How to Take the Bible Literally

Dr. James Emery White

“You don’t take the Bible literally, do you?”

According to a recent article by a professor at Iliff School of Theology, “No one reads or interprets the Bible literally – regardless as to what they profess.  To do so is simplistic, if not dangerous. All of us read our bias, our theology, and our social location into the text. There is no such thing as an objective reading; all readings are subjective.” 

Welcome to hermeneutical nihilism. But wait, it gets worse. 

If we were to take it literally, we would then be forced to “live illegal - if not immoral lives." To prove his point, the learned professor prepared his own pop quiz:

1. The biblical definition of a traditional marriage is one between a man and: a) many wives or concubines, b) sex slaves, c) prostitutes, d) his harem, e) all of the above.

2. Homosexuals are to be: a) tolerated, b) encouraged, c) killed, d) banned.

3. Women are saved: a) through baptism, b) by reciting a sinner’s prayer, c) through child-bearing, d) accepting Jesus, who died for their sins, as Lord as Savior.

4. God tries to kill Moses, but does not because God is appeased by Moses’ wife Zipporah, who: a) cuts off the foreskin of her son’s penis and rubs it on Moses’ penis, b) offers up a bull as sacrifice, c) takes a vow of silence, d) prays for forgiveness.

5. Evil and evil spirits come from: a) God, b) Satan, c) neither a nor b, d) both a and b.

6. Every year, one must take a tithe of all the land has yielded and: a) give it to the priests, b) give it to the church, c) give it to the poor, d) convert it to cash to buy wine, strong drink, or anything else their heart desires.

7. The Bible makes provisions for offering a sacrifice to: a) nature, b) the demonic god named Azazel, c) God, d) a and d, e) b and c.

8. My response to taking this test will be: a) stick my fingers in my ears and loudly sing “na na na na na,” b) question [the author’s] salvation again while again stating never to read such commentary, c) ignore these parts of the Bible so I can maintain my literalism, d) read the text for what it says and struggle with it in the humility of knowing that a clear answer may not be evident in this lifetime. 

His list of answers?

1. e -- I Kings 11:3, Deut. 21:10-14, Gen. 38:15, Lev. 18:18;  2. c -- Lev. 20:13; 3. c -- I Tim. 2:14-15; 4. a -- Ex. 4:24-26; 5. d -- I Sam. 18:10, I Kings 14:10, Amos 3:6, Is. 45:7; 6. d -- Deut. 14:22-27; 7. e -- Lev. 16: 8, 10, 26; 8. the choice is yours.

I could teach an introductory course on how not to interpret anything based on this quiz. 

To fifth graders.

I do not mind a learned discussion about biblical truth and authority. What I do mind is continually associating a ridiculously wooden interpretation of the Bible that violates the most fundamental rules of textual interpretation with "taking the Bible literally." This is such a tired caricature. Suffice it to say, such "quizzes" as offered above reveal both a hermeneutical and a theological ignorance. It is bad enough when the media keep getting it wrong; it’s unconscionable when we do it to ourselves to prove what really are biased, subjective points of view.

To take the Bible literally simply means that you take it at face value, which is the proper task of hermeneutics. If it is poetry, read and interpret it as poetry. If it is history, read and interpret it as history. It also means that you take into account the historical-cultural context, and the wider theological context of the entire canon. 

Is this so difficult to understand? 

Here are the three basic principles for interpreting the Bible: 1) always try and find out the author’s original intent; 2) always try and interpret the verse in light of its context; and 3), always let Scripture interpret Scripture. 

That's taking it literally.

And yes, I do.

James Emery White




“A Pop Quiz for Biblical Literalists,” Miguel De La Torre, at

Original publication date: May 30, 2009