Should we always understand a passage literally?


I have a friend who told me that, when we read Bible, if it is possible for us to do so, we should take it literally, but I do not think it is always the case. For example, in Matthew 6:17, Jesus said we should "anoint your head" when we fast, but I do not think he really means we should put oil in our head. Another example I can think of now is I Peter 3:3. I do not think the Bible forbids girls from braiding their hair or putting on gold jewelry. What I believe is that we should read the Bible as a whole, and do not take everything literally but understand the concept inside. My friend said that the method is very human-heart-centered, and he cannot accept that. I do not know how to explain it to him. He often points out what I think is quite OK, like braiding hair or wearing jewelry.

Can you help me with this?

Thank you very much.


Your friend is right to an extent, but it appears both of you are overlooking a simple fact: In every language, people use idiomatic phrases. In English I might say "the world is going to the dogs," and I don't mean that dogs are taking over the world. It is a phrase to mean that things are becoming worthless, like scraps feed to dogs. To read passages from the Bible and not recognize its idiomatic phrases is to misunderstand the passages. We also have to recognize the culture and times in which a statement is made in order to understand its meaning.

Let's use your two examples:

"Moreover, when you fast, do not be like the hypocrites, with a sad countenance. For they disfigure their faces that they may appear to men to be fasting. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you do not appear to men to be fasting, but to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly" (Matthew 6:16-18).

In those days perfumes and colognes were oil-based products. Oils, typically olive oil, were scented with various spices and then applied to the hair to give a person a pleasant smell. So when Jesus said to "anoint your head" he was saying "put on cologne." The point is that people were turning fasts into demonstrations of how "religious" they were. They didn't just go without food for a while, they were also making themselves look like they were starving so people would be impressed by their fasts. Jesus is saying that if we fast, we don't let other people know. We do our normal toiletries so that others won't suspect because a fast is between the individual and God.

"Do not let your adornment be merely outward -- arranging the hair, wearing gold, or putting on fine apparel -- rather let it be the hidden person of the heart, with the incorruptible beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is very precious in the sight of God" (I Peter 3:3-4).

Wordings between two languages don't always translate well. There is a particular phrasing that is sometimes called the "not-but" ellipsis. In Greek, when you have a phrase containing "not" followed by a "but" where the two share a common verb, though it is implied in the second phrase, then you have this special form. In English it should be read as "not only" or "not merely" and "but also" or "but more importantly." The Greeks used this phrasing to say that what comes after the "not" isn't very important but what comes after the "but" is very important. Unfortunately in English, we use a similar phrase for mutually exclusive ideas.

Let me give you an example that makes this clear:

"Do not labor for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to everlasting life, which the Son of Man will give you, because God the Father has set His seal on Him" (John 6:27).

The common verb is "labor" which appears after the "not" but not after the "but." If we read this as a mutually exclusive phrase, you would say that Jesus is commanding people not to work for their physical food. Yet such an understanding would contradict, "For even when we were with you, we commanded you this: If anyone will not work, neither shall he eat" (II Thessalonians 3:10). However, a Greek speaker would understand that Jesus is saying that working for physical food isn't nearly as important as working for spiritual food because physical food doesn't last but spiritual food will last into eternity.

So in I Peter 3:3-4, Peter is saying that outward adornments, such as styling your hair, the jewelry worn, or the clothing put on is not nearly as important as the character of a woman as far as God is concerned. It is not a mutually exclusive statement.

Now please notice that in neither case did I insert my opinions to say what the passages meant. I merely pointed out how readers at the time it was written would have understood the passages. That is how we should understand them as well.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email