I'm extremely skeptical of the claims -- and lately theologians and people led astray by theologians have made many such claims -- that Christians and Jews were not literalists in bygone eras. The most extreme of such claims is that there were no literalists at all until the late 19th or early 20th century in the US.
All one needs to do in order to correct such impressions is to actually read texts written by ancient, Medieval and Renaissance Jews and Christians -- I myself am angrily waving a JPS Hebrew-English Tanakh in one hand as I type this with the other -- and see how little those earlier people resemble contemporary theologians' descriptions of them. The plain truth is almost exactly the opposite: before the early 19th century, non-literalist readings were made by only a minority of believers, and before the 17th century, of course, non-literalism, like non-belief, could only be very carefully hinted at between the lines if the author were not to be tortured and burned alive for his trouble.
From before Irenaeus to after Calvin, the number of Christian theologians who referred to the Bible as the perfect, inerrant word of God was -- all of them. The number who refer to it as the perfect, inerrant symbolic and allegorical word of God was none of them.
Once again, in our time, Christian theologians -- most certainly including the most progressive among them, who want so badly to find concrete proof that Jesus was gay-friendly or even gay, and feminist, and pro-choice, and anti-handgun, and pro-stem-cell-research, that they think they already have -- are making things up.
Once again, it seems that the only people not making up their own version of Judeo-Christian history are the fundies and the atheists. The atheists are bright enough to reject the tradition with horror, the fundies aren't, and the progressive believers should be, but they're in denial and they refuse to look at what's in front of them, unless what's kin front of them is a book or article by one of these contemporary theologians spouting nonstop nonsense about how how sophisticated the faith of the ancients was, and how the fundies have gotten it all wrong.
But this stuff about people hundreds and thousands of years ago reading the Bible very much as if they were 21st-century textual critics appears to be an article of faith among some 21st-century theologians, so that there's no debating it with them. It seems that the best people interested in the truth can do is discuss things without and despite them. When it comes to politics, the progressive believers are progressive. When it comes to talking sense about religion, they're as hopeless as the fundies.