Is Biblical literalism really a recent phenomenon?

I’ve seen it mentioned (by non-literalist Christians) that taking Bible stories as literally true is a recent phenomenon and was not the norm prior to the last hundred years or so. I’m sure there are exceptions but when I asked for cites about most Christians of centuries past I got nothing.

Anyway I was just reading up on Noah’s Ark on my favorite website wikipedia. They said this:’s_Ark#Historicity

And Ussher chronology seems to be taken as dead on or at least pretty close, with Isaac Newton dating the earth almost the same:

These makes me think that Christians in general really did take the most crazy stories as historically real and only gave them up, grudgingly, when the various sciences pointed away from them.

So is this talk, “early Christians didn’t take the Bible literally, and doing so is a recent protestant phenomenon” really just a liberal Christian meme that makes them feel better? It seems they are saying that only the nuts/fundamentalists take the Bible stories literally, but most Christians have known them stories were metaphors from the get go. Any truth to their claim?


It isn’t surprising that early Christians took the Bible literally - there was no readily accessible information to show it was wrong.

From my liberal Christian background, the issue is the apparently recent trend in Protestant fundamentalists that the Bible is ‘still’ literally true. As the OP notes, by 1853 EB was documenting beliefs that maybe ‘the whole world’ meant ‘this valley we live in’.

I think the resurgence in the insistence of Biblical inerrancy (which of course never went away completely) probably dates to the 1980’s. Possibly as an offshoot of the Moral Majority movement - people going back to what they perceived as the basics of their beliefs.

Literalism derived from ignorance, as in there being no intellectual alternative available at that time, is one thing. Especially as it made no difference to the life of the average Westerner.

Modern “Literalism” as a bull-headed reaction to finding that the observable Universe does not match the myths of the Bible is a different animal entirely.

From this cite:

"Some scholars date the birth of Christian fundamentalism (as we know it) back to the 1878 Niagara Bible Conference. The Niagara Bible Conference (or the “Believer’s Meeting for Bible Study”) was held every year from 1876 to 1897 (with the exception of 1884). In the year 1878, they authored what became known as the “Niagara Creed”—a 14-point statement of faith which gave way for many of today’s fundamentalist beliefs.

Some have referenced Martin Luther, stating that fundamentalism was born along with his theology of Sola Scriptura. However, by researching Luther’s works, you will find that he was not a literalist. He believed that Scripture, along with reason should guide a person’s life… not the human authority of the Church. Luther used the doctrine of Sola Scriptura as a primary argument against the papal abuses of power. Scripture + Reason was the common formula for religious people of that time and the time that preceded."

I’ve observed many people being surprised at the broad-mindedness of Catholic priests; those whose impressions of Christian belief come from the small-brained, big-mouthed stripe of literalist seem to assume that older churches must be even more rigid in their interpretation. Point being, most Christian churches moved away from literal interpretation centuries ago, except for niche sects, and present-day literalism is still a minority view. Just one with a really, really big bullhorn.

ETA: Following on Folacin’s comments, the backlash seems to boil down to “anything too new and complicated must be wrong, while the old beliefs must be correct.” Applies to ancient medicine worship, too.

I will concede that some Biblical scholars may not have accepted a literal interpretation, but did that also hold true for the common priest/preacher and the people in the pews?

From your cite:

“One thing that shook the foundations of my fundamentalist viewpoint, was learning that Biblical literalism is a fairly modern idea. In fact, most scholars speculate that reading the Bible literally has only been in practice for about 130 years.

See that’s exactly what I am talking about. Evidence for the above is what?

How many people could read 130 years ago? How about 530 years ago? How about 1530 years ago?

Most people only knew of the Bible through what the local priest or preacher told them, and they were not necessarily motivated by a search for the truth. Maybe they just picked whichever interoperation suited their own needs at the time.

I don’t know, and that does not answer the question. Of those that could read, what did they believe. Of the illiterate, what were they taught and what did they believe?

Fair enough. I believe Bart Ehrmann has addressed this topic. I’ll check it out tonight. Meanwhile:

It sounds to me like pretty much everyone was in practice fundamentalist, then there was that trouble over Galileo, then Voltaire, then Darwin, etc., then a bunch of people started doubting all sorts of Bible stories which hitherto had been taken as gospel, then in reactionary fashion fundamentalists drew a line. But are you going to tell me that Martin Luther and most people back then didn’t believe in Adam and Eve or Noah’s ark?

First I would like to propose that it is possible to be a non-literalist and still believe in the truth of some supernatural occurrences in the bible. Taking a single story in the bible as literally true does not make one a young earth creationist.

As I read him, Augustine of Hippo was not a literalist, and it appears that he believed that his audience was primarily non-literalist.

Note that his default position, the one he seems to think his audience will hold, is that the bible is to be taken figuratively.

