The Bible is the world’s most important piece of literature, and its literary forms serve a great purpose. How can we better understand that purpose?
The influence of the Bible on the development of Western literature is impossible to ignore. There are more than a thousand biblical references in the works of Shakespeare alone. Authors and poets such as John Milton, Charles Dickens, Matthew Arnold, William Wordsworth, Mark Twain, Robert Frost and Emily Dickinson shaped their literature with allusions and metaphors taken from the pages of the Bible.
The Holy Bible’s influence extends also to the language we speak, the laws we uphold, the names we have been given, the metaphors we use and the similes we employ for emphasis in our daily communications. To this day, we continue to hear biblical phrases like:
- “My brother’s keeper” (Genesis 4:9).
- “The salt of the earth” (Matthew 5:13).
- “A law unto themselves” (Romans 2:14, King James Version).
- “The powers that be” (Romans 13:1, KJV).
- “Filthy lucre” (1 Timothy 3:3, KJV).
- “Fight the good fight” (1 Timothy 6:12) and many, many more.
A book of books
The word Bible comes from the Greek word biblia, a plural noun that simply means “the books.” The modern English Bible consists of 66 books that about 40 men of diverse backgrounds were inspired to write over the course of 1,500 years.
In fact, the diversity of these men is quite remarkable. Consider just a few:
- Isaiah was a prophet.
- Ezra was a priest.
- Matthew was a tax collector.
- John was a fisherman.
- Paul was a tentmaker.
- Moses was a shepherd and a leader.
From a literary point of view, it is absolutely astonishing that despite having been written by so many different authors from so many different backgrounds over a period of 15 centuries, the Bible does not contradict itself and does not contain any errors as it was originally written. It contains remarkable unity.
As novelist Frederick Buechner wrote, “In spite of all its extraordinary variety, the Bible is held together by having a single plot” (Leland Ryken and Tremper Longman III, eds., A Complete Literary Guide to the Bible, 1993, p. 48).
Approaching the Bible as literature
The editors of A Complete Literary Guide to the Bible suggest asking the following questions when approaching a biblical passage: “What human experiences have been embodied in this text? To what genre(s) does this text belong, and how does an awareness of the relevant generic conventions guide our encounter with the text? What are the unifying patterns and structure of the text? What artistry does the text exhibit?” (p. 19).
Literature with a purpose
The Bible contains quite a few outstanding literary sections; however, a crucial point that is often overlooked today is that those sections were not specifically written for the sake of making good literature. The literature is, without exception, used for specific purposes. And those purposes are clearly expounded in many places in the Bible itself.
The apostle Paul, one of the Bible’s most prolific authors, succinctly recorded in 2 Timothy 3:16: “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness.”
This doesn’t mean that we don’t need to focus on background information such as when and why the biblical authors wrote. Nor should we ignore the specific literary methods they used to convey the essence of the Bible’s central message.
Understanding its context and history is important. It can be helpful to realize that the first book of the Bible was written about 3,500 years ago and the last book about 2,000 years ago. Since the last book was written, an explosion of scientific knowledge has occurred.
Along with the tremendous growth in technology, there have also been great changes in customs and languages. Our vocabulary now contains a host of words that simply did not exist when the Bible was being written.
Yet the human condition has not changed, and as great literature that stands the test of time, the Bible is not handicapped by its lack of modern terminology.
In fact, some even believe the scientific mind-set has had a detrimental effect on the power of modern language. The American essayist Logan Pearsall Smith shared this thought-provoking opinion in his book The English Language:
“Science is in many ways the natural enemy of language. Language, either literary or colloquial, demands a rich store of living and vivid words—words that are ‘thought-pictures’ and appeal to the senses, and also embody our feelings about the objects they describe. But science cares nothing about emotion or vivid presentation; her ideal is a kind of algebraic notation, to be used simply as an instrument of analysis; and for this she rightly prefers dry and abstract terms, taken from some dead language, deprived of all life and personality” (1912, pp. 124-125).
Powerful thought pictures
These “thought-pictures” that “appeal to the senses, and also embody our feelings about the objects they describe” are used powerfully in the poetic and literary sections of the Bible.
