The bible is supposed to be literal and factual, with real names, not symbolic names like those in Ruth.

I love the comment that the bible is “supposed to be factual.” The Christian idea of bible inerrancy is actually as recent as the late 19th or early 20th century. In America, it was first articulated officially in the 1970s.

On the other hand, early Christian thinkers did not all see the bible as literally true. For example, Augustine of Hippo, who lived in the 4th c. CE, thought that the early books of the bible were extended metaphor. For more on this, see this Wikipedia article on biblical literalism:

Today, three in ten American Christians believe the bible is inerrant, but not all agree what that means. For example, some believe that the only possible way to understand God’s meaning is by reading in the original Hebrew or Greek. Others believe God’s hand guided all translations.

A small group believes God’s hand only authorized the King James bible (which was called “authorized” because it was authorized by King James, who felt the Geneva translation was too radical).  American slaveholders, incidentally, agreed with King James, and therefore created a “slave’s bible” that left out much of the Hebrew bible, especially Exodus, a story that celebrates slaves rising up against their masters. 

Similarly, the Jewish belief that every word of the bible comes from God–also not universally accepted–dates from the rabbinic period.  But even though many Jews believe God dictated the bible to Moses, that doesn’t necessarily mean that Jews also believe God meant the words to be taken literally. For example, if God caused the story Ruth to be in the bible, God could still have intended the story to be read allegorically rather than historically. So even “inspired by God” doesn’t mean “exactly how it happened.”

For more on this interesting distinction, see this blog entry on whether Jesus himself saw the Hebrew bible as inerrant: 

In this class, you’re learning about textual scholars and archeologists, who believe that the Torah we have, including the story of Genesis, dates from the post exile period in the 5th c. BCE, as much as a thousand years after Moses lived (if he did). According to them, earlier biblical writers didn’t see the bible as inerrant. They point to evidence that these stories were revised and reshaped by many hands, perhaps to update them for changing audiences, as when a post-exile conclusion was added to Deuteronomy.

Even the New Testament was revised over time. For example, one of my favorite New Testament lines, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone,” seems to have been added about a thousand years after Jesus died. It wasn’t in the earliest manuscripts of the gospels.

Some scholars believe that God exists but doubt we can know what the bible said because of its problematic history of transmission and translation. And many such scholars are also fervent believers, though not all are. Not everyone equates the bible’s “truth” with its factual accuracy.

How each individual approaches this problem is for each to decide. We just have to be respectful and open to learning new perspectives.

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