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Guest Blog: Ten Reasons Why the Bible is Literature

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.

Reading BibleEmotional 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.

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About interestingliterature

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Posted on November 6, 2013, in Literature and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 25 Comments.

  1. Another factor to consider is that even amongst its detractors, the Bible thrives as a reservoir of common knowledge. References abound in explicitly atheist and agnostic writers. Gore Vidal, for instance, littered his essays and books with Biblical allusions. Often tongue in check, admittedly, but it’s interesting to note. The Beats had their aspirations confirmed by the verses. When a work is a Goaliath, straddling the world, I think there is a good argument for its inclusion into ‘literature.’

  2. As a Christian I find this offensive! Just kidding. I’ve always viewed it as amazing literature. Awesome article.

  3. I love the writings of the bible. It is filled with great stories. I believe if an avid reader loved mystery, love and adventure; if they haven’t read the bible they should.
    The stories of David, Samson, Abraham, Job, Ruth and Esther are just a few of my favorites.
    Great post, be blessed.

  4. Swedenborg’s interpretation of the Bible is the most meaningful for me. He says that every word, image, number and letter of the Bible are full of hidden meaning recounting the secret history of the church. It’s a story traced from a golden age where man was in direct communication with angels, to a subsequent degeneration into materialist greed. In his reading the Noah story is about how man immersed all that was good and true in him by fixation on fulfillment of selfish desires. The teachings of the church were false because the truths it proclaimed were devoid of charity. The Fall was brought about by man demanding physical proofs regarding God’s existence. Swedenborg says the stories of the Bible recount this secret history.

  5. Very good points. I am a Christian and do believe the Bible is a sacred text … which doesn’t at all detract from the fact that I agree with you and think it is also one of the greatest pieces of literature ever :) Absolutely beautiful. Thanks so much!

  6. I have similar sentiment about Hindu epics. Great article.

  7. The Bible can be both scripture and literature. Great article!

  8. particularly good fiction

  9. Your points about translation and Political Canonization are particularly to the point. The more we study the books of the various versions of the Bible as narratives, poems, meditations, and so forth, the more we are forced to deal with their historical/political contexts. The very ordering of books in the collection reveals an imposed overarching narrative–compare the organization of the Tanakh with that of the Christian Old Testament–and the inclusion or exclusion of works from the canon does, as you suggest, “suit the message of those in power.”

  10. Reblogged this on mad girl's lovesong and commented:
    “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.”

    Abençoados aqueles com clareza de espirito.
    Abençoadps aqueles que falam do texto religioso porque o conhecem.

  11. On the subject of the Bible as literature: Leland Ryken’s ‘Words of Delight, A Literary Introduction to the Bible’ is a great place to start, even though it’s getting a bit long in the tooth. Perhaps someone can recommend something more up to date?

    • It depends what you want really. Much of the current work within Biblical Studies assumes that the Bible is literature (other than, perhaps, some of the hardline Christian colleges – I once got waved at with a walking stick and told I had no right to study the Bible because I didn’t go to Church). This means some of the best stuff is quite old or very specific and probably too technical for non-specialists. Texts that still appear on university reading lists include: anything by Robert Alter (especially “The Art of Biblical Narrative” and “The Literary Guide to the Bible” – the latter was co-edited with Frank Kermode), Yairah Amit’s “Reading Biblical Narratives,” J.P. Fokkelman’s “Reading Biblical Narratives: An Introductory Guide” and Meir Sternberg’s “The Poetics of Biblical Narrative.”

  12. As an English major in college, I took a course entitled “The Bible as Literature,” which was a great class and inspired me to read the entire bible from a literary perspective. Doing so has given me a deeper insight into other literary works. Thanks for this post!!

  13. Reblogged this on 1WriteWay and commented:
    Particularly interesting post on why the Bible can be considered literature.

  14. God uses wisdom the way we use fresh air, effortlessly, there is a story in everything written, everything, and it’s all divine, it is great to see the bible being read more often, keep it up

  15. As usual, any question of faith or the bible is considered blasphemy! It’s absolutely ridiculous! I think the Bible is nothing but a bunch of stories to guide us through life. To teach us how to act and care for others. If taken lightly, the bible is a great piece of literature like Homer’s “Iliad.” It teaches you lessons from that time and incorporates the beliefs of those people at that time. I never could understand why you can’t wonder if God really exists. He’s not coming down and giving me proof, so why wouldn’t I question it? Every time I genuinely ask if God really exists, I get silence or anger! If this God is so mighty, powerful and knowing, then why does he have to play these stupid games? And why would he punish me for questioning his existence. It should be the other way around. He should be trying to gain my faith with proof, instead of playing these weird, unexplainable games. But when I bring up things like this, people always say, you have to have faith and he works in mysterious ways. Well, I could make up my own God and implement these rules, then no one can question me and my beliefs. The whole organized religion topic confuses me. No one has any proof, everyone has a sacred book, we are not allowed to question their god and everyone believes the other is worshiping the wrong God, some religions to the extreme of executing the non-believers! Is this what your God’s want? If he is so mighty and powerful, then why would he ask us to kill each other in his name. Let’s face it, we have advanced to a point where we don’t need religion to guide us anymore. We have the technology to teach and educate people on the right and wrong things. The only purpose of religion now is to control masses, get them to fight for you and push out others who don’t believe. By all means there are a lot of good things about religion, but these days the bad is out weighing the good. Look at the Middle East for God’s sake!

  16. Enjoyed this immensely! There’s so much good information that the post warrants not only rereading but actual studying and pondering. Anyone who knows me has heard me say that the combination of religion and psychology have saved my life on many occasions, and this post hints at how.

  17. I’m no expert, much more of a “**** disturber”, so as I’m reading this and thinking about all the controversy, a thought occurred…I wonder if Stephen King and E.L. James will ever collaborate and call it “Their Version”?

  18. Hello,
    It is really an excellent post. The largest is the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) with around 8,500 members in more than 80 countries. It publishes many books and journals in the biblical studies, including its flagship, the Journal of Biblical Literature.

  19. Reblogged this on hamzahsbr.

  20. Really important thing to realise – even for Christians! There are a number of books being published by Christian scholars who are saying it’s important for Christians to read the Bible as literature so it can be better understood.
    (Though no Christian will agree that understanding the Bible is literature as well as a holy text means you can open up questions about which books to include – there is a Biblical cannon for a reason and it isn’t arbitrary)

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