Jewish Ideological and Scriptural Literalism

Recently, James McGrath reposted Daniel McClellan’s comment on the myth of scriptural literalism. McGrath conveniently created meme of one of McClellan’s comments, on which I will comment.

I must say that I love the succinctness of McClellan’s comment. However, one issue I’ve noticed through following discussion about scriptural literalism, or ideological literalism, is the narrow scope towards Christianity. This is a place where, perhaps, Jewish-Christian dialogue in necessary. In his recently translated work The Jews and the Bible (published in French in 2012 and English in 2015), Attias explores historical relationship between the Hebrew Bible and Jews. Near the end of his work, he comments on how modern Israel’s use of the Bible.

What the average Israeli saw ultimately as an innocent text, which he had got to know at school as the founding document of the people and a component of his identity, suddenly morphed into highly explosive material in the hands of sorcerer’s apprentices all the more alarming for their extreme religiosity. “The Bible ceased to be a common heritage, and from a book that in large measure united people it became one that separated them.” – Jean-Christophe Attias in “The Jews and the Bible”

Why does this matter to discussions of ideological literalism? As he notes, the Bible, which had originally united people, separated people as their own ideological ideas developed. This resulted in some extreme religiosity (perhaps scriptural/ideological literalism, or fundamentalism?) that splintered the unity of Jews. It happened within a specific cultural context and was the result of claiming the Bible’s fundamental status due to a certain ideology. Of course, even to this day the effects are felt in the complexities of the Jewish-Palestinian conflict.

Thus, “Scriptural literalism”, only made possible by ideological literalism, is not merely a Christian phenomenon. Although I wholeheartedly believe that others recognize this, it must be engaged with and included in discussion. Jewish history, which is often closely knitted with concurrent Christian history, contains primary examples of the struggle about how to understand the Bible. What is its place? Too what extent is it, to use the words of Attias, the locus of identity? What happens when the Bible becomes the locus of identity? These are all issues that Judaism has dealt with and may potentially inform and effect how Christianity deals with the issue of ideological fundamentalism and literalism.