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How Do I Read the Bible? Let Me Count the Ways

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by Peter M. J. Hess, Director, Religious Community Outreach

Opponents of evolution often claim that their opposition is based upon a lack of supporting scientific evidence. In reality, their objection frequently stems from a separate issue: how to read the Bible and interpret the view of nature it projects.

Figure 1Figure 1

An early-twentieth-century conceptualization of ancient cosmology. Early Hebrews conceived of the universe as consisting of a disk-shaped Earth that was the center of the cosmos, in which a domelike sky was supported by pillars of heaven. From H. Wheeler Robinson's The religious ideas of the Old Testament (London: Duckworth 1913), frontispiece

The Bible reflects the specific pre-scientific world-view of the ancient Hebrew people. As shown in Fig. 1, the ancient Hebrews conceived of an Earth-centered cosmos where the Sun, Moon, and stars were small objects located below a solid dome, or firmament (Hebrew raquia) held up by pillars or columns. The Earth itself was circular, and flat. Everything – stars, Sun, Moon, Earth, and its inhabitants -- had been created in its present form in six days. They also viewed the story of Noah's flood as an historical event. In the absence of modern scientific techniques and research, it is hardly surprising that such beliefs existed.

Of course, all ancient peoples had pre-scientific cosmologies, whether Mesopotamians and Egyptians, or Mayans and Native Americans, or peoples of the Indus River valley. The worldview of the Hebrew Bible as well as other Mediterranean cosmologies could not compete on empirical grounds with the Greek cosmology worked out by Aristotle (384-322 BCE) and Ptolemy (83-168 CE), and even the Greek worldview was judged inaccurate by the time of Galileo, whose views in turn were modified and added to by numerous scientists in succeeding centuries. Very few individuals today believe in a geocentric universe, and hardly anyone believes in a flat Earth. In fact, biblical literalists today find themselves in the odd position of rejecting or reinterpreting certain elements of the pre-scientific Hebrew world view, while defending others. For example, literalists reject the flat earth described by the Bible, yet insist on a global flood deep enough to cover the tallest mountains. Most reject a geocentric cosmos while at the same time insisting on a literal six-day creation.

In light of this history, how are we to read the Bible? Some people equate the Judeo-Christian scriptures with sacred texts from other religious traditions, reducing the Bible to one collection of literature among many. Others set aside the Bible as being spiritually different from other religious texts — the Islamic Qur'an, the Hindu Bhagavad Gita, the Mayan Popol Vuh, and others.. Regardless of which attitude one takes, it is not self-evident how the Bible is to be interpreted.

Many Jewish thinkers have rejected a literal reading of scripture for centuries. Theologian Moses Maimonides, a major influence for modern Conservative Jews, wrote in 1190, "The account of creation given in scripture is not, as is generally believed, intended to be literal in all its parts" (Guide to the Perplexed, 2:29, quoted in Slifkin, 2006, p. 109). He demonstrated this aversion to literalism elsewhere in his opus, writing, "those passages in the Bible, which in their literal sense contain statements that can be refuted by proof, must and can be interpreted otherwise" (Guide to the Perplexed, 2:25, as translated by Michael Friedländer, 1904). In a letter to a friend, he explained that his approach to Biblical interpretation is:

in contrast to the efforts of the masses. For with the masses who are people of the Torah [Jewish Bible], that which is beloved to them and tasty to their folly is that they should place Torah and rational thinking as two opposite extremes, and will derive everything impossible as distinct from that which is reasonable, and they say that it is a miracle, and they flee from something being in accordance with natural law, whether something recounted from past events, with something that is in the present, or with something which is said to happen in the future. But we shall endeavor to integrate the Torah with rational thought, leading events according to the natural order wherever possible; only with something that is clarified to be a miracle and cannot be otherwise explained at all will we say that it is a miracle.

(Maimonides, Letter Concerning the Resurrection of the Dead, quoted in Slifkin, p. 109-110)

From the earliest days of the Church, Christian clerics and theologians have also argued that there are multiple layers to scriptural meaning, and multiple ways of reading the Bible. Many early Church fathers warned that when the apparent literal meaning of a biblical passage is contradicted by common knowledge, the reader must seek an allegorical, or a moral, or even a mystical interpretation of the passage. Most modern Christian theologians would consider this to be a crucial point, believing that a dogged insistence on literalism unnecessarily weakens the credibility of the Christian voice in the discussions of a pluralistic society.

Augustine of Hippo (354-430) wrote about non-Christian scholars and natural philosophers that:

If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods and on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason? Reckless and incompetent expounders of Holy Scripture bring untold trouble and sorrow on their wiser brethren when they are caught in one of their mischievous false opinions and are taken to task by those who are not bound by the authority of our sacred books.

