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The Bible as Literature

LITERATURE, THE BIBLE AS. The term “literature” has many aspects. Broadly it means a body of written works such as that of a people or nation in a certain period (e.g., Elizabethan lit.) or throughout their entire history (e.g., English lit.); more narrowly it may refer to writing that relates to some specific field of knowledge or endeavor (e.g., Biblical lit., medical lit.). The word “literature” also has an essential qualitative meaning relating to writing that is notable for excellence. Thus it denotes the written expression of what Matthew Arnold called “the best that has been known and said in the world.”


The claim of the Bible to literary greatness

The Bible has the highest claim to classification as great lit. It not only illustrates Thomas De Quincey’s distinction between “the literature of knowledge” (that which aims to teach) and “the literature of power” (that which aims to move); it also fuses these two elements into living unity. It sets before its readers a wealth of knowledge, some of it of a nature obtainable only through divine revelation. At the same time, it moves its readers as does no other writing. In its effect upon human history and in its ability to reach men of all kinds the Bible has no close competitor. More widely circulated and read than any other book, it is unique in world lit.

The literary study of the Bible

The forty or so men who wrote the Bible over a period of from c. 1300 to c. 1500 years (as one dates the Exodus) varied greatly in literary ability. The lit. called Biblical—namely, the thirty-nine canonical books of the OT and the twenty-seven canonical books of the NT (Roman Catholics add to the OT twelve of the fifteen apocryphal books)—ranges in style from highly symbolic writing (as in the Apocalypse) through poetry of various kinds, many different forms of narrative, and closely reasoned discussion (as in certain epistles) to writing that is traditional and pedestrian (as in the genealogies and parts of the historical books). It is with this diversity of expression that the literary study of the Bible is concerned.

In relation to inspiration.

Such study must take into account the divine inspiration of Scripture, although its “God-breathed” character (θεόπνευστος, G2535, 2 Tim 3:16) as the written Word must never be stressed so as to obscure or submerge its human aspect. To concentrate on the inspiration of Scripture to the neglect of its human quality, or to do the opposite is as wrong as to consider the deity of Christ apart from His humanity or vice versa. There is an analogy between the fusion of the divine and human elements in the Bible and the union of God and man in the person of Jesus Christ (see Inspiration).

Hermeneutical implications.

Scholarly consideration of the Bible as lit. has an essential place in the broad discipline of Biblical studies. It goes beyond aesthetic insight, important though such insight is. It has hermeneutical implications, being directly related to the primary obligation of understanding the meaning of the written Word. Without a grasp of the basic literary characteristics of the Bible the interpreter of its meaning is handicapped. For the scholar to know the original languages, to make careful use of the grammatical-historical method of interpreting the text, to compare Scripture with Scripture, and to be competent in the findings of lower and higher criticism is not enough. Unless he is also alert to the literary aspects of the Biblical text, he will be crippled in his hermeneutics and his theology may suffer.

In a posthumous essay entitled “Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism” (Christian Reflections), C. S. Lewis said of radical theologians, such as Rudolf Bultmann and Alec Vidler, “Whatever these men may be as Biblical critics, I distrust them as critics. They seem to me to lack literary judgment, to be imperceptive about the very quality of the texts they are reading.” Lewis had little patience with the critic who insists that certain incidents in the gospel records are legend or romance. Referring to the gospel of John regarded by some critics as “spiritual romance” or “a poem not a history,” he speaks of the extraordinary reality of its dialogues and narratives and then says: “I have been reading poems, romances, vision-literature, legends, myths all my life. I know what they are like. I know that not one of them is like this” (pp. 154, 155). In a generation before Lewis, Richard G. Moulton made a similar point in his valuable work, The Literary Study of the Bible. Referring to the marked contrast between Micah 7:7-10 and the preceding context, he quoted Wellhausen as taking this change of mood as evidence for the introduction of new material into Micah and thus saying that “between v. 6 and v. 7 there yawns a century.” As Moulton dryly remarked, “What really yawns between the verses is simply a change of speakers” (“Preface to the Second Ed.,” ix).

Some important literary characteristics of the Bible

These may be placed under two heads: those relating to the whole Bible or to large sections of it, and those relating to specific forms of lit. or modes of expression within it.

