Is the Bible to be interpreted as literal or metaphorical?

By Spencer D Gear

(image courtesy

One of the ways to put down those who interpret the Bible literally, the fundamentalists, and Bible-believing Christians is to say that we don’t interpret the Bible literally but metaphorically, allegorically or through some other deconstruction. Some add that it is the uneducated or uninformed who take the Bible literally and are perpetrating false views of the Bible.

This is how Robert Funk debunks such Christians:

As I look around me, I am distressed by those who are enslaved by a Christ imposed upon them by a narrow and rigid legacy. There are millions of Americans who are the victims of a mythical Jesus conjured up by modern evangelists to whip their followers into a frenzy of guilt and remorse—and cash contributions. I agonize over their slavery in contrast to my freedom. I have a residual hankering to free my fellow human beings from this bondage, which can be as abusive as any form of slavery known to humankind. I believe that such a hankering is inspired by Jesus himself, who seems to be untouched by religious bigotry and tyranny and unacquainted with the straightjacket of literalism and dogmatism.  Liberation from fear and ignorance is always a worthy cause. In the last analysis, however, it is because I occasionally glimpse an unknown Jesus lurking in and behind Christian legend and piety that I persist in my efforts to find my way through the mythical and legendary debris of the Christian tradition. And it is the lure of this glimpse that I detect in other questers [quests for the historical Jesus] and that I share with them (Funk 1996:19, emphasis added).

Robert M. Price is just as adamant in castigating fundamentalists and Christian supernaturalists for their foolish, inaccurate understanding of the Scriptures:

We are viewed as insidious villains seeking to undermine the belief of the faithful, trying to push them off the heavenly path and into Satan’s arms. But this is not how we view ourselves at all. We find ourselves entering the field as the champions and zealots for a straightforward and accurate understanding of the Bible as an ancient text. In our opinion, it is the fundamentalist, the apologist for Christian supernaturalism, who is propagating false and misleading views of the Bible among the general populace. We are not content to know better and to shake our heads at the foolishness of the untutored masses. We want the Bible to be appreciated for what it is, not for what it is not. And it is not a supernatural oracle book filled with infallible dogmas and wild tales that must be believed at the risk of eternal peril (Price 2005:15, emphasis added).

I came across this kind of issue in my blogging on Christian Forums, with  this perceptive question from one person: [1]

How do we know if certain passages [of the Bible] are metaphorical?

I’m wondering how can we know if certain biblical stories are literal or metaphorical? For example, the story of creation, exodus, the big flood, etc. I’ve always wondered that cause it seems to me there is a lot of disagreement in Christianity concerning this question. And recently I heard that there are some indications in original texts…different writing style or something? Thanks in advance and excuse me for my ignorance

Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan of the Jesus Seminar took this line:

‘A classic example in both church and culture today is thinking that the truth of the Genesis stories of creation depends upon their factuality. This has led to disputes about “creation” versus “evolution,” “intelligent design” versus “random evolution,” and so forth. These disputes would not have occurred without the modern (Enlightenment) conviction that truth equals factuality. For many defenders of the “truth of Genesis,” the truth of these stories is dependent upon their factuality and evolution is a competing factuality. A parabolic reading of these stories would eliminate this conflict and place the issue where it belongs. To whom does the earth belong? Is it the creation of God and the gift of God, wondrous and calling forth awe, plenteous and calling forth gratitude and adoration, and intended for the whole of creation? or is it ours?” (Borg & Crossan 2006:219, note 19).

My response to the poster was: [2]

What is your understanding of the meaning of “history”?

This will be a starter from me. Often, “history” is understood two ways: (1) “Actual happenings in the real world”, and (2) “What people write about actual happenings in the real world” (Wright 1992:81). Wright notes that the second definition technically is the correct one and is the only meaning given in the Concise Oxford Dictionary.

In this understanding, which I accept, history is writing about events that happened. Wright goes on to say that history is not “bare facts” or “subjective interpretations” but is “the meaningful narrative of events and intentions” (Wright 1992:82). I agree.

The questions relating to your post include: Is Genesis 1 written about a meaningful narrative and intentions about what happened at the beginning of the world?

On the other hand, what is metaphor? My Australian Macquarie Dictionary defines ‘metaphor’ as ‘a figure of speech in which a term or phrase is applied to something to which it is not literally applicable, in order to suggest a resemblance, as A mighty fortress is our God’.

