Saturday, March 13, 2010

Taking Jesus Literally

Those who take the Bible "literally" are not well thought of among the American intelligentsia. The looks of disgust I have seen on intellectuals' faces when speaking of "fundamentalists" rival Dick Chaney's sneer when speaking of Democrats. Creationists are pictured as little more than unevolved apes. Those who believe in the virgin birth and physical resurrection of Jesus are viewed as pre-Copernican ignoramuses who must also believe the earth is flat. Those who adhere to a literal reading of the moral statutes of Scripture are labeled as homophobes and bigots.

Yet Jesus appears to be a literalist. Listen to him in the Sermon on the Mount:

 "Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven."

This is a dimension of Jesus we don't like to hear and do not understand. Mainstream Christian preachers go through gymnastic gyrations worthy of Olympic athletes to explain away passages like this. I know, because I have done it! We take the biblical Jesus, cleverly transform him into our own image, dress him in 21st century values and call ourselves followers of Christ. In truth we have just created another idol to worship.

A.J. Jacobs is a Jewish agnostic who tried to take the Bible literally. He attempted to follow all the laws and rules of the Bible - including the Old Testament dietary, clothing, and hair laws - for one year. He recounts his humorous journey through religious literalism in his book, The Year of Living Biblically: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible.

During his yearlong experiment he is instructed in the Torah by observant Jews. But he also meets such biblical literalists as snake handlers in Appalachia, Amish in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, biblical creationists in Kentucky, and Samaritans in Israel. He even visits the liberals' dreaded nemesis, the Reverend Jerry Falwell.

At the end of his year of living literally, he is not converted to the biblical lifestyle nor the biblical God, but he does develop an appreciation for the faith and lifestyles of the literalists. In other words, he learned not judge people until you have walked a year in their sandals. He did. That is one Biblical rule the anti-literalists might consider taking literally: Judge not, lest ye be judged.

The photo progression shows Author A.J. Jacobs as he spent a year trying to live the Bible literally - and not shaving - for his book, The Year of Living Biblically.


  1. This has always been a tricky bit to play. I've found that the majority of the Bible should, indeed, be taken literally, except for those places that are obviously symbolic, parabolic, or otherwise are for illustration purposes only. Discerning which bits are which, of course, is where the majority of debate arises.

    I found, as I started to compose the comment, that it's going to be a long one. Since I, too, have a blog that deals with Scriptural things, I think it's time to make an all-too-rare post on there. Allow me to refer you to (precise URL to be edited in as soon as I write & post the thing).

  2. Oops, sorry, guess I can't edit comments that require approval. The link is .

  3. You asked on my blog (and thank you for doing so, by the way) how I would apply my "implementation" of "taking the Bible literally" to the passage you present, which is Matthew 5:17-20. I responded on my blog post, but since Blogger refuses to implement Trackbacks, Pingbacks, Refbacks, or any other standard blog comment importing, I'll reiterate my response here, if you don't mind.

    Hmmm ... to be honest, I don't see any problem with taking these words literally. The Law (presumably of Moses, vs. all the extras the Scribes & Pharisees chose to insert for their own convenience or what-not) still holds true. Anyone who breaks them will be "least in the kingdom of heaven" ... note that doesn't say they are condemned, but simply "least." Surpassing the righteousness of the religious big-wigs of the day wasn't all that difficult, either, especially since Jesus used the whole message to describe that obedience is more than merely doing, but it's in the heart as well. So context enlightens us a little here.

    So how could one be more righteous than the Pharisees and the teachers? Through the Law, there is no way. Jesus would go on to say that guilt under the Law is permanent and all-inclusive; if you think your neighbor's wife is "hot," even once, you're out of the running for the righteousness prize. Yet even those whom Jewish society lifted high on the pedestal of so-called "righteousness" were the same.

    So how could one be more righteous than the Pharisees, either figuratively (in terms of appearing to keep the Law) or literally (in God's eyes)? Nobody can. That's why Jesus had to die in our place, becoming righteousness for us.

    So what about the people listening at that time? Well, Jesus hadn't died yet, so they had to deal with things in a pre-Ascension fashion. To be honest, I'm not all that clear on how all that worked. I've heard the bits about "Abraham's bosom" and the traditions involved here, but I've never seen anything Biblical that tells me why, for example, Abraham was placed among the faithful in the passage in Hebrews, other than that his faith in God was sufficient. Let's face it, though; it doesn't matter anymore. We're on the "good side" of the crucifixion, with a much better way to God.

    So am I missing something here that you're trying to get at? Oh, perhaps it's what encompasses "the Law?" The fellow who didn't shave and do all those other things was supposedly following "the Law?" That begs the question, "what is the Law?" Is it everything in the Ten Commandments (never mind that I've never been able to get a 10-count out of those passages that satisfies me)? Is it the entirety of Deuteronomy? How much of the statements made in "the Law" were to make the Israelites distinctive from those they were trying to defeat? Since the Sermon on the Mount teaches that the Law is really heart-related, not merely deed-related, is not shaving one's beard the issue, or was it something deeper? Or was that even actually part of the Law that Jesus was talking about? I confess, I'd have to look at the details further ... but it really doesn't matter, since I've broken other parts of the Law (including the "big 10") anyhow, so those details don't really matter. I still need grace through God-given faith to have any sort of righteousness accounted to me.

    And, really, isn't that the important part?