Symbolic versus literal interpretations of biblical stories

When I was an undergraduate in Sri Lanka, I was also president of the Student Christian Movement, a national body of Christian students on all the university campuses. We used to organize annual residential conferences lasting for about five days and they were great fun. We had mostly secular activities with some talks on social issues as well as outdoor activities and games. It was more like a summer camp with lectures than a serious conference.

The program did include a daily Bible study. One year we had a visiting American missionary named Reverend Alan Gilburg and his Bible study dealt with the Old Testament book of Jonah. He started by saying flat out that Jonah did not really exist as a prophet, that this was a piece of fiction, a story created by an unknown author to illustrate the complexity of god’s relationship with humans. I recall thinking it was pretty good series of lectures, intellectually stimulating and thought provoking, and enjoying the sessions. Most people, including me up to that point, never read the book of Jonah, even though it is very short and takes just a few minutes. It is actually quite a good adventure yarn, and includes some funny bits because Jonah is quite a character, good at blaming others for the various plights he finds himself in and expecting them to bail him out.

But after the last session, when we had a general discussion, I remember a good friend of mine telling Gilburg that she could not accept his premise that the events never happened. For her, the Bible had to be literally true and so she had essentially tuned out the series of lectures. The funny thing is that by insisting on the literal truth, she had to reject what, to me at least, were the far more penetrating insights about human nature and how we perceive our relationship to god that Gilburg had provided. Taking a story literally had led, as it often does even in non-religious contexts, to shallowness of understanding.

I was reminded of this episode when reading the tragic story of a man who was executed in Iran because he too had claimed that the story of Jonah was symbolic. Apparently, orthodox Islam requires treating even the minor books of the Bible as literally true and so for his heresy, he was punished.

It is this kind of literalism that is religion’s fatal weakness. As time goes by, it will become increasingly impossible for most people to accept the literalness of biblical or Koranic stories. By insisting on it, religions are inviting skepticism of the entire enterprise.

I remember reading about an ex-clergyman who said that if you attend a decent seminary and do not emerge as an atheist, that means that you were not paying attention. This is because a lot of people decide to become clergy because of a strong belief that the Bible is almost entirely factually true. When they attend a seminary and learn that there is little or no evidence for much of the events described in it and learn how the Bible was cobbled together and the various versions that exist and how its meanings have evolved, their faith in something they thought was rock solid is severely shaken. It does not take much for the entire edifice to crumble.


  1. Smokey says

    The thing is, if the bible is not literally true, and you have to interpret the shit out of it to make any sense out of it, then you might just as well interpret the Harry Potter books instead.

    They deal with the same things, like good vs. evil, genocide, slavery, magic, and even death and resurrection. It’d be much easier to gain “penetrating insights about human nature” than by reading that silly old bible. They’re also better written, and there’s less rape.

  2. sqlrob says

    Even the symbolic reading is their downfall.

    Without reference to anything external(*), which stories are symbolic and which ones are not?

    Smokey @1 is right, might as well pick any other, better written book as your source.

    (*) This is to prevent the dodge that the ones without evidence are possibly the non-symbolic ones, and the ones with contradicting evidence are the symbolic ones.

  3. Rob Grigjanis says

    It is this kind of literalism that is religion’s fatal weakness.

    I think it’s a human failing not restricted to religion. Any field with sufficient complexity is going to have its ‘heuristic’ arguments which many people will take literally. In a way, its just laziness.

  4. Ed says

    Every religion is going to have differences in interpretation among its followers. Either a given religious group will have enough maturity and flexibility to allow a certain amount of civilized disagreement and discussion or it will fragment into an increasing number of isolated sects.

    Whether stories are literal, symbolic or a mixture of the two (perhaps being based on a true event but containing mythological elements or hyperbole as a literary device) seems to have limited relevance to how people live their lives in the here and now.

    The bigger problem is the value system implied by the stories (taken literally or not) if they are held to contain moral lessons or divine messages. Imagine being given the job of interpreting the Illiad or the epic of Gilgamesh to reflect exclusively positive values.

