My Journey Away From Biblical Literalism

The Bible and homosexuality: No matter what our opinion, we are all very much aware of the division in the Church and in society over this topic. Sometimes it’s hard for me to determine if it’s really at the forefront of the media, as it seems, or if it’s rather the fact that I’m so interested and immersed in the issue. But it truly seems to be discussed with greater frequency now than ever before. People feel more comfortable sharing thoughts, experiences, and opinions; and if there’s one thing that people with opinions have, it’s passion. In today’s post, I’m going to suggest that we all have valid reasons for believing what we believe… otherwise, we wouldn’t feel so strongly about it.

After posting a tweet yesterday inviting readers to submit their testimony, I received a response from a gentleman quoting I Corinthians 6:9-11. He stated that “gay” and “Christian” were contradictory terms. This opinion does not surprise or shock me, primarily because it was the view I held for the first 25 years of my life. It is, in fact, a valid opinion from the perspective of a biblical literalist. Most people with this viewpoint believe that “the Bible says it, I believe it, and that settles it”. Today, I’m going to list some reasons why I gave up the label of a biblical literalist.

If I’m honest with myself, my real quest for theology started when I began grappling with my sexuality. However, even after I reached peace and reconciliation between my orientation and my relationship with God, my thirst for truth continued. I began to research the Bible using the historical-critical method—an approach designed to better understand the culture and original meaning behind a text. For me, this meant temporarily putting aside my inclination to read the Bible devotionally, and instead, read it in light of history and scholarship. I had no idea what I was getting myself into. This is an ongoing process for me, and I continue to discover things that blow any of my residual biblical literalism to bits. Here are just a few:

We do not have the original text for any of the books of the Bible. For many years, I held to the belief that the Bible was 100% inerrant in its original languages, even though we had obvious discrepancies in the English translations. However, the problem lies in the fact that we do not have the original texts. All we have are copies of the copies of the copies of the copies of the copies, etc. In most instances, all we have are manuscripts written centuries later (yes, centuries!). The original texts have not been preserved.

There are more discrepancies in known manuscripts than there are words in the entire New Testament! [Bart Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus, pg. 10] Some have criticized this statement by Dr. Ehrman because not all of the discrepancies are extremely significant (ie: a word misspelled here or there). However, there are many differences that are quite significant (some of which we will take a look at later). Of our known manuscripts to date, there are at least 400,000 variants in the text. So how is it that we can claim inerrancy when there are so many contradictions in our manuscripts? (Reading the array of our biblical manuscripts is kind of like watching a gigantic game of “Telephone”.)

The Gospels were not actually written by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. This is a widely accepted belief among scholars today. The book titles were added much later, and the authors wrote the books under pseudonyms. Most scholars believe that the unidentified authors wrote under a well-known name in order to present information that they deemed as important. (Let’s face it, if you were going to write a book about [oh, let’s see…] Elvis—wouldn’t it sell better if it were written by Lisa Marie or Priscilla than some John Doe off the street? The Gospel writers claimed names of people who were either disciples of Jesus or companions of Paul.)

The Gospel accounts contain some irreconcilable differences between them:

Where was Jesus the day after his baptism? In Matthew (3:16-4:1), Mark (1:10-12), and Luke (3:21-4:2), he went off immediately into the wilderness and was temped by the devil for 40 days. If you read John, the author explicitly says that he saw Jesus the next day (1:26-35). Jesus gathered his disciples, performed the miracle of turning water to wine, and thus began his ministry.

What was the genealogy of Jesus? Matthew (1:1-17) and Luke (3:23-38) are the only Gospels that record Jesus’ family tree. Both are traced back through Joseph’s Jewish ancestors. However, in each account, the names of Joseph’s father, grandfather, great-grandfather, and great-great-grandfather are different. In Matthew, it goes from Joseph to Jacob to Matthan, to Eleazar, to Eliud. In Luke, it goes from Joseph to Heli to Mathat to Levi to Melchi.

