By Emma England, University of Amsterdam
Eye rolls, sighs, outraged anger, and accusations of blasphemy are common reactions to the refrain “the Bible is Literature”. Such responses are based on a heady combination of perceptions of the Bible as a sacred text and literature as an art form. It does seems a little churlish though, to claim the Bible is not literature, assuming one accepts the premise that literature tells a good story, has beautiful phrasing of language, depth of meaning, invokes an emotional response, and offers insight into the human condition. Take the following as examples …
Stories. King Eglon gets killed on the toilet (Judges 3:12-30), Jonah gets swallowed and then vomited out of a giant fish (Jonah 1:17-2:10), and Saul visits the witch of Endor asking for help (1 Samuel 28:3-25). These narratives can all be read in their own right but they are also part of larger biblical narratives. It is even possible to argue the whole Bible is a story beginning with God’s creation of the heavens, continuing through humanity’s time on earth, and ending with the apocalypse and the salvation of the “good” human beings.
Characters. Literary works generally require characters, actors with inner lives, distinct voices, and recognizable human traits (whether or not they are human). God is the dominant character in the Bible, especially the Hebrew Bible. He protects, he feels regret and sorrow, he enjoys things, he reasons – and much more besides (Genesis 4:13-15; 6:6-7; 8:21; and 18:16-33 respectively). Other major characters include Esther, Ruth, and Paul and they all have their own story arcs.
The Human Condition. It is at once both an obvious and unlikely element of the Bible, which is often assumed to be about God, rules and religion. To an extent it is, has been and can be considered as such, but it is also about helping people to understand, explore and explain their own situations and experiences. Woe is me, a broken heart, the powers that be, and all things must pass are phrases which collectively summarize common experiences of what it is to be human. Unsurprisingly, all of them can be traced to different Bible passages (Isaiah 6:5, Psalm 34:18, Romans 13:1-2, Matthew 24:6 respectively), as can many other phrases that provide a running commentary on human life.
Emotional Responses. Whether we sob at the death of a great character, are made to feel unutterably depressed at the existential misery of life or deliriously happy because characters have found true bliss, literature appeals to the emotions. While religious people may have emotional reactions to their sacred text, it is also possible to be moved by the stories. This could be the excitement of Samson wreaking his revenge on his enemies by pulling the temple down around him and killing them and himself (Judges 16:21-31), or it could be Ruth’s heartfelt response to her mother-in-law insisting on being her companion no matter what (Ruth 1:15-17).
Genre. “My beloved thrust his hand into the opening; and my inmost being yearned for him” (Song of Songs 5:4). This is unambiguously erotic, as is the entire book with references to breasts like fawns, heads wet with dew, and rounded thighs like jewels. Biblical books and narratives are diverse in form, style, and content to the degree that they can be considered different genres. Song of Songs is erotica; the book of Jonah is widely considered satire by biblical scholars; and the rise and fall of Saul is a tragedy (1 and 2 Samuel). Of course, like non-sacred literature genre is a matter for debate.
Poetry and Prose. Generally poetry is interspersed within prose narratives, such as The Song of Deborah (Judges 5), the Beatitudes (Matthew 5), and “For everything there is a season” (Ecclesiastes 3:1-9). The book of Psalms consists entirely of “standalone” poems. Recognizable elements of poetic language found in Bible translations include simile, metaphor, parallelism, hyperbole, and imagery. Features such as rhyme, rhythm, and onomatopoeia are common but hard to experience in translation because of language differences.
Beautiful Language. A major element of what makes language beautiful especially Biblical Hebrew (with a corpus of only about 8,000 distinct words) is polysemy. A key example being ruach, which means breath, spirit, wind (and more) all at the same time, significantly influencing the meaning of key biblical phrases: “and [God] breathed into his nostrils the breath of life” (Genesis 2:7); “And God made a wind blow over the earth, and the waters subsided” (Genesis 8:1). In such cases the translation hinders the complex beauty of the Hebrew, and different translations emphasize different meanings, with the International Standard Version, for example, translating Genesis 8:1 as “God’s Spirit moved throughout the earth.” When the polysemy of language combines with the experiences of readers, we are invariably left with multiple conflicting meanings.
Multiple Meanings. To be considered “literature” readers need to be able to explore the texts from different angles. This could be as “intended” by the author, such as C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia, which is a darn good yarn as well as a Christian allegory. Meaning could also be created or imagined by the (academic) reader/interpreter. The “Apocalypse” in The Book of Revelation has been variously believed as “literal” truth, regarded as a political allegory about Roman persecution of early Christians, and read through the lens of fantastic literature.
Literary Heritage and Influence. Literary heritage is work that survives – and thrives – outside of its own era. Nobody can doubt that this is the case for the Bible; it continually appears in new versions and translations. It inspires as a sacred text and it has influenced political debates and decisions for centuries (see the Curse of Ham in Genesis 9:19-27 and slavery). It is also a creative “muse”. Often, the reimagined version is far better known than the biblical text. Check out the somewhat horrific sanitization of Psalm 137 by The Melodians, famously covered by Boney M, in the song Rivers of Babylon. The last line of the Psalm is “Happy shall they be who take your little ones/ and dash them against the rock!”
Political Canonization. What makes something literature is as much a political decision as an artistic one, why, for example, do we call the academic subject “English” literature, why not “British” (thereby more easily and obviously incorporating Scottish, Welsh, and Irish writers)? Resulting from this, much work is arbitrarily left out of the canon being neither studied in universities nor in schools. The biblical canon was likewise formed by authority figures, both political and religious. As an example, Protestant Bibles generally have 66 books, Catholic Bibles have 73 books because they include some deuterocanonical books like Judith and Tobit. Neither Bible includes The Gospel of Mary, which did not suit the message that those in power wished to present during the period of canon formation. The rejection of the Gospel of Mary from the canon has helped limit women’s rights throughout the centuries, just as the dominance of “dead, white men” in the literary canon has. By labelling the Bible literature we open it up to the same kind of scrutiny as non-sacred texts receive – whichever rabbit hole that may lead to.
Image: Gerard Dou, Portrait of an Old Woman Reading © c. 1630 (public domain).
Dr Emma England is a Guest Researcher at the University of Amsterdam. Her research focuses on the intersections between the Bible and popular culture taking her into areas as diverse as children’s Bibles, fanfiction and comics. Emma’s current project is transmediality and the Bible, viewed through the lens of science fiction and fantasy television. More information, including her research blog, can be read here.