ORIGNIS:literal interpretation and science

David Campbell (bivalve@email.unc.edu)
Fri, 30 Aug 1996 10:21:20 -0500

>Without confusing the whole issue with too many caveats and ideas, can you
>address the literal translation of the bible.
The difference between literal and literalistic interpretations is crucial
to creationism and many other "science versus religion" issues. Given its
claims to be the infallible Word of God ("All scripture is inspired by God,
and useful for teaching...", etc.), it's fairly important whether the Bible
is entirely accurate or not. However, perfect accuracy requires neither
precision nor strict literalness throughout. No one would argue that
parables describe actual events. Similarly, there are literary techniques
such as metaphor or hyperbole which, taken as literal statements, cause
problems. There are seeds smaller than mustard seeds, but anyone reading
the context will realize that Jesus wasn't giving a lecture on botanical
world records when He said that. Likewise, the description of the temple
furnishings in I Kings 7 refers to a round basin 30 cubits around and 10
across, when a basin 10 cubits across should be 31.41592635389793238...
cubits across, if you expect the precision of a modern geometry textbook
from a 10th century B.C. description of cerimonial objects.
This same problem applies to the six evenings and mornings of
Genesis 1. Although usually meaning "day" in the ordinary sense, "yom"
can refer to indefinite periods of time (the year of Jubilee follows a yom
of 49 years). Therefore, it is possible that the six "days" of Genesis 1
are not 24 hour days. The parallelism of God making the heavens, the sea
and sky, the earth, and then the rulers of the heavens, the sea and sky,
and the earth suggests that perhaps time is not intended at all but rather
completeness. A brief paraphrase of Genesis 1 would then be "God made
everything". Again, the differences between creation accounts in Genesis 1
and 2 suggest that certain details are probably figurative rather than
literal in the strict sense. (There's also the aspect of giving a broad
picture and then focusing in on details of humanity.)
Much of the problem lies in distinguishing between such a
literalistic interpretation and a "liberal" view which dismisses the
accuracy of the Bible. The literalistic view assumes that the Bible is
accurate, but that it is necessary to try to figure out just what the text
meant, based on the original context and whatever external evidence is
available. In contrast, the "liberal" view sets up the reader as the
authority, free to reject (often euphemized as "not taking literally")
passages you dislike.