How did Judas Iscariot die? In Matthew, he hanged himself. After taking the thirty pieces of silver given to him in exchange for his betrayal of Christ, Judas feels remorse. Just before his suicide, he goes to the chief priests in the Temple and tries to return the money, telling them that he has betrayed innocent blood. The priests then decide they cannot put the silver back into the Temple treasure, because it was “blood money” and it was tainted. Instead, they use the money to purchase a potter’s field. It is because the field was purchased with Judas’ blood money that it is “called the Field of Blood to this day” (Matt. 27:8). However, in Luke’s account of the event in Acts, Judas never went to the priests to return the silver. In fact, he used the money to purchase the potter’s field himself, as a “reward for his wickedness”. There, he “fell headlong, his body burst open and all his intestines spilled out” (Acts 1:18-19). It seems that according to Luke, the place was called “Field of Blood” because Judas had a gory death there.

Who went to the tomb after Jesus’ resurrection? John said it was Mary Magdalene (20:1). Matthew said it was two women, Mary Magdalene and another woman named Mary (28:1). In Mark’s account, it was Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome (16:1).

What was seen at the tomb? Matthew said an angel rolled the stone away while the women were there (28:2), yet Mark said it had already been rolled away when they arrived(16:4). Matthew said there was an angel at the tomb (28:5), Mark said there was a young man (16:5), and Luke states that there were two men (24:4). Which was it?

What were the people at the empty tomb told? Mark said they were to pass a message on to the disciples, and tell them that they should go to Galilee where Jesus would meet them (16:7).  In Luke, they are told to “remember what Jesus told them in Galilee”—that he would die and be raised again (24:7).

Did the people visiting the tomb tell anyone about what they saw? Matthew says they went and told the disciples (28:8). Mark specifically says they didn’t tell anyone (16:8).

Paul’s statement about women being silent in the church was not found in our earliest manuscripts. Most scholars believe this verse in I Corinthians was added by a scribe much later.

I and II Peter claim to be written by Peter, yet in the book of Acts, Luke tells us that he was “unschooled” and illiterate. Almost unanimously, scholars agree that I and II Peter was written under a pseudonym. Upon examination of the literary style, the author of these books had to have been a highly educated, Greek-speaking person.

Scribes would evidently sometimes add, omit, or change scripture to support their own doctrines and traditions. A good example of this occurs in Matthew 17:21: “However, this kind does not go out except by prayer and fasting”. The words “and fasting” were added by scribes of the ascetic tradition, who placed a high value on abstinence from worldly pleasures.

The story of the adulterous woman is not found in the earliest manuscripts. It is now evident that this story was added much later. It may be a story passed down from oral tradition, and eventually added where it seemed most appropriate.

The last 12 verses of Mark are not found in the earliest manuscripts. These verses include this Gospel’s account of the Great Commission, and Jesus’ ascension (16:9-19).

These examples are a minuscule tip of a colossal iceberg. The discussions on this topic could truly be endless. We must ask ourselves: are these differences important? That answer will be different for each person. For me, the historical-critical method brings about some very important questions—and among the most significant: How do we read the Bible? Not many would argue—not even the non-religious—that the Bible is the most influential book of Western civilization. It is my opinion that the Bible should be read as a product of humanity. As we’ve seen from the above discussion, even the biblical authors themselves didn’t agree on some key points. They all had different perspectives, based on their own culture and tradition. The Bible is a beautiful and diverse account of humankind’s interaction with God, and our struggle to understand Him. And perhaps that’s exactly what we are still doing today…


20 responses to “My Journey Away From Biblical Literalism

  1. I believe the bible is a vehicle for the Living One to reveal herself in a fresh, new way, individually and personally. Human beings are amazingly complex with varied backgrounds, experiences, and infinite variables. I believe the Holy Spirit reveals and speaks to the heart through the instrument of the bible, so I let go of literal translation and errors of translation and controversy and let God open and reveal in a fresh way each day. I love the bible because the eyes of my heart were opened and the fire of Divine Love fell upon me while reading it out of desperation and pain in 1998. It is my favorite part of every day because the Living One speaks through it anew each day directly to my heart and in ways that amaze me! I am left with awe, wonder and immense gratitude! There is no one size fits all with the Holy Spirit!!!

