Religion: Literal vs. Figurative

It seems to me…

Religions get lost as people do.”  ~ Franz Kafka.

I was raised as a Catholic, attended Catholic high school for two years, a Quaker high school my final two years, and started college at a Southern Baptist university.  Perhaps this early exposure to different Christian denominations partly explains my skepticism regarding established religions.  While I consider myself a Christian, I currently do not attend any services on a regular basis.

I accept that my preference for Christianity results primarily from early familiarity due to parental influence and have considered various other Christian sects:  when young I occasionally went to Protestant and Episcopal services with friends, have attended various Evangelical services, and considered converting to LDS (Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints) – but backed out two days before baptism.  I’ve also considered/studied but rejected several non-Christian religions including Buddhism and Islam.

While religions provide a positive influence on much of our lives, we also must acknowledge their dark side: religions unfortunately, along with nationalism, are the root source of much of the conflict and suffering throughout the world.  All the charitable and humanitarian work by churches is praiseworthy and deserves encouragement but extremism in pursuit of any admirable goal, religious or otherwise, should be condemned.  They provide assistance to those in need: the Salvation Army is there regardless of the problem.  Following a natural disaster, church groups normally are the first to arrive: the Southern Baptist Convention feeds those without any other access to food.

Many of the larger denominations are in reality nothing other than large corporations who fight to protect their cash-flow assets like any other big business.  They operate similarly to any other business – cold, uncaring, and out of touch with their membership.  Their administrative executives are in their position resulting more from political ability rather than religious concerns.

But how many people question the foundation and basic beliefs of their religion?  Every religion at some point is based on faith rather than fact.  While these remarks are specific to Christianity, they are equally applicable to any other religion.

Every sect wants its members to believe that it alone is the font of religious truth – that it alone provides the path to salvation and you will be excommunicated (or worse) if you question or do not fully subscribe to its tenets and doctrines.  But how reasonable is this?  There are approximately 30,000 to 40,000 recognized Christian denominations[i] each with their own slightly unique interpretation of Christianity’s “holy” book – the Bible – which is accepted unquestionably as God’s divinely inspired word to man.  But the Bible cannot be the literal, complete, inerrant, and perfect work of a perfect, all-powerful, and loving God.

What now is know as the Bible was not in any universally accepted form until the Gutenberg printing press was invented in the 15th century.  Even if we accept that the Bible was divinely inspired as written in the original Hebrew and Greek, it was repeatedly copied by monks (humans) with slight errors gradually introduced with each transcription.  No original manuscripts exist and none of the books survives in anything like their original form but there are hundreds of differences between what now is available and the oldest manuscripts of any of the books.  These differences indicate the numerous additions and alterations, some accidental and some purposeful, made to the originals by various authors, editors, and copyists.

The fact that the books of the Bible, both the Old and New Testament, have undergone change throughout the centuries is further indicated by The Dead Sea Scrolls.  The Scrolls, dating to about the first century CE, show there were several versions of scripture in distribution — some that are claimed by scholars to be even more extensive, and of better quality, than those found in modern Bibles[ii].

Today when you enter a bookstore, there are numerous translations, each of which is slightly different.  How would anyone determine which is the “true” divinely inspired version?

The Christian Bible includes 39 books of the Old Testament (the Bible of Judaism) along with the 27 books of the New Testament known as the canon[iii].

As for the books forming the Old Testament, the prophets’ writings were not brought together in a single form until about 200 BCE and the remaining Old Testament books were adopted as canonical considerably after that.  The Old Testament probably was not in its current form until slightly prior to the birth of Christ.

There isn’t any single date when the canon of the New Testament was decided.  In the first and second centuries after Christ, many writings and epistles – over three thousand books – circulated among the Christians, many spurious,and were considered for inclusion in the New Testament canonas the need to have a definite list of the inspired Scriptures became obvious.  Heretical movements were rising, each one choosing its own selected Scriptures, including such documents as the Gospel of Thomas, the Shepherd of Hermas, the Apocalypse of Peter, and the Epistle of Barnabas.

While it is widely believe that the Council of Nicaea, held in 325CE., determined what books should constitute the Bible, this council did not determine the canon.  The first church council considering this question was the Synod of Laodicea in 365CE.  It was actually not until 367CE that Athanasius, one of the church’s fathers, first provided a complete listing of the 66 books belonging to the canon.  These books were chosen, after a bit of haggling, by the Catholic Council of Carthage in 397CE[iv] — more than three hundred years after the time of Jesus.

Many biblical authors are unknown[v] since even when an author has been named, that name in many cases has been selected by pious believers rather than provided by the author.  The four Gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, did not carry the names of their actual authors and the present names were assigned long after these four books were written.  Almost all Biblical scholars agree that none of the Gospel authors was either an actual disciple of Jesus or even an eyewitness to his ministry.  Although some books of the Bible are traditionally attributed to a single author, many such as Genesis and John actually are the work of multiple authors.