General literary characteristics


Chief among the general literary characteristics of the Bible is its universality. No book reaches all kinds of men in all kinds of circumstances as does Scripture. To educated or uneducated, rich or poor, civilized or primitive, it communicates its message. Wherever men can read it, or, lacking ability to read, wherever they are taught it, there are some whose hearts it touches. According to the dictum of literary criticism that calls that great which on the basis of repeated examination is acknowledged as such by men of different nations, languages, and occupations throughout long periods of history, the perennial and universal appeal of Scripture clearly establishes its supremacy. (Cf. the Gr. treatise known as Longinus on the Sublime, VII, 3, 4, for the classic formulation of this dictum.) As A. S. Cook said of the Bible, it possesses “a universality which has placed it at the foundation, or head, or both, of all modern literatures” (Cambridge History of English Literature, Vol. IV, 31).

The thought forms of the Bible are different from those which were developed by Gr. philosophy (esp. Aristotelianism) and which have influenced civilization so profoundly. The Biblical mode of thought is intuitive. It is more elemental than that of the Western world. By the same token it is more universal. For Scripture speaks directly to the heart of man in the higher logic epitomized by Pascal’s aphorism, “The heart has its reasons, which reason does not know....It is the heart which experiences God, and not the reason...” (Pensées nos. 277, 278. Trans. by W. F. Trotter).


A second general characteristic of the Bible is its sublimity of thought and expression. Sublimity is a literary quality essential to ultimate greatness. No book reaches loftier heights than Scripture. Coleridge, the great poet and critic, said that “after reading Isaiah, or St. Paul’s Epistle to the Hebrews, Homer and Virgil are distingtingly tame...and Milton himself barely tolerable” (qt. by R. M. Frye, The Bible—Selections from the King James Version for Study as Literature, Introduction, p. xxxi). Were the Bible not preeminent in sublimity, it would be strange, for as Longinus said, “Sublimity is the echo of a great soul” (op. cit., IX, 2) and the chief Biblical authors like Moses, David, Isaiah, Jeremiah, John and Paul were indeed “great souls.” And other Biblical writers such as the minor prophet Habakkuk, the authors of certain non-Davidic psalms, and the author of Hebrews also attain sublimity. Indeed, this quality in Scripture is the echo not just of great human souls but of the Spirit of God.


Integrity in its root sense of wholeness is a third general quality of the Bible. To speak of its literary integrity is another way of referring to the unique commitment of the Bible to truth. Of all books it is the most truth-telling. Its portrayal of humanity is unsparingly honest. Frankness pervades it even to the extent of plain statement of the sins of its great characters like Abraham (Gen 20:1-18), Moses (Num 20:7-13), David (2 Sam 11:1-12:23), and Peter (Matt 26:69-75). No other writing so searchingly probes the innermost motives of human conduct. (Cf. esp. Christ’s teaching in the Sermon on the Mount and in His parables.) In its manner of expression, Scripture, though varied, is never pretentious. And side by side with what Paul called “the depths of God” (1 Cor 2:10) are passages of utmost directness of expression. The reason for this is the “high seriousness” of the Biblical writers. Whatever else they were, these men were in earnest. It is this earnestness that is so profoundly reflected in John Bunyan, that most Biblical of writers, who said in the Preface to his Grace Abounding, “God did not play in convincing of me, the devil did not play in tempting of me...wherefore I may not play in my relating of them, but be plain and simple, and lay down the thing as it was” (R. Sharrock, ed. [1966], Preface, pp. 3, 4).

Truth in Scripture is not just a formal matter of correspondence with external reality. It is truth of heart and spirit as well as truth in fact. As The Jerusalem Bible says of the great verities that provide the foundation for the plan of salvation and that are set forth in the first eleven chs. of Genesis, “All these are truths which have their bearing upon theological doctrine and which are guaranteed by the authority of scripture; but they are also facts, and the certainty of the truths implies the reality of the facts...” (“Introduction to the Pentateuch,” p. 9).

Specific literary forms and modes of expression.

Ancient writings other than the Bible use picturesque speech—simile, metaphor, metonymy, hyperbole, acrostic, puns (and other kinds of humor), irony, satire, proverbs, etc. Literatures contemporaneous with the Bible contain lyric, didactic, liturgical, and dramatic poetry, epic, law, history, genealogy, biography, shorter narrative, prophecy, apocalypse, parable, sermonic and other rhetorical discourse, and epistolary writing.

