What was in Jesus’ hand? Lessons on why you can’t take the Bible literally word for word

Posted on 10/03/11 13 Comments

According to a 2007 Gallup survey “About one-third of the American adult population believes the Bible is the actual word of God and is to be taken literally word for word.”

Now let’s think about this. Would you please open your Bibles to Revelation 1:14-16:


“His head and hair were white like wool, as white as snow, and his eyes were like blazing fire. His feet were like bronze glowing in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of rushing waters. In his right hand he held seven stars, and out of his mouth came a sharp double-edged sword.”

“This is the word of the Lord”

“Thanks be to God.”

But wait. Is it the literal word of the Lord? Did Jesus really have a shock of white hair, seven stars in his hand, and a sword protruding from his mouth?

Actually, if we’re going to be serious about this we can’t talk about white hair, stars and swords. We have to talk about hair that is leukos and about aster and rhomphaia.

A first century Christian would have gestured to the pinpoints of light in the night sky and said “aster”.  When we gesture to the same pinpoints of light we say “star”. In other words, the denotation is the same. But the connotation is radically different. Whatever the first century Christian thought when they said aster they didn’t think “hot ball of gas which shines by way of nuclear fusion and exists x number of light years from planet earth.”

So what was literally in Jesus’ hand? Clearly it cannot be what I think when I gesture at pinpoints in the night sky and say “star”.

The Greeks viewed aster as deities while the Jews viewed them as servants that execute the divine commands and grant God glory (see TDNT, 1.503). But surely Jesus didn’t have a handful of little deities or angels.

So the person who literally wants to put seven  aster into Jesus’ hand is left unsure what that even means.

Fortunately, there is a simple solution. Don’t take the statement literally. Understand that the reference to seven aster is symbolic of something else and then seek to understand what that is.  

But if you can take a word in other than its “literal sense”, one can likewise raise the same possibility for a sentence, or a passage, or perhaps even a book. And with that we embark on the exciting and daunting journey of learning how to read texts.

However, I’m left with a lingering question. How is it that the pastors of one third of the American population have so utterly failed to teach their congregants how to read the Bible that those congregants would think it advisable to take the Bible literally word for word in the first place?

  • Ed Babinski

    You wrote, “The Greeks viewed aster as deities while the Jews viewed them as servants that execute the divine commands and grant God glory (see TDNT, 1.503).”

    So you’re saying that ancient Greeks and Hebrews looked up at the night sky and believed they saw divine beings, “servants executing divine commands and granting God glory?” I guess they also believed that God and His heaven, His celestrial abode, were also up there, directly above their heads rather than light-years away.

    When you believe “God” is that near, literally peeking over the balcony at the “circle of the earth” below where humans “look like grasshopper” (Isa.) to Him, then you try to keep His attention and keep him calm. You build temples and assign priests to sacrificially burn animals so their pleasant aroma wafts up to Him; attempting to ensure that your people, your nation, have the Big Guy’s attention, and that the cosmos remains safely held in place, with primeval waters of chaos held at bay, as well as plagues, famines, drought, enemy armies. This all follows granted the uncertainty of avoiding suffering on earth and a belief in a nearby anthropomorphic deity, a cosmic helicopter parent, wouldn’t you say?


    The ancients routinely gathered together the finest of their flock and the finest of their crops, and set them aflame so that the smoke would rise to heaven and appease a particular god or gain their blessed attention. According to The Epic of Gilgamesh (an ancient Babylonian tale that featured the story of a worldwide flood), the gods had been denied their sacrifices during the time the world was flooded, so they all gathered round eagerly to get a whiff of the first animals sacrificed after the flood. A similar scene appears at the end of the flood tale in the Hebrew Bible. Noah holds a huge barbecue after leaving the ark, sacrificing “two of every clean animal” to the Lord. The Bible author added, “. . . and the Lord smelled the soothing aroma.” (Gen. 8:21–a similar phrase is found in Ex. 29:18; Lev. 1:17, 3:5; Num. 15:13,24; 29:28). “Smelled the soothing aroma?” What a pretty piece of anthropomorphism to attribute to God. As if the creator of the universe needed to be “soothed” by the “aroma” of barbecued beef.

    Question: Why did Noah have to murder those animals and set them aflame? Didn’t the Lord get his fill of “smelling the soothing aromas” of countless drowned critters He sacrificed to Himself via the Flood? If you reply, “It’s because charbroiled critters, not drowned ones, have the ‘smell’ whose ‘aroma’ is ‘soothing,’” then I have another question. Why wasn’t Jesus charbroiled so the Lord could “smell the soothing aroma?” (Please don’t tell me after Jesus died he got a little singed in hell.)

