The Unreliability of Biblical Literalism


The Bible is a poetic, figurative, metaphorical, and mystical book. How else could you understand “Let the floods clap their hands; let the hills sing together for joy” (Ps. 98:8) or Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice, and let them say among the nations, ‘The Lord is king!’” (1 Chronicles 16:31)? Yet biblical literalism renders the floods and hills gasping for air and circling the drain.

Words in the ancient biblical texts need room to breathe so they can come to life. Even in the hands of those who know the intricacies of the languages involved, translation is always a subjective process.

What Jesus said, which was in Aramaic was converted in the Gospels by his disciples and companions into Greek. They would know best what words to use. But they were converting words from a free flowing language (Aramaic) into a fixed language (Greek).

That’s like catching a butterfly, euthanizing it, pinning it to a piece of Styrofoam and then expecting someone in the 31st century who has never seen a 21st century butterfly (because we’ve killed them all with insecticides or they’ve been genetically altered into ninja drones) to look at the dried butterfly on Styrofoam and understand how they used to fly and pollinate plants.

This video might represent what Jesus (if speaking about butterflies in Aramaic) was intended to look like: 

Two thousand years later, with Aramaic almost extinct and its words converted to Greek and then English, imagine that you only had this to try to understand everything about butterflies:

butterflies in print medium






If words are not given the freedom to expand and to mean all that they were intended to mean, they die on the page because of literalism. A teaching from the early Essene community says that words are like dead leaves when there is no life of the spirit in them.

Martin Luther called the words of Scripture “dead words to a dead people” if they are taken only at face value. The pages of the Bible are like dead leaves if words become like concrete—with no flexibility or understanding of how they must be allowed to breathe.

Aramaic has different levels of meaning. The Hebrew, Arabic, and Aramaic languages are similar in that they make no distinction between the body, mind, and spirit. Words can have different meanings because the interpretation of a syllable is defined by its placement and inflections in a system that permits it to be interpreted at the body, mind, or spiritual level.

Even though what Jesus said in his native tongue has been converted, painstakingly, into the words and concepts of Greek, and then into English (or other languages)…the meaning has become fixed rather than allowed to breathe so they can be interpreted at many levels.

Imperfect exchanges of words during translation have made some of the things Jesus said difficult to comprehend. Part of the reason is that every word in Aramaic doesn’t have a perfect Greek counterpart. Yet when you explore the meanings of words in the original languages, some of Jesus’s hard teachings start to make more sense.

So I’m going to be doing a few short videos and blog posts about Aramaic and Greek words to teach you some of the things I have discovered. And maybe you’ll understand why people should be careful about using biblical literalism to claim “this is what Jesus or Moses or Elijah or Peter said.”


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