Though the Bible uses such literary devices and forms, there is no reflection in it of a self-conscious “art for art’s sake” attitude. All is subservient to the main purpose of the writers in communicating truth about God and His ways with man. “Neither of the two collections of books that make up the Bible is arranged from the point of view of art, but from that of religious value; they are collections not of national belles-lettres but of Sacred Writings” (HDB, Vol. IV, p. 3).

Some examples of Biblical use of literary forms.

The Bible’s transcendence of literary forms.

A second observation about the kinds of lit. within Scripture is that although the Biblical writers employed literary forms of their times they not infrequently transcended them. Just as the NT writers deepened and enlarged the meaning of familiar words like “love” (ἀγάπη, G27), “word” (λόγος, G3364), “life” (ζωή, G2437), and “grace” (χάρις, G5921), so the authors of both OT and NT books brought special dimensions to their writing of history, poetry, drama, and other kinds of lit.

In much of its narration the Bible achieves a living presentation of reality and power of expression unsurpassed elsewhere. The story of Joseph (Gen), that of Samson (Judg), the extended account of David (1 and 2 Sam, and 1 Kings are of epic quality. Among shorter narratives, the intricate story of Esther, are of epic quality. Among shorter narratives, the idyl of Ruth and the vividly terse Book of Jonah reach perfection. Of the latter, the Eng. novelist Charles Reade, author of The Cloister and the Hearth, said, “Jonah is the most beautiful story ever written in so small a compass. It contains 48 verses and 1,328 Eng. words. One does not get far in an English novel of 1,328 words. There is growth of character, a distinct plot worked out without haste or crudity. Only a great artist could have hit upon a perfect proportion between dialogue and narrative” (qt. by C. A. Dinsmore, The English Bible as Literature, p. 256). Even more remarkable for succinctness are the parables of Christ which bring profound truth to life in the plainest of words.

While poetry in the Bible follows the forms of its times (see Hebrew Poetry), it rises to a kind of universality no other poetry has achieved (e.g., Ps 23; Isa 40; and Paul’s hymn of love in 1 Cor 13). As for poetic drama, Job, called by Tennyson “the greatest poem of ancient or modern times,” is pre-eminent in spiritual depth.

The opening of Genesis is not the only ancient cosmogony, yet in universal appeal and lasting relevance, it stands far above all other cosmogonies. Prophets and interpretation of dreams and visions were not peculiar to the Heb. people, but no other nation had prophets of the order of Elijah and Elisha, Isaiah and Jeremiah, and others. The concept of a God who cares so much for His people that He enters into personal dialogue with them in the “I-Thou” relationship set forth in both testaments is distinctive. What R. G. Moulton aptly called “the prophetic rhapsody” in which various literary forms are united as exalted communication between God and the prophet (or people), mingles with lofty odes (e.g., Isa 40-66, and Hab), and has no real counterpart anywhere (Moulton, op. cit., pp. 404-456).

As for the NT, here the epistolary form is lifted to new heights in books like Romans, Ephesians, and Hebrews. Finally, apocalyptic writing reaches its summit in Revelation.

The gospels—a unique literary genre.

On a different level, however, from such instances in which the Bible transcends its literary forms are the NT gospels. Here the message actually leads to a new and inimitable literary genre. Consider what the gospels really are. In biographical material they are too incomplete to be classed as “lives” in the literary sense. Though their context and contents are certainly historical, they are more than history. To understand the special genre of a gospel, one must see the problem the four evangelists faced in dealing with the unparalleled event of the Incarnation. How to tell the truth about Jesus the God-man in such a way as neither to slight His deity nor obscure His full humanity, and how at the same time, to present Him in living reality was their incredibly difficult task. That they solved it in the kind of memoir known as a NT gospel, and that they did this not once but four times while presenting in their own individual styles differing, yet complementary portrayals of Jesus from the pages of which He stands out in his unique reality as the living Son of God—this is nothing less than a major literary miracle. As James Iverach said, to do this was “the greatest problem ever set to literature, and how the evangelists presented and solved it is found in the Gospels” (cf. ISBE, Vol II, p. 1286, “The Synoptic Gospels”).

