(This was originally published in The Banner, February 11, 2001, pp. 24-26. This version is my original version prior to editorial revisions.)
While preparing to write this article, I started to read a book on the literature of the Bible. As I read, I came across handwritten notes on a piece of paper left behind in the book by a previous reader. Now, I am not usually one to read such notes and scribbles. But the note begins with a question, “Does the fact that the Biblical authors consciously used literary forms in their books mitigate against the claim of Biblical inerrancy?” I was intrigued. This reader is concerned that claiming the Bible as literature would undermine its truth claims. As I read on, it became clear to me that the reader is worried about protecting the Bible’s factual accuracy. For example, the reader wrote: “The [Biblical] author took the facts and unfolded them in such a skillful way as to make the reading of them exciting. The facts are unaltered.”
I used to have the same fear myself. But now I think that fear is unfounded. This fear is rooted in a narrow view of truth and a mistaken view of literature. We do not need to worry about taking seriously the Bible’s literary nature. Seeing the Bible as literature does not mean we have to worry about defending its truth claims. In fact, recognizing its literary forms would help us interpret the Bible better.
Truth, Facts and Literature
We tend to react in a knee-jerk way when we think of the Bible as literature partly because we have been taught that literature and the fine arts do not convey truth. Over the course of the Age of Enlightenment, truth has been reduced to mere facts. That which is factual, which can be verified by empirical methods, has a stronger claim to be true than that which is not. While this view of truth was growing dominant, science was rising in stature as the dominant field in which truth will be found. Eventually, the only legitimate way for discovering truth was the scientific, inductive method.
As a result, people began to see literature and the fine arts as merely means of individual expression and pleasure and the sciences as the real sources of truth. This way of looking at truth also affected the way we look at writing styles.
In the late 16th century, the poet Sir Philip Sidney could say that literature’s role was both to teach and delight. But by the late 17th century, Sir Thomas Sprat of the Royal Society of London, a society for promoting scientific thinking and knowledge, complained that literary imageries and metaphors only cloud the truth. Sprat, instead, championed for a scientific writing style, devoid of any literary devices, that is appropriate for presenting scientific truth. From then onwards, people increasingly regarded literary forms as merely to please, and not to teach. In contrast, the propositional statement was held as the only proper form for conveying truth or facts.
We can see how this view has affected Biblical studies. Most evangelicals claim that God’s truths are revealed to us in propositions, e.g. God exists, God loves us, Jesus Christ is God, etc. And these propositions are in the Bible. Hence, the literary aspects of the Bible are merely window dressing to illustrate and to embellish those propositions. Therefore, when Christians study and interpret the Bible, we are taught to only look for the propositional truths hidden in the Biblical stories, poems and parables. We regard the Bible’s literary forms as not essential to understanding the message. Often, the only exception to this rule is when the literal interpretation doesn’t make sense.
Recent developments in literary and communication studies, however, show that this split between literary form and content is mistaken. How something is said also affects what is being said. A simple everyday example is that of a joke or a tease. When I first arrived in Canada as a foreign student, I had to adjust to the cultural conventions of “teasing”. I had to learn both verbal and non-verbal signals and clues that tell me when a person is being friendly by poking some good-natured fun at me and is not being malicious by mocking or insulting me. Recognizing the form of the message as a joke or tease helps me to interpret and respond to the message correctly. Otherwise, I would be causing a lot of unnecessary embarrassment and hurt feelings!
Literary scholars and philosophers also recognize now the importance of metaphorical thinking in our lives. Christian philosopher Arthur F. Holmes (in an essay in Imagination and the Spirit, Eerdmans 1971, pp. 3-24) argues that very few uses of language are purely factual. Most statements involve some kind of metaphorical or literary device. Take, for instance, this simple matter of fact statement: “Canada and the United States went to the polls this past fall.” You are mistaken if you think this is a purely factual statement without any literary or poetic devices. “Canada”, “the United States” and “went to the polls” are all short cut phrases used to mean something more, such as, “the registered voters of the nations of Canada and the United States voted to elect members of parliament or congress”. These short cuts are literary tools. It is the same tool when Shakespeare, for instance, used “Winter” to represent old age or when a Biblical author used “Jerusalem” to represent the whole nation of Israel.
Such literary and poetic devices are so common in our everyday use of language that we have forgotten that they are even there. Everyday clichés are very often worn out metaphors. For instance, nobody is literally “burnt out” when they feel tired and stressed from too much work!
The difference between a poem, a novel, a textbook and a newspaper article is a matter of degrees. The type of literature that English classes choose to study uses literary devices far more frequently, self-consciously and creatively than the more common writings do. Hence, Sir Thomas Sprat’s ideal of a purely factual writing style is near impossible. This also means that poetic language can convey truth, and has been for centuries, even as it provides pleasure and enjoyment.
