Reading and Interpreting the Bible as Literature
Any piece of writing needs to be assimilated and interpreted in terms of the kind of writing that it is. The Bible is a literary book in which theology and history are usually embodied in literary forms. Those forms include genres, the expression of human experience in concrete form, stylistic and rhetorical techniques, and artistry.
These literary features are not extraneous aspects of the text—not optional matters to consider if we have time or interest to do so after we have assimilated the message or content of a passage. Instead, they are the forms through which the content is mediated. If the writing of the Bible is the product of divine inspiration—if it represents what the Holy Spirit prompted the authors to write as they were carried along (2 Pet. 1:21)—then the literary forms of the Bible have been inspired by God and need to be granted an importance in keeping with that inspiration.
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.
Before we can embrace a literary approach to the Bible with enthusiasm, we of course need to be relieved of anxieties about viewing the Bible as literature. Resistance to viewing the Bible as literature has rested on misconceptions about what literature is, both in itself and as it relates to the Bible. Below are five false characterizations that have prevailed in some Christian and non-Christian circles, accompanied by an explanation of why the allegations are untrue.
Fallacy #1: Viewing the Bible as Literature Betrays a Liberal Theological Bias
It is untrue that viewing the Bible as literature means automatically adopting a liberal theological attitude toward the Bible. A survey of commentators who conduct literary analysis of the Bible shows the same range of viewpoint, from conservative to liberal, that other approaches to the Bible manifest. There is nothing inherent in a literary approach that requires a liberal perspective. In fact, it is entirely possible to begin a literary analysis of the Bible exactly where all study of the Bible should begin—by accepting as true all that biblical writers say about the Bible (its inspiration by God, its reliability, its complete truthfulness, etc.).
We need to remind ourselves that it is possible to approach the Bible theologically and miss the mark of truth, too. Theologizing by itself is no guarantee of truth. There has been as much false theology as there has been true theology, so a literary approach to the Bible is neither more nor less suspect than a theological approach.
Fallacy #2: The Idea of the Bible as Literature Is a Modern Idea That Is Foreign to the Bible Itself
The idea of the Bible as literature began with the Bible itself. The writers of the Bible refer with technical precision to a whole range of literary genres in which they write—proverb, saying, chronicle, complaint (lament psalm), oracle, apocalypse, parable, song, epistle, and many another.
Furthermore, some of the forms that we find in the Bible correspond to the literary forms that were current in the authors’ surrounding cultures. For example, the Ten Commandments are cast into the form of suzerainty treaties that ancient Near Eastern kings imposed on their subjects, and the New Testament Epistles, despite unique features, show many affinities to Greek and Roman letters of the same era.
Mainly, though, we can look to the Bible itself to see the extent to which it is a literary book. Virtually every page of the Bible is replete with literary technique, and to possess the individual texts of the Bible fully, we need to read the Bible as literature, just as we need to read it theologically and (in the narrative parts) historically.
Fallacy #3: To Speak of the Bible as Literature Is to Claim That the Bible Is Fictional
While fictionality is common in literature, it is not an essential ingredient of literature. The properties that make a text literary are unaffected by the historicity or fictionality of the material. A text is literary based on a writer’s selectivity and molding of the material and the style of presentation, regardless of whether the details really happened or are made up.
Nor does the presence of convention and artifice in the Bible necessarily imply fictionality. The modern television genre of docudrama is filled with conventions (interviews of people, film clips of events, material from archives) that do not detract from the factuality of the account.
The Bible requires multiple approaches, and the literary approach is one of them.
Fallacy #4: To Approach the Bible as Literature Means Approaching It Only as Literature
Some people resist embracing the concept of the Bible as literature out of the fear that to speak of the Bible as literature necessarily means paying attention only to the Bible’s literary features and ignoring its more important aspects. But the same argument might be used to preclude a study of the history or language of the Bible, since with these approaches, too, a person might remain fixed on those aspects only.
To analyze the Bible as literature need not entail abandoning the special authority that Christians ascribe to the Bible or the expectation that God will speak to us through it. Nor does it necessarily mean that the reader will not pay equal attention to other aspects of the Bible—its history, its language, its theology, its sociology, its psychology. The Bible requires multiple approaches, and the literary approach is one of them. A theological approach to the Bible by itself is incomplete. 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.
Fallacy #5: To Say That the Bible Is Literature Denies its Divine Inspiration
If we believe in the inspiration of the Bible by the Holy Spirit, we believe that whatever we find in the Bible is what God wanted us to know and possess. We do not believe in the inspiration of the Bible because of the content that we find there. It is actually the other way around: we begin with the premise of inspiration, so that whatever is in the Bible is what God the Holy Spirit inspired the human authors to compose.
If God moved the writers of the Bible to write as they did, the only plausible inference is that God inspired the forms of the Bible. We should not say he inspired “the forms of the Bible as well as its content,” because the content is embodied in the forms. The three modes of writing that we find in the Bible— theological, historical, literary—are all equal in regard to inspiration. God inspired the writing of all three, and the writers of all three were equally dependent on inspiration by the Holy Spirit to write the truth.
Second Peter 1:21 tells us that the writers of Scripture wrote as they were “carried along by the Holy Spirit.” Thus when the Bible gives us literary subject matter—the concrete embodiment of human experience—that subject matter is present through the agency of divine inspiration. So are the genres and forms of the Bible. If God inspired some writers to tell stories, others to write poems, others to write satire or letters or visions, then those forms deserve attention in keeping with their inspired nature.
This article is adapted from the ESV Literary Study Bible.
The journey into faithful Christian learning in a liberal arts context involves the daring venture of whole-life discipleship in response to the Great Commandment.
As we read the Old and New Testaments through the lens of redemption in Christ, we will understand
the whole Bible as God wants us to.
Helping others understand the Bible and apply it to their lives is a great privilege and a great responsibility.
If we truly believe that our very spiritual lives depend on every word that comes from the mouth of God (Deut 8:3; Matt 4:4), we will make the time to study God’s Word.