How does one differentiate between parts of the bible that are meant to be literal vs metaphorical?

For instance the garden of eden story, metaphorical/allegorical right, but what about where sameul appeared to saul? I wanna say it’s metaphorical (just a guess not saying it is) but i also want to consider the time when this was written as well, considering ghosts and things of that nature were probably taken seriously back in ancient times.

You’ll want to hear from those who know the Bible much better than I but I suspect the answer lies more in ones age and maturity rather than in which passages.

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The glib answer is with the Holy Spirit.

The pragmatic answer is with difficulty.

It has also been argued elsewhere with consensus

I am not sure any of the above is helpful.

Speaking from the Non-conformist viewpoint:

The Garden of Eden is myth & metaphor (There are many who would claim it to be real and historic)

Samuel and Saul is ostensibly historic.and illustrates the condemnation of the occult but also the Jewish view of existence after death, which involves Sheogh rather than notions of Heaven and Hell, The dead are closer to Sleep than any sort of reincarnation or afterlife.

As for the rest. It would take to long to try and give a comprehensive answer. Some of it is clearly hymnody (psalms) Wisdom (Ecclesiastes, Proverbs, Job) The Gospels are a unique combination of history and theology whereby historic precision is sacrificed in favour of getting across the intended message. Acts is a combination of History and Gospel. Letters are clearly the viewpoint of the writer. Revelation and Daniel are primarily apocalyptic. Chronicles and Kings are redacted history from differing perspectives There is commentary and theology imposed upon them. Job and Jonah are primarily parable style and may or may not be based on some real story. The books of the prophets combine history with prophet speak, remembering that prophecy is not the same as fortune-telling.

I have avoided the Pentateuch. (Genesis - Deuteronomy) it is harder to generalise. There is history but there is also law giving and some other things.
Judges is a cycle of:
Israel forsakes God - Israel is punished - A judge is raised - Israel is restored - back to square 1.

Furthermore much of the Old Testament is reinterpreted by the New Testament so that the Christian understanding may not match the traditional Jewish one

IOW Biblical interpretation is not something that can be explained easily or in general terms.


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A good, scholarly study Bible is invaluable.

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But you did a good job of it. Guess those 40 years do give you some insight.

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There’s no magic formula.

You have to analyze the text and make convincing arguments one way or another based on things like context, culture, genre, language use, the interpretive tradition, comparative literature, etc.


What I look for in addition to what Christy said is also does it contradict science or history in a definite way. That’s what I look for in addition to those other things. So miracles are left open. They are potentially supernatural events that goes beyond laws. Since it does not contradict scientific studies I’m ok with it being either way.

Was Sampson actually supernaturally strong? I think so. Could it just be fiction. Yeah. I’m equally comfortable with either one. Did Jesus literally physically rise from the dead? I think so. Rationally I’m perfectly fine if he did not and it was a spiritual resurrection and his corpse rotted away and when they saw him afterwards it was some kind of ghostly thing they could touch that bore his wounds? Sure. I don’t think so. So I just accept a supernatural event happened where 2,000 years ago the son of Yahweh rose from the dead and he empowered his hand selected apostles to be able to preform supernatural miracles that ceased with their deaths , and that there is a conscious supernatural being that lead a army of other fallen angels and that somehow at some point a spiritual or bodily resurrection will happen where at the minimum his chosen will be saved and the lost are destroyed forever. You can’t scientifically prove or disprove it. And sure you can’t scientifically prove or disprove unicorns or
Zeus…. But my faith is not in them and so I don’t care.

What I do care about is something that directly undermines and wants to rewrite science. I don’t let the Bible guide my science. I’m a Christian and to me a Christian is an agnostic person who chooses to place their faith in Jesus Christ, even if they think they have definite evidence.

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No, but the Bible says Samson was. :smile:

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But who would win in an arm wrestling match, Samson or Hercules?

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People certainly use different interpretive principles in understanding the Bible. My number one principle is pretty simple… what maximizes the meaningfulness of the text. If a literal understanding of the text contradicts scientific findings then that diminishes its meaningfulness and thus something more metaphorical or allegorical is appropriate. Other times making it too vaguely metaphorical reduces the meaning of the text rather than improving anything. Sometimes the context and structure of the whole text is an important consideration.

For example…

The whole of Genesis clearly has an historical intent. Not to the standards of modern historical science but to tell the story of what happened and for Genesis the clear focus of the story is upon the origin of the nation of Israel, and certainly NOT an explanation of how God created everything. So the first chapters are to set the stage for the telling of the story of how Israel began. Personally I think the most meaningful understanding of the Eden story is to take it as a combination of historical and allegorical, explaining how evil and the human condition came about. I don’t think golems of dust and bone, magical fruit, and talking animals help much in this if they are taken literally. But making it nothing but metaphor makes the meaning even more vague and unclear, so I don’t think that is helpful either. So the most important question, I think, is HOW can this story explain the origin of the human condition, and thus the need for God to call out Abraham and establish the nation of Israel? Because… making this JUST about the nation of Israel isn’t very meaningful to most of the world.

