Beyond the Trap of Biblical Literalism

The Bible is a speck in the eye of American civilization. It is an irritant, it cannot be ignored, and it is an impediment to vision.

To explore the full implications of this fact is too much for an article, probably even for a book. But we can get a handle on the issue by looking at one key question: Is the Bible literally true? In many guises, this question haunts our culture today.

The answers tend to fall into two categories: (1) Yes, it is completely, literally true. This is the view of evangelical and fundamentalist Protestantism, and of 28 percent of the U.S. population, according to a  2015 Gallup poll.[i] (2) It is not literally true. At least not all of it. This is what much of the rest of the public believes.

Most in the second category would probably grant that the Genesis account of creation is not true in any obviously factual sense. Very well, then. What about the rest?

It is almost impossible to find a clear or coherent answer to this question in the mainstream press or literature. It is instructive to see why.

Here is one reason, as stated in 2006 by author John Dart, addressing the Society for Biblical Literature (the foremost scholarly body on the subject): “Unfortunately, there is built-in resistance to popularizing biblical research findings for the general public. . . . It is believed that complex, nuanced scholarly arguments tend to get ‘lost in translation’ to readers and audiences unfamiliar with the terminology and background.”[ii]

True, but there’s more to it than that. I look back to a 1998 Time magazine feature about Moses (“In Search of Moses,” by David Van Biema).[iii] It’s a pretty typical treatment of a biblical subject by a newsmagazine. Strictly speaking, there is nothing wrong or inaccurate about it. But it is slippery. On the one hand, it does discuss what modern scholarship says about Moses. On the other hand, having sketched out in the briefest possible terms the very small amount that scholars actually know about Moses, the article goes on to retell the story in Exodus, complete with golden calf and the giving of the Law on Sinai. Overall you are left with the impression that these things actually, literally happened, when they almost certainly did not. At the end, the article says, “Archaeology and scholarly speculation can take us only so far. It can be argued that even the holiest of texts cannot do Moses justice.”

This is meant, of course, to leave us with questions. Because if the Time article had said outright what scholars really believe—that much if not all of the story of Moses and the Exodus is mythical and has little if any historical value—the publishers would be flooded with mail from outraged believers. (The same would happen with their stories about Jesus. Jesus is not quite as shadowy a figure as Moses, but there are serious questions about who he was as well.)

A later story—“How Moses Shaped America” by Bruce Feiler, in Time, October 12, 2009—avoids this topic altogether.[iv] Instead it is about Moses as conceived in the American political imagination.

Journalists write these stories because religion sells. A reporter for U.S. News & World Report once told me that her magazine’s religious covers outsold all others, except for those about major disasters. Unfortunately for publishers (though fortunately for the rest of us), events like 9/11 don’t happen every week. So, especially at holiday time, Jesus and Moses are regularly unearthed, and the reader is enticed with promises of amazing new discoveries about them. But there are no amazing new discoveries. In fact the magazines don’t even want to tell us about the old discoveries.

Biblical documentaries—or pseudodocumentaries—on television are another matter. There is an endless number of these. You could probably watch them on a twenty-four-hour basis if you wanted to. The format is pretty standard. It consists of bits of interviews with scholars (some mainstream, some from the fringe) interspersed with scenic footage of the Holy Land and reenactments abounding in fake beards and costumes that have not been updated since Charlton Heston received the Law on Sinai in 1956.

These shows can be ingenious. I watched one recently on King Herod the Great and the slaughter of the innocents in Bethlehem after the birth of Christ. The show was a kind of psychobiography trying to determine whether Herod was capable of such a horrible deed. In the end, it concluded that he was.

Which is certainly true. Herod committed any number of atrocities. But scholars almost unanimously doubt that he carried out the slaughter of the innocents, which is unknown and unheard of outside of Matthew’s Gospel. Even the other Gospels make no mention of it. The show said almost nothing about that.

