Everyone claims these days that canonical “literalism” is a recent phenomenon. It’s said about Islam especially and now this comment claims it about Judaism. I’ve also heard this about the Greek religions (there’s a book called ‘Did the Ancients believe in their myths’). Is this really true? Or is this some kind of post-modern thing where everyone is trying to prove how much “wiser” our ancestors were as if they weren’t literal idiots.
I think the common sense intuition is that literalism&fundamentalism must have been more prevalent in the past, but I’m willing to update if anyone can demonstrate some kind of trend in any of these religions.
The case of Maimonides is well-discussed in Persecution and the Art of Writing by Leo Strauss. Maimonides considers it bad to teach the secrets of the Talmud to people who aren’t worthy and thinks that the Talmud contains wrong statements to mislead naive readers.
Issues of secret knowledge and mechanisms to keep knowledge from getting picked up by people are found in many spiritual traditions.
There a key distinction between esoteric and exoteric works. Reading esoteric works literally usually means to treat them as being exoteric.
If you look at someone like Richard Bandler who founded NLP, Bandler often tries to teach esoterically whereby he’s not explicit about what he wants to teach. If you understand how he teaches than you won’t take a story about a personal experience that Bandler recounts as literal but as a vehicle for the transmission of esoteric knowledge.
When Maimonides wanted to teach esoterically he also argues that the esoteric knowledge is more important than the literal truth. Maimonides is likely making a lot of decisions that are different when he teaches that are different from those that Bandler makes, but both consider esoteric knowledge to be important.
People who value exoteric knowledge like Greek philosophers or modern scientists tend to be a lot more literal than people who value esoteric knowledge. Especially at the level of teachers.
That doesn’t necessarily mean that the average lay-person understands that certain claims about knowledge aren’t to be taken literally.
I think conflating literalism and fundamentalism here is probably a bad idea. I am not an expert in the early history of the Abrahamic religions, but it seems likely that textual literalism’s gone in and out of style over the several thousand years of Abrahamic history, just as many other aspects of interpretation have.
Fundamentalism is a different story. There have been several movements purporting to return to the fundamentals of religion, but in current use the word generally refers only to the most recent crop of movements, which share certain characteristics because they share a common origin: they are reactions against modernity and against the emerging universal culture. It stands to reason that these characteristics would be new (at least in this form), because prior to them there was no modernity or universal culture to react against.
I think it’s more useful to speak of fundamentalism as an attitude, and if you speak about it this way, there is nothing new about it, but it always exists in opposition to something different—e.g. the 1st century Sadducees were fundamentalists, and the Pharisees, who tended to interpret their religion in the light of Greek philosophy, were mostly opposite to this.
I don’t know of any broader, larger trends. It is worth noting here that the Rabbis of the Talmud themselves thought that the prior texts (especially the Torah itself) were infallible, so it seems that part of what might be happening is that over time, more and more gets put into the very-holy-text category.
Also, it seems important to distinguish here between being unquestionably correct with being literal. In a variety of different religions this becomes an important distinction and often a sacrifice of literalism is in practice made to preserve correctness of a claim past a certain point. Also note that in many religious traditions, the traditions which are most literal try to argue that what they are doing is not literalism but something more sophisticated. For example, among conservative Protestants it isn’t uncommon to claim that they are not reading texts literally but rather using the “historical-grammatical method.”
The Talmud from what little I know may be a poor example of this. In fact, last I checked the Torah came from a combination of contradictory texts, and tradition comes close to admitting this with the story of Ezra.
I think most people in ancient times held all sorts of beliefs about the world which we would call “literalist” if someone held them today, but they rarely if ever believed in the total accuracy of one source. They believed gods made the world because that seemed like a good explanation at the time. They may have believed in the efficacy of sacrifice, because why wouldn’t you want sacrifices made to you?