In the book of Job the story is so brief and the discussion which follows so intense, the story looks like little more than excuse and prop for the philosophical debate. The book does NOT have anything like an historical intent.

In the book of Jonah, I find the determination more difficult. The lesson is certainly more important than the details of the story. And especially if one gets lost in debates about the possibility of being swallowed by a whale then the literal reading is detracting from the meaning of the text.

@MarkD shame on you! That comment about maturity was insulting.

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Really? I didn’t mean for it to be. I was just thinking that literal would be developmentally more fitting for kids. Later more nuance can come in. Sorry if I offended anyone.

Don’t those contradict science or at least when compared to t our understanding of the natural world? The former i have heard used against such ideas of things that are supposedly ‘supernatural’.

No. They can’t be tested. It’s impossible to test. However, we can test genetics, age of rocks , speed of light and evolution.

True, very true.

Useless unless one studies scholarly.

Avoid to confuse the metaphysical with the supernatural as in unnatural.

Remember that those books were written using poetic language to help people who could neither read nor write to obtain a worldview that allowed them a meaningful interaction with reality.

Once you take the bible “literal”, as in “a great piece of literature” and not “physical”, as in a mechanical description of reality, you can find your way to a metaphysical (e.g. “beyond physical”) God.

If you apply a logically coherent interpretation of the biblical text that does not substitute miracles with acts of magic the story becomes much more powerful as it enables you to change reality like Jesus did by living Gods word and you see how it overcomes the evil in the world.

I will illustrate this on 4 key points, genesis, the birth of Jesus, his first act of “magic” and his death. If you insist on the materialistic interpretation of those passages you will not be able to form a coherent wordview with a loving father.

To consider creation physical as in God making mudpie humans is fit for a child that thinks of God as a Yoda like figure sitting by a river. Equally to read the story of the fall as “if you eat from that tree I am going to kill you” is a mechanistic interpretation of a philosophical statement of the logical consequence of the act of defining ones self in ones own physical body instead of being under the authority / part of the eternal father. It got puberty written all over it, the rejection of authority over the self by realizing ones own morals independent from the parents / God.

The act of a virgin conceiving a child before being married is read by the romantically deluded person as an act of magic were God’s word is abracadabra. The thinking that it was clear that those primitive goat herders did lap up this story as an act of magic because they were clueless about pregnancy and those things because they did not have iPads and believed everything they were told is actually more symbolic of todays society who has iPhones coming out of their ears and believes everything computers or social media throws at them. To someone having experienced life under a brutal military occupation it had quite a different meaning. To turn the word of God into flesh by loving this neighbour like your own (not like oneself as some narcistic people read the word of God) is indeed a miracle. If, as a defiled woman, you did not kill yourself - or got killed by your own folks for adultery it would already have been exceptional. At least the child would have been killed. To submit to God and raise this child clearly required a visit by the holy spirit … and would have been against the norm. The miracle here is to see how living the word of God changes reality and can turn an act of hate and evil into a beacon of love and hope. And for Jesus to be free of sin does not mean that he was not conceived involving sex, there is no sin in that, but that he was not living by the authority of men but by the will of God.

To be continued…

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It’s like Russia. Even if they were to tell the truth, they’d be lying: Any disinterestedly confirmed historical truth in the Bible is incidental to the metaphoric.

Here is one issue though. The virgin birth is not born out of a delusion of romance or the belief that these goat herders did not understand how pregnancy works. After all Abraham’s first assumption was that Mary cheated and so he was going to divorce her privately. But he was stopped by God and told don’t leave her because the child was conceived by the Holy Spirit. What does that mean for you?

  1. Mary and Jospeh had sex but he did not remember?
  2. Mary cheated on Jospeh and has sex with someone else?
  3. Mary was raped and either remembered and kept silent or did not remember it happening?
  4. Something supernatural occurred by the will of God?
  5. It’s just made up. It’s just a made up story in the Bible. Jospeh and Mary had a kid and he was never confused about it or wanting to leave her and it’s just a story invented by one of the Christian’s followers down the road that they incorporated into it.

Or something else all together?

So much for the Sola Scripura.

Take my response with a pound of salt, considering my lack of belief in a God. I have a very devout, Bible believing family. And I find that every believer only interprets the Bible in a way that is comfortable for them.

For instance, Luke 14:33 teaches that nobody can be Jesus’s disciple unless they give up all their possessions. Thankfully. this passage doesn’t mean what it says.

Or when Jesus said to turn the other cheek and not resist an evildoer. Apparently, this means you can use deadly force, if warranted by the laws of your state, to defend yourself.


“Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” -Colossians 4:6

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