Consider: In the third century, the scholar Origen is said to have interpreted literally Matthew 19:12 -- "There are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven" -- and castrated himself. Origen later became a preeminent theologian of his age -- and an advocate of figurative interpretation.
Another example: In the mid-1800s, when anesthesia was first introduced for women in labor, there was an uproar. Many felt it violated God's pronouncement in Genesis 3:16: "I will greatly multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children." If Julie and I ever have another child, would I dare get between her and the epidural needle? Not a chance.
It's a good bet that, at some time or other in history, every single passage in the Bible has been taken as literal. I've decided I can't do that. That'd be misleading, unnecessarily flip, and would result in missing body parts. No, instead my plan is this: I will try to find the original intent of the biblical rule or teaching and follow that to the letter. If the passage is unquestionably figurative -- and I'm going to say the eunuch one is -- then I won't obey it literally. But if there's any doubt whatsoever -- and most often there is -- I will err on the side of being literal. When it says don't tell lies, I'll try not to tell any lies. When it says to stone blasphemers, I'll pick up rocks.
3. Should I obey the Old Testament, the New Testament, or both?
Many, perhaps most, of the teachings in the two testaments are similar, but some are significantly different. So I've decided to split up my quest.
I will devote most of my year -- eight months or so -- to the Old Testament, since that's where you'll find the bulk of the Bible's rules. The Old Testament consists of thirty-nine books that mix narrative, genealogy, poetry, and lots and lots of laws. The first five books alone -- the books of Moses -- have hundreds of decrees, including the crucial Ten Commandments, as well as some of the more seemingly atavistic ones about executing homosexuals. That's not to mention divinely inspired advice in later Old Testament books. The Proverbs -- a collection of King Solomon's wisdom -- offer guidance on child rearing and marriage. The Psalms tell you how to worship. I'll be abiding by everything. Or trying to.
Being officially Jewish, I feel much more comfortable living and writing about the Old Testament. (Or, as many Jews prefer to call it, the Hebrew Bible, since old implies "outdated," and new implies "improved"). But in the final four months of my year, I want to explore -- in at least some way -- the teachings of the Christian Bible, the New Testament.
To ignore the New Testament would be to ignore half of the story. The evangelical movement and its literal interpretation of the Bible hold enormous sway, both for the good (they were powerful advocates for aiding Darfur) and, to my secular mind, the not-so-good (far-right fundamentalists are driving the creationism movement).
Naturally, there's the most famous of all Christian literalists -- the conservatives in the Jerry Falwell/Pat Robertson mold. I plan to meet them later this year. But I also want to look at evangelical groups such as the "Red-letter Christians," which focus on what they see as literal adherence to Jesus's teachings about compassion, nonviolence, and the redistribution of wealth.