Thus, recognizing that the Bible is literature should not make us worry about its ability to convey truth to us. But, you may ask, is the Bible literature?
Is The Bible Literature?
Calling the Bible literature is saying that it is closer to novels and poetry than to history textbooks and newspaper reports. Most Christians find this uncomfortable and rightly so. To say that the Bible is only literature, as just another fictional story, would undermine the Christian faith. But the Bible is not simply a historical document either, as so many Christians treat it. In the Bible, historical events are never reported simply for the sake of getting the facts straight. Historical events are told to make a theological or religious point. Reading the Bible’s historical narratives in order to learn historical facts is like reading a chemistry textbook to learn how to write well. You will still learn something about ancient Israel’s history but you would have missed the point of the book, the purpose for which it was written.
The Bible is divinely inspired literature with the purpose of bringing us God’s message of salvation in all its breadth and depth. But, as literature, we have to admit the possibility that the Biblical authors, under the Holy Spirit’s guidance, may use poetic license to tell their story in order to clarify a point. The facts could have been altered.
John Calvin recognized this about the Gospels especially. For Calvin, the authors of the Gospels had not written “in such a way as always to preserve the exact order of events, but rather to bring everything together so as to place before us a kind of mirror or screen on which the most useful things of Christ could be known” (quoted in John Calvin: A Sixteenth-Century Portrait by William Bouwsma, Oxford UP, 1988, pp. 121-122).
Take for example the Sermon on the Mount account. Matthew’s gospel records that Jesus delivered the sermon on a mountainside (Matthew 5). But in Luke’s account, the sermon was delivered on a level place (Luke 6:17). If we see these as pure historical documents, we would have to use great imaginations to harmonize the two accounts. But if we view the gospels as literature, we would ask why the two authors chose different settings for the same sermon. The answer comes when we see that Matthew, in writing to a Jewish audience, constantly draws analogies between Jesus’ life and the Old Testament. In Matthew’s account, Jesus delivers the sermon soon after his forty days in the wilderness (Matthew 4). Thus, Matthew is drawing an analogy between Jesus’ sermon about God’s law on the mount and Moses’ receiving God’s law on Mount Sinai. Luke, however, did not feel the need to make the analogy since he has a different purpose and audience.
The New Testament epistles are probably the least literary of all the Biblical texts but that does not mean they are without literary techniques or devices. Each epistle employs an abundance of poetic language, metaphors and rhetorical patterns. For example, consider Ephesians 6:11-17 where military armor wear is used to explain spiritual reality. Or consider 1 Corinthians 12:12-31 where the human body is a metaphor for the communion of saints and Christ. Or even something as simple as “the fruit of the Spirit” (Galatians 5:22). Each of these metaphors is very closely entwined with its meanings. It is hard, for instance, to think about church unity apart from the body metaphor. Besides, the body metaphor conveys a very specific understanding of church unity that another metaphor may not be able to.
Examples of Reading the Bible as Literature
How does viewing the Bible as literature help us interpret its message better? If we recognize the Bible as literature, we can employ the tools of literary analysis to interpret it. By identifying the literary devices used in any given passage, we can more accurately determine its meaning. I have space here to show only a few brief examples.
I have been to Bible studies with evangelicals who interpreted 1 Corinthians 13:1 – “If I speak in the tongue of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal” (NRSV) – as proof and support for the phenomena of speaking in a heavenly language or in an angelic tongue. After all, the reasoning goes, the apostle Paul admits to doing it. But this kind of interpretation misses the point of the rhetorical pattern of verses 1 to 3.
The point of the passage is to emphasize the importance of love. The passage increases in intensity and emphasis as it moves through the list of charismatic gifts from speaking in tongues to the giving away of all possessions, even of one’s own body. The word “all” – as in, “all mysteries,” “all knowledge,” “all faith,” and “all possessions” – is repeatedly contrasted to “nothing”. Considered in this context, the “if” clause becomes more emphatic. Because when you think about it, the apostle Paul has never claimed elsewhere to understand all mysteries and have all knowledge or all faith. Nowhere is it recorded that he has moved mountains or gave away all his possessions or gave his body to be burned. Clearly, exaggeration is being used here to make a point. This literary device is called hyperbole. Therefore, within the rhetorical strategy being used, it makes more sense to read verse 1 as saying: “Even if I could speak in all languages – tongues of mortals and of angels (which I could not) – I am only making noise if I do not have love”. Thus, this passage actually does not support the phenomena of speaking in unknown ‘heavenly’ tongues.
Another example of hyperbole is Matthew 5:18 where Jesus says, “For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.” Many Christians think this means that everything in the Bible, down to the very last pen stroke, is directly inspired by God, as opposed to the Bible’s overall message and content being divinely inspired. But Jesus here is using hyperbole to drive home a point. The single letter or stroke symbolizes that which seems to be insignificant or unimportant in God’s law. Jesus is saying here that every part of God’s law, even the parts that seem most insignificant, are important and cannot be dismissed. This interpretation makes sense when you consider the verse that follows it: “Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven” (verse 19).
