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5 Strategies for Reading the Bible as Literature

We posted last week on the Literary Study Bible, now available on ESVBible.org. In the preface of this resource, editors Leland and Philip Ryken say that “when we read the Bible, literary considerations are not optional features to which we might attend only if we have an interest in literary matters”.

In other words, if we really want to understand the Bible, we need to understand the Bible as a literary work. Adapted from the Literary Study Bible‘s introduction, here are 5 strategies, in the editors’ own words, for reading the Bible as literature:

1. In any reading of a biblical text, give precedence to its literary mechanisms and implications.

“A certain priority needs to be given to literary form – not a priority of importance but a priority in the sense of what comes first. To approach the Bible as literature . . . is not like dessert – something pleasurable to add to more important aspects of the Bible. The literary approach is the first item on the agenda – the starting point for other approaches to the Bible.”

2. Understand the many literary genres of the Bible and be able to identify them in the texts.

“The importance of genre to biblical interpretation is that genres have their own methods of procedure and rules of interpretation. An awareness of genre should program our encounter with a text, alerting us to what we can expect to find.”

3. Appreciate the beauty and artistry of biblical passages.

“Literature is an art form in which beauty of expression, craftsmanship, and verbal virtuosity are valued as rewarding and as an enhancement of effective communication. . . . Authors cultivate artistry like this because it is important to their effect and intention. The Bible is an aesthetic as well as a utilitarian book, and we need to experience it as such, both for our understanding and for our enjoyment.”

4. Use a literary approach to the Bible to assist other approaches.

“A literary approach seeks to complement other approaches, not to replace them. It is appropriate to say again, however, that the literary forms of the Bible are the means through which the content is expressed, and this means that literary analysis has a particular priority as the only adequate starting point for other kinds of analysis.”

5. Realize the Bible as a literary work speaks to concrete human experience.

“The subject of literature is human experience rendered as concretely as possible. The result is that it possesses a universal quality. Whereas history and the daily news tell us what happened, literature tells us what happens – what is true for all people in all places and times. . . . While we rightly think of the Bible as revelatory (God’s supernatural revelation of truth), the literary parts of the Bible are at the same time the human race’s testimony to its own experience.”

The Literary Study Bible is available in both a print edition as well as in an online module hosted at ESVBible.org.

July 13, 2011 | Posted in: Uncategorized | Author: Andrew Tebbe @ 9:00 am | (2) Comments »


  1. Yes, we do need to understand the Bible as a literary work. For a surprise, do a search: First Scandal.

    Comment by Robert Hagedorn — July 13, 2011 @ 5:33 pm

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