Christians Did Not Read the Bible Literally until the Twentieth Century

Image result for image don't read the bible literally

Of course, [modern skeptics’] problems are with what they consider the Bible’s many scientific errors and internal contradictions.  They have compiled a long list of Old Testament verses suggesting a flat earth, a Ptolemaic cosmology, a six-day Creation, and a variety of New Testament accounts that don’t agree with one another, let alone the historical record.

My response to such “problems” is simple:   They don’t really matter.  Sure, if you read it literally, the Bible contains some mistakes and inaccuracies, but that is not how its ancient authors intended it to be read, and that is not how it has been read by Christians for hundreds and hundreds of years.  In fact, the idea that the Bible is literally and inerrantly true is a relatively new one, introduced at the beginning of the twentieth century by a small group of American Protestants in a series of tracts called “the Fundamentals”.  Unfortunately, those fundamentalists and their followers have led lots of people—including lots of skeptics—into reading the Bible the wrong way.

As I see it, the Gospel writers were not as interested in the details of Jesus’s life as they were in the truth of it.

—Tony Campolo, liberal evangelical Christian evangelist, Why I Left, Why I Stayed, p. 102


Gary:  What???

First, how accurate is Tony Campolo’s statement that Christians did not believe the stories in the Bible literally until just one hundred years ago?  Let’s take a look at the sixteenth century:

“There is talk of a new astrologer [Copernicus] who wants to prove that the earth moves and goes around instead of the sky, the sun, the moon, just as if somebody were moving in a carriage or ship might hold that he was sitting still and at rest while the earth and the trees walked and moved. But that is how things are nowadays: when a man wishes to be clever he must needs invent something special, and the way he does it must needs be the best! The fool wants to turn the whole art of astronomy upside-down. However, as Holy Scripture tells us, so did Joshua bid the sun to stand still and not the earth.”

Martin Luther


From a Roman Catholic website:  “Though the majority of Church Fathers took the six days of creation as being six literal days, there was not moral unanimity among them on this question. In addition later Catholic authorities (e.g., Thomas Aquinas; see ST 1:74:2) recognized a diversity of permissible interpretations.


Hmm.  I think Tony Campolo should have done a little more research in Church history before making such a grossly inaccurate statement.

I’ve heard that Augustine questioned the literal interpretation of the Six-Day Creation Story, but other than that issue, how much of the Bible did ancient Christians read as metaphorical?  Did ancient Christians believe the Virgin Birth Story literally?  Did they believe the Birth in Bethlehem Story literally (both of them)?  How about the story of walking on water, turning water into wine, and feeding five thousand people with a few loaves of bread and a couple of fish???

But these stories are small potatoes.  What about the foundational story of Christianity: the Resurrection of Jesus from the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea; with women eyewitnesses discovering the empty tomb and the dead Jesus appearing multiple times to various groups of disciples over a forty day period?  Did ancient Christians believe that this story was metaphorical until the beginning of the twentieth century?

You see, dear Reader, moderate/liberal Christians like Tony Campolo shoot themselves in the foot when they try to convince us that, historically, Christians never read the Creation Story, the Flood Story, the Jonah in the Belly of a Fish Story, etc., etc., literally.  Because if all those stories were never intended to be understood literally, then how on earth can we be certain that the authors of the Gospels intended for us to literally believe a Virgin Birth Story and a Resurrected Corpse Story?

Image result for image don't read the bible literally

5 thoughts on “Christians Did Not Read the Bible Literally until the Twentieth Century

  1. Knowing they can no longer defend the bible, they are attempting to change the narrative and reinterpret history so they don’t have to. Far from running from it, they are diffusing any responsibility to be honest about it. Truth ™ no longer relies and rests on ‘details’ such as the historical or archaeological veracity of the Story ™. Truth becomes larger than the truth… Small t intentionally used.


    1. If you read Tony (and Bart) Campolo’s book, it is very obvious that Tony’s Campolo’s faith is entirely based on his feelings and perceptions. This is very common among evangelical Christians. Even if we were to find an ancient mummified corpse near Jerusalem and DNA testing proved with 99.99% certainty that it was Jesus of Nazareth, I would bet that many evangelical Christians would refuse to believe it. Their inner feelings and perceptions tell them that Jesus MUST be alive: He is living within their bodies!


  2. Thanks for a thought provoking post, Gary. I certainly get frustrated at times trying to interpret individual parts of a collection of documents that were written by several dozen authors, from a as many cultures, across centuries, and in a variety of apparent genres. It is certainly foolish to read each sentence in the bible the exact same way.

    To pose a counter thought, I think you touched on an important detail: some parts are more foundational than others in a narrative. Where do “foundations” begin and “details” end? That’s clearly not agreed upon. I think that’s what Compolo was getting at. Just because we can’t fully trust our face value interpretations of every aspect of a narrative, doesn’t mean the narrative has no truth or evidentiary value, as I’ve inferred to be your primary point.


    1. Very true, Dylan. My point is this: Just how far did the early Christians take “non-literality”? For instance, maybe the earliest Christians truly did believe that Jesus was the Son of God, without a human father, but did not know how this “miracle” had occurred. They invented a Birth Story that was compatible with their belief that Jesus did not have a human father for teaching and evangelization purposes only. They were not trying to deceive anyone. Their original readers knew that these stories were fictional in detail but factual in subject matter, and that was what mattered to them. Therefore, the Birth Stories in Matthew and Luke are completely non-literal (fictional) although the early Christian belief in Jesus’ divinity as the Son of God was very real.

      And what about the Joseph of Arimathea Tomb Story? Scholars are pretty certain that the earliest Christians really did believe that Jesus had been resurrected from the dead and that he had appeared alive to some of them. But maybe these beliefs came from “appearance experiences” and not from an empty rock tomb, women witnesses who meet an angel/angels, or Roman guards fainting at the appearance of an angel. Maybe ALL these details, including the rock tomb, are literary inventions. What mattered to the earliest Christians was the belief that Jesus was risen from the dead, not the exact details of how that happened.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. It’s hard to fathom a non-literal interpretation given the NT’s main characters believed the OT accounts and characters were real:

    – Jesus believed in a literal Jonah (Mt 12:40; Lk 11:30) and Moses (Jn 5:45-47)
    – the transfiguration appearances of Moses and Elijah (Mt 17:2-90; Lk 9:28-36)
    – Stephen’s retelling of the patriarical history (Acts 7)
    – Paul’s belief in the fall of Adam (Romans 5:12-14; 1 Cor 15:21-22)
    – Paul’s belief in a literal Heaven, Satan and Hell (2 Cor 12:2,7; 2 Thes 1:6-10)
    – Peter’s belief in the flood, the destruction of Sodom & Gomorrah, and angels (2 Pet 2:5-7,11)


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