Such programs try to have it both ways. There is lip service to scholarship, and even quite a bit of actual historical information (in this case, about Herod’s reign, his construction programs, and so on). But the main point—whether the slaughter of the innocents actually took place—is pushed to the background or handled disingenuously.

Many, even most, biblical documentaries on TV take the same tack. Why? Most people who watch these shows are people who believe quite literally in the Bible. No producer with any sense is going to alienate his audience. As Fox News correspondent Lauren Green writes, “Faith-based consumers seem to like faith-based producers.”[v]

A few documentaries have gone into biblical controversies, often capably. Of those that I’ve seen, the best is probably a 2008 program from the PBS series NOVA entitled “The Bible’s Buried Secrets,” which does try to do justice to many of the real issues at stake. But these are very much in the minority. Besides, even here journalists are hamstrung by a specious concept of objectivity, which requires them to offer both sides of the issue, shrug their shoulders, and leave people to make up their own minds.

You may reply that any number of books on God and  the Bible have been published in recent years. A number of them have become best-sellers. Aren’t they telling us anything about these questions?

Their record is often not much better. Let’s take a look at what is probably the most successful of them: Karen Armstrong’s 1992 book A History of God. To take one example: in her discussion of biblical religion, she starts with Abraham. Naturally. Abraham is acknowledged as the common father of the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim faiths. Armstrong does admit (13) that “we have no contemporary record of Abraham.”[vi] This is true. Abraham has traditionally been dated to the early second millennium BCE. The biblical texts written about him almost certainly do not predate 700 BCE. So there is at least a 1200-year gap between personage and record.

Nevertheless, Armstrong tries to tell us some things about Abraham. Following Genesis, she says that Abraham left his homeland of the Ur of the Chaldees and settled in the land of Canaan. She mentions that “the stories about Abraham . . . show him serving the King of Sodom as a mercenary and describe his frequent conflicts with the authorities of Canaan and its environs”.[vii] She goes on to say that “it is highly likely that Abraham’s God was El, the High God of Canaan.”[viii]

She fails to mention that few, if any, mainstream scholars believe that there is any truth to the stories about Abraham (as well as about Isaac and Jacob) except, possibly, for the faintest fragments of memory.

Skepticism about Abraham has grown among scholars of the past couple of generations. In the early twentieth century, William Foxwell Albright, generally acknowledged as the father of biblical archaeology, contended that the stories of the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob fit in well with what was known of the early second millennium BCE, when they were supposed to have lived. John Bright’s 1959 work A History of Israel, long a standard text, repeats this view: “It is now evident that the mode of life of the patriarchs, and the nature of their wanderings as described in Genesis, fit perfectly in the cultural and political milieu of the early second millennium.”[ix]

This is no longer believed to be true. In fact these stories fit into the milieu of the time when they were written, a thousand years later. Here is one example, in the words of Israel Finkelstein, professor of archaeology at Tel Aviv University: “The stories of the Patriarchs are ‘packed’ with camels.” But “camels were not domesticated as beasts of burden until the early first millennium BC”—i.e., a thousand years later than Abraham’s time. Similarly, “the account of the caravan carrying ‘gum, balm, and myrrh’ in the Joseph story reveals an obvious familiarity with the main products of the lucrative Arabian trade that flourished under Assyrian domination in the eighth to seventh centuries B.C.E.”[x]

The subhead for this part of Finkelstein’s article is entitled “The Failed Search for the Historical Abraham.” He concludes that the stories of the patriarchs “represent the ideology and needs of the period when the stories were set down in writing, that is, in late-monarchic and post-exilic times [i.e., the seventh through fifth centuries BCE].”

In short, Armstrong is doing exactly what the Time articles are doing, and what the TV documentaries are doing. She is doing her best to obscure the fact that little, if anything, can be said about Abraham as a historical figure. We know nothing about Abraham in any substantial way—who he was, where he lived, whom or what he worshipped.