Many Christians tend to forget that the proverb is a literary form. The proverbial form is very popular among Biblical writers in both Old and New Testaments. For example, Matthew 11:30, “For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light;” and Galatians 6:7, “for you reap whatever you sow.” Of course, the largest concentration of proverbs in the Bible is found in the book of Proverbs. A proverb is defined as a concise, memorable statement of truth by means of a typical example. Thus, they are not meant to be theoretically accurate statements of truth. For instance, Proverbs 22:6 states, “Train children in the right way, and when old, they will not stray.” Sadly, fundamentalist Christians often turn this proverb into a mathematical equation, insisting that there must always be poor parenting whenever a child goes astray in later years.
A proverb is like a general rule of thumb. It is not meant to address every single case without exceptions. We do not, for example, apply Proverbs 31:6-7 – “Give strong drink to one who is perishing, and wine to those in bitter distress; let them drink and forget their poverty, and remember their misery no more” – uncritically! But so many Christians read Proverbs 31:10-31 as a Biblical standard and ideal for Christian wives. This passage is ordered poetically in an acrostic manner. Each verse begins with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet, making it pleasing and memorable to the Hebrew ear. And like any other proverb, these verses are worded to be memorable, not theoretically accurate. They are not ideals for women to imitate but are poetic lines emphasizing the joys and benefits of having “a capable wife” (verse 10).
My final example is the often-misunderstood story of the tower of Babel. God’s confusion of language at Babel is traditionally seen as a sign of the sinfulness of diverse languages (and by extension, diverse cultures). But a key literary technique that Christians often miss when reading this story is that of allusion. An allusion is a reference, whether explicit or indirect, to a well-known person, place, event or another literary text or passage. In the tower of Babel narrative (Genesis 11:1-9), there are allusions to Genesis 1.
In the Babel story, the phrase, “let us [do something]” is repeated four times: “Come, let us make bricks” (verse 3), “Come, let us build ourselves a city . . . let us make a name for ourselves” (verse 4) and “Come, let us go down . . .” (verse 7). Such repetitions usually mean that the author wants us to take notice. I believe this is refers to Genesis 1 where God repeatedly says, “Let there be [something]” culminating in verse 26: “Let us make humankind in our image . . .” This allusion points to the Babel story as a kind of anti-Creation narrative. We are asked as readers to think back to the Creation narrative and to contrast it with the Babel story.
But what are the Babel builders trying to create? The progression from bricks, to city, to a name for themselves suggests that they are trying to create their own world, their own community, and their own identities, all apart from God. The Genesis author wants us to laugh at the Babel builders as we contrast their pathetic creation project with God’s majestic creation in Genesis 1. From the simple technology of making bricks, the people of Babel begin to have delusions of grandeur!
Another phrase that is repeated, three times, in the Babel story is the phrase, “scattered abroad upon the face of the earth.” It is repeated in verses 4 (“otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth”), 8 (“So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth . . .”) and 9 (“and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth”). Part of God’s blessing to humanity in Genesis 1:28 – “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it;” and repeated in the covenant with Noah (Genesis 9:1) – is to fill the earth that God created for his creatures. But filling the earth, scattering themselves over all the earth, is precisely what the Babel builders refuse to do. Indirectly, the author of Genesis highlights to us the Babel builders’ sinful rebellion against God’s creation mandate.
But God still finds a way to fulfill his purpose for humanity. God scatters them over all the face of the earth by confusing their language. The language confusion is, therefore, both a judgment against sin and a blessing in disguise. Since the one language and one culture of humanity has become a culture of rebellion, God created a multi-lingual and multi-cultural world to better fulfill his plans for humanity.
Identifying the literary allusions at work in the story sheds light to the meaning of the Babel narrative as a whole. This, in turn, helps us to see that God’s confusion of language here is not simply negative, but also has a positive side to it, as it helps fulfills part of God’s original mandate for humanity.
I believe we need to apply literary analysis to our study of the Scriptures. But literary interpretation should not replace the traditional historical and grammatical interpretations. Scholars should still study the meanings of the original Greek and Hebrew. Historical backgrounds will still shed light to a text’s meaning. Literary interpretation of the Bible should complement these other approaches, filling in a gap in our Biblical interpretive methods.
If I ever have the chance to meet the reader who wrote that note in the book I read, I would like to reassure him/her that even if the facts were altered, the Bible’s salvation message is still reliable and truthful. The Bible is not merely a repository of facts but a powerful work of literature conveying deep truths. To paraphrase the 17th century poet-priest George Herbert, the Scriptures do not only inform our minds but also inflame our hearts. Its literary nature is partly the reason why it still speaks as strongly today as it did centuries ago.