  5. lpetrich says

    Allegorical interpretation sometimes reduces to “It’s literal if I like it, allegorical if I don’t.”
    As to the story of Jonah, I like Isaac Asimov’s interpretation the best, something that he argued in “Lost in Non-Translation”. He argued that the stories of Ruth, Jonah, and the Good Samaritan were protests against bigoted attitudes toward various people.
    * Ruth — Moabites, who lived across the Jordan River.
    * Jonah — Assyrians, who had conquered the northern kingdom and almost conquered the southern one.
    * The Good Samaritan — Samaritans, a sect that had split off from other Jews some centuries earlier.
    The Book of Jonah implies that even horrible conquerors are not totally beyond redemption, a message that makes it more than some fish story. BTW, I prefer calling Jonah’s swallower a sea monster, and I prefer being noncommittal about its nature.

  6. says

    I remember saying, in Sunday School, that if I discovered that anything in the Bible was not true, whether as a clearly symbolic expression of a true fact, or as a literal truth, I would have to re-think the whole thing. Three years later, I was an atheist.

  7. mnb0 says

    “It is this kind of literalism that is religion’s fatal weakness.”
    If that’s correct christianity has a bright future in The Netherlands. About 8,5 million christians, a few 100 000s literalists.

  8. sqlrob says

    @mnb0 #7,

    If that’s correct christianity has a bright future in The Netherlands. About 8,5 million christians, a few 100 000s literalists.

    They’re still literalists. Jesus Christ exist? God exist? There’s going to be some literalism there somewhere or there’s nothing left.

  9. Holms says

    Smokey @1 is right, might as well pick any other, better written book as your source.

    So… not Harry Potter then 😉

  10. moarscienceplz says

    Apparently, orthodox Islam requires treating even the minor books of the Bible as literally true

    Interesting. I’m pretty sure they don’t accept the Jews to be God’s Chosen People, and I doubt they consider the book of Revelation to be true, and I believe they consider Jesus to be simply another of God’s prophets, so the resurrection and the bits in John about Jesus being the Logos would be pretty hard to reconcile with Islam, so they are just cherry-pickers like every other Bible “believer”.

  11. brucegee1962 says

    I remember as a youngster raised in a liberal church hearing the non-literal versions of the Bible and liking them muuuch better. They probably kept me in the church years longer than I would have otherwise.

    Here’s one I particularly liked. Does it make any sense that a whole bunch of people would bring their whole families out to the edge of the wilderness for a whole day to listen to some pop preacher, and that they woudn’t bring along some food with them for the trip? Of course they did. But when they saw how many other people were there, they were all reluctant to unpack their food. What if the other people there hadn’t brought anything themselves? What if everyone was hungry, and there was a riot, and all their food got taken?

    So when Jesus started handing out the loaves and fishes and talking about how they were shared, he was basically shaming people into sharing what they’d packed with the people sitting next to them. That was the miracle – that he managed to convince people to share. That was a Gospel that made sense to me.

  12. Mano Singham says


    And the non-literal version you cite (I had never heard it before) actually provides a positive life lesson (the value of sharing with others) while the miracle version teaches no life lessons at all and is totally useless except for the ‘wow’ factor.

  13. grasshopper says

    @5 If the story of Jonah is to be taken literally, then the ‘sea monster’ really is a fish. If the story of Jonah is allegorical why is it necessary to redefine the fish as a ‘sea monster’ when a fish large enough to swallow a man is sufficiently monstrous for the story?

  14. says

    I long to hear the answer from xtians as to the value of their bible, if it is accepted for what it is: a work of fiction.
    If it only has meaning by being True ™ (even as it contradicts what we know of the real world), then it only has meaning if we believe it to be magical, somehow. Even the pagans were happy to admit that their gods yet had real value to them – even if they are make-believe. I have never heard a xtian say as much.

    Can the bible command any respect as a work of fiction? Pretty much no.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *