Tag Archives: Bible

Literal Reading of the Bible?

Sometimes it is asserted that we should just take the Bible literally–as if it is obvious what a literal reading might entail.  For example, consider the following passage from Isaiah:

“Awake, awake, put on strength, O arm of the LORD; awake, as in days of old, the generations of long ago. Was it not you who cut Rahab in pieces, that pierced the dragon? Was it not you who dried up the sea, the waters of the great deep, who made the depths of the sea a way for the redeemed to pass over?” (Isaiah 51:9-10)

Now, if we are reading “literally,” should we determine on the basis of this text that the LORD (Yahweh) has an arm?  If so, what sort?  Well, if literal, then wouldn’t we expect a physical arm?  And if so, then how might one reconcile this with passages such as John 4:24 (“God is Spirit”)?  And when precisely did God “cut Rahab in pieces,” especially since this Rahab is further identified as “the dragon” (or sea-serpent)?  Obviously we are bumping up against something complex.  (Regarding how this passage connects to other similar stories in the Bible and the literature of the ancient Near East, consider Jon D. Levenson, Creation and the Persistence of Evil [San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1988]).


(Origen: image source unknown)

For devotional purposes, I have been working through The Philocalia of Origen. Origen was an enormously prolific third-century Christian writer, and The Philocalia (meaning “the love of the beautiful”) is an ancient compilation of some of his most profound work. The following quote, which pertains to this whole question of a literal reading, caught my eye:

“The word of God therefore arranged for certain stumbling-blocks and offences and impossibilities to be embedded in the Law and the historical portion, so that we may not be drawn hither and thither by the mere attractiveness of the style, and thus either forsake the doctrinal part because we receive no instruction worthy of God, or cleave to the letter and learn nothing more Divine.” (Origen Philocalia 1.16; trans. George Lewis, 1911).

Is Origen right?  Could it be that God has placed in the Scripture complexities, goads, and spurs that will deliberately trip up the virtuous reader–causing the reader to stop, ponder, think, and fervently pray for insight?  If so, what are the nature of these stumbling-blocks?  Undoubtedly I will have more to say about this in the future, but for now it suffices to ponder, along with Origen, the degree to which God rewards those who earnestly seek–those who when encountering puzzles in the literal sense or the basic narrative sequence of the Bible are willing to delve into God’s arrangement of all affairs (both in Scripture and in the broader world), and to “see” not just the surface, but how the surface is a sign that points beyond itself to the transcendent.  After all, Jesus does seem particularly keen to encourage us to pursue a deeper engagement with his constant refrain:  “The one who has ears to hear, let that person hear” (e.g., Mark 4:9, Luke 14:35).

My Apologia

I begin with an apologia, a defense of my actions.  Why blog?  The reality is I have wrestled with this entire blogging-business for quite some time.

This blog has pleaded with me for attention.Black_Labrador_Retriever_portrait  I have brought it up onto my lap and dandled it for a few moments, only to banish it whimpering away to the corner.  Then I have invited it back, embraced it, and hand-fed it scraps from my dinner plate, only to scold it and send it running away again.  In other words, although this is my first post, I have already had an ambivalent should-I or shouldn’t-I relationship with the blogging craft for several years.  After doing an invited guest post on another biblioblog (Dunelm Road, link here), I have finally decided that I can’t ignore the pleading eyes  any longer, so I have taken up my keyboard.

The question, “Why blog?” is especially acute since as a published scholar I have access as an author to traditional (purportedly “real”) publishing venues such as books and professional journals in order to disseminate my work.  In at least some of the hallowed halls of academia, it is fair to say that there is still a certain taint associated with blogging–as if in the act of publishing online somehow your skin picks up a faint yet unmistakable odor.  Eewwwhhh.  I think I can start to smell it beginning to ooze from my pores right now as I type my first post.  WHAT IS THAT?  I did shower this morning, didn’t I?  It reeks of oily rags, sweat, stale popcorn, hotdogs, bleacher-seats, and cheap beer.  Oh, I know what this is–the smell of the masses, of popularizing.

Real academics don’t popularize, they blaze the trail where others have not yet dared to tread.  They coin phrases, toss about specialized jargon, sprinkle in elitist Latin terms, and overwhelm the reader with a torrent blast of pedantic footnotes.  Above all, they publish only in peer-review journals and with university presses!  Although offering a slight lampoon of academia, I only half-jest.  (After all, I have titled this post my apologia rather than my apology).  Undoubtedly it is crucial that academics sometimes publish solely for other academics, as it is not always practical (or interesting) to lay a foundation by reiterating the basics every time a new scholarly proposal is advanced.  Yet, it is equally vital that these ideas, once sifted, weighed, and processed by scholarship, ultimately be communicated to a broader audience.

I plan to continue publishing books, articles, and book reviews with refereed academic presses, God-willing, as I have time, ideas, and energy.  And although most of my published work thus far has been aimed at other scholars, I do have a couple book ideas percolating that will bridge between scholarship and a more general theologically engaged audience.  So I hope this blog proves to be a helpful resource to other scholars, my students (both past and present), and any fellow pilgrims of goodwill.

The aim of this blog, at least as currently conceived, is to foster discussion (whether on this site or elsewhere) among anyone interested in the Bible, the apostolic tradition, the rule of faith, and the theological implications of early Christian literature.  I plan on reviewing books that I think are worthy of further attention or that I personally find stimulating.  Some of the books will be older classics.  Others will be new releases–sometimes books that I am reviewing for professional journals.  One advantage of a blog is that the reviews can be as long or as short as I judge to be helpful.  One disadvantage to writing reviews for professional journals is that these reviews are severely restricted in length and do not tend to be widely read even by other scholars.  So, in order for these reviews to gain maximum exposure, I will be posting these reviews or abridgements of these reviews on Amazon.com, and this site will aggregate all my reviews.  As I am reading, I will also sometimes add quotes or interactive thoughts.

Also, since I am not as well-known as Bart Ehrman or Kim Kardashian (I’ll allow the reader to determine whether or not these two names should in any fashion be linked together) and I am just starting this blog, it will probably take a while to develop a readership, but that is actually good because, as a new blogger, it will give me time to learn more about the mechanics of running a blog.  Thanks for reading!