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?