The term “literal” gets thrown around a lot in biblical studies. I’m not always sure, however, what some authors mean by “literal.”
The word itself, literal, is related to our word “letter,” and has the sense of “to the letter” or “exact.” It also has the loaded connotation of “true,” with the implication that something which is seen as “non-literal” is “false.” This is tied to the world of metaphor and figurative language. A literal interpretation is often understood to be a non-metaphorical or non-figurative interpretation. A literal translation would be as close to letter for letter, or at least word for word, as possible. Some would like us to believe that “literal” translations are true, and “less-literal” translations of the Bible are unreliable, even false. Yet how do we interpret or translate when the text itself is metaphorical or figurative?
Let me back up for a minute. What is the most literal interpretation of a biblical text? We might think that it is the one that is the closest to a word for word rendering. Yet this cannot always be true. The most literal interpretation is the one that recovers the intended meaning of the original author accurately, and then explains this meaning in the language and terms of the contemporary audience. This is the goal of biblical interpretation: recovery of the author’s intended meaning as found in the text and expressing it in understandable terms for whomever the interpreter is seeking to serve. The problem, of course, is when the text itself is metaphorical or contains idioms that resist any word for word treatment. Let me illustrate with these two depictions of the crucifixion:
Which of these is a literal depiction? We might choose the one on the right, taken from Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. Yet this is hardly what the witnesses to the actual crucifixion would have seen. Do you notice the multi-storied apartment buildings in the background? This is nothing more than Mel Gibson’s vision of what he wanted the viewers of the movie to see, which is a mix of contemporary and ancient images. The one to the left has more blatant symbolic items, such as the INRI tattooed on the bridge of Jesus’ nose rather than on a plaque nailed to the cross. Literalness can be in the eye of the beholder. Both are interpretations of a biblical event using the media available to the author to express this interpretation.
Let us not confuse literalness with faithfulness. If a translation is tilted to a certain theological perspective without allowing room for other, valid understandings, this makes it suspect in my eyes. If a translation is being used to support an agenda, this is not faithful translation work, no matter if it is word for word or expression of the overall thought of the text.
I literally mean all of this stuff, just as the sun literally rises in the east every day.
Nebraska Christian College