The Bible as Literature

I’ve been reading through the Bible cover-to-cover for what is in some ways the first time in my life. I read all the books of the Bible for seminary (even translated a few) and growing up we read through the whole Bible every morning, randomly jumping around from book to book. But I can’t recall ever starting in Genesis 1:1 and persevering through all 66 books in conventional order.

It’s been absolutely FANTASTIC.

I’ve been journaling through the whole process, but rarely blogging. And it’s killing me! Because this stuff is too good not to share. So my hope in coming weeks and months is to be more vocal and hopefully spark some dialog along the way.

The thing that makes this reading so unique is it’s the first time I’ve really read the Bible as literature. I remember as a student hearing that CMU had a class by that name, and shuddering at how liberal and godless it must have been. The Bible is so much more than that, I thought. Sure the Bible is literature, but so what?

Seminary quickly taught me the answer.

I don’t believe the Bible is mere literature, I believe it’s true. But whatever you think of its divine origins, you have to agree that it’s nothing less than great literature. And recognizing that it is great literature opens up so much more of the Bible’s meaning.

You don’t have to major in English to experience the joy of this dimension of study. But I did. And what a huge blessing! I’m seeing connections I never saw before, like what I wrote last year about the Mountain of God. Or then there are recurring themes like the way “the LORD, God of our fathers” provides backbone to 2 Chronicles (post forthcoming). You see similarities between characters and situations and responses. You see irony and dramatic turns and lots of foreshadowing. You see things you might never otherwise expect.

I think the main reason I couldn’t see the Bible this way before is because I’ve always approached Scripture one of two ways. Either 1) I’m looking for practical moral instruction for today and trying to merge my world with the world of the chapter or verse, or 2) I’m looking for doctrinal premises on which to build my theology.

Now let me be clear: both are excellent things to do with Scripture. I believe there is truth for all times, and it takes wisdom to know how to apply things of the past to the present, whether ethically or ontologically. But before you can extract and apply you have to understand the text as it is first.

I came to see this clearly after studying Augustine and familiarizing myself with the medieval ways of reading, but as I sit here now I realize that lots of my professors were trying to beat this into my head but I didn’t have ears to hear.

You see, Augustine writes in his De doctrina christiana that before we can move to the spiritual sense of the text (which if remember correctly includes [or will come to include] the two approaches I mentioned above) we must correctly understand the literal sense of the text. For example, you can’t identify Abraham offering up Isaac on Mt. Moriah with the Father offering up Jesus at Golgotha until you understand each of them in their own right. Only once you grasp both situations can you draw the connections.

This is so basic to language I think it often escapes our notice. You can’t say “tight as a drum” unless you know what a drum is and what it means for it to be tight. The metaphorical (simile-ical?) is rooted in the plain.

Often my professors would say things like, “Josh you need to bracket your theology and just read the text.” What I heard based on other questions I was wrestling with was, “Josh, read objectively, without the bias of faith.” (Perhaps sometimes that was closer to what some meant.) But I now think at least some of them were trying to say, “Josh, get a firm grasp of the text in its own right before you begin prodding it with spiritual questions.”

Now whatever he may have advocated, Augustine was not shy about interpreting the Bible spiritually, often in ways we’d be really uncomfortable with today. And I’m not saying we stop at a literalistic understanding of Scripture either. But I do think if we want to interpret correctly, we need to understand the plain meaning first, and that means embracing the literary majesty of Scripture.

At this point it would be awesome if I had tools to give you if you wanted to dive in. I don’t have many. But the book we used in seminary was Ryken’s How to Read the Bible as Literature. It seemed pretty redundant for someone who already had a degree in literature, but I suspect that means it’s exactly what you’re looking for if you majored in something less holy but infinitely more employable like chemistry or marketing. (Wink, wink.)

Also, I’ve just been made aware of some new reader’s editions of the Bible that try to make it easier to read the Bible as literature, for example the new ESV Reader’s Bible (which I haven’t explored yet, myself). Maybe worth a look.

One final note: a great many scholars, including a growing number of people who identify themselves as evangelicals, understand the literary nature of Scripture in a way that undermines the historicity of its accounts. I am not one of them. Just as it is more than literature but not less, so also is the Bible more than history—but not less.

4 thoughts on “The Bible as Literature”

  1. I would also recommend tweaking the order. For literary reading I’d say using the traditional Hebrew bible order for the OT. As for the NT, I’m not sure what order should be used but it seems that maintaining author groupings would be best (Luke-Acts, etc.). Although the same might be said about Jeremiah and Lamentations, which are separated in the traditional order.

    I guess the bottom line is that there are several ways to read it as literature, enough to do so repeatedly, just as we do ‘devotionally’ or ‘theologically’.

    1. Good points. Trying different orders (leaving aside the issue of one being right and another wrong) no doubt gives us many different vantage points from which to see. Even so, I suppose just knowing the way the books relate to each other helps keep things in perspective. Just being aware that Luke-Acts was probably one book and definitely one author puts you in the right frame of mind whether or not you take a detour through John.

      1. But think how much could be lost from reading a two volume work by C. S. Lewis on WI & II by stopping in the middle to read Tolkien’s account of the first war. Facts would be the same, but narrative emphasis would be different. And the disjointed reading would impede the natural intuition inherent in narrative. Instead, we should envelope ourselves into the story in keeping with the author’s intention.

        (I’ve run out of ‘in’ words and the kids need to go to bed.)

        1. I guess in my mind it depends on how long the interruption is. Many of us read multiple books at the same time, or more often watch many different TV shows. I think it’s easy enough to keep different narratives straight with a little effort. Again, I think the most important thing is that we know before we read that it IS an interruption so we can pay the books the attention they deserve.
          As for the author’s intention, I’m wrestling with that right now. I’m not sure it works as a blanket statement; some intentions may be worth pursuing and others worth ignoring. Not sure yet.

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