Philosopher vs. Priest: Interpreting the Bible

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In the readings for this week, one of the lines that stands out is one of that I’ve seen debated a great deal: “As the church is subordinate to Christ, so wives should be subordinate to their husbands in everything.” Part of the debate always centers around whether or not lines such as this one are meant to be taken very straight-forwardly and literally or more allegorically. For me, this is part of a larger issue that seems to cause a lot of trouble. Do you have any thoughts on how we can be confident about when we should take readings in the Bible more literally and when we should take them more allegorically?


The question of when to take readings more literally and when we should take them more allegorically is a great question and also a very complex question! Prior to looking at the individual line, it is important to consider in what type or style of work is the line located.  For instance if you are reading poetry and you read the sea was blood you know it is more likely allegorical than if you ran across the same line in a historical account of the battle on the beaches of Normandy.  Similarly, different parts of scriptures were written as different types of literary works and so where the line is located within scripture is of primary concern.  For example the book of Revelation is a style of writing known as Apocalyptic and allegory is characteristic of apocalyptic writing so more likely a line within the book of Revelation should be considered allegorical rather than literal.

Apart from considering the style of work within the verse is located, it is important to consider as best as possible the history, culture and language within which the text is written.

A final and for Catholics an extremely important consideration is the Tradition.  What did the earliest followers of Christ seem to say about the line.  Did they tend to speak of it more literally or more allegorically.  Is there a continuous line of thought that seems traceable back to Jesus and does it seem to fit the composite image of what Jesus would have said or did.  The attempt to understand scripture, particularly the New Testament, is a continuous movement of trying to gain a deeper understanding of Jesus by reading scripture and continually sharpening your understanding by comparing what you know about Jesus from the composite of what you have read and what the particular line you are reading seems to be saying about him.  Through this method, the picture of Jesus is continually refined.

Once the style of writing, the language, culture, history, and Tradition are considered then one makes a judgement about if a literal or allegorical interpretation seems more probable.

As a modern example, let’s say I left you a note on which I wrote:

“Dear JJ,
Please, eat the nerds in the refrigerator.
Enjoy, Jimmy”

Now, lets say only one hundred years from now, someone finds this writing. They may quickly identify that it was probably a note written from a friend to a friend.  It seems to fit the style of a personal note.  This would establish the first part.  Typically a personal note with a command on it would not have much allegory so the person may be leaning towards by the nature of the note that it was a literal command but its not definite.  Anticipating a literal command might confound them though because if its a literal command why would I be
telling a friend to eat a geeky person.  This analysis may lead them  to assume that it was a personal note written as joke or that I was a cannibal who wanted my friends to enjoy my nerdy delicacies.

Next, would be the linguistic, cultural and historical analysis.  In doing a little bit of historical research they could probably discover that Nerds were not only a term used to describe geeky people but also a name of a small sugary pebble like candy.  If they did this research then they’d likely assume that I was neither crazy nor joking but actually just speaking about something that was particular to our time and culture. From this second stage of analysis they would now assume that it was a literal command but not what the casual reader 100 years from now would think the literal command meant.  There still would be some chance that I had meant to eat the geeky people.  The skeptical side of them might ponder if he meant Nerds, the sugary candy, then he would have capitalized the “N” and since it was lowercase he might have meant nerdy people.

Later in the person’s research, they might come across a letter a niece of mine wrote to someone who spoke about how much I loved the little candy nerds and I always kept a box of them in my refrigerator for friends and guests.  This extra bit of information, this “tradition” would further seem to indicate that I had left a note telling someone to eat some candy nerds that I left in the fridge. Hopefully even the most skeptical side would be ready to admit that I had left a note to a friend JJ instructing him to eat the sugary candy pebbles which I had left in the fridge.

In summary, determining if a text should be taken literally or allegorically is a complex question and one that is not always easily or definitively answered; yet, in making the determination it is important to consider: the style of work which the text is found within; the cultural, linguistic, and historical situation; and, the Tradition that surrounds previous interpretations of the text.


Thanks for the outstanding answer! This is probably the most clearly and succinctly I have seen this explained!

It also answers for me why there is always so much debate around such issues. Obviously there are similar complexities and debates when interpreting passages of philosophy written long in past by people like Plato or Aristotle, for example. Looking at it that way, I perhaps shouldn’t be as surprised or bothered by the complexities of Bible interpretation as I often am.

In trying to figure out the difference in my mind, the best I have been able to come up with is that the Bible has this power of divine command behind it. For believers, whether or not they interpret it correctly and act accordingly can have everlasting effects on their souls, as well as how they treat other people on a personal and political level. Philosophy can also affect the way you treat others, but I feel that the burden isn’t as heavy there.

For example, if I ran across a passage in a philosophy text I was reading that clearly encouraged eating nerds (the human kind), I could easily dismiss that passage and/or the entire text as being misguided. If Christians run across the same passage they have to find some way to explain it away or accept it (dismissing the religion as misguided is also an option, but I take it as one that is more difficult and less likely for a religious text than a text of philosophy). And this seems to take a great deal of theological work and background knowledge.

When large percentages of people can’t interpret modern events (were there WMDs in Iraq? Is Obama a U.S. citizen?), I can understand how interpreting the Bible would be that much more challenging and cause the debates to which I referred in the original question.

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