Many Biblical books are obviously fiction.  Private conversations are often related when no reporter was present including conversations between God and various individuals.  Prehistoric events are given in great detail.  When a story is told by more than one author, there usually are significant differences.  Many stories which in their original context are considered even by Christians to be fictional were borrowed by the Biblical authors, adapted for their own purposes, given a historical setting, and then declared to be fact.  The Flood story is an example of this kind of adaptation.  Its migration from the earliest known occurrence in Samaria, around 1600BCE, from place to place and eventually to the Bible, can be traced historically.  Each time the story was used again, it was altered to speak of local gods and heroes.

All of this necessitates the question of how much of the Bible should be taken literally or figuratively.  In spite of what many people believe and some churches teach, the only logical answer is that much of the Bible should not be taken literally.  This does not in any way lessen the value of the Bible.  Much of the Bible was written for a simpler time when the vast majority of people were illiterate and needed simpler explanations.

No one today of any intelligence logically believes the world was created in 6000BCE or denies the fact of evolution.  Anyone questioning the relationship between science and faith should remember that Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) was tried by the Church Inquisition following publication of his book stating the theory that the Earth revolved around the Sun of which the Church disapproved since Holy Scriptures clearly state the Earth is at the center, not the Sun.  Strict interpretation of the Bible was wrong then and would be even less correct today.

That’s what I think, what about you?

[iii]How were the books of the Bible chosen?, Biblica,

[iv]The Catholic Council of Carthage in 397CE was called by Constantine the Great who was Roman Emperor from 306 to 337.  Throughout his rule, Constantine supported the Christian Church but equally supported other religions.  He was baptized as a Christian only on his death-bed by a non-orthodox bishop.

[v]Donald Morgan.  Introduction to the Bible and Biblical Problems,

About lewbornmann

Lewis J. Bornmann has his doctorate in Computer Science. He became a volunteer for the American Red Cross following his retirement from teaching Computer Science, Mathematics, and Information Systems, at Mesa State College in Grand Junction, CO. He previously was on the staff at the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus, Stanford University, and several other universities. Dr. Bornmann has provided emergency assistance in areas devastated by hurricanes, floods, and wildfires. He has responded to emergencies on local Disaster Action Teams (DAT), assisted with Services to Armed Forces (SAF), and taught Disaster Services classes and Health & Safety classes. He and his wife, Barb, are certified operators of the American Red Cross Emergency Communications Response Vehicle (ECRV), a self-contained unit capable of providing satellite-based communications and technology-related assistance at disaster sites. He served on the governing board of a large international professional organization (ACM), was chair of a committee overseeing several hundred worldwide volunteer chapters, helped organize large international conferences, served on numerous technical committees, and presented technical papers at numerous symposiums and conferences. He has numerous Who’s Who citations for his technical and professional contributions and many years of management experience with major corporations including General Electric, Boeing, and as an independent contractor. He was a principal contributor on numerous large technology-related development projects, including having written the Systems Concepts for NASA’s largest supercomputing system at the Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley. With over 40 years of experience in scientific and commercial computer systems management and development, he worked on a wide variety of computer-related systems from small single embedded microprocessor based applications to some of the largest distributed heterogeneous supercomputing systems ever planned.
This entry was posted in Apocalypse of Peter, Athanasius, Beliefs, Bible, Buddhism, Canon, Catholic, Christianity, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, Council of Carthage, Council of Nicaea, Dead Sea Scrolls, Episcopal, Epistle of Barnabas, Evangelical, Galileo Galilei, Genesis, Gospel, Gospel of Thomas, Greek, Hebrew, Islam, Jesus, John, Judaism, LDS, Luke, Mark, Matthew, New Testament, Old Testament, Personal, Protestant, Quaker, Religion, Salvation Army, Shepherd of Hermas, Southern Baptist, Synod of Laodicea and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Religion: Literal vs. Figurative

  1. auntyuta says:

    In your conclusion you say that much of the Bible should not be taken literally. And that this does not in any way lessen its value. I totally agree with this. I am a convert to the Catholic Church. My experience is that what I need spiritually I can find within the structure of the church. I love church art and church music. That all this led me to the Catholic Church is rather coincidental. I am sure similar values I could have found in other religions. Out of the Christian churches I prefer the Catholic one. I think incense and music fulfill my spiritual needs better than long excursions into logic. Not that I am against logic. But logic alone cannot sustain me spiritually.


    • lewbornmann says:

      Agree. All of us seek solace, comfort, and answers; each of us must take our own path to find that which we are looking for. While raised a Catholic, I now am critical of its un-acceptance of women and alternate lifestyles.

      This is an exciting time not only for Catholics but everyone hoping to see a new pope with younger, different ideas who hopefully can transition the Church into the world as it exists today. He faces many problems in healing such problems as sexual predation and corruption within the church.


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