Reading the Bible as Literature

photo (2)I have an exercise for all of you today. Read the following quotes from Shakespeare and try to determine what the phrase means in the play, using your memory of the literary context. I tried to pick plays that have been made into movies so even if you have not read them, you may be familiar with the context.

 “Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio; a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy.”

                                                                          From Hamlet (V, i, 203-204)

“Then must you speak
Of One that lov’d not wisely but too well.”

                                                                          From Othello (V, ii, 343-344)

“Out, damned spot! out, I say!”

                                                                          From Macbeth (V, i, 38)

“Oh, I am fortune’s fool!”

                                                                          From Romeo and Juliet (III, i, 141)

If you were familiar with even a few of these quotes, you probably realized that the literary context is a vital key for determining what the phrase means. In the Othello quote, you may be able to ascertain that the speaker had trouble in his love life, but without the full story, you miss the anguish and irony in the statement Othello makes before he kills himself in guilt because he has suffocated his innocent wife Desdemona. We lose much of the artistry and significance of the lines without a clear idea of the overarching story and context.

The same is true of reading the Bible without paying attention to the literary context.

In the last 30 years, many Bible scholars have begun to realize the value of applying the principles and  methods typically used on literature to the study of the Bible. It makes sense that the Bible, which is a collection of various types of literature, should be studied as literature. There is much to gain from this enterprise. Literary criticism of the Bible (or studying the Bible as literature) makes many positive contributions to our understanding of the biblical text:

  •  Literary criticism takes seriously the narrative qualities of the biblical literature, which is especially helpful in the Gospels because each author narrates the life of Jesus using  various literary styles and unique story-telling techniques.
  • Literary criticism pays attention to the author and audience of each book, which help us to better appreciate the writer’s message and the situation of the first recipients. For example, when reading Philippians, it is important to note the tone that Paul uses because it alerts us to the strong, long-standing relationship he has enjoyed with that church and further deepens our understanding of his message to them.
  • Literary criticism appreciates the creativity and skill of the human author. As Christians, we recognize the divine and human authorship of the Bible. As a rule, we tend to emphasize the divine part of the authorship (“What is God saying?”) and ignore the human part (“How is the author saying this?). But the fact is that God chose some very talented communicators to pen the Scriptures and when we appreciate the artistry of an author, we can discover new and exciting dimensions to the biblical narrative. How many of us notice that Matthew brilliantly structures his Gospel in five sections in order to make a connection between Jesus’ teaching and the five books of Moses (the Pentateuch)? Only those who pay attention to that literary technique.
  • Literary criticism emphasizes the importance of reading a book as a whole unit rather than dissecting it into pieces. Understanding the themes, plot, characters, and structure of a book highlights an author’s overarching message, which is key to understanding the separate parts! In the church, however, we tend to miss the themes and structure of a book because we like to rip Bible verses out of their context. How many plaques have you seen with verses like, “For I know the plans I have for you…” and “I can do all things through Christ…”? We love our biblical sound bites! However, we are in great danger of biblical misinterpretation when we divorce a verse from the paragraph it appears in or the book in which it is found.

Clearly, studying the Bible as literature can introduce a world of new meaning and application into our study of the Bible. But recognizing this fact is only the first step. In order to begin practicing literary criticism, we have to dust off skills we learned in high school English. Here are a few of my own practical strategies that may help you start reading the Bible as literature:

1. Keep the themes of the book in mind when studying a passage (for example, as you read the Gospel of John, you will notice that he uses the themes of light/darkness, life/death, belief/unbelief, and blindness/seeing)

2. Look at people in the story as characters, formed and described with a purpose (one good place to start is to look at the disciples in the Gospel of Mark—how does the author describe them?)

3. Pay attention to the immediate and overall context of a passage— What comes before? What comes after? Where does it fit in the larger context of the book?

4. Put yourself in the place of the first-century reader and try to notice devices like conflict, irony, and point of view.

5. Look for symbols, patterns, and references to culture or other literature of the time (this is called intertextuality)

My challenge for you is to read a passage of Scripture this week and try to read it using  some of the strategies I described above. For some, this will be difficult because it is not how many of us were taught to read the Bible. For others, who enjoy literature and have practiced this on Shakespeare or American novels, it will be easier. But try it and let me know how it goes.

If you are interested in reading more about literary criticism, here are some good sources:

Mark Allan Powell. What is Narrative Criticism? Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1990.

Joel B. Green, ed. Hearing the New Testament. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans, 1995

David Alan Black and David S. Dockery, eds. Interpreting the New Testament. Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2001.

David Rhoads and Donald Michie. Mark as Story. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1982.

R. Alan Culpepper. Anatomy of the Fourth Gospel. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1983.

Jack Dean Kingsbury. Matthew as Story. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986.

Robert C. Tannehill. The Narrative Unity of Luke-Acts: a literary interpretation. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986.