Augustine also wrote that reason and experience trump a literal interpretation, essentially saying “If your literal interpretation of a piece of scripture is contradicted by reason and experience, your interpretation is wrong.”

Both quotes are from here.

Sounds more to me that Augustine was trying to convince his audience to take some stories non-literally. I think that implies that they were literalists to begin with.

What narratives was he suggesting should not be taken literally? The parables of Jesus or stories like Noah’s Ark?

I guess the same sentence has led us to opposite conclusions. I took his "only’ and “also” to clearly indicate that no one in his intended audience thought that the bible was only a factual narrative, but that some thought that it was only figurative.

As to which stories he applied this to, it is part of his writing on the literal meaning of Genesis, so I’m guessing we can at least assume it applies to that book. I also seem to remember that he believed literally in the virginity of Mary at the time of the birth of Jesus.

But who exactly was his audience at that time-other Biblical scholars, or the common man? As I’ve said before, I can concede that there were scholars back then that didn’t take the Bible literally. I think that what is being objected to in the OP is the increasingly common notion that taking the Bible literally is a recent phenomenon, when it has yet to be shown that this enlightened outlook extended to the average church goer in the past. If I say that a lot of people in the past believed that Bible should be taken literally, pointing to an educated few that didn’t take it literally does not disprove my point.

At the risk of sounding elitist, what does it matter what the “common people” believed? Across the world, until very recently, the common person was a farming peasant. They did not have the leisure or the inclination to do any criticism of whatever their religious leaders told them about their religious texts (if, in fact, their religion had texts at all). Whether a given tale is factual or metaphorical is irrelevant to the limited horizons of growing turnips or breeding goats.

A “common person” had no more blame for this than a child has for being a Yankees fan. If a person continues with this type of naivety as an adult (or continues with this overly simplistic approach to scripture with the expanded world we now live in) then that person is wrong.

His audience, I believe, was other literate believers. I think we can assume that this was a subset of believers, probably a small subset. What can we assume about the non-literate segment of believers? I think we can assume that they were being preached to by members of Augustine’s audience. I don’t think we should assume that everyone who agreed with Augustine (as I interpret Augustine) believed one thing and preached another.

I agree that nothing I have said about Augustine disproves your statement that “a lot of people in the past believed that Bible should be taken literally”. I haven’t see much to support any statements about what rank and file Christians in the 4th and 5th centuries believed about the bible. What we have is evidence of what the theologians believed.

It merely implies that Christians tended to take assertions in the Bible literally by default, when they knew of no good reason to think otherwise. That has been the attitude Christians have had throughout most of history, and it is not particularly irrational. Certainly it is radically different from the willfully irrationalist attitude of modern fundamentalists, who insist that everything in the Bible is literally true despite all evidence and argument to the contrary. It is this sort of willful irrationalism about teh Bible that is a very modern phenomenon, and I believe it is pretty clearly motivated by a fear and hatred of the social changes brought about by modern science and industrialism. Fundamentalists are not motivated by a love of the Bible. For them the Bible is a tool in their attempts to role back the social changes that they blame (perhaps rightly) on science.

Augustine was pointing out to some of his less learned Christian contemporaries that there quite frequently were good reasons to think otherwise than what might be implied by a simple-minded literalist reading of the Bible, and that Christians would be wise to take these seriously, and modify their understanding of the Bible as appropriate. His arguments were, to put it mildly, very influential, on both the Christians of his own time and of succeeding centuries.

Before the 17th century, however, there were no good reasons to doubt that the Earth was the center of the universe (not that the Bible says much of anything about this issue anyway). There were no good reasons to doubt it before the combined efforts of Copernicus, Tycho Brahe, Galileo and Kepler had made a case for heliocentrism (and no truly compelling reason to accept heliocentrism before Newton). Therefore almost nobody, Christian or otherwise, doubted that the universe was geocentric.

Likewise, in Archbishop Ussher’s time, there was no well understood evidence and no good arguments to suggest that the Earth was any older than the Bible seemed to imply it was. Indeed, in Ussher’s time the Bible seemed to be pretty much the only available source of evidence about the history of the Earth and the universe as a whole. Geologists had not yet learned how to read the stratigraphic and fossil record. Once they did, Biblically based cosmology went out of fashion quite rapidly, despite the fact that nearly all of the geologists involved were sincere Christians (or, at a minimum, in some cases believed in a Deistic creator God).

Pretty much everything in the Book of Genesis, for one thing. He wrote a whole book (maybe more than one) about how Genesis could be interpreted in terms of multiple levels of metaphor and allegory.

I do not think even fundamentalists think the parables of Jesus are true stories. Indeed to do so would fly in the face of what the Bible actually says.

Then I would support a statement like “Among Biblical scholars taking the Bible literally is a recent phenomenon.”