What Makes the BibleLiterature?
This lesson explores what it means to say that the Bible is literature, and provides an introduction to literary approaches to the Bible.
The Good Book
Adam and Eve . . . The 10 Commandments . . . The birth of Jesus . . .
Even if you’ve never read the Bible, you know it. Its stories and psalms, phrases and proverbs, have seeped into our everyday lives. It is the book that has permeated Western culture more than any other. It is, in common parlance, the Good Book.
Of course, the Bible is a religious text — but it’s also a work of literature. In fact, it’s a literary masterpiece. The Bible can’t be beat for sheer diversity of form and content, for artistry, for affective power, and for the way in which it keeps springing surprises on us. It is not simply a good book; it is the best. This book is dynamite.
In this class, we’ll look at ways to read the Bible for its literary qualities — its narrative genres, its stylistic forms, its poetry and prose. You need not have a particular religious orientation to take a literary approach to the Bible. You can pick it up as you would a novel and delve into its world, get to know its characters, and follow its rich and wonderful stories.
Even if you feel you already know the Bible, this course will give you an opportunity to engage it on another level. Together we will look at the Bible through new eyes.
Where Did the Bible Come From?
The first thing you need to know about the Bible is that it is not one book but an anthology of 66 individual books. The word “Bible” comes from the Greek biblios, which means “little books.”
The authorship of the Bible is shrouded in mystery. What we do know is that dozens of authors wrote it over a span of approximately 1,500 years. The Old Testament was written in Hebrew and the New Testament in Greek (primarily in the dialect of koine). For the most part, it was composed in the Middle Eastern region then called Palestine. It could be said that the Bible has a national unity in the sense that virtually all of its authors were Jewish.
The individual books of the Bible gradually were collected into one volume, but we know little about the process. We can infer that many parts of the Bible originally circulated in oral form, but — as with Homer’s Odyssey — it is difficult to say when or how these materials were first written down. The phases through which the parts of the Bible passed were these: composition (in oral or written form), circulation, collection, and recognition or canonization (acceptance of the collected works as a single sacred book).
Naturally, given the long span of its composition and its many authors, you may be wondering how — and even if — the Bible can be said to be one cohesive story. We will look at the question of what unifies this diverse, sprawling book in the final lesson of the course, Lesson 8.
What to Expect
First and foremost, this is a literature course, not unlike a college-level English class. In most lessons, we will look at one or more literary genres of the Bible. The French word genre means “type” or “kind”; for our purposes, it denotes a standard form of narrative (story) or verse (poem). A host of literary genres appear in the Bible — comedy, tragedy, satire, parables, proverbs, “hero” tales, epistles, visionary writings, and many more.
Typically, each lesson will combine:
- Assigned reading in the course textbook, How to Read the Bible as Literature.
- Learning by doing — application of ideas covered in the reading and lesson to specific passages in the Bible. At certain points, you will be asked to read a passage and take a few minutes to analyze it before continuing on with the lesson.
- Discussion topics, which you will be encouraged to explore with your instructor and classmates on the Message Board.
- A short quiz on the main ideas of the lesson.
Our goal is to explore how the Bible works as literature — but first we must answer one key question: What, in particular, is “literary” about the Bible?
C. S. Lewis on the Bible as Literature
“There is a . . . sense in which the Bible, since it is after all literature, cannot properly be read except as literature; and the different parts of it as the different sorts of literature they are.”
– C. S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms
What Is Literature?
We’ve mentioned that literature is made up of many different genres — but what do all these genres have in common? What traits do they share that enable us to call them “literature?”
Imagine you’re seated on an airplane, avidly absorbed in your course textbook. The man next to you asks what you’re reading, and you explain that you’re taking a class on the Bible as literature. He looks at you with a puzzled expression. “What do you mean by literature?” he asks.
What would you say to him?
Whatever your definition of literature, it should touch on at least these three points:
- Literature portrays human experience.
- Literary authors not only portray human experience — they also interpret it.
- Literature is an art form. The style of expression — its skillful technique and beauty — may be as significant as the content of a work.
- You can expand on this definition of literature as you see fit. For more discussion of what literature is and how it applies to the Bible, read the Lesson 1 assignment in How to Read the Bible as Literature.
Cain and Abel
Our working definition of literature gives you a lens through which you can view the Bible. Look for how individual stories portray recognizable human experience. Take a passage and examine its style as well as its substance.