    Bible verses about God “smelling the soothing aroma” do make one wonder though, whether God still lusts after the scent of burnt animals. Today, if He did, He’d probably have to settle for a barstool at a steak house with Zeus, Odin, Marduk and Baal by His side, chatting about the good old days, all sneaking a whiff of that old “soothing” stuff.

    Course, maybe God’s addiction to sacrificed animals kept growing worse, starting with flaming farm animals, but then demanding the bloody sacrificial death of His own totally human and totally divine “son.” By now He’s probably craving the “soothing aroma” of an entire planet filled with living creatures exploding into a cosmic fireball. Wait, isn’t that mentioned in the book of Revelation? Quick! Call the Pope to arrange an intervention, we have to get God into rehab! And tell Outback to double my order.

    See also William K. Gilders, Blood Ritual in the Hebrew Bible: Meaning and Power (John Hopkins Univ. Press, 2004)

    • Robert

      That’s a lot of tongue-in-cheek (I hope!). Is this your underlying argument?

      1: If a God wanted people to understand him better, he would communicate so that they can understand him better.

      2. The Bible has many errors: Errors of fact and errors about God’s desires and nature.

      3. The errors are a significant cause of people misunderstanding God’s desires, his nature and the world itself.

      Conclusion: The Bible is not a product of a God who wants people to understand him better.

      Likewise …

      1. If God wanted us to know that he inspired parts of the Bible, and if he wanted us to know which parts are inspired, he would have given us internal textual evidence of that inspiration.

      2. The Bible does not say anything unlikely for Ancient Near Eastern men to say, and the errors we find in the Bible are just what we should expect from Ancient Near Eastern men; it lacks internal textual evidence.

      Conclusion: Granting God exists, he does not want us to know if or which parts of the Bible he inspired.

      • randal

        I’m equally anxious to find the underlying argument. Innuendo may be intriguing but it is too subjective to wade through.

    • Robert

      Each nation has created a god, and the god has always resembled his creators. […] Most of them were pleased with sacrifice, and the smell of innocent blood has ever been considered a divine perfume. All these gods have insisted upon having a vast number of priests, and the priests have always insisted upon being supported by the people …


      These gods did not even know the shape of the worlds they had created, but supposed them perfectly flat. Some thought the day could be lengthened by stopping the sun, that the blowing of horns could throw down the walls of a city, and all knew so little of the real nature of the people they had created, that they commanded the people to love them. Some were so ignorant as to suppose that man could believe just as he might desire, or as they might command, and that to be governed by observation, reason, and experience was a most foul and damning sin. None of these gods could give a true account of the creation of this little earth. All were woefully deficient in geology and astronomy. As a rule, they were most miserable legislators, and as executives, they were far inferior to the average of American presidents.

      Robert Ingersoll, The Gods (1872)

    • randal

      “I guess they also believed that God and His heaven, His celestrial abode, were also up there, directly above their heads rather than light-years away.”

      Ed, there are some Christians today that believe this, in an inchoate way at least, so I have no doubt many believed it in the first century.

      Do you know that there are some people who believe that the redness of the sweater that I am wearing as I write this comment is a primary quality of that sweater? Even though they’re obviously wrong (since color is a secondary quality of course) I still love them just the same. How much more does the big man upstairs?

  • http://war-on-error.xanga.com/tags/randalrauser Ben

    This post seems to be a little intellectually dishonest for a number of reasons. One, when a conservative Christian is asked whether they should take the Bible literally, they are typically thinking in terms of “did the Biblical history actually happen?” “Did god really create the world as it says in Genesis?” and are all of the values expressed in some official sense in the texts (apart from the words of the “bad guys”) divinely prescribed? There are many culturally established contrary positions to that view and so “taking it literally” is the cultural coding for them to asert their view. Two, if you point them to the poetry and the books filled with symbolic imagery like in Revelation, they are likely to agree with you (despite how you make it sound), but (and 3) you somehow want to turn that against them so that you can freely associate that erroneously with any historically problematic passage and find legitimacy for just ignoring what the authors of the Bible and the mainstream Christianities that followed probably took quite seriously. You are free to hold your own views of course, but your incredulity based on your liberal Christian framing of the issue seems quite contrived. It’s just a bad argument on your part here when better arguments for taking excessive divine liberties with Biblical truth could be made.

