Women participating in the Walking with Purpose Bible study program at Catholic parishes around the…
Should we interpret everything in the Bible literally?
Question: Our bishop recently said, “The story of Noah’s Ark is not meant to be taken literally.” This sort of talk frustrates me. What are your thoughts about what this bishop says?
— Name withheld, California
Answer: It is difficult for me to comment directly on the bishop’s thought since I am only reading a sentence without the wider context. However, certain basic principles about the Catholic understanding of Scripture can be helpful to review.
The first principle taught in the Catechism of the Catholic Church is that God is the author of sacred Scripture: “Holy Mother Church, relying on the faith of the apostolic age, accepts as sacred and canonical the books of the Old and the New Testaments, whole and entire, with all their parts, on the grounds that, written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, they have God as their author, and have been handed on as such to the Church herself” (No. 105).
A second principle is that of inerrancy: “The inspired books teach the truth. ‘Since therefore all that the inspired authors or sacred writers affirm should be regarded as affirmed by the Holy Spirit, we must acknowledge that the books of Scripture firmly, faithfully, and without error teach that truth which God, for the sake of our salvation, wished to see confided to the Sacred Scriptures'” (No. 107).
Applying this to the Gospels, the Catechism teaches that they are accurate accounts of Christ’s life and teachings: “The Church holds firmly that the four Gospels, ‘whose historicity she unhesitatingly affirms, faithfully hand on what Jesus, the Son of God, while he lived among men, really did and taught for their eternal salvation, until the day when he was taken up'” (No. 126).
Therefore, all these teachings assert that the Scriptures accurately and without error hand on the truth which God, who is their author, wanted to convey to us.
There is, however, a need to attend to various literary forms that we find in the Scriptures. We know, for example, that Jesus often used stories (parables) that were not literally true to illustrate a truth he was teaching. The people in these parables — for example, the good Samaritan or the prodigal son — did not actually exist. But this does not bother us since we know full well that they are only stories.
There are other events and people in the Scripture where it is less certain if we are dealing with a story, or actual historical people and events, or a little bit of both. For example, was Job an actual historical person, or does the book merely convey a moral tale about patience in suffering? It is not clear, and there are different opinions.
When it comes to Genesis, are we dealing with exact literal descriptions or with poetic and storylike renderings of the events of creation, the Fall and the early history of the human race? Opinions differ, and to some degree the Church allows those differences.
Regarding the early stories of Genesis, the Church certainly holds to the accuracy and inerrancy of what God asserts, but not necessarily to the literal meaning of everything that is said. To illustrate, suppose it is raining heavily and I say, “It is raining cats and dogs.” What I am asserting is true, but what I am saying is not literally true. There are not actual animals falling from the sky; I am using an expression.
What Genesis asserts is that God made everything out of nothing, in stages, and was involved at every step of the process, making everything according to its kind. Whether there were six literal days of 24 hours is debatable; but that God did it all by his own power is not debatable. Further we are to hold that Adam and Eve were actual persons from whom we all descend.
Was there an actual flood? I think there was, since many ancient cultures speak to some sort of flood event. Was there an ark? I think so, but others see it, at least in its details, as perhaps an historical event admixed with nonliteral, storylike qualities.
Perhaps the bishop should have been less definitive in his statement. The Church has traditionally taken these stories in a fairly straightforward way, not being quick to dismiss or limit their historical character. And since one is permitted some leeway in what is to be understood literally or figuratively in these accounts, your view of a more literal meaning should be respected.