For example, the fourth chapter of the book of Luke provides an interesting example of how Jesus used the Scriptures. He made use of the power of words to make an impact on His audience, both in terms of His reading from the Scriptures and His subsequent explanation.
By way of a prologue, we read in this particular chapter that Jesus had traveled to Nazareth and, as His custom was, He went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day. In the synagogue Jesus indicated that He wanted to speak, according to the accepted custom at that time, by standing up.
After Jesus had stood up, the text continues: “And He was handed the book of the prophet Isaiah. And when He had opened the book, He found the place where it was written:
“‘The Spirit of the LORD is upon Me, because He has anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor; He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed; to proclaim the acceptable year of the LORD’” (Luke 4:17-19).
Jesus read directly from chapter 61 of the book of the prophet Isaiah, which was originally written in Hebrew poetry. Even in the English rendition, the poetic structure is still recognizable.
However, these verses weren’t written just for the poetry, nor did Jesus recite them specifically for their poetic beauty or impact. The prophet Isaiah had used poetry to convey the message, and Jesus’ audience was similarly aware of its style. But the message itself was what was most important.
As we read on, we begin to see the word picture develop before our eyes as this particular incident comes to its conclusion, or, to use a literary term, its denouement—a climax in which the whole matter is put in an all-inclusive perspective.
Luke records, “Then He [Jesus] closed the book, and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all who were in the synagogue were fixed on Him” (verse 20).
It is easy to picture the scene: All those in the synagogue at that time were staring at Jesus as if to say: “Why did You read this particular section of the prophet at this time and stop in the middle?”
The timing of the incident was crucial, even though the audience was unaware of it, making the denouement all the more effective.
“And He began to say to them, ‘Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing’” (verse 21).
This example of literature was not just beautiful for beauty’s sake. It was used to convey the importance of what Jesus declared in the synagogue at that time and, by extension, it was recorded for our better understanding.
The Bible also contains specific poetic works; in fact, the Bible contains no less than five specifically poetic books: Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and the Song of Solomon. In addition, much poetic phraseology can be found in many of the other books as well.
It is difficult to put in exact words the difference between biblical poetry and biblical prose because the dividing line can be unclear. While the Bible contains specific literary and poetic sections, we need to keep in mind that the primary purpose of the whole Bible is for God to reveal Himself and to communicate with us. True religion is based on the entire Word of God as it applies to the individual Christian as well as the Church.
We must always remember that whatever literary style is employed, the main purpose of God through the author is to get the message across. Hence the subject matter is the most important issue and the way in which the subject matter is expressed is secondary in the sense that it is used to make the subject matter primary.
For instance, the opening verse of Psalm 42 shows that even when the Bible uses a simile or metaphor in its poetry (referred to as emblematic parallelism), it is still evident that the message is paramount and the poetry is merely the vehicle.
“As the deer pants for the water brooks [simile],
“So pants my soul for You, O God.”
A lyrical paradox
Let’s consider one more example of the Bible as literature. It doesn’t take all that much imagination for the reader to picture the words of Psalm 8 being recited with the accompaniment of a harp. Biblical commentators refer to this psalm as a meditative poem accompanied by a melody. This observation suggests that David almost certainly sang this psalm while playing the lute or harp.
The first and last phrases of this poem are identical—they form a frame for profound ideas concerning God’s essential being and His work on earth.
“O LORD, our Lord,
“How excellent is Your name in all the earth,
“Who have set Your glory above the heavens!
“Out of the mouths of babes and nursing infants
“You have ordained strength,
“Because of Your enemies,
“That You may silence the enemy and the avenger” (verses 1-2).
Here David begins his meditation, which is also the beginning of a paradox:
“When I consider Your heavens, the work of Your fingers,
“The moon and the stars, which You have ordained,
“What is man that You are mindful of him,
“And the son of man that You visit him?” (verses 3-4).
This song and its paradox lead to an examination of God’s purpose for human life. (For more on this, see the article “Purpose of Life.”)
This kind of literature can have a powerful impact on the reader. We are urged to be “rightly dividing the word of truth” in 2 Timothy 2:15. The recognition and study of the various forms of biblical literature can not only help us appreciate the beauty of God’s Word, it can enhance our study of it as we seek to know God and apply His Word in our lives.
For more on gaining the most from your study of the Bible, see the article “How to Study the Bible.”