Frye’s comment is also apposite: “This task [that of the evangelists in writing the gospels] had at least one further implication of great literary importance: on the basis of the New Testament, we cannot ‘identify’ ourselves with Christ as in other literary works we can identify ourselves with, say, Macbeth or Cordelia—or even as we can identify with such other Biblical characters as Ruth and David, or Martha, Peter, and even Pilate. The inherent intent of the New Testament is to present Christ as sui generis, uniquely human and divine” (op. cit., p. 456). That the evangelists—and the other NT writers also—succeeded in this great purpose of presenting Christ “as sui generis, uniquely human and divine,” while indeed a literary miracle, is at the same time an unmistakable evidence of their divine inspiration.

Chapter and verse divisions.

A major factor relating to understanding the literary forms of the Bible and thus linked to the comprehension of its contents is the way in which it has been and still is being printed. The ch. divisions, first made in the Lat., and carried over into Eng. VSS, stem from Stephen Langton (d. 1228), or perhaps from Hugues de St. Cher (1262). The OT v. divisions are ancient, going back prob. to the Massoretes (c. a.d. 500-1000) and were made in the Lat. tr. of Pagninus (1528). The first Eng. VS to use them was the Geneva Bible (1560). The NT v. divisions first appeared in the Gr. Testament of Robert Stephanus (1551 ed.) and their initial appearance in Eng. was in 1557 in a NT tr. by William Whittingham. (Cf. Josiah H. Penniman. A Book About the English Bible, p. 370.)

While ch. and v. divisions are unquestionably essential for reference, the sharp break between both chs. and vv. in the Bible as commonly printed, except in the newer VSS, has certainly been a hindrance to the general reader’s understanding of its meaning. These divisions are by no means consistently logical, and have therefore led to a kind of piecemeal reading of the Bible that has obscured both its precise meaning and its literary structure. Yet, an impressive indirect tribute to the unquenchable vitality of Scripture is its survival of the way it is commonly printed.

The manner in which newer VSS minimize through skillful typography the prominence of ch. and v. divisions, while at the same time retaining them for reference, is an immense help to the reader. Again, the practice of older VSS not to make any distinction between the printing of prose and poetry has placed the reader under a handicap. The differentiation in newer VSS between prose and poetry, though not without problems, also contributes greatly to the understanding of Scripture.

The Bible as a translated book.

Literary study of the Bible must take into account that for the vast majority of its readers, it is a tr. book. Few books, however, are so translatable as the Bible. This is particularly true of the OT, the vocabulary of which is so concrete and elemental and so much of which is poetical. That Heb. poetry rhymes not in sound but in parallelism of thought is of much aid to the tr. “Versification of this kind has the advantage that it can, without much loss, be translated into any language” (Emile Legouis, A History of English Literature, p. 378). And the κοινή, in which the NT is written, with its colloquial flavor and at times, as in the Johannine writings, a Hebraic cast, also lends itself to tr.

The influence of the Bible

Upon the literature of the English-speaking people.

No influence in literary history has been more pervasive than that of the Bible. Directly or indirectly, it has affected most world lits., but in none is its influence deeper and more extensive than in that of the English-speaking people. Many trs., among them the fragmentary Anglo-Saxon VSS (c. 8th to 10th centuries) and the Wycliffite VSS (1380-1388), the trs. of Tyndale (1525-1531) and Coverdale (1535), and the Geneva (1560) and Bishops’ (1568) Bibles, contributed to this influence and led up to the KJV of 1611.

Through the KJV.

It is this tr. which is so inextricably woven into the fabric of Eng. and American lit. Moreover, this VS, by common critical consent the greatest Eng. classic, has left its impress not just upon the lit. but upon the ordinary language of the people. Everyday speech and writing are studded with echoes of its diction like “clear as crystal,” “root of all evil,” “arose as one man,” “the fat of the land,” “thorn in the flesh,” and “a soft answer.” All great writers in Eng.—in fact, lesser writers also—have in some way been affected by it and its influence lives on, supplemented by that of the RSV (NT, 1946; OT, 1952), a revision of the ASV (1901) which in turn was a revision of the KJV.

