not of God.” For centuries, Christian leaders, Catholic and Protestant, defended anti-Semitic practices by pointing to that and similar passages in the New Testament. Only after the Holocaust, in which Christians all over Europe participated in the mass murder of Jews, did Christian religious leaders finally reject their validity as representing truth.

Transforming social assumptions is a long and contentious process. Until just a couple of centuries ago, slavery was taken for granted as a normal organizing principle of human society. Many passages in both Bibles describe slavery as a matter of fact. Enlightenment thinkers in Europe began to question the morality of slavery in the 18th century. They also developed new ideas about government, which inspired our Revolutionary American founders. Although many early American leaders disapproved of slavery, legal inequality was so deeply integrated into American society and economy that the continuation of slavery was written into our Constitution. Slavery’s presence in the Bible allowed its defenders in America to quote scripture as proof that God accepted slavery.

Judgments about slavery are one of many areas where fundamental moral understandings have changed since the Bibles were written. In contemporary America, we see this gradual process of emancipating society from ideas written down thousands of years ago in the controversy about how to think about homosexuality. Both those who accept homosexuality and those who condemn it can find Biblical passages to support their social ideology.

There are many Biblical passages which reflect ideas that modern people find abhorrent.

Disagreements about how to understand the Bible are often arguments about which passages are to be taken as moral guides and which ones should be ignored. Arguments about how to understand religious texts divide every religion. Jewish fundamentalists assert that words in the Torah prove that Jews should control parts of the Middle East where other people live. Muslims argue about whether the Koran tells them to kill all “infidels” or not.

Steve HockstadtI don’t understand the argument that everything in the Bible should be taken literally. I see that argument used to support many ideas that lots of people have. I don’t hear it used to support ideas that few people have and that have become unmentionable, from burning adulterous women to having slaves to the difficulty of rich people getting to heaven, as Jesus is supposed to have said. I see people who claim to take the Bible literally adopting very different stances toward passages which fit their social ideology from other passages which contradict their economic self-interest.

The Bible is a sprawling document full of contradictions. So-called literalists choose which passages they want to take literally on the basis of principles which are very modern, far from the ideas and attitudes of Jews and Christians thousands of years ago.

Steve Hochstadt

Steve Hochstadt of Jacksonville is a professor of history at Illinois College. His column appears every Tuesday in the Journal-Courier and is available and on his blog at


  1. says

    The Bible is a collection of stories, editorial thought, politics, myths and more, but little if anything written there can be taken as truth. The insistence to do so really makes it egregiously silly. Years ago I read Bishop Shelby Spong’s “Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism”, which says that biblical literalism is making the Bible irrelevant in an age of education, science and technology. Reading the Bible critically is a sure fire way to end with it on a shelf for fantasy, myth or folklore.

  2. Marta says

    The bible is an interesting collection of ancient myths, historical legends and some (very little) actual facts. All which justify vicious bloody wars. 95 % of it is hateful, racist , misogynistic mixed with with some really crazy stuff that must have been written while munching on hallucinogenic mushroom.

    If someone in modern times wrote like that, even the writers of the movie “Saw” would blanch, and Republicans would want to have it banned for being too violent. Yet the bible is revered as a “HOLY”, and written by god himself.

    All a tribe has to say is “God told me to” and everything is OK– genocide, incest, rape, murder, and naturally, the takeover of the enemy’s land. Because after all, “We” are good and “they” are bad. Whoever “they” is at that period of history. Which is only the right thing to do, one can’t let evil people own land, correct? Kill them, their women and their children, their blood will enrich the land and we can then virtuously take it over.

    Things haven’t changed much since that book was put together

    Fascinating how Lot is revered. What a creepy degenerate–willing to have his daughters raped by a mob so his guests would not be bothered– and God approved of his behavior.

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