The Bible and Literalism

Photo by Martin LaBar, via Flickr

My husband tells this joke that he calls “The Three Beers.” The basic story is: a man walks into a bar and orders three beers, one for him and one for each of his brothers. One day he only orders two, and people offer him condolences on losing his brother. The punch line is: “it’s Lent, and I’ve quit drinking!”

Neither Christian nor I remember where he got this joke; he thought it was so funny that he claimed it as his own, and for more than a year, he told it to EVERYONE. This means that I heard the joke something like 400 times. As unbelievable as it sounds, that number is not an exaggeration. I heard the joke at least once a day for a year, and frequently more often.

My point is this: “The Three Beers” matured in the telling. The essentials never changed–not one bit–from what you read above. But the words used, and the details of the story, did. By the time Christian had been telling the joke for 6 months, the words were virtually the same from one presentation to the next–but they were not the same as when he first heard the joke. He added dialogue, and expression, and made it his own.

The words changed–the story didn’t.

Do you see where I’m going with this?

You can’t read the Bible as a historical document.

In the Gospels, each evangelist was writing to a different audience; thus, different details were more important to one than to another. Matthew was talking to Jews, so he focused on the fulfillment of the Old Testament. Luke was writing for Gentiles. Luke’s Gospel is the only one in which the Magi appear; this was the first time God’s salvation was proclaimed to the non-Jewish world. John skips the infancy altogether and goes right to the meat of the message: the proclamation of the kingdom. He goes into great, agonizing detail about the Passion, death and resurrection of Christ.

This does not make one of them more true than another. But if you try to read the Bible word-for-word–even assuming that you could somehow surmount the translation of a translation of a translation problem–you find literal contradictions. Did Mary Magdalene, alone, see the stone rolled back and run back to tell Peter that someone had stolen the body? (John 20) Or was it Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Mary the mother of James, and did they have a conversation with the angels first, so that they went back and told Peter that “He is risen!” (Luke 24)

Does it matter? No. Either way, the essential story remains the same. But this illustrates that context is important, as is an understanding of the literary forms used in the Bible.