(Augustine, On the Literal Meaning of Scripture, 1.19)

Medieval scholars distinguished among four levels of meaning of scriptural passages: (1) literal (2) allegorical (3) moral, and (4) mystical. While the literal meaning is naturally to be sought first, one should not insist upon it if so doing contradicts either other parts of scripture, observed reality, or logic. Nicole Oresme (1323-1382), proposed that logically it would be far simpler for the Earth to revolve on its axis than for the entire heavens — consisting of massive celestial bodies — to revolve daily. Oresme argued that we cannot establish this empirically (astronomical proof was found in the nineteenth century), but he contended that scriptural texts that speak of a stationary earth and a moving sun might be read allegorically rather than literally. Although ultimately Oresme concluded in favor of the standard geocentric (earth-centered) model, his treatment of scripture in light of science anticipated what would become Galileo's argument three centuries later, when Galileo quoted Cardinal Baronius in 1613 as saying that the Bible "is intended to teach us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go."

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, biblical scholars began to recognize that the Bible could not be a unitary document. Intense textual study revealed that the Bible is a collection of books in different literary genres, composed and edited during different periods of Hebrew history. This historical-critical movement — which recognized the multiple authorship of the Hebrew Bible and that much of its content was derived from the oral or written traditions of other Semitic cultures of the Ancient Near East — began to call into question the reliability of the biblical witness to secular history — independent of the Bible's value as a religious document. Many Christian and secular scholars concluded that the Book of Genesis is not a reliable guide to the history of the Earth, either in its stories of creation (Genesis 1–2), or in its account of a universal flood (Genesis 6–9.)

Currently, most mainstream Christian and Jewish denominations hold that the Bible was not intended by its authors to teach us about science — a way of knowing which did not exist at the time the Hebrew oral traditions were set in writing as the Book of Genesis. These denominations do not draw from the Bible the literal truths that the earth is flat, or that a global flood once covered Mt. Everest, or that we inhabit a geocentric cosmos, or that the world was created as we now observe it in six solar days, or that species were specially created in their present form and have not changed since the days of creation.

Rather, they read the Bible as a record of a people's developing moral relationship with the God in whom they placed their trust. In a 1981 address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, for instance, Pope John Paul II said, "Cosmogony itself speaks to us of the origins of the universe and its makeup, not in order to provide us with a scientific treatise but in order to state the correct relationship of man with God and with the universe. Sacred Scripture wishes simply to declare that the world was created by God, and in order to teach this truth, it expresses itself in the terms of the cosmology in use at the time of the writer." Viewed as such, the Bible enshrines timeless ideals about the integrity of creation and human responsibility within that creation. For these believers, part of that responsibility is using the gift of human rationality to discover the exciting story of how life ― including human life ― has developed on the earth.

Not all modern Christians have accepted this interpretation of Biblical truth, however. The late 19th and early 20th centuries saw the rise of fundamentalism within English-speaking Protestant Christianity. Largely as a reaction to the historical-critical movement, fundamentalists argued for a more "literal" interpretation of the Bible. In fact, Biblical literalism is a misnomer for this position; a more accurate description of the position developed in the set of 12 volumes entitled The Fundamentals (1910-1915, published by the Bible Institute of Los Angeles) would be "Biblical inerrantism." Few fundamentalists, for example, would argue that the earth is flat, immovable and rests atop pillars (Ps 93:1, Ps. 96:10, 1 Sam 2:8, Job 9:6), or that the sea contains invulnerable, fire-breathing monsters (Job 41), despite literal statements to this effect in the Bible. Nonetheless, fundamentalists used the principle of literalism to justify reading Genesis as a historical text, with its six-day creation of all animals and plants in their "kinds."

In the mid-20th century, an internal split occurred within the fundamentalist movement. More moderate denominations ceased to refer to themselves as "fundamentalists," and returned to the more general label of "evangelical Christian." (A caveat: terms like "fundamentalist" and "evangelical" vary in their meaning, even among those Christians who self-identify as such.) Evangelical denominations vary widely in their approach to Biblical interpretation; more conservative evangelicals generally follow fundamentalists in championing Biblical literalism, while more liberal evangelicals tend to follow the mainline Protestant denominations in preferring a historical-critical approach.


References and Further Reading


Augustine of Hippo. On the Literal Meaning of Scripture (De Genesi ad Litteram), 1.19. ca. 401-415.

Charpentier, Etienne. How to Read the Bible: The Old and New Testaments. New York City, NY: Random House, 1993.

Davis, Ellen F. and Richard B. Hays, eds. The art of reading Scripture. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2003.

Dyck, Elmer, ed. The act of Bible reading: a multidisciplinary approach to biblical interpretation. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, c1996

Galilei, Galileo. Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina. 1615.

Hess, Peter M. J. and Paul L. Allen. Catholicism and Science. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2008.

McKenzie, Steven L. How to Read the Bible: history, prophecy, literature — why modern readers need to know the difference, and what it means for faith today. New York City, NY: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Oresme, Nicole. Le Livre du ciel et du monde, 1377. ed. Albert D. Menut and Alexander J. Denomy, trans. and introd. Albert D. Menut. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1968.

Slifkin, Natan, The Challenge of Creation: Judaism’s Encounter with Science, Cosmology, and Evolution. New York City, NY: Zoo Torah/Yashar Books, 2006.