Thursday, May 28, 2009

Thou Shalt Not Take the Bible Literally…

…not if you want to avoid some severe epistemological conundrums, that is.

Some things can't be true

Many people claim to take the Bible "literally," but besides the problem of defining just what "literally" means, there are many reasons to believe that this is not possible—let alone desirable—even for the deeply religious. Here I will lay out a few of the problems you have to grapple with if you claim to take the Bible literally.
Epimenides was a Cretan philosopher whose claim to fame was his declaration that "Cretans are always liars." For centuries, scholars have wondered whether Epimenides, himself a Cretan, was telling the truth when he said that. Paul, in his epistle to Titus, did not seem affected by the paradox since he simply stated that Epimenides' statement is true:
10For there are many rebellious people, mere talkers and deceivers, especially those of the circumcision group. 11They must be silenced, because they are ruining whole households by teaching things they ought not to teach—and that for the sake of dishonest gain. 12Even one of their own prophets has said, "Cretans are always liars, evil brutes, lazy gluttons." 13This testimony is true. (Titus 1:10-1:12)
This is a problem. For if it is true that Cretans are always liars, then Epimenides is always a liar, and so he must have been lying. In sum, if Epimenides' statement is true, then he must have been lying and so it must be false...which makes it true again because he said they always lie, which makes it a lie, etc. etc. etc.

So, is it true or not? Philosophers tend to say it is neither, preferring instead to call such paradoxical statements "undecidable."

Paul's statement adds another layer to this problem. Is everything in the Bible literally true? Well, if so, then Paul's statements also have to be true. If Paul's statements are true, then his statement "This testimony is true" is true. If this testimony (i.e. that Cretans are always liars) is true, then Epimenides was always a liar. If Epimenides was always a liar, then he lied when he said Cretans are always liars. 
So then Paul is wrong. So then the Bible contains things that are not literally true.  Even if you concede that "Cretans are always liars" is not false—it's just undecidable—then Paul is still wrong to say it is true.

Some things aren't supposed to be true (literally)

Maybe you're worried at this point, but don't be. It's okay. The Bible literally says not to take the Bible literally. For example, Jesus admittedly taught much of his important messages metaphorically, in parables. He would explain the meanings of these parables more straightforwardly to his 12 apostles:
And His disciples asked Him, saying, "What might this parable mean?"   And He said, "Unto you it is given to know the mysteries of the Kingdom of God; but to others in parables, that `seeing they might not see, and hearing they might not understand.' " (Luke 8:9-10, 21st Century King James Version)
So, if you want to take the Bible literally, it seems you are going against what the Bible literally says to do.