Why I’m Not a Biblical Literalist

I don’t want to sound proud or condescending, as I can respect the position of Biblical literalists, even though I really don’t relate to their position at all.

It struck me when, in a conversation, an Evangelical friend suggested that we “begin with what the words actually mean.” I don’t really know what to make of this. What words? The English words (if so, which translation)? The Greek words (speaking of the NT, for example)? The original language (which may vary)?

For the New Testament, we are dealing with an English translation of a Greek manuscript, which is itself a translation of the original language. We don’t have the original manuscripts of the NT, so we rely on the accuracy of the translation, whether we’re dealing with English or Greek. My friend suggested that we need a “single standard or reference from which to interpret the text,” but I wonder what that standard is, and who determines that it alone is authoritative. Translators, transcribers, and interpreters (such as those who write Biblical commentary) are human and subject to mistakes and even deliberate changes of meaning. How do we know which translation, which interpretation to trust?

An analogy might help explain where I’m coming from. Suppose I have the Spanish sentence, “De repente llega la guagua.”

If I consult a dictionary, I will see that “de repente” means” suddenly. “Llega” primarily means “arrives,” though there are several alternate meanings, depending on the context. Finally, “guagua” means “bus” in Central America, but it means “baby” in Andean countries, such as Bolivia.

So, I decide to translate it as “Suddenly the bus arrives.” Of course, unbeknownst to me (the translator), the writer is Bolivian, and “de repente” in Bolivia means “maybe,” which is not listed in most Spanish dictionaries. And again, unknown to me, the writer meant, “Maybe the baby is sufficient,” “to suffice” being one of the possible meanings of “llegar.” I know Spanish, and the standard translation is going to be “Suddenly the bus arrives.”

Once that translation is in place, it becomes the de facto authority by which translations are created. So, the German, Farsi, Greek, and so on, translations all read (in their language) “Suddenly the bus arrives.”

So, some non-literalist comes along and says, “Wait a minute. Maybe this isn’t what is meant. Maybe we’re dealing with a baby, not a bus, and uncertainly instead of suddenness.”

“Don’t you trust the text?” our literalist friend asks. “Why shouldn’t we stick with what the words actually mean? It means ‘Suddenly the bus arrives.’ Everyone knows that.”

So, in the end, when we say we are investing authority in the text, we’re really putting faith in the humans who wrote, transcribed, and translated the text.


4 Responses to Why I’m Not a Biblical Literalist

  1. Diane Sower says:

    I don’t believe that after 500 or so translations of biblical text we can claim it inerrant. I believe for those of us who proclaim the Christian faith, Christ would instead prefer us to look at the world they way he might. How would he treat others not like him. Would he feel everyone is worthy of good health care, or, minimal health care? Would he have us act in peaceful manners towards our fellow humans? Would he be so politically vitriolic that we would miss out on the greater good for all, and merely look at personal satisfaction for a time? I find that if I can ask myself daily how Christ might look at people, then I have no excuse but to treat everyone as I want to be treated. That perhaps all the texts in the Bible that state emphatically that we all will know God and be together some day has merit…

    • Daniel says:

      A believer (like Diane) has two choices:

      1) Rely on an unreliable text, which as Runtu has accurately pointed out, is fraught.
      2) Put one’s own values about what a good person would do onto Jesus, regardless of what the text actually says.

      Which effectively demonstrates that belief in Jesus or God is essentially an exercise in projection and wish-fulfillment.

      Diane — you’re a lot nicer than Jesus. He’s the guy who seems to have innovated the idea of casting people into hell for eternity, remember. If pretending Jesus was nice helps you to be nice, then go ahead. Just be glad you’re not a fig tree, is all I’m saying.

  2. bull says:

    You present a pretty trivial example of the difficulties of translation. The Bible has passages that are far more opaque and difficult to translate. I always recommend “Le Ton Beau de Marot” as an interesting book on the problems of translation.

    But digging deeper is the fact that if you want to go back to an authoritative text then you immediately run into the problem that the Bible is a compilation of a bunch of independent manuscripts that were never intended to be a book that were later compiled by men. So there isn’t even an single agreed on canon for the BIble and I think that there are multiple manuscript sources for many of the books. It’s all a huge mess. Those who want to argue for Biblical inerrancy, to me, seem to be completely ignorant of the book that they hold in such high esteem. It’s unfathomable to me how it came to achieve this inerrant status and which version and language is the inerrant version.

    • runtu says:

      Yeah, it’s trivial, but if you had up enough trivial mistranslations, you end up with a text that is hopelessly divorced from the original. But you’re right, the problems go way beyond the trivial, and it’s usually ideology that decides which translation is “right.”

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