    • Thank you for that. Isn’t it interesting that we sometimes find our path in the midst of desperation and struggle? The same was true for me, as well. Love and peace to you! Thanks for commenting.

  2. I’ve been moving in the same direction, Mandy, and used to think that any critical thought about the Bible would create distance between me and God. The surprising thing I have discovered instead is that it’s just the opposite. I am more interested in knowing God and talking with him, and listening to him now than ever before. In a nutshell, what I have realized is that Jesus is the Word of God; he is not dead, he is not words on paper; he is alive, and he loves me.

    • Very insightful and beautiful, Erin. Thank you for that. This sounds almost identical to my own experience. I believe it was Emerson who said: “Knowledge is knowing that we cannot know.” Once I surrendered to that truth, my relationship with God has deepened. Being able to read these texts with fresh eyes has opened my heart and allowed me to truly experience Him. Maybe it is the very act of seeking that draws us closer.

  3. Backed up by Bart Erhman, a biblical scholar of repute.

    Some parts covered in this HuffPo articles too.

    You’ve written a really superb article here, nicely drawing a number of disparities which I hadn’t spotted elsewhere.

    • Thank you very much! I appreciate your kind words. Dr. Ehrman is a personal hero of mine, and I suppose that’s pretty evident in the material I’ve chosen to write about here. I truly love learning about all things related to Biblical translation. Thank you for pointing out these additional resources!

  4. X-Gay Apologist

    It’s very convenient to deny the inerrancy and infallibility of Scripture when it speaks plainly against something we don’t agree with. Your admitted starting point is your sexuality, not what the Bible says about it. That’s a problem from the start. And all the supposed problems you’ve listed our pretty worn out ones that have been effectively responded to by many. Christians are at the most basic level people whose lives are regulated by scripture, not people who try to find ways to make it conform to their life choices. And if the scriptures are not held to be authoritative for faith and life, then whatever we think we have, it’s not Christian.

    • Thanks for your comment. When I read the Bible literally, I did not agree with progressive thoughts about homosexuality. Even though I was a lesbian, I did not think it was ok. I hated myself. So yes, my sexuality was a jumping off point for my theological studies; I suppose we have to start somewhere. I never intended to change my beliefs about homosexuality. I began studying the Bible and homosexuality to confirm my beliefs that it was wrong… but I ended up in a very different place than I expected. There is nothing I can say to convince you that’s the case, but it’s true nonetheless. The scriptures have been considered authoritative for centuries… yet out of that came the Crusades, the Inquisition, slavery, and segregation and discrimination of multiple minority groups. All I’m saying is that we must be careful how we use the scriptures. There’s nothing wrong with a literalist view of the Bible as long as you recognize there are other valid ways to read it.

      • X-Gay Apologist

        I was a promiscuous gay man for 15 years before I was converted. When I was first confronted with the biblical information about homosexuality, I was furious with it and hated Christianity and Christians. Then God literally intruded himself into my life and brought about a radical transformation in my thinking and living. I immediately
        abandoned my gay life as contrary to what God intended for human
        sexuality and eventually married a Christian woman with whom I’ve
        been happy for nearly 30 years. You and I have both read the same Bible and arrived at completely contrary conclusions. We both can’t be right. In light of the coming day when God will judge the secrets of people, we all must be sure that what we presently think the Bible teaches is correct. As you so rightly said, ‘We must be careful how we use the scriptures.’

    • X-Gay: I commend your courage and think your journey is very admirable. I congratulate you on a 30-year successful marriage. It’s truly a wonderful story, and that is your experience to cherish.

