N.T. Wright on interpreting the bible "literally" or "metaphorically"

Something one of our commentators said below on the “After Darwin” post prompted me to post this quotation from Tom Wright’s “Simply Christian” (p164):

‘Some people take the Bible literally,’ I recently heard a lecturer assert with great emphasis, ‘while others of us see it as metaphorical.’ What does it mean to ‘take the Bible literally’? What would it mean to read it ‘metaphorically’? Is this even a helpful way of putting the question? Broadly speaking: No, it isn’t. …

In fact, every Bible reader I have ever met, from whatever background or culture, has known instinctively that some parts of the Bible are meant literally and other parts are meant metaphorically. When the Old Testament declares that the Babylonians captured Jerusalem and burnt it down, it means, quite literally, that they captured Jerusalem and burnt it down. When Paul says that he was ship-wrecked three times, he means that he was shipwrecked three times. Equally, when he says that a thief will come in the night, so that the pregnant woman will go into labour, so that you mustn’t fall asleep or get drunk, but must stay awake and put on your armour (1 Thess 5:1-8), it would take a particularly inept reader not to recognise one of his most spectacular mixed metaphors.

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4 Responses to N.T. Wright on interpreting the bible "literally" or "metaphorically"

  1. Peter says:

    Since the Catechism describes the Church’s definition of the ‘literal’ sense as “The meaning of the words… discovered by exegesis”, taking a simplistic, mechanical interpretation of the above or any other text can hardly be properly described as ‘literal’.

    The literal sense is not the first thing that pops into my head when I read the text. It is the sense we gain from the hard work of exegesis, which seeks to comprehend the meaning of the words.

    This is why St Thomas can say “all senses are derived from the literal”.

    I know you know this David, but one of my pet peeves is people setting up ‘literal’ as if it were the hasty interpretation of the ignorant or lazy.

    • frdamian says:


      Was it not Jerome that said we derive all oother senses from the literal?

      • Schütz says:

        Whether it was St Jerome or not, Fr D, it is certainly in the Catechism (#115ff). We are to learn to read scripture in both the literal (ie. as Peter describes it above – meaning the meaning we get from straightforward literary exegesis) and the spiritual. The spiritual interpretation is always to be based on the literal, ie. sound exegesis, but is itself divided into a further three categories: allegorical, moral and anagogical.

        • fatherdamian says:

          I can’t really remember who said it… was it Jerome?? I would actually like to know. Googling has provided me with diverse answers…

          I agree with what Peter said… N.T.Wright’s quote is nonsensical from a Catholic position because the literal sense of scripture is the meaning an author intended to communicate (whether the author is writing historiography or poetry.) We contrast it with a literalistic interpretation.

          Interesting that the Catechism describes the “literal sense” as “the meaning conveyed by the words of Scripture.” I would have thought that the author would need to be mentioned here somewhere. Even the PBI document on interpreting the bible in the church talks about the intention of the author.

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