Biblical Literalism and Allegory

If an ancient text suggests that the sun traverses the Earth and that someone can order it to stop (Joshua 10:13), that’s highly unlikely to be an allegory or symbolic in some way because very early literature is not allegorical or symbolic. When allegory does appear, it’s a distinct, obvious, sophisticated literary form. Such literature emerged later. We know when a text is allegorical or symbolic because it shares characteristics of other works of the same kind produced in the same time and place. Medieval works like the Italian Divine Comedy, the French Roman de la Rose, and the English Pearl are allegories. Genesis and the Book of Joshua are not. The Book of Joshua was written in the 6th century BCE. The book of Daniel, which contains a few allegorical stories (dream interpretations), was written in the 2nd century BCE, almost half a millennium later. Allegory was a late invention, and it probably emerged from the practice of divination via dream interpretation. Historically, in any culture, one expects to find, over time, what people believed to be literal accounts, followed by dream interpretation allegory, followed by full-blown literary allegory. The earliest literary allegories in a particular culture, like The Dream of the Rood and Pearl and Piers Plowman and The Parlement of Foules in England, show this transition. They inevitably start with a dream. In the Early Medieval, Anglo-Saxon Dream of the Rood, one can see that the form is not quite down yet. LOL.
In general, if an ancient text says that the sun traverses the Earth or is a god in a chariot or whatever, that’s because the people who wrote the text believed that the sun traversed the Earth or was a fiery chariot or whatever. If it says that the universe was created in six days, that’s because the people who wrote that text believed that the universe was created in six days. If it says that the sky is a dome (a “firmament”) and that stars can fall from heaven, that’s because it authors believed that the sky is a dome with these little things called stars stuck in it that can become dislodged and fall on people’s heads. How do we know this? Because other ancient people, in other places, at the same level of development, all around the globe, believed the same or very similar stuff. That ought to be completely obvious.
Similarly, when Jesus said that we have a duty to feed the hungry and welcome the immigrant, that we are judged by how we treat the least among us, that peacemakers are blessed, that it’s very difficult for rich people to get into heaven, we should take him at his word. He meant that we should feed the hungry and welcome the immigrant, that we should wage peace, and that we should eschew acquiring great wealth. Interestingly, there are a lot of Christians in the United States who don’t follow the teachings or share the beliefs and values of the guy their religion is freaking named after. Totally bizarre. These are people who think that a text can mean whatever they want it to mean. Ironically, these are the same people who insist that the text is inerrant and should be interpreted literally.
All of which shows the power of enculturation. People will believe anything that they are taught when they are too young to know better.

Copyright 2019. Robert D. Shepherd. All rights reserved.

About Bob Shepherd

interests: curriculum design, educational technology, learning, linguistics, hermeneutics, rhetoric, philosophy (Continental philosophy, Existentialism, metaphysics, philosophy of language, philosophy of mind, epistemology, ethics), classical and jazz guitar, poetry, the short story, archaeology and cultural anthropology, history of religion, prehistory, veganism, sustainability, Anglo-Saxon literature and language, systems for emergent quality control, heuristics for innovation
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