When reading the Bible, how can we distinguish the difference between literal and figurative language? 

Professor Mark Muska from the University of Northwestern tackles this important question about interpreting scripture.

“The Bible is literal, but we have to talk about what that means. I like to say to my students that it isn’t woodenly literal so that everything is actually literal. The Bible contains, as a piece of literature, literary features and one of those things is symbolism and figures of speech.”

“When Jesus, in John 10 says, ‘I am the door to the sheep,’ I know Jesus isn’t made out of wood and He doesn’t have hinges; He’s not a door. That would be woodenly, literally, reading that. He is using a metaphor there to make a point about how He is the way to God and to the Father; He’s like the gate into the sheepfold.”

The Bible is literal, but being literal means that it also does include figures of speech, analogies, parables, all these kinds of things. Where we get off the tracks, in my opinion, is to spiritualize the Bible and say things like, ‘Well Moses never really lived, it’s just a myth or a legend.’ Now you’re not taking the Bible literally, you’re trying to spiritualize or allegorize the scriptures unnecessarily.”

Professor Muska shares an old rule of interpretation that he has used throughout his personal studies as a Bible professor.

“If the Bible makes sense to read it plainly, then understand it plainly. If there’s things like ‘the door of the sheep’ that doesn’t make sense, then you start looking for figures of speech and symbolism.”

“I’ve been a Bible Professor for a long time and I still don’t understand several things in Revelation, but we still read it to try to make sense out of the symbolism, the figures of speech and the allegories that are there. That is still taking the Bible literally.”

Rather than searching for hidden meanings, professor Muska encourages us to interpret the Bible as literal, especially if we can understand and apply what we are reading to our daily lives.

Ask the Professor: On the third Thursday of every month we invite Bible professors from the University of Northwestern into the studio and open the phone lines for your questions on the Bible, faith, and the church. Call in during the live show, or submit your questions via email on Connecting Faith’s show page.

Ask the Professor: Interpreting scripture