Literal Is Best

Hello everyone and welcome back to Deeper Waters where we are diving into the ocean of truth! Tonight, I’d like to continue our discussion on how we read the Bible. For a lot of people, we hear about the importance of the literal hermeneutic over and over. Now to be sure, there are several parts of the Bible that are straight-forward, but does that mean a literal hermeneutic is best? I think an interesting example of the problems with saying that should be applied consistently can be found in the gospel of John.

First off, in chapter 1, is John the Baptist Elijah? He answered no, but Jesus says in the synoptics that John was the Elijah to come. Is there a contradiction. No. John the Baptist was not a reincarnation of Elijah as if he was literally Elijah appearing somehow again, but he was a prophet likened to Elijah enough to be considered his forerunner.

In John 2, Jesus tells the temple authorities that if they destroy this temple, he will raise it up again in three days. They immediately say that the temple took 46 years to build and he was going to raise it up again in three days? Jesus was not speaking of that temple however, but the temple of his body.

In John 3, Jesus tells Nicodemus that he must be born again. Nicodemus replies thinking that Jesus literally means being born again and asks how a man can be born if he is old. Can he literally climb into his mother’s womb a second time in order to be born?

In John 4, the Samaritan woman comes to Jesus and Jesus tells her that he has living water for her so she’ll never thirst again. The woman is immediately thinking about the water of the well and asks him how she can get this water so she will never have to come to the well again.

In John 6, Jesus tells the crowds that unless they eat his body and drink his blood, they have no life. It is at this point that many people walk away thinking that he is giving them a hard saying and he even asks the twelve if they will go too. Of course, Peter speaks on their behalf saying that Jesus has the words of eternal life.

In John 11, Jesus tells his disciples that they need to go and wake Lazarus up because he has fallen asleep. The disciples think that Jesus is talking about actual sleep and tell him that if he has fallen asleep, he can wake up, not understanding that Jesus is talking about death.

Throughout the book of John, Jesus regularly uses metaphoric language and John regularly uses words in his gospel that can have a double-meaning. When Jesus speaks of the Spirit in John 3, there is an ambiguity as the same word can be used to refer to the wind, for instance. Good Johannine scholarship can show several such examples.

When we get to John 16 in fact, the disciples finally tell Jesus that at last he is speaking plainly, the word that is used in John 11 when he tells his disciples plainly that Lazarus is dead. It seems if anything then, Jesus did not often speak in literal language and throughout the book, the people who misunderstand him are the ones who take him literally.

Now in all of this, this is not to disparage the idea of reading a text literally often. The idea however is that if we are ones to say “The literal reading is the best reading” then would we not be the ones in the book of John that get the message of Jesus wrong regularly?

Just something to think about.

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