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When Literal Interpretations Don’t Hold Water

Article ID: JAI011 | By: John Makujina
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This article first appeared in the Practical Hermeneutics column of the Christian Research Journal, volume29, number4 (2006). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal go to: http://www.equip.org

Conservative Christians have acquired the label literalists because they accept the record of supernatural events in the Bible as literally true, whereas liberal Christians tend to see those events merely as representations of theological principles. In a different sense, however, both conservatives and liberals could be labeled literalists when they fail to recognize certain expressions in the Bible as figures of speech and instead interpret them literally. Mishandling figures of speech in this and other ways is a common source of faulty interpretations. In his latest book, The Sins of Scripture,1 liberal theologian and critic of historic Christianity Bishop John Shelby Spong is guilty of such errors, which result in distorted interpretations. Using Spong’s interpretations as examples, this article will examine three common figures of speech and how to understand them correctly.

Hyperbole. The first type of expression we’ll look at is called hyperbole, which is an exaggeration for effect. When people say, “He couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn,” or “I’ve told you a million times,” for example, they are overstating matters to make a point. In the same vein, most interpreters recognize that when the writer of Judges claims that the Benjamites could “sling a stone at a hair and not miss” (20:16) it simply means that they were accomplished marksmen, not that they could actually expect to strike something as fine as a hair at any meaningful distance.2

Most scholars, likewise, regard Jesus’ command to remove an offending member of the body as hyperbole, an exaggeration of His point that we should take serious measures to avoid sin:

If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life crippled, than, having your two hands, to go into hell, into the unquenchable fire…. If your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame, than, having your two feet, to be cast into hell…. If your eye causes you to stumble, throw it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye, than, having two eyes, to be cast into hell, where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched. (Mark 9:43–48)

When Spong comments on this text, however, he entirely overlooks the hyperbole. He not only takes the statement as a summons to literal self-mutilation, but also as a sort of self-inflicted penance to avoid more severe punishment by God: “Mark is saying that some punishment is always deserved by fallen, sinful people, so self-inflicted punishment can serve to make it less necessary for God to mete out an even worse punishment later, a punishment that would last through all eternity.”3

This passage in Mark, though, deals not so much with atonement for sin, but sanctification from sin (see Matt 5:27–30), and that through prevention, not amputation. Further, are we ready to credit Mark, a companion of Paul and student of his Lord, with such a crude and monastic understanding of sin and retribution? Did he not elsewhere teach that Christ is the one who suffers for sin (8:31; 9:12, 31; 10:33–34, 45; 14:24)? Mark’s gospel, moreover, demonstrates an advanced doctrine of sin and recommends him as a theologian of a much higher caliber and sophistication than we would gather from The Sins of Scripture: “That which proceeds out of the man, that is what defiles the man. For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed the evil thoughts, fornications, thefts, murders, adulteries, deeds of coveting [and] wickedness, [as well as] deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride [and] foolishness. All these evil things proceed from within and defile the man” (Mark 7:20–23). There is little, then, to support Spong’s exotic revision of Mark 9:43–48.

Metonymy. The second figure of speech we’ll consider is called metonymy. Here one word stands for another to which it is somehow related. When we read in the news, for instance, that “the White House refused comment,” we have encountered a metonymy for the president of the United States: “the White House” stands for, or represents, “the president,” because he lives and works there. The Bible contains many instances of metonymy, such as “Moses,” which sometimes stands for “the Pentateuch” (i.e., the first five books of the Old Testament) (Luke 16:29), and “lip,” which sometimes stands for “speech” or “language” (Gen. 11:1).

One particular metonymy that Spong mishandles is the expression “nakedness” in Romans 8:35: “Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?” Spong suggests that “nakedness” here was a slip of the tongue—Paul’s inadvertent disclosure of his homosexual urges.4 In other words, he interprets “nakedness” as a metonymy for “homosexual desires” in order to advance his theory that Paul was a repressed homosexual.

Spong bases this theory largely on the fact that Paul reminds him of a certain Episcopal priest who had been repressing his own homosexuality under his legalism. In the process of recovering from a nervous breakdown this priest came to accept his homosexuality. Spong then reads this priest’s experience of “repressed homosexuality” back into passages in Romans 7 that speak of Paul’s struggle with the flesh. Spong also construes Paul’s repudiation of homosexuality in Romans 1:26–27 as a homophobic response to his own sexual orientation.5

This interpretation, however, not only is anachronistic—that is, it views an ancient text through a contemporary experience—but it also is out of step with the context of Romans 8:35. In biblical times, “nakedness” could signify insufficient clothing and immodesty as well as complete nudity. Since the poor often lacked adequate covering, “nakedness” was sometimes used to signify “poverty.” The context of Romans 8:35, which is concerned with various kinds of sufferings and situations that are beyond the Christian’s control, suggests this understanding of the expression “nakedness” rather than Spong’s far-fetched speculation.