      Yet I also know gay people who have been raised in the Christian faith their entire life, and in order to “fix themselves”, they take the advice of a Christian counselor and enter into marriage with someone of the opposite sex. A few years—or even a few decades later—their marriage suffers because they realize those vows did not change their sexual orientation.

      I am not opposed to changing my mind on things. Our spiritual journeys are ongoing, changing and flowing with new discoveries. I made myself the promise years ago that I would never allow myself to become stubborn in a belief, no matter what that belief was. I still pray every day that God will show me His truth… that He will show me if this path is wrong. Could my beliefs change in the future? Sure. And I’m open to that. Yet, what you see in this post is where I am today, and I am at peace.

      The more I study, the less I know… and that is really the whole point of this post. I hope you don’t feel that I’m attacking your views or your beliefs. My goal was not to suggest that these discrepancies in scripture prove the rightness or wrongness of any set of beliefs. It was to suggest that there are some things we simply do not know.

      • I think X-Gay Apologist is right. And I think Mandy is right. I believe we are watching something beautiful unfold in this conversation. Seems like X-Gay Apologist came to know the Lord later in life and had a transformation and is honoring God with his life and body. Mandy and myself and many other Christians who have spent a life time seeking the Lord have come to know or accept who we are as being “gay” later in life and have had a transformation and are seeking to honor the Lord. It seems as though too different paths and two different perspectives on what is right are meeting and perhaps headed in the same direction? Maybe? I find it to be quite exciting!

        I’d like to invite X-Gay Apologist to read the story of Mel White (actually, I invite everyone to read his story). He wrote a book called “Stranger at the Gate.” I bet you will discover insights and understanding that you have not yet encountered because of who he is, his story, his faith and love for God, and because of his integrity. Everybody is different and every story is different, praise God for that! It continues to amaze me how God weaves our stories together, causing us to become more open, loving, and accepting….so, maybe the work of The Spirit CAN take two differences, multiple understandings, opposite paths and bring them together for enlightenment….we don’t have to place an absolute “Right” or an absolute “Wrong” label, but maybe an “Open” label to what the Spirit can do with where we are at as individuals and as a community.

        I think the common ground with X-Gay Apologist’s story and with Mandy’s story is that both have taken a leap of faith and both have had a transformation that honor’s the Lord. And for me, both stories bring joy to my heart and hope in the Lord.

      • u could always take the atheist viewpoint, that it is man made, and the bible is written by men.

        and xgay apologist. I would be very careful how you use the word inerrancy, it was caused me to abandon belief in the bible and christianity.

  5. Very interesting article. It seems to me that every time man has his/her hand in anything to do with translation of text or the retelling of stories things get manipulated, reinterpreted (eveyone has a different perception of the same thing written or otherwise) or just misunderstood. I can imagine some tired monk way back when getting a writers cramp and or being tired and just saying “fudge it” and put something down lol. So many books were not included too. Every time I read the old testament I get pissed. Jesus is the best thing about the bible and about the only part of it that I care about.

  6. I am becoming concerned that the modern Church is repeating the misguided pattern of relating to God that the Pharisees and Jewish “experts in the law” had fallen into at the time of Christ, and which Christ repeatedly condemned. That is, thinking that we must study and study scriptures and make sure our lives (and the lives of every other Christian within hearing distance of us) conform to what scripture requires for God to be pleased with us. As I read the Gospels, however, it seems overwhelmingly clear that Jesus came to teach us a better way of relating to God that was much more simple: loving God with everything we are, and loving fellow human beings like we love ourselves, thereby fulfilling the whole of the law. I can’t think of a moral dilemma that cannot be addressed adequately by applying this simple formula.

  7. Thank you all—every one of you—so much for your input and opinions. This is very helpful to me on a personal level, as well. This new way of looking at the Bible is still very fresh for me. Every day, I just can’t get enough of this new information. It sometimes gets frustrating because I think if I study enough, it will answer my questions. Yet, most of the time… all I end up with is more questions. Yet ironically, through this journey, I notice that I’m drawing closer to God. Even though I’m becoming aware that I know less and less and less, it’s the act of seeking God with reckless abandon that pulls me under His wing.

