Four Things That Make the Bible Literary
The answer to the question, “What does it mean that the Bible is literature?” is, of course, a big topic. I’m going to give a mid-level answer by mentioning four things that make the Bible literary.
1. It consists of literary genres.
The one that is obvious and provable is that the Bible consists of literary genres; that is the easiest way by which to identify a text as literary. The big genres in the Bible are narrative or story, poem, vision, and epistle. We know that the Bible is a literary book because it consists of literary genres.
2. It highlights a universal and recognizable human experience.
Secondly, the subject of every work of literature is universal and recognizable human experience. Now if that’s an unusual or new way of looking at the content of the Bible, I would encourage my listeners to operate on the premise that that is true, and that the subject of literature is human experience. Then observe what opens up as they start to read the Bible in terms of that.
Combining 1,200+ study notes related to the literary features of the Bible, the ESV Literary Study Bible helps readers understand God’s Word more fully, in all its richness and beauty.
3. It shows rather than telling.
Thirdly, and as a correlative to that, it’s a cliché in writing and literature courses to say that the task of a literary author is to show rather than to tell. To tell in this context means to stay, abstractly, as an idea; to show means to embody or incarnate. So let’s use the sixth commandment which tells us abstractly, “You shall not murder” as an example of telling, and the story of Cain as an example of showing. The same truth emerges from both of those, but the story of Cain takes us through experience. It is filled with recognizable human experiences: harboring a grudge and giving in to an evil impulse. In fact, in the classroom, I stand in front of the whiteboard and ask students, “What are the recognizable experiences?” and the list runs to twenty. So it’s full of universal human experience, concretely embodied. Novelist John Steinback said famously, “The story of Cain is the signature story of the human race because it is everyone’s story.” That’s what I’m driving at here.
“The story of Cain is the signature story of the human race because it is everyone’s story.”
4. It showcases literature as an art form.
Fourthly, literature is definable as an art form. Its medium is words, but it possesses all the qualities that we associate with art and craft.
So a work of literature is literary by virtue of being embodied in literary genre, taking universal human experience as its subject, showing rather than telling, and being embodied in a form that we would call artistic.
Leland Ryken is a general editor of the ESV Literary Study Bible.
What could be more important than teaching your kids to read the Bible? What better habit would you want them to have?
How can we establish healthy Bible-reading habits so that we are connected to God, have a God-centered worldview, grow in confident faith, and enjoy spiritual peace and confidence?
What are the literary qualities of Scripture and why should we not just read the Bible for what it says, but for how it says it?
When the Bible gives us literary subject matter, that subject matter is present through the agency of divine inspiration. The same is true of the genres and forms of the Bible.