Jesus appears to establish the Christological approach used by the apostles:

Joh 5:39 Search the scriptures; for in them ye think ye have eternal life: and they are they which testify of me.

Are there any such statements which would give warrant to the literal-historical approach, particularly in light of the apostle's Christological approach which is often characterized as being weird or supernatural?

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    Hi Bob. I think this is a vitally important question. We can't simply take any approach we feel like to reading sacred scripture. That said, this question is really too broad, as it's asking for a survey of an open-ended number of methodologies. I wonder if it would help to focus on a specific approach, and see if there is biblical precedent for interpreting the text in that manner.
    – Ray
    Oct 20 '11 at 13:48
  • Ok. I limited to just the Lit-Hist method, if there are responses I can add others.
    – Bob Jones
    Oct 21 '11 at 2:30
  • Cool; I think that edit will be helpful.
    – Ray
    Oct 21 '11 at 2:32
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    I cleaned up the question a bit and suggested some links to the terms you are using. But are you asking about Biblical literalism or historical-grammatical hermeneutics. (The later seems more accepted by Christians at least.)
    – Jon Ericson
    Oct 25 '11 at 16:54
  • @Bob: Are you referring to Biblical literalism, as defined in the Wikipedia link? "Biblical literalists believe that, unless a passage is clearly intended as allegory, poetry, or some other genre, the Bible should be interpreted as literal statements by the author." Oct 26 '11 at 1:41

Based on the definition of Biblical literalism from the Wikipedia page:

Biblical literalists believe that, unless a passage is clearly intended as allegory, poetry, or some other genre, the Bible should be interpreted as literal statements by the author.

I'd have to say no, there is no scriptural warrant for this practice. There is nothing wrong with understanding Bible stories literally; the problem is when we stop there. Passages not clearly labeled as allegory or typology may still be able to teach us something more if we seek a deeper meaning.

Jesus said he taught in parables because:

The reason I speak to them in parables is that "seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand.' With them indeed is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah that says: "You will indeed listen, but never understand, and you will indeed look, but never perceive. For this people's heart has grown dull, and their ears are hard of hearing, and they have shut their eyes; so that they might not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and understand with their heart and turn— and I would heal them.' But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear.

His parables had a deeper meaning that could be found only by those who searched for it.

And as your quote from John 5:39 states, Jesus expected his followers also to search the scriptures to see how they testify about him. (At that time, "scriptures" referred to what Christians today call the Old Testament.) In many cases this involves going beyond the literal, historical meaning of the words. Many New Testament writers uncovered hidden meanings in Old Testament passages:

Matthew, for example, found these:

"Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel," which means, "God is with us." — Matthew 1:23; compare Isaiah 7:14

"Out of Egypt I have called my son." — Matthew 2:15; compare Hosea 11:1

The first, in its original context, referred to a child that would be born in Isaiah's own time, as a sign to King Ahaz that Israel would prevail over the two nations that were threatening them.

The second, in its original context, referred to the Exodus and to God's love for his people and his care for them despite their unfaithfulness. But Matthew found a Christological meaning in both of these phrases.

Paul, in Galatians 4, saw the birth of Isaac as a foreshadowing of Christianity:

For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by a slave woman and the other by a free woman. One, the child of the slave, was born according to the flesh; the other, the child of the free woman, was born through the promise. Now this is an allegory: these women are two covenants. One woman, in fact, is Hagar, from Mount Sinai, bearing children for slavery. Now Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. But the other woman corresponds to the Jerusalem above; she is free, and she is our mother. For it is written, "Rejoice, you childless one, you who bear no children, burst into song and shout, you who endure no birth pangs; for the children of the desolate woman are more numerous than the children of the one who is married." Now you, my friends, are children of the promise, like Isaac.

Hebrews 7-10 is a long passage that shows how Melchizedek foreshadows Christ, and how all the ceremonial acts of Old Testament worship, including God's covenant with Israel, the tent of meeting, and the law itself, are shadows and symbols of what was to come through Christ's sacrifice.

And finally, Jesus himself applied a Christological meaning to Jonah in the whale:

But he answered them, "An evil and adulterous generation asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so for three days and three nights the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth. — Matthew 12:39-40

So, rather than limiting themselves to the flat, historical meanings of the Old Testament passages, Jesus and his disciples (and the New Testament writers) consistently searched the scriptures to find their testimony about Christ.

  • "I'd have to say no, there is no scriptural warrant for this practice." you have taken a gutsy position. Most of the answer is giving examples of the Christological view. It is a great point that Jesus taught the Christological method. but he didn't exclude literal methods. If you could show he excluded it in a general rule, you'd get it hands down.
    – Bob Jones
    Oct 26 '11 at 23:08
  • Or if you can show that the examples below are Christological.
    – Bob Jones
    Oct 26 '11 at 23:09
  • Sorry, I didn't mean to come across as advocating excluding literal methods. I'm only trying to exclude the view that each scripture passage can have at most one meaning, and that it cannot mean anything other than the surface-level meaning of the words unless the passage itself explicitly says otherwise. I'll try to edit my answer to clarify. Oct 27 '11 at 4:18
  • I'm not sure that you can use parables as an example here - as Jesus stated, the whole point of the parables was that they had a deeper meaning. So they're already off the table in terms of the prior assertion - they are clearly defined as non-literal. Your other points seem valid, however. Nov 7 '11 at 16:07
  • @GalacticCowboy: I mentioned the parables to draw a parallel: Just as Jesus' verbal teaching has a deeper meaning for those who seek it, so do the Scriptures. Nov 11 '11 at 4:26

There isn't a black and white answer to this question. Christology certainly is a valid lens to view, not just the Old Testament, but all of history.1 At the same time, we must also interpret our texts literally. Can there be any doubt that Jesus and the Apostles believed the stories told about Abraham, Joseph, Moses, David, Elijah, Daniel, etc. were true? They read these stories as literal while at the same time reading them as foreshadowings of Christ.

In the context of preaching2, Paul says in 1 Corinthians 9:19-23 (ESV):

For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.

Literalism as an absolute clearly is wrong, but so is Christo-centrism as an absolute. Jonah is a great example. Jesus tells us that Jonah's three days in the belly of the great fish is a sign for His own death and resurrection. But there's no reason to assume He didn't also believe Jonah literally was rescued from the sea by a fish. Nor are we meant to believe that Jesus was not literally dead in the tomb from Friday night to Sunday morning.

Ironically, the Christological approach seems more Jewish than most of the other ways Christians read the Old Testament. According to 1 Corinthians 1:22 (ESV)

For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom,

The "historical" modifier is important as our culture demands a sort of literalism that the ancients simply did not value. Not just Biblical history, but all studies of past are now treated more skeptically than in earlier generations because we are used to stories being told through video, image, and audio recordings. Even our literal readings must make allowances for differences in technology and cultural priority. These days, we'd want to know how many hours Jesus was in the tomb and exactly what species of creature swallowed Jonah. These were not top considerations for the Apostles and Jesus as they are now because they lived in the Biblical world.


  1. Or rather it's valid according to Jesus, the Apostles and the Church. Most non-Christians would view it as wholly invalid.

  2. To Paul, preaching meant interpreting the Scriptures as a rabbi and also debating from first principles as a Greek philosopher.

  • I appreciate your thoughtfulness. The question does not pit literal approaches against Christological. Sensus plenior acknowledges four senses. "For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom," and in Christ there is no Jew or Greek. Both methods through the flesh were wrong. The Greek methods of solving riddles produced Gnosticism. But I agree, that the Christological method appears to be more Jewish.
    – Bob Jones
    Oct 26 '11 at 23:02
  • All great answers. And great discussion. Thanks.
    – Bob Jones
    Oct 28 '11 at 21:38

If what you're looking for is evidence that Jesus and the apostles never saw allegory or typology in texts where it was not intended by the original human author, I don't think that argument can very well be defended. Besides Paul's famous use of allegory in Galatians 4 (the only text to explicitly mention the word), he also sees in 1 Cor. 10 patterns of baptism and Christ in the Exodus narrative. And as you are well familiar, Hebrews is replete with examples of things that were only a shadow of what was to come.

However, if what you're looking for is New Testament examples of the usage of literal and historical accounts from the Old Testament, then I would suggest that Jesus and the apostles do often appeal to the literal and historical narratives/commands found in the Scriptures to make various points. Here are several examples that hopefully illustrate this:

Mark 2:23-28
When Jesus is questioned by the Pharisees about the Sabbath, he answers them by appealing to the literal historical account of David and his companions who ate the show bread. In the synoptic passage in Matthew 12, Jesus adds, "Or haven't you read in the Law that on the Sabbath the priests in the temple desecrate the day and yet are innocent." It seems to me that Jesus is arguing that certain laws supersede others. Jesus concludes that man wasn't made for the Sabbath, but the Sabbath was made for man.

Acts 7:2-53
Stephen's entire speech before the Sanhedrin gives a literal historical recounting of the call of Abaraham, the move to Egypt, the Exodus, and the wandering in the desert all to make the point that the people are stiff-necked and resist the work of God in their lives.

Romans 4:1-12
In order to establish justification by faith apart from works, Paul appeals to the literal historical example of Abraham. He notes that Abraham's righteousness was credited to him on the basis of faith rather than the basis of keeping the law. Vital to Paul's argument, though, is the fact that Abraham's righteousness was credited to him before Abraham received the sign of circumcision. There is a similar argument in Galatians 3:15-18 on the historical precedence of the promise vs the law.

Ephesians 6:1-3
Here Paul takes a command from the Decalogue and makes a straightforward application of it based on the literal text.


While Christocentric, typological, and even allegorical interpretations all seem at times present in the New Testament, it seems also that Jesus and the apostles did not shy away from using the literal meaning of a text to make a point. Moreover, they seem to assume the historical nature of the accounts to which they refer, whether they are making an analogy, recounting a history or arguing some point of doctrine.

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    I'm going to start a discussion on meta about terminology, because as I understand it, these are all examples of allegorical interpretation. Oct 25 '11 at 20:35
  • Meta discussion here: meta.hermeneutics.stackexchange.com/questions/135/… Oct 25 '11 at 20:58
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    How does eating bread relate to the Sabbath literally. Both were literal laws. Also In Hebrews, the Sabbath is not a literal Sabbath. It is Jesus's rest "I will give you rest." So I don't think that one can count can it? Since the theme of Hebrews is the shadow of the good things coming vs the reality of them, I think it would be difficult to find anything in Hebrews that did not have a Christological focus. Hebrews is the poster book for sensus plenior ;-) The other two, I think, are good. I'll take a closer look.
    – Bob Jones
    Oct 26 '11 at 2:18
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    Well, I don't think the Noah one applies. He is making the point that the story of Noah was a prophecy of the coming of the Son of Man. Can we deny that the story of the flood was intended to speak of the cross? I need help on this because I am naturally biased. Everything is used Chronologically in sensus plenior, so I am not a good judge to say that it is not. I'll reward points, I just want a good example where it might not be.
    – Bob Jones
    Oct 26 '11 at 2:25
  • Doesn't using a historical precedence require more than a literal reading. Literally, we would know that God knows that Abraham will perform works, and so even though it was credited 'before' it was not solely 'on account of' faith. Isn't this James's argument? Abraham's faith would have been dead had he not followed through with works. But God knew he would do them. If you depend only on the faith, not on knowledge of future works, then it becomes Christological with him being the object of faith. He is the usurping second son promised to Abraham. Then James does not come in to play.
    – Bob Jones
    Oct 26 '11 at 2:36

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