Stated baldly, this conclusion makes for an uninspiring story. An author has some incentive to set it aside.  Today we can get our agnosticism from plenty of other sources.

The historical problems of the New Testament are as great as those of the Hebrew Bible, but they are different problems. The Gospels are firmly set in the context of their time. Unlike the age of Abraham, it is a time about which a great deal is known. We know about the history of Judea in that period; we know of its leading personalities. Archaeology confirms its details.

The problems with the New Testament lie elsewhere.

To begin with, there is no contemporary archaeological record of Jesus Christ. This is not surprising. Jesus was not a king or a priest, and the inscriptions and artifacts of those days mostly have to do with kings and priests. Nor was Jesus a major figure in the politics and events of his time. Thus the archaeological record is not going to tell us much more about Jesus than do the written texts.  And there is scant mention of him in non-Christian ancient sources, at any rate from the first century.

As for the written texts, nothing in the New Testament was written by any of the twelve apostles or by anyone who knew Jesus personally. This is standard scholarly opinion, but again it has been obscured and shunted aside because of its sheer awkwardness. Most of the New Testament books were written between 70 and 100 CE—at least forty years after Jesus’s death. This leaves plenty of time for memory to be corroded by error and imagination.

Up until the Enlightenment, the Gospels were revered as “Gospel truth.” It was often dangerous to believe otherwise. Inconsistencies between the Gospel accounts were reconciled by means of elaborate, and often persuasive, “harmonies” of the Gospels. After the Enlightenment, skepticism intruded into the realm of sacred truth. Scholars began to see some discrepancy between the historical Jesus—the man in life—and the Christ of faith.

The crucial point in this investigation came in 1834–35, when a German Protestant scholar named David Friedrich Strauss published a book called The Life of Jesus Critically Examined. In it he put forward the startling thesis that parts of the Gospels were made up of legends that had become attached to Jesus after his time.

The book roused a furor. Strauss published a second edition in which he backtracked somewhat from his original thesis, but the damage was done. His career as a clergyman was ruined. At the same time scholars could not ignore his disturbing though all-too-plausible theory.

There is nothing out of the ordinary in Strauss’s idea. Legends attach themselves readily to charismatic figures. But to say that the Gospels contain mythic or legendary material is, of course, not the end of the problem but the beginning. How do you decide what is true and what is legendary? The Gospels in the New Testament (possibly along with the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas) remain now, as they were then, the oldest and most reliable sources. There are no surviving copies of The Jerusalem Daily Bugle from AD 33 to check the facts against.

At first, in the rationalistic and positivistic nineteenth century, things seemed obvious: of course supernatural incidents such as the miracles and even the resurrection were legendary. Many, no doubt most, mainstream scholars would say the same thing today.

But the process did not stop there. The words and sayings of Jesus were scrutinized with more and more skepticism. The influential twentieth-century theologian Rudolf Bultmann was willing to discard the historical side of the Jesus story more or less completely, insisting that only the fact of Jesus’s coming, rather than any specific details about it, constituted the heart of the Christian kerygma (message). In the 1980s and ’90s, the well-known group of liberal scholars known as the Jesus Seminar issued its collective views on the authenticity of Jesus’s sayings: “Eighty-two percent of the words ascribed to Jesus in the gospels were not actually spoken by him.”[xi] The method used was an intense methodological skepticism: “when in sufficient doubt, leave it out.”[xii]

Eighty-two percent is a very large amount. We might question the kind of methodological skepticism that enables or requires you to throw out so much of your primary sources.

Furthermore, there is a point at which you face an impasse: what criteria are you going to use for exclusion? Some fairly standard criteria are invoked—notably the age of the source cited and the multiplicity of sources attesting to a given statement or fact. Unfortunately, scholars are often happy to throw out these criteria when they violate their preconceptions.

Take this example: practically all the earliest sources about the life of Jesus, canonical and noncanonical, say this: Jesus was destroyed at the connivance of the priests of the Jerusalem Temple. Pilate, the wicked Roman procurator, saw no threat in Jesus and did not care one way or another whether he lived.

