To-day many are distressed when one says that the religious records are literally true. Many quote a saying which is true; it is quoted, however, by lazy people, not as a true statement but from indolence. It is the saying: “The letter killeth but the spirit giveth life.” From this they deduce the right to take no notice at all of what stands in the records, to have no longer the will to recognize what is actually there, for it is the “dead letter” they say. And so they like to let their spirit shine and concoct all sorts of fantasies. These persons may indeed be very clever in their explanations, but that is not the point; the point is that we ought really to see in the records what is contained in them.
“The letter killeth but the spirit giveth life” has the same significance in mystical language as the saying of Goethe, “He who has not this, this dying and becoming, is but a sad guest upon the dark earth.” This saying does not mean: “If you wish to lead some one to a higher knowledge you must slay him,” but it means that just through the culture of the physical world man must uplift himself to spirituality.
So also the letter is the body of the spirit, and we must first have and understand it, then we may say that we can find the spirit in it. The letter, the understood letter, must then die so that the spirit may be resurrected from it. This saying is not an injunction to fancy anything you please about what is contained in the religious records.
Source: Rudolf Steiner – GA 104 – The Apocalypse of St. John: Lecture VI – Nuremberg, June 23, 1908
Translated by M. Cotterell