Taking the Bible Seriously, but not Always Literally

By Cesar Baldelomar 07-22-2009

Throughout history, individuals and institutions have cited the Bible to support injustices, such as "holy war" against infidels, the subjection of women, racism and slavery, and the abuse of homosexuals. Misreading the Bible can have serious consequences.

Scholars in academic settings (Protestant and Catholic seminaries, universities, and divinity schools) have been employing and teaching the historical-critical method, which requires that one read the Bible not only from a devotional point of view, but also from a historical one by asking the text some important questions. This can be done by exploring the three worlds of biblical interpretation, which are:

  • the world behind the text (what was the historical context of any given biblical text?)
  • the world of the text (what metaphors are employed to convey a point, and what literary style is found in the text – novella, narrative, poem?)
  • the world in front of the text (based on my life experiences, what interpretive framework do I bring to scriptures?)

Even after considering these three hermeneutical worlds, it would be best to read any biblical text in its original language, since meanings are often lost in translation. In addition, one should note that while monks and scribes copied by hand the manuscripts of the Bible, they often mistakenly and sometimes intentionally added to and removed from the text. And lastly, any responsible biblical reader and interpreter should recognize the several contradictions within any biblical text and within the Bible as a whole.

Neglecting the three worlds of biblical interpretation, as well as failing to read it in its original language, will surely lead to an interpretation based on one’s idiosyncrasies.

The importance of the historical-critical method hit me clearly a couple of weeks ago, when I made a comment on a Catholic Archdiocesan blog post. I said, “Adam and Eve, many biblical scholars would agree, are fictional characters in a mythical story. This article portrays Adam and Eve as actual living, historical figures who we should try to emulate.” Little did I know the fire this comment would spark. Not only was I attacked on the blog – called things like a purveyor of false teachings and a heretic – but also several individuals posted comments asserting that Adam and Eve existed 5,000 years ago, and that this is official Catholic teaching.

I then tried to explain that historical, archaeological, and paleoanthropological evidence show that humans have been on Earth far longer than 5,000-8,000 years. Scientific data did not exist when the Hebrew scriptures were written, so Genesis was not meant to be read literally as an historical or scientific account of the world's and humanity's origins. Rather, the authors of Genesis 1 and 2 were trying to express through poetry the beauty of God’s creation. (Their blog moderator never approved this response.)

But things did not end on the Archdiocesan blog. To my surprise, an entire online forum, called “Heresy at the official Archdiocesan blog?,” surfaced with the sole intent of attacking my comment. The following are some comments posted on this online forum by several of its users:

  • “How about that? It appears that Adam and Eve didn't exist for real. So there is no original sin, then. This guy is a treat!”
  • “Not only is this guy a Heretic, he is also liar and he is also wrong.”
  • “The heretics are taking a beating! Three priests have weighed in, including Father Jordi and I expect an excommunication any minute! Seriously, there are some very good points being posted by the priests in response to the critics of the church who disquise [sic] themselves as theologians ...”
  • “Incidentally, a Professor…who teaches religion and philosophy at Saint Thomas University also posted to the blog, apparently, in support of Mr. Baldelomar’s theory that Adam and Eve are fictional characters! I don't think I will be supporting STU with any alumni contributions nor will I be recommending anyone study religion if that is what they are teaching!”

While I am flattered by their attention and passion, I am worried that these and similar individuals will influence people to continue abusing the Bible by making it express a message that is simply not present. It is time to liberate the Bible by allowing it to speak on its own terms.

César J. Baldelomar is the executive director of Pax Romana Center for International Study of Catholic Social Teaching and blogs at www.holisticthoughts.com. He is editor of the Notebook Magazine, and he will begin graduate studies at Harvard Divinity School in the fall.

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