This narrative is perfectly plausible in the circumstances. The priests of the Temple in the first century CE were wicked and corrupt. If you don’t want to believe the New Testament, you can read the works of Josephus, a contemporary historian who was not only a Jew but a member of the priestly class. Jesus criticized the priests’ corruption—along with the sanctimoniousness of the scribes and Pharisees—and made enough enemies to get himself killed. This, by the way, in no sense justifies the idea of the Jews’ “blood guilt.” A Jew today is not responsible for the acts of a few Jews who lived two thousand years ago.

But, partly from fear of resurrecting the blood guilt bugaboo, many scholars simply don’t want to believe that the Jerusalem priests were the ones responsible. Very well, then, who would have wanted to kill Jesus? The Romans! But of course the Romans would only be after him for political reasons—because he was an insurrectionary. Reza Aslan, in his recent and highly unreliable Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, takes this tack.

This view is irresponsible—I mean from the point of view of historiography. If Jesus was a political agitator, where are all his calls for agitation? “Render unto Caesar” is hardly a persuasive instance—after all, the coin in question does have Caesar’s image and superscription. Jesus’s proclamations of the kingdom of God or the kingdom of heaven have (contrary to the claims of some) no political overtones: the kingdom of God is “within you” (Luke 17:21). It is a matter, first and foremost, of spiritual experience.

Thus to make Jesus a political agitator—a “zealot”—forces you to discard huge amounts of evidence that we have and invent a huge amount of evidence that we do not have. By such criteria, I could argue anything. I could argue that Jesus worshipped a monkey god but that some unspecified parties later cut out all references to this fact.

The upshot is that New Testament scholars have often been high-handed with their own primary sources. Cutting and adjusting where they like, they have made the historical Jesus into little more than a Rorschach blot. This fact explains the whimsical vogues about who Jesus was: Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet, preaching the end of the world—no, actually he wasn’t—oh yes he was after all. There is a serious problem with a methodology that enables scholars to use their sources so capriciously.

In fact the core narrative of the Gospels—that a man named Jesus began his public career with his baptism by John, preached and (possibly) performed healings, incensed the religious authorities, and was consequently executed on trumped-up charges—makes perfect sense in light of the evidence. And it does so in a way that other explanations do not. It is irresponsible to discard it or to mutilate it beyond recognition.

There are many more questions to be answered, notably about who Jesus thought he was and who his followers believed him to be. It would be impossible to go into these issues here. I am simply saying that there is good reason to accept the core narrative in a way that many of even the most prominent New Testament scholars do not.

For reasons like these, the picture the educated public has of the Bible is a murky one. Whether it will become less so over the course of time is open to question. The picture looks brighter for the Hebrew Bible, because there is a greater chance of new data coming to light. The Hebrew Bible is about large-scale events—the history of a people. Archaeological discoveries have a much greater chance of casting new light on the questions here.

In December 2015, for example, a seal was discovered that belonged to Hezekiah, king of Judah, who reigned around 700 BCE and is mentioned in the Bible. Similarly many wine jars have been found for the period marked the inscription lmlk: that is, la-melek, “for the king.” Artifacts of this kind are relatively common for the late period of the Kingdom of Judah—say from 700 to 586 BCE. They suggest that the biblical history of Judah in this period is reasonably close to historical fact. By contrast, similar artifacts are practically nonexistent for the age of David and Solomon over 200 years earlier.

The picture for the New Testament looks less bright. Archaeological artifacts are much less likely to answer questions about a single man who was not illustrious in his own time. Market forces have responded by spitting out the occasional forgery—the alleged ossuary of James the brother of Jesus, the recent so-called “Gospel of Jesus’s Wife”—but it is surprising that these efforts managed to fool anyone at all.

