Sunday, January 1, 2017

Reading the Bible as Literature: An Introduction

This year, one of my big projects is to read the Bible cover to cover. Everyone is welcome to watch my progress or read along with me. Sign up and schedule post is here.

Several people have approached me about the pros and cons of reading the Bible cover to cover instead of reading it in assigned excerpts in programs designed by professionals. Lots of people get bogged down in the genealogies, my friends say, and they quit. My answer to this is that cover to cover is not a great way to read the Bible for spiritual or historical approaches, but for a literary approach it makes sense to read each book as one literary unit. That way we can appreciate the style and story progression of each book. 

Many people think that reading the Bible as literature betrays a liberal bias, that it's foreign to the original intent, or that it implies the Bible is fiction and not divinely inspired. I say that the Bible is, by nature, a literary work. 

"Without literary form, no content can exist. We can not extract the moral or theological meaning of a story without first assimilating the plot, setting, and characters of the story." [1]

Thus a literary reading is a good place for anyone, conservative or liberal, antiquated or modern, theological or non-religious, to start. 

One very important starting point to reading the Bible as literature is to recognize that the Bible is a meta-narrative - it's an anthology of books written over many eras by people of different cultures and languages. But the overall structure of the Biblical narrative has a U shape: it tells an overall story, starting with paradise for the innocent (Eden), flowing through depths of sin and deprivation, and then ending in paradise for the faithful (Revelations). The Biblical anthology has many genres including the narrative (hero story, gospel, epic, tragedy, comedy, and parable) and poetic (lyric, lament, psalm, love poem, nature poem, wedding poem). Of these, the far most common is narrative. 

Over the next two weeks, I'm going to read the book of Genesis, which is an epic narrative. 
[1]Ryken & Ryken in their introduction to The Literary Study Bible


  1. You raise some really good points here.

    Of the course the Bible is literature. It is also philosophy and a description of a worldview. I will be looking at The Koran in a similar way soon.

    I think that it is OK to skip the genealogies :)

  2. I don't think a literary reading *has* to be by its very nature liberal. I don't. I think the Bible is made of 66 books and within those 66 books are many, many genres.

    But I guess my fear--natural or not--is that when people *only* see it as literature and strip away the sacredness of God-as-author. I think you can read it as sacred literature--equal parts sacred and literature. If an understanding of the literary elements help you see God better then that could be a good thing. But the Bible isn't only and exclusively literature.

    (Insert opinion: Unlike other works of literature it is divine and authoritative.)

    I will be reading the Bible through--several times--in various translations. And I look forward to reading your posts.

    One year-long plan I hope to follow is the M'Cheyne which has me reading 4 chapters a day in 4 different books of the Bible. Genesis, Matthew, Ezra, and Acts to start off with!

    I may do a Bible in 90 days plan in a month or two. That is SOMETHING you almost have to experience yourself to believe :)

  3. The English language is filled with snippets we use daily originating in the Bible. 'The patience of Job'(bearing a smth without complaint) or 'He is the salt of the earth' (embodying simplicity and moral integrity). I'd love to read some of these 'adages' if you find them in your reading! Happy New Year 2017!

  4. I'm curious about what interests everyone in this discussion. I've never approached the Bible in this way, and am looking forward to new insights. I also plan to use a JPS study Bible to begin to familiarize myself with a Jewish perspective on the Hebrew scriptures.