    I feel the need to clarify a few things. I quoted Dr. Bart Ehrman in this post, whom I hold in very high esteem. He is an excellent Biblical scholar, who knows an incredible deal about the New Testament scriptures. However, I do not agree with him on every point. He has simply raised some questions which I have never considered before; and I think it’s vitally important to each person’s spiritual walk to explore things for themselves. Historical criticism of the Bible doesn’t tell us what we know… it simply tells us what we don’t/can’t know from the sources we have available. And I think the goal of Dr. Ehrman’s work—and of those like him—is to challenge fundamentalism… not our faith itself. I may write more on this in the next post!

    X-Gay: if you have some resources you can shoot my way, I’d love that. You mentioned that some of these things I’ve listed in the post above have been debunked/disproven. Thanks a bunch!

  8. Pingback: Scripture, Tradition, Reason, & Experience | Coming Out Christian

  9. I apologise for joining the party so late, but I’m amazed at those inaccuracies. I did know that some things had been changed and/or added in, but I honestly never knew that there were so many discrepancies in the Bible. Now I feel rather compelled to read my Bible over both for the teachings and in analysis. Thank you for the eye-opening post! 😀

  10. The Lay Preacher

    I, too, used to feel it was a sin. I ended up leaving the faith altogether over it, for quite a few years. When I returned, in a state of prayerful meditation – I emptied my own preconceived notions, and asked God to guide me on what’s truly right on this issue. I received two feelings from this – a great love, and a great sorrow. I truly believe God deeply loves the lgbt community, and is in a state of great sorrow over how His church interprets and treats these individuals – that they have it all wrong. What the church is doing to them, they are doing to Christ. It’s really saddening.

    Although I’d like to contend this statement: “This opinion does not surprise or shock me, primarily because it was the view I held for the first 25 years of my life. It is, in fact, a valid opinion from the perspective of a biblical literalist.” I’d argue it isn’t.

    I’m probably going to do my own post that’ll be quite lengthy in the future on the matter, but a *true* biblical literalist – that is, someone looking at the original Greek with the original intentions, and looking at what Christians are to follow according to the bible – if you want to be that extremely literalist, you’ll find there’s actually no argument for it being a sin in the bible. Whether it’s how parts of the Old Testament are supposed to be taken by Christians, or, the fact that the word “homosexual” or “homosexuals” in the New Testament comes from an extremely rare Greek word which we aren’t even certain of the definition for (we do know it has to do with men, sex, and economics – so far more than likely has to do with male prostitution or sex slaves of some sort, not homosexuals), there’s no good argument for “being gay is a sin” if a literalist were to do some heavy research. And then there’s the centurion, whom Jesus interacts with, whose servant is male (and if you understand the context of the times in which it was written, was VERY likely his lover), yet Jesus praises him for his faith and does not address him being some kind of sinner. The literalist, then, would logically have to lean more toward it *not* being a sin.

    Sorry for the rant, just thought it had to be said 😛 Like the blog!

    • Thanks so much for this comment. You bring up some very important points. 🙂 You said, “…if you want to be that extremely literalist, you’ll find there’s actually no argument for it being a sin in the bible.” I agree with this. I did a 4-part series on the clobber passages a while back []… and although I’m no Greek scholar, I came up with the same conclusion. I suppose I should have used a more accurate term than “valid” when speaking about a fundamentalist interpretation. 🙂 What I meant to imply was that their conclusion was valid in their own mind. (I apologize… poor elaboration on my part.) But the problem with fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible is that some take it absolutely literally even in the English translation. So, if one was to read “The unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God. So do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor HOMOSEXUALS, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, shall inherit the realm of God”…. for them, it’s pretty cut and dry, because it says “homosexual” right there; but you and I know it really doesn’t.

      Thanks again for joining the conversation. I checked out your blog! I love it. Hope to see you on here again!!

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