However, if we talk about a “literal” creation in contrast to a “metaphorical” creation, it does not help us to determine what went on at creation. Why? Because “literal” and “metaphorical” refer to the way words refer to things, but we are still left with what the metaphor refers to. It has not been defined.

Perhaps better language would be to use “concrete” and “abstract” instead of “literal” and “metaphorical”. When the OT and NT use the metaphor of “sleep” to indicate death, it is still referring to a concrete situation – death.

So, do Genesis 1 and 2 refer to what a person (Moses) has written about what happened in the real world (history), or has Moses written in the abstract, using a metaphor?

Another replied: [3]

Everything in the Bible is for your edification and even the metaphors are to be used to understand what God wants you to know.

My response was: [4]

The issue has many more serious ramifications. Let me explain:

This is what some have written in regard to Genesis 1 being metaphorical and not literal in what is known as the Framework Hypothesis of Genesis 1:

“The evidence that the Genesis cosmogony has been shaped by the employment of the Bible’s two-register cosmology thus demonstrating that the picture of the week of days is one element of a broader pattern in which upper-register realties are described through the metaphorical use of lower-register terminology” (The Great Debate, 185).

“The creation narrative is not to be taken literally but is kerygma-theological, and redemptive” (TGB, 218).

“The Framework Hypothesis regards the seven day scheme as a figurative framework” (JGD, 219). “While the six days of creation are presented as normal solar days, according to the Framework interpretation, the total picture of God completing his creative work in a week of days is not to be taken literally” JGD, 219).

Another has written:

Literal or Metaphorical: Even today there are very few biblical literalists who read Genesis 2 and 3 absolutely literally. They do not believe that God was literally “walking in the garden in the cool of the evening,” for instance. It is certainly good theology to distinguish between God and our metaphorical descriptions of God, but we don’t want to lose the beauty and drama of the biblical story. God is very much a participant in the drama of Adam and Eve. One of the reasons we know and love this story is because God is portrayed in such human terms. But once you acknowledge that the portrayal of God in this story is a metaphor, then there is no reason not to view the whole story as a metaphor. When we do so we find that this is a very rich and profound discussion about human life and happiness.

We lose much of the meaning of the story when we try to make it a historical account of the origin of the species. Remember that this was originally written for a bronze-age culture. If we get hung up on the question of whether Genesis 2 is a factual account, then we will lose the truths the story is trying to communicate, just like we could get a misleading understanding of God if we used these verses to declare that God has hands and feet.

This is how metaphorical / allegorical interpretation of the early chapters of Genesis is explained:

The literalness of the garden is questioned. Although ‘the tree of life and the knowledge of good and evil could have been literal’ and although ‘man faced a real historical choice between life and the knowledge of good and evil’, in fact ‘the language used to describe this choice … is metaphorical. The ‘paradise of Eden’ was taken by pre-Reformation commentators partly as literal and partly metaphorical.’

As for ‘the tree of life’, the ‘serpent’ and other imagery (in Gen.2), Forster and Marston see them as ‘pure symbolism (and not literally as well) in Revelation 20-22 and Gen.2-3’

Here’s another acceptance of metaphorical interpretation of Genesis 1-3:

If we all agree that the serpent is metaphorical, why push for literalism elsewhere in the Creation account? The story of the serpent is part of a larger apocalyptic (or, revelatory) tale — the story of the beginning. Thus, a consistent view of this Creation story is consistently metaphorical. The Creation-Days and their unusual numerology represent something. The Tree of Life and Tree of Knowledge represent something. The consumption of the forbidden fruit represents something.

As long as we retain the essentials of the story — the meaningful images that convey to us God’s goodness, our fault, our dilemma, and our hope — there’s no reason to resist reading Creation metaphorically, and every reason to embrace what it appears was intended.

So did God create actual days or were they only metaphorical ways of expression of creation?

I take the view that this is factual history dealing with the reality of the creation of the universe.


[1] Wolf911 (#1)

[2] ozspen #2

[3] papaJP (#4)

[4] ozspen #5

Works consulted

Borg, M and Crossan J D 2006. The last week: The day-by-day account of Jesus’s final week in Jerusalem. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco.

Funk, R W 1996. Honest to Jesus: Jesus for a new millennium. Rydalmere, NSW: Hodder & Stoughton (A Polebridge Press book).

Price, R M 2005. The empty tomb: Jesus beyond the grave. New York: Prometheus Press.

Wright, N T 1992. The New Testament and the people of God. Minneapolis: Fortress Press


Copyright © 2015 Spencer D. Gear. This document last updated at Date: 28 June 2016.