One reason for this lasting influence is the condition of the Eng. language in the first decade of the 17th cent. when the KJV was tr. After the comparative sterility of the 15th cent. during which the transition from Middle Eng. was going on, there was the glorious creative outburst of the Elizabethan period, when Shakespeare, Spenser, Jonson, and Donne were writing. The language of the KJV, which was made in the early years (1604-1611) of the reign of James I, was that used by men like these. Still fresh and flexible, open to new impressions, it was remarkably fitted for the subtle work of tr. This was a time of great Eng. trs.—North’s Plutarch, Florio’s Montaigne, and Chapman’s Homer, for example—and of these the KJV is the climax.

Through newer versions.

Though its influence lives on, the KJV no longer stands alone, because in this 20th cent. and esp. in its latter half, the outburst of Eng. trs. of the Bible exceeds even that of the years from Tyndale’s NT (1525) to 1611. It is no disparagement of the KJV or RSV to point out that the host of newer trs., such as the New English Bible (NT, 1961; OT, 1970), the Berkeley Version (NT, 1946; OT, 1959), the Jerusalem Bible (Roman Catholic, 1966), and Today’s English Version (NT, 1967) follow the lead of Moffatt (NT, 1913; OT, 1924), Goodspeed (NT, 1923), and others earlier in the cent. who deliberately worked outside the KJV tradition. It may be that from these many endeavors to put the Bible into contemporary language, there may yet come a great common VS which will make its way into the hearts and lives of the people somewhat as the KJV has done. Whether or not this happens, the fact of the 20th cent. outburst of trs. in which Roman Catholics as well as Protestants are active, evidences the living influence of the Holy Scriptures.

Upon literature other than that of the English-speaking people.

The literary influence of the Bible, so marked among the Eng.-speaking people, extends also to other lits. and people. The nature of that influence has been and still is governed by the quality of the trs. and ecclesiastical attitudes toward freedom to read them.

Consider several examples. In Martin Luther’s tr. the Ger.-speaking people have a classic VS comparable in greatness to the KJV, in the provenance of which it had a definite place. The influence of Luther’s Bible on the Ger. language and lit. and indeed upon the whole people has been crucial. As Roland H. Bainton says, “Their language was so far fashioned by his hand that the extent of their indebtedness is difficult to recognize....And for sheer richness and exuberance of vocabulary and mastery of style he is to be compared only with Shakespeare” (Here I Stand, p. 384). At the opposite pole is the Hispanic world. For the lit. of both Spain and Latin America exhibits a great dearth of Biblical influence—the result of ecclesiastical restrictions upon the tr., circulation, and reading of the Scriptures that have made a strong common VS impossible. On the other hand, in the lits. of other traditionally Catholic countries, Biblical influence, though less marked than in those of the predominantly Protestant countries, is much greater than in Hispanic lit. French lit., for instance, owes much to the profoundly Biblical Pascal and reflects a less restrictive Catholicism than that of Spain and South America. To turn to Russian lit., there is a mystical and Biblical strain (cf. Dostoevski and esp. Tolstoi), despite the absence of the central place of the Scriptures in Gr. Orthodoxy. (That the communist endeavor to expunge Christianity from Russian life inhibits Biblical influence is evident in recent Russian lit.)

The educating power of the Bible.

An aspect of the continuing influence of the Bible that is in a different category from its effect upon great lit. of the world is its educating power among illiterate peoples. The Scriptures are at the center of the missionary enterprise and the history of missions is indissolubly united with Bible tr. When the pioneer missionary has gone to a primitive people and has reduced their language to writing, he has done so for the specific purpose of giving them the Bible in their own tongue. Thus the key to literacy and enlightenment has been placed, and continues to be placed, in the hands of multitudes who would otherwise have remained illiterate. The educational as well as spiritual implications of this are enormous—esp. in view of the fact, as reported by the United Bible Societies, that by 1973 the whole Bible had been tr. and published in 255 different languages and dialects and at least one book of the Bible had been tr. and published in 1500 languages and dialects.

The phenomenon of Biblical unity

Finally, no competent student of the Bible as lit. can fail to be impressed by the phenomenon of its unity. That the sixty-six books comprising the two testaments, and which were written by many authors over the period of nearly a millennium and a half, should be related together in living, organic unity, is a unique feature of the Bible. “One increasing purpose,” said A. S. Cook, “runs through the whole, and is reflected in the widening