Synecdoche. The final figure of speech that we’ll look at is called synecdoche, which is an expression that uses a part to represent the whole or the whole to represent a part. In popular discourse, for example, “wheels” (a part) can stand for the entire automobile (the whole), as in the sentence “He just got a new set of wheels.”

Genesis 3:20 contains a synecdoche where the reverse is true; the whole represents a part: “Now the man called his wife’s name Eve, because she was the mother of all [the] living.” Was Moses communicating that Eve was the mother (i.e., the female ancestor) of every living thing, including the plants and animals? Obviously not. This is simply a synecdoche where the universal, “all the living,” stands for the particular, “all humankind.”

Caution is necessary when analyzing possible synecdoches. One clue that a figure such as synecdoche is being used is when a literal interpretation conflicts with known truths or with other plain passages of Scripture. In Genesis 3:20, for example, not only does our knowledge that humans do not give birth to plants and animals dictate that “all the living” is a synecdoche, but Genesis 1 testifies to their origin even before Eve was created.

Spong’s misinterpretation of this figure involves his thesis that Judas Iscariot did not betray Christ but remained faithful to the end. According to Spong, early Christians (including the Gospel writers) deliberately vilified Judas in an attempt to win favor with the Romans, who had come to despise the Jews for their numerous insurrections.6 They hoped that the Romans would associate the name Judas with the Jewish nation.

The plot, nevertheless, was not flawless as vestiges of the time before the Christians’ alleged anti-Semitic conspiracy occasionally surface in the Bible. Spong notes, for instance, Paul’s reference to “the twelve” in a passage that deals with the postresurrection appearances of Christ: “He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve” (1 Cor. 15:5). Spong assumes that Paul cannot speak of twelve disciples after the resurrection if Judas left the fold before the crucifixion. Spong proposes, then, that Paul, representing the early and more accurate New Testament tradition, writes during a period after the resurrection and before the conspiracy. He concludes, therefore, that Judas must have been with the other disciples after the resurrection.

Is this really the best explanation for the evidence or is this another case where a figure of speech is involved? I argue for the latter, specifically that Paul was using “the twelve” as a synecdoche for the disciples, regardless of their actual number.

Spong agrees with most interpreters that the postresurrection appearance to which Paul alludes is probably the Easter event recorded in Luke 24:36–43 and John 20:19–24. This creates an enormous problem for the bishop’s theory, however, in that only ten disciples were present at this event; Thomas and Judas were not there. Even if Spong were correct that Judas was present, the maximum number of disciples on that particular occasion still would have been eleven, not twelve. If, therefore, Paul was after numerical precision, as Spong suggests, we would expect him to have said, “He appeared…to the eleven.” In either case the absence of Thomas at this appearance exposes a serious flaw in Spong’s interpretation.

John 20:24 is further evidence of Spong’s miscalculation: “But Thomas, one of the twelve, …was not with them when Jesus came.” John also appears to use “the twelve” as a synecdoche for the eleven postresurrection disciples. This is a more likely interpretation even if we adopt Spong’s position that the Gospel of John displays the greatest hostility toward Judas; for we would expect that John would want his readers to understand “the twelve” figuratively (as a synecdoche), since a literal reading would imply that Judas was alive. For more than one reason, then, the case for a synecdoche in 1Corinthians 15:5 is more persuasive than is the case for Spong’s literal interpretation.

Most of the time figures of speech are not difficult to recognize and interpret, once we understand how each type of figure works. There are plenty of resources that explain the different types of figures used in the Bible. Good commentaries often identify figures of speech, and works that are specifically about literary features of the Bible, such as E. W. Bullinger’s classic Figures of Speech Used in the Bible (Baker, 1968), provide additional information.7 A basic understanding of language and usage coupled with tools like these helps equip Christians to interpret these biblical expressions correctly.

— John Makujina


1. John Shelby Spong, The Sins of Scripture: Exposing the Bible’s Texts of Hate to Reveal the God of Love (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2005).

2. All Bible quotations are from the New American Standard Bible.

3. Spong, 162.

4. Ibid., 139.

5. Ibid., 138–141.

6. Ibid., 199–210.

7. All biblical examples of figures of speech in this article were taken from Bullinger’s book.

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