    • randal


      Part of the problem is that the “conservative Christian” is unable to articulate clearly what it is that they mean as is made clear by the fact that they check “yes” to the question of whether the Bible is to be interpreted literally word for word. A Christian who had a properly nuanced understanding of what scripture is would never agree to the statement that scripture is to be interpreted literally “word for word”. Thus the response is still problematic even if your unsubstantiated psychological interpretation of the data is true.

      • http://war-on-error.xanga.com/tags/randalrauser Ben

        Did you see those three options in the poll? I imagine that there would be many Christians concerned with the implication that none of Yahweh’s actual words are in the Bible since neither of the other two options really seems to condone that. But who knows. As you say, it’s all unsubstantiated.

        However, I can’t think of anyone I’ve ever met that would fit a caricature of “word for word” literality as though they couldn’t recognize an occasional simile or metaphor in an otherwise seemingly straight forward narrative. Although I do know a lot of people who would take “literalness” to have the cultural-political-religious implications I described. If we don’t want to call these Christians liars (ironically being poll literalists ourselves), some interpretative charity is probably in order. I’m assuming you’ve had the opportunity to find yourself not properly represented in the options of some kind of survey and still having to answer, right?

        You didn’t seem to address my main point. “Some things in scripture are not literal, therefore anything else might be” is an incredibly weak argument to hope to take a conservative Christian to liberal land. As a result should we then focus on passages that show no internal signs of not being taken seriously? It’s as weak as the reverse, “Some things in scripture are literal, therefore anything else might be,” as though we should point our guns at every non-literal phraseology and ignore the internal signs of non-literalness.

        • randal


          I’m watching the court television show “Judge Judy”. The plaintiff is a young woman who is ripped off by her boyfriend. After the case she is allowed to say a few words to the camera and in those moments she offers this advice: “Don’t trust men ladies!” Do I think she literally follows her own advice? No, at least not to the letter. She will interpret her own advice by trusting her dad and brother and priest but not the men she meets at the bar. And presumably many if not most of those hearing the advice will take it with that interpretive grain of salt.

          But that doesn’t excuse the fact that it really is not good advice. She should have said “Ladies, don’t trust men you’ve just met” or “Ladies don’t lend money to men you’re dating” or something else. The fact that her advice was “Don’t trust men” means that it is bad advice, even if it will be interpreted. And the fact that it is stated and received widely is an indictment on those who utter and affirm it, even if they ultimately do so with qualification.

          I agree that few if any people take the Bible literally word for word. Indeed, my argument was a reductio ad absurdum pointing out that it makes no sense to approach a text this way. The point however is that many people think it is still meaningful and helpful to affirm that they take the Bible literally word for word. I know. I meet them on a daily basis. And I am also well aware that when pressed on what it actually is they are affirming, their initial advice falls apart and there is nothing behind it.

          And that brings me to the question that closes the essay. How is it that empty, meaningless phrases like taking the Bible literally word for word are so widely embraced in the conservative Christian community? How is it that a serious polling agency like Gallup thought this would be a useful way to represent (rather than caricature) the views of a large segment of the Christian population?

          In other matters, I don’t understand your “main point” as stated in your final paragraph. Can you restate it?

  • pete


    I’m a very conservative Christian, but I recognize that God works through culture.

    Compare the Genesis account to the Epic of Gilgamesh, or any other ancient near east creation story.

    While our version can be proved to be more true than their version….. for many reasons…

    Suffice it to say that they did not have the most scientifically developed view of the cosmos…. (we can’t be arrogant, because we stand on the scientific shoulders of our predecessors)

    But if a moral, yet less-than-NASA 34th century B.C. author described it as he saw it, through divine inspiration of course, can’t we see the story as being articulated through a cultural-historical idiom?

    Aquainas told us that all he wrote was as straw when faced with an immanent theophany.

    Paul said much of the same (cf. 2 Cor. 12:4)

    “Word-for-Word” does not mean “I’m more Christian than you”.

    I’m not saying that the above is your thought, but many non-reflective Christians have unfortunately shown that this is the case.

    • pete

      Sorry Ben,

      I didn’t see your last post before I finished mine.

      You are very correct in stating that a liberal folly may lie in ignoring the internal signs of literalness.

      That is well stated.

  • http://www.atheistmissionary.com/ The Atheist Missionary

    Check out Ed’s Leaving the Fold: Testimonies of Former Fundamentalists (Amherst: Prometheus, 1995). Just pulled it off my unread bookshelf. Keep the non-faith, brother.

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