As a case study, let’s read the story of Cain and Abel. You’ll find it in Genesis 4:1-16 (pages 10-11 in The Harper Collins Study Bible). Even if you’re familiar with the story, read it as if for the first time. Now ask yourself the following question:
- What is literary about the story of Cain and Abel?
Take a few minutes and write down your thoughts on a sheet of paper. When you’re finished, read on.
What’s literary about the story of Cain and Abel? There’s no right or wrong answer, of course, but let’s begin to explore the question by looking at the story through the prism of our three-pronged definition of literature from the previous section:
- Does the story of Cain and Abel portray human experience?
Yes, in abundance. Here is a partial list of the conditions and emotions it touches on: sibling rivalry, domestic violence, the “model” child versus the “problem” child, guilt, remorse, envy, lying, self-pity, harboring a grudge, giving in to evil impulses — to mention but a few.
- How does the author interpret human experience?
Crime will be punished. The story is not just a tale of murder, but also of retribution. Following the archetypal pattern of the crime-and-punishment story, the author introduces the criminal (verses 1-4a), gives a motive for the crime (verses 4b-5), describes the crime itself (verse 8), and the arrest, trial, and sentencing (verses 9-12), as well as Cain’s ultimate punishment (verse 16).
- Does the story have an artistic style?
Yes. The plot of the story is masterfully organized — it is a complete tale with a beginning, middle, and end. Beyond that, it contains many of the ingredients that make up “artistic form” in any of the arts: unity, progression, contrast, balance, symmetry, repetition or recurrence, and variation.
Three Types of Writing in the Bible
In The Poetics of Biblical Narrative, Hebrew scholar Meir Sternberg formulates a very helpful framework for looking at the Bible. He theorizes that you can break down the Bible into three types of writing:
In many — if not most — Biblical passages, you may find all three types of writing converging at once. The Bible is a religious book, and it is a rare passage that does not make an explicit or implicit comment on how to live spiritually and morally in the world. Secondly, one of the distinctive features of the Bible is the consistency with which its authors place events in real-life history.
In other words, the Bible is a book unlike most you’ll find in literature courses — a diverse hybrid that mixes history, religion, and literature. In any given passage of the Bible, typically you can identify which type of material dominates.
For example, turn to the story of Ehud’s assassination of Eglon in Judges 3 (pages 372-374 in The Harper Collins Study Bible). Here is how it breaks down:
- Verses 1-6: Historical
- Verses 7-11: Theological
- Verses 15-30: Literary
As you read the Bible, bear in mind that passages that are primarily literary often have historical and theological material. Likewise, even in the parts of the Bible that are not specifically “literary,” the authors may use literary techniques like figurative language and a narrative thread.
The Bible’s Value as Literature
“The events as told in the Scriptures have a value quite apart from their religious significance: a value as literature. They tell of mankind’s experience at its most moving and most memorable in words that go beyond mere chronicle: words that strike the heart and light up the vision.” — Paul Roche, The Bible’s Greatest Stories
Approaching the Bible as Literature
Given that the Bible is such a unique amalgam of literature, religion, and history, what does it mean to take a literary approach to the book?
It is all too easy to pay lip service to the idea that the Bible is literature and then read it as though it were a history or theology book. A better way to read the Bible as literature is to look at the Bible as an interpretive portrayal of human experience in artistic form.
How can you do this? Read the book and ask questions of the text:
- What recognizable human experiences are portrayed in this text?
- What interpretation of human experience is expressed?
- Does the passage fall into one or more standard literary genres?
- What is the artistic style of the passage? What use does the passage make of literary techniques like metaphor, simile, word play, and the like?
If you want to try your hand at applying these questions to a passage, look again at the story of Ehud’s assassination of Eglon in Judges 3:12-30, or read the nature poem Psalm 104 (pages 896-7 in The Harper Collins Study Bible).
The question of what makes the Bible literature has been much discussed, debated, and written about. If you’re interested in exploring the subject further, click on the link below for a list of recommended reading.
Having constructed a working definition of literature (no small feat, incidentally), you are ready to begin a journey of discovery through the many literary genres in the Bible, starting with the most popular of them all: the Bible story.
Assignment: What Makes the Bible Literature?
For an introduction to the Bible and the question of what literature is, read pages 11-32 of How to Read the Bible as Literature.