Thus the New Testament scholars are thrown back onto investigating sources that have been investigated all too intensely, at least from a conventional point of view. Any answers that they come up with at this point are likely to be mere variations on the old answers. The only new data to be added are fresh sets of preconceived ideas and agendas—if even any of these are left.

If so much of the Bible is historically obscure or questionable, what possible use can we find for it? To my mind, there is only one viable course—to go back and rediscover the inner, spiritual meanings of the Bible. Even in the third century CE, Origen—by far the most learned of all the church fathers—wrote:

Very many mistakes have been made because the right method of examining the holy texts has not been discovered by the greater number of readers … because it is their habit to follow the bare letter. . . .

Scripture interweaves the imaginary with the historical, sometimes introducing what is utterly impossible, sometimes what is possible but never occurred. . . . not even [the Gospels and the writings of the apostles] are purely historical. . . .

And who is so silly as to imagine that God, like a husbandman, planted a garden in Eden eastward, and put in it a tree of life, which could be seen and felt?[xiii]

It is not easy to take such a tack, because it implies that the “right method” of examining the holy texts is known or at least knowable. And it is not, at least not to many. At the same time, it has always been acknowledged that there are such meanings. Origen posited three levels of meaning  to Scripture, corresponding to the body, soul, and spirit (the tripartite division of the human structure as known to ancient Christianity).[xiv] In medieval times, these levels of meaning were extended to four, as we see in Dante’s Letter to Can Grande. There is also the Kabbalistic teaching of four levels of meaning to Torah, known mnemonically as pardes (“garden”)—a Hebrew acronym for the names of these levels: peshat (literal); remez (ethical); derash (allegorical); and sod (mystical).[xv]

It would, I believe, be mistaken to look for these inner meanings as fixed, final messages of the sort that you find by breaking a code. It is not that easy. This kind of understanding requires investigation, not only into texts and documents, but into the parts of one’s own soul to which these scriptures speak. It is a task that is as daunting as it is exhilarating. But it is sure to take us further than limiting our search to facts and events.

Richard Smoley’s latest book is How God Became God: What Scholars Are Really Saying about God and the Bible, published by Tarcher Perigee. Richard’s website is

[i] reported in; accessed June 9, 2016.

[ii] JJohn Dart, “Biblical Research Findings for the Public,” Society for Biblical Literature Web site;; accessed Dec. 10, 2014.

[iii] “In Search of Moses.” David Van Biema, “In Search of Moses,” Time, Dec. 14, 1998;,8599,2053940,00.html; accessed Nov. 2, 2015.

[iv] “How Moses Shaped America.” Bruce Feiler, “How Moses Shaped America,” Time, Oct. 12, 2009;,9171,1927303,00.html; accessed Nov. 2, 2015.

[v] Lauren Green, “Television’s Bible Boom: Plenty of Faith-Based Shows to Choose From,”, Aprl 3, 2015;; accessed June 9, 2016.

[vi] Karen Armstrong, A History of God (New York: Ballantine, 1993), 13.

[vii] Armstrong, 11.

[viii] Armstrong, 14.

[ix] John Bright, A History of Israel (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1959), 72.

[x] Israel Finkelstein, “Digging for the Truth: Archaeology and the Bible,” in Brian B. Schmidt, ed., The Quest for the Historical Israel (Atlanta: Society for Biblical Literature, 2007), 46.

[xi] Robert W. Funk, Roy W. Hoover, and the Jesus Seminar, ed., The Five Gospels: What Did Jesus Really Say? (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1993), 5.

[xii] Funk, Hoover, et al., 37.

[xiii] The Philokalia of Origen, 1.8, 16–17, trans. George Lewis;; accessed Mar. 1, 2015. Cf. Origen, On First Principles, trans. G. W. Butterworth (New York: Harper & Row, 1966), 4.3.1.

[xiv] Origen, On First Principles, 4.2.4, 275–76.

[xv] Gershom Scholem, Kabbalah (New York: Dorset, 1974), 172.



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