7) Bible Literalism and knowing what to believe


"And you shall make it this way: The length of the ark shall be three hundred cubits, its breadth fifty cubits, and its height thirty cubits." - Genesis 6:15

"Properly read, the Bible is the most potent force for atheism ever conceived. " -- Isaac Asimov (1920-1992)


Because this God supposedly has things he wants us to do, Christians look to his "book", the Bible, for instruction and inspiration on how to make him happy. However, most people know that, like all Holy Texts, the Bible has errors in it and was a product of its time and so cannot be taken literally and unthinkingly. Some don't, however, so this section is dedicated to the hardcore literalists, who believe that scripture is infallible and is to be interpreted literally. Or at least literally where it doesn't sound totally ludicrous and/or makes daily life impossible. Their interpretations of doctrine seem to be oh-so-convenient - some parts are read literally and some figuratively, and the interpretations conveniently fit their right wing fundamentalist agenda; for example, many fundamentalist Christians in the USA support the death penalty, but we can find plenty of verses in the Bible condemning killing (but then, plenty more where God killed the enemies of the Israelites - eg Exodus 34:17: I will drive out before you the Amorites, Canaanites, Hittites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites. Take care, therefore, not to make a covenant with these inhabitants of the land that you are to enter; else they will become a snare among you. Tear down their altars; smash their sacred pillars, and cut down their sacred poles.).

Perhaps the most explicit of the passages proclaiming Biblical inerrancy is this: 2 Timothy 3:16: "All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness. " Of course we could posit that this passage is false, and so are all the others for Biblical infallibility, but for the sake of argument we won’t. Now we shall see how Literalism is most assuredly false.


Translation and transcription

Literalists believe that scripture is infallible because it was either dictated to the human writers, or that they were inspired by the Holy Spirit while writing it and so were unable to make any mistakes. The more progressive sorts see, on the other hand, that there have been many avenues for errors to creep into scripture. Let us assume first, for the sake of argument, that the original scriptures were perfect and error-free. Now, almost 2000 years have passed since the New Testament (to say nothing of the Old Testament) was committed to writing. The originals have been lost, so we know of what they said only because copies were made. Assuming that the whole thing is not a forgery, consider how many times the texts have been translated and transcribed throughout the ages. People aren't perfect and the people making the transcriptions certainly weren't. Who's to say errors did not creep into the sacred texts along the way? And the meaning of original texts often gets lost during translation, so can we assume the interpreters translated the text correctly, or managed to retain the multitudes of meanings and nuances in the texts? Literalists might say that the Holy Spirit filled all translators and transcribers, but then why are there so many versions of the Bible? The King James Bible, New International Version, Geneva Version, Good News Bible and New English Bible are just a small selection of the available versions, and all differ in some not insignificant way.

Editing and personal bias

Mechanical copying and transcription aside, there's also the problem of the editor. Who decided what was to be included in the Bible? The current texts we have are only a fraction of the thousands of books from Jewish and Christian tradition. Who decided what books to include? The books that are traditionally included in the Bible themselves refer to other books like the Book of Jasher (Joshua 10:13). Scholarly analysis, too, has found that some parts of the Bible are missing. To even look at the first 4 books of the New Testament would be to see that even the Apostles, supposedly inspired by the Holy Spirit, wrote from their individual viewpoints, with their individual prejudices, and that they contradicted each other. Lastly, there is overwhelming evidence that the Pentateuch (first five books of the Old Testament) were written by more than one author, since there are, among other things, two versions of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20 & Deuteronomy 5) and two creation stories in Genesis.

There is also the matter of personal bias, which inevitably creeps into media as they are transmitted, translated or transferred from one form to another.



Why should we read the Bible in context? Believers often claim that others are quoting their texts out of context, but often they themselves are not following their rules. The texts were written at a specific time for a specific group of people for a specific purpose. This is especially evident in the letters of Paul to specific groups - why did he write separately to the Ephesians, Colossians, Corinthians and others, if what he was writing was meant to apply to everyone? Why not just write one letter to everyone (and to posterity too)? This ignores the question, too of why we should follow what St Paul said. What makes his opinion and judgment as infallible and sacred as God's? His letters are just commentaries. I respect his opinion but reserve the right to form my own. Further, he himself never said that what he preached was divinely inspired, or applicable to all people for all eternity.

Context is the reason why much of the Old Testament does not apply to Christians today. Why the need for targeted scripture, then? The Ancient Hebrews would not have been able to comprehend the concept of a world being created over billions of years, and you wouldn’t tell people in the 11th century AD about nuclear bombs, would you? They’d think you were mad, or worse - stone you for being a witch.

On interpreting the Bible literally

Now, since some people are so fond of following the Word of God wholesale and without thinking, let's look at some areas.


1. Dogs

Man’s best friend lives in many of our homes today, providing love and companionship. Yet, dogs are repeatedly condemned in the Word of God!

A dog is compared to:

Male Prostitutes - Deuteronomy 23:18: You shall not bring the hire of a harlot, or the price of a dog, into the house of the LORD your God for any vow. For even both these are hateful to the LORD your God.

Villainous Enemies - Psalms 22:16: and You have brought Me into the dust of death. For dogs have circled around Me; the band of spoilers have hemmed Me in, piercers of My hands and My feet.

False Christians (Possibly) - Philippians 3:2: Beware of dogs, beware of evil workers, beware of the concision party. [Ed: Was such an injunction ever more clearly spelt out?]

Dogs are made out to be disgusting:

Proverbs 26:11: As a dog returneth to his vomit, so a fool returneth to his folly.

Ugh. That’s sufficient evidence to stay away from them, ain’t it? Even though we’ve never seen dogs eating vomit, if the Bible says it, it must be right.

Perhaps worse of all, Dogs are barred from Heaven:

Revelations 14 -15: Blessed are they who do His commandments, that their authority will be over the Tree of Life, and they may enter in by the gates into the city. But outside are the dogs, and the sorcerers, and the fornicators, and the murderers, and the idolaters, and everyone who loves and makes a lie.

Oh dear. How can we get out of this predicament?

Perhaps the word 'dog' is used metaphorically. Right. If that is the case, why are other parts of the Bible so conveniently interpreted literally, and not metaphorically, even when the literal meaning is against the message of love that the New Testament preaches?


2. Slaves and Masters

Ephesians 5:6: Slaves, obey your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in singleness of your heart, as to Christ;

Colossians 4:1: Masters, give to your slaves what is just and equal, knowing that you also have a Master in Heaven. (Note: Masters are not asked to free their slaves)

This comes from the New Testament, the revised Word of God (is that not already proof that the Word of God is not Eternal and Unchanging? Why can't he make mistakes too?), so we can assume that Slavery is permitted! The Declaration of Human Rights is thus Blasphemy since it condemns what God expressly allows!

Perhaps Paul only meant these instructions for the Ephesians and the Colossians respectively, as he knew that if he told the slaves to rise up, and the masters to free them, because God didn’t condone slavery (having changed his mind since the Old Testament), social upheaval would result and the nascent Christian movement would surely be eradicated by the Romans.


3. Husbands and Wives

Ephesians 5:22: Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands, as to the Lord.

There. Wives are to be lorded over by their husbands. True, the husbands have to love them, but ultimately the husbands are the ones in charge and the wives have to be obedient. Was Man made to dominate Women, then?

I read a tract a while back while neatly reconciles this: "Ephesians is not a letter written to Western marriages! It is a letter written to Christians who were living in a culture where marriage was a type of slavery. Young teens were wedded to middle-aged men in order to bear them a legal heir. It is difficult for us to imagine the level of degradation and hopelessness these young wives must have experienced... perhaps more than the slaves. Paul was not intending to set up gender hierarchy in marriage in these passages any more than he was endorsing slavery by encouraging slaves to submit to their masters. He was simply referring to the slavery and male headship that was already a part of their secular culture."

Why can't more people be willing to read things in their wider socio-historical context?


4. Homosexuals

Now, most Christians worth their salt will condemn people with alternative sexual orientations, although most of these seem to have been created this way by the putative God. The fact that for homosexuals to attempt to live heterosexually would be as much of a sin and as unnatural as for heterosexuals to live as homosexuals does not occur to them.

A close study of the Bible, reading it in both its spirit and its wider socio-historical context, leads many to conclude that homosexuality per se is not condemned, only:

"(1) homosexual rape

(2) the ritual homosexual prostitution that was part of the Canaanite fertility cult and at one time apparently taken over into Jewish practice as well; and

(3) homosexual lust and behaviour of the part of heterosexuals.

On the subject of homosexuality as an orientation, and on consensual behaviour by people who possess that orientation, it is wholly silent." (http://www.godlovesfags.com/bible/interpretation.html)

The case against homosexuality seems to rest on several phrases from the New Testament (I could consider the Old as well, but I'm too much of a windbag as it is already, and anyway much or all of it was nullified with the First Coming)

Romans 1:26-27: "For this cause God gave them up unto vile affections: for even their women did change the natural use into that which is against nature. And likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust one toward another; men with men working that which is unseemly, and receiving in themselves that recompense of their error which was meet. "

Notice that the key word here is 'nature', translated from the Greek "phusis", which refers to a person's nature. We can thus conclude that what is condemned is not homosexuality per se, but homosexual practices indulged in by normally heterosexual people. Indeed, some Roman cults involved rituals with homosexual acts, where normally straight men had to mount other men. That indeed is an abomination, but not natural homosexuality.

1 Corinthians 6:9: "Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind, "

The word that has been emphasised has been variously translated, in various editions of the Bible, as effeminate, homosexuals, or sexual perverts. This very fact is enough to cast doubt on the meaning of the original Greek.

There are also plenty of secular arguments about homosexuality being natural, but I will not go into them here. Suffice to say - if something is natural, why should it be condemned? More likely that this is the work of prejudiced homophobes who, reacting naturally against something they did not understand, decided to claim that the Divine Being disliked homosexuality (or imagined that he was as ignorant as them).

Again, why is what Paul said taken to be the Word of God? Prophets contradict each other all the time, so whom are we supposed to follow, then?


5. The Song of Songs

We have here a most interesting specimen. Hard core pornography in the Bible!

1:13: "he shall lie all night betwixt my breasts. "
4:5: "Thy two breasts are like two young roes that are twins, which feed among the lilies. "
7:7: "This thy stature is like to a palm tree, and thy breasts to clusters of grapes."

A more fervent and ringing endorsement and celebration of sex never did exist.

Now, those apologists who dare to tackle this topic instead of leaving a deafening silence (and for that they are to be commended) claim that this whole book is referring to Christ's relationship with the Church. I wonder if even they are convinced, as this takes a marvellous leap of the imagination and of faith which could only have come from formulating the explanation after the conclusion had been reached. I might also add that this is the Song of Solomon - it was written a few centuries before Christ came. Now, if this XXX-rated book can be interpreted so imaginatively, what is to stop other parts of the Bible - less explicit and more vague, I might add - from being read likewise? Why can't people accept that this was just a homily Solomon composed after a vigorous bout with one of his mistresses?


6. Noah's Ark

Here is something the literalists can most assuredly not escape from. We are told that Noah and his family gathered at least 2 from each the species of animals into his Ark, and that they survived for 40 days and 40 nights in it.

Now, the estimates for the number of land species alone range from 6 million to 30 million. Further, fish and other marine organisms are sensitive to changes in salinity , pH and temperature, so most would have to be stored on the Ark. And how about plants? Being submerged in tons of water would kill off most of the greenery on the Earth. Could you store 12 million animals in an Ark? How about with food - and Koalas, for example, only eat Eucalyptus leaves so they wouldn't be able to feed off the main food supply, water and climate control (for the Polar Bears, among others)? Consider that the dimensions given for the Ark give a volume of 43,006 cubic meters. Assuming that we take the lower estimate of 6 million species, that gives each animal a box with sides of 15 cm. Perhaps in DNA form that'd be possible, but that's almost as silly as believing the earth is less than 10,000 years old.

How about gathering all the species of animals? Ah, maybe God told them all to go to the site of the Ark. Right. Mass stampedes of animals and a veritable zoo at Noah's doorstep would have alarmed no one, I'm sure.

Now about the flood. The 40 days and 40 nights of flooding supposedly covered the tops of all mountains. Mount Everest is 8,848m tall, so to cover it in 40 days of rain you'd need 9.21m of rain falling per hour. Whoa. Would the water pressure not crush the Ark like a tin can? Even assuming the Ark was protected - where did all this water come from and where did it go to later? And how come the massive weight of this water did not warp the ocean floors and the former land?

How about after the flood? Can you imagine re-establishing an entire species from just 2 animals? The inbreeding would quickly lead to the animal going extinct. And there’s the question of the dead animals - we don't see a sudden spike in the fossil record at a certain time. We don't see many human fossils at a certain layer (there were millions of humans around at the time of the flood, so we're told, so we assume that they created many fossils), nor do we find human fossils with dinosaurs and certain animals from the days of yore, as we would expect if they lived at the same time. Also, why are smaller and less complex animals found at lower strata than bigger and more complex ones?


Is it any coincidence that the flood myth is a common feature in many ancient cultures? Indeed, the Epic of Gilgamesh is suspiciously similar to the Bible's flood story!


7. The Age of the Earth

I have no wish to go too deeply into this. Suffice to say that, when presented with overwhelming evidence, those who believe the earth is less than 10,000 years old like to claim that the scientific constants (like the freezing point of water and the speed of light) may not have been the same always, that when God created the Earth he made it look old on purpose, or that scientific methods of dating have been proven wrong sometimes.

Now, just because Carbon dating and the like have been proven wrong before does not mean that they are inaccurate. A failure rate is always present, so just because dating gives the wrong result 1 out of a 100 times does not mean that it is wrong 100 out of 100 times. Further, most of the dating errors were discovered by scientists checking the results of their work - something theists often neglect to do. By the same logic, I could say that since God has been proven wrong before, and his word has been proven fallible et al, he is always wrong, or that he doesn't exist. Humph. And the suggestion that the scientific constants haven’t always been constant sounds like a flimflam explanation borne out of sheer desperation.

And as for God creating the Earth to look old - we can also propose that this God created the Earth 2 seconds ago and implanted all the memories we have into our minds.

And now, a short but de rigueur list of Biblical Contradictions:

Exodus 20:13 "Thou shalt not kill. "
Leviticus 24:17 "And he that killeth any man shall surely be put to death. "

Ephesians 2:8,9 "For by grace are ye saved through faith . . . not of works. "
James 2:24 "Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only. "

Ezekiel 24:14 "I the Lord have spoken it: it shall come to pass, and I will do it; I will not go back, neither will I spare, neither will I repent. "
Exodus 32:14 "And the Lord repented of the evil which he thought to do unto his people. "

James 1:13 "Let no man say . . . I am tempted of God: for God cannot be tempted with evil, neither tempteth he any man. "
Genesis 22:1 "And it came to pass after these things, that God did tempt Abraham. "

II Kings 8:26 "Two and twenty years old was Ahaziah when he began to reign. "
II Chronicles 22:2 "Forty and two years old was Ahaziah when he began to reign. "

Hebrews 6:13-17 "For when God made promise to Abraham, because he could swear by no greater, he sware by himself . . . for men verily swear by the greater: and an oath for confirmation is to them an end of all strife. Wherein God, willing more abundantly to shew unto the heirs of promise the immutability of his counsel, confirmed it by an oath. "
Matthew 5:34-37 "But I say unto you, swear not at all; neither by heaven . . . nor by the earth . . . . Neither shalt thou swear by thy head . . . . But let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil. "

Genesis 7:15 "And they went in unto Noah into the ark, two and two of all flesh, wherein is the breath of life. "
Genesis 7:2 "Of every clean beast thou shalt take to thee by sevens, the male and his female: and of beasts that are not clean by two, the male and his female. "

I Kings 4:26 "And Solomon had forty thousand stalls of horses for his chariots, and twelve thousand horsemen. "
II Chronicles 9:25 "And Solomon had four thousand stalls for horses and chariots, and twelve thousand horsemen. "

Matthew 2:1: "Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, " (Ed: Herod died in 4 BC)

Luke 2:1-2: "And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed. (And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.) " (Ed: Judea only came under direct Roman Rule in 6 AD)

Matthew 1:16: And Jacob begat Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus, who is called Christ.

Luke 3:23: And Jesus himself began to be about thirty years of age, being (as was supposed) the son of Joseph, which was the son of Heli,

Matthew 27:46: "And about the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, saying, Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani? that is to say, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? "

Luke 23:46: "And when Jesus had cried with a loud voice, he said, Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit: and having said thus, he gave up the ghost. "

John 19:30: "When Jesus therefore had received the vinegar, he said, It is finished: and he bowed his head, and gave up the ghost. "


I trust that that is more than enough to convince anyone that the Bible is not infallible. Could a Perfect God have written such an Imperfect Bible? Incidentally, one explanation offered for contradictions in the first 5 books of the Bible is that 2 versions existed originally, and one person reconciled the two and combined them, ergo the discrepancies.

With such an imperfect Bible, is it safe for anyone to rely on its word as the supposed Word of God, infallible, eternal (when he has changed his mind so often) and totally accurate? I think not.


"If the Bible and my brain are both the work of the same Infinite God, whose fault is it that the book and my brain do not agree?" - Robert G. Ingersoll

"It ain't the parts of the Bible that I can't understand that bother me, it is the parts that I do understand." - Mark Twain


This whole issue brings to mind the lessons, in JC 1, we had on Thinking Skills, where some propositions were posited to us, urging us to question:

It is in the newspapers, so it must be right.
It is in the Bible, so it must be right.
Lee Kuan Yew says it, so it must be right.

Food for thought, indeed.


I suspect the reason why most literalists cling on so stubbornly is that they have built in their minds a whole fortress of thoughts and beliefs about their religion around the cornerstone of Biblical infallibility. Remove it, and they will be incapable of preventing the whole edifice from crashing down around them. So even faced with undeniable proof of the fallibility of the Bible, cognitive dissonance ensues and they resort to arguments and explanations so ludicrous that only a 6-year-old child - or a convinced literalist - could believe them. However, the question then arises: How are we, then, to know what God says? We have seen that Scripture is fallible and does contain some mistakes. Even assuming that it has some degree of divine inspiration, and that some fraction of the original message remains and can be distilled, it seems that every Tom, Dick or Harry has their own opinion of what Scripture says. And conveniently, it seems that what people believe the Bible says tallies with what *they* believe.

Prayer is no help, either. Notice that, even when Christians pray, they all seem to come up with different responses to their prayers, and they all feel that God is on their side and has spoken to them, and that the rest are wrong. For this reason, some look for the Church (see next section).

Jeremiah 23:16: "Thus saith the LORD of hosts, Hearken not unto the words of the prophets that prophesy unto you: they make you vain: they speak a vision of their own heart, [and] not out of the mouth of the LORD."

Ironically, this describes religion succinctly.


If people want to believe in Biblical Inerrancy, then there is no stopping them. They will doubtless find ways to delude themselves, against all common sense. If people believe that the Bible says the world is flat (indeed, it could be said to, looking at some quotes), then the faithful will find ways to prove that it indeed is flat, probably taking many leafs from the books of the Flat Earth Society, and snipe from the sidelines and present seeming problems with the concept of a round earth (a la Creation "Science"), rather than admit that the overwhelming body of evidence is correct.

"By such literalism, fundamentalism, religions betrayed the best intentions of their founders. Reducing thought to formula, replacing choice by obedience, these preachers turned the living word into dead law." - Ursula K. LeGuin (The Telling)



1) Introduction and disclaimer

2) Me and Religion

3) The Value of Scepticism and Science and Religion

4) Why do people believe? and other questions about Faith

5) Metaphysical questions

6) Basic tenets of Christianity

7) Bible literalism and knowing what to believe

8) Catholic Doctrine

9) Six Nights in Sabah

10) Miscellaneous thoughts on religion

11) So what happens now?

12) Further reading