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Why Do We Take Only Some Bible Passages Literally?

Jimmy Akin

Jimmy Akin provides several principles to help us determine whether a given Bible passage ought to be read literally or figuratively.


Host: Let’s go now to Anonymous in Sacramento, California. Anonymous, you are on with Jimmy Akin. It’s open forum, what’s your question?

Caller: Yes, good afternoon. Hi Cy, hi Jimmy. I’m a lifelong Catholic, my husband is in RCIA currently and he is grappling with the Real Presence of the Eucharist, and he asked me a really great question the other day, he asked one that I didn’t have a good answer to, I’m hoping you do.

Jimmy: What’s the question?

Caller: So he pointed to Matthew 5:29-30, and that’s where Jesus talks about “If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out, and if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away,” you know, “It’s better to lose a member than to go into Hell.” And then he pointed to John 6 where Jesus is talking about “I am the Bread of Life, whoever eats my body and drinks my blood will have Eternal Life,” um, those aren’t–you know, I’m paraphrasing. He wants to know how to square those, why we would take one literally and not the other? There you go, Jimmy, thank you.

Jimmy: Okay. So I’d say several things here. The first one is, we do recognize that Jesus sometimes speaks literally and sometimes speaks symbolically, or figuratively. And we have to be sensitive and discerning to figure out which is the case in any particular instance. Fortunately, there are some tests we can use.

One of the tests we can use is, “Would this lead to horrible, horrible, horrible consequences?” If we took the Matthew passage literally, about how you should cut out, literally cut out your eye, cut off your hand if they lead you to sin, well, guess what? That happens to everybody. And so everybody would have to gouge out their–not just their right eye, but their left one too–cause they just switch over to using their other eye–and they not only have to cut off their right hand, but their left hand too–because they’d just switch over to using their left hand to sin. So everybody would end up blind and handless.

And we have a pretty good idea that that’s not what God means for mankind, because He was the one that made us with eyes and hands in the first place. So we have a pretty good idea that God wants us to have eyes and hands, they’re certainly very useful so our experience bears that out, and that gives us reason to think that Jesus is using figurative language here, and specifically that he’s using a figure known as hyperbole, which is exaggeration to make a point. Hyperbole’s very common in the Bible, it’s a common feature of human speech, but in particular of Biblical idiom. The language in the Bible frequently uses hyperbole, and so we’ve got good reason to think that that’s what Jesus is doing here.

So let’s jump over to John 6, with the “My flesh is true meat, my blood is true drink,” and so on. Why would we want to take that literally versus symbolically? Well, there are a number of reasons. One of them is right there in John 6, because some people balk at what Jesus is saying, and they say, “Well, this is a hard saying. Who can hear this?” And Jesus insists that what He’s saying is the case. He repeats it. Actually, He repeats His teaching several times, and John therefore, in John 6:66, tells us that many of His disciples no longer followed Him. Jesus was willing to lose disciples rather than say, “Oh come on, guys, this is just symbolic.” So that’s one reason.

He’s even willing to lose the core disciples, because He turns to them and says “Do you also want to go away?” And Peter says, “Well, Lord, you have the words of Eternal Life, so we’re gonna trust you on this one.” But Jesus is willing to lose even the core disciples over this, rather than do what He did on other occasions, which was clarify, like when they misunderstood about the leaven of the Pharisees, and they thought He was talking about some actual bread, He said, “Come on guys, I’m talking about their doctrine.” So He clarified that teaching for them.

And in fact, Jesus spoke in parables frequently, but one of the things that we’re told, for example in Mark, is that Jesus clarified the parables for the disciples in private. Well, that’s not what He does here. Instead of clarifying this for the disciples in private, like a parable, He draws a line in the sand and is willing to see them go, too. And so that’s a good indication that this isn’t a parable; this is something that, He’s really serious about this. This is literal.

Also, this isn’t the only place in the New Testament where we have this. This crops up in the Synoptic Gospels, in all three of them, and in 1 Corinthians, where Paul is emphatic about the fact that participating in the Eucharist is participating in the Body and Blood of Christ, and if you profane it, you can even die. So Paul’s very serious about this, takes it very seriously; we can then broaden out further, and look at how early Christians interpreted this. Like St. Ignatius of Antioch, at the very beginning of the second century, who interprets this, again, literally. And if you want to read about that, and what other early Christians said about it, you can go to Catholic.com, where we have a whole tract on what the fathers said about this, or you could get my book “The Fathers Know Best,” which also contains that information.

So we’ve got a bunch of converging lines of evidence saying “John 6 on this? Literal. Matthew 5 about plucking out your eye and cutting off your hand? Not so literal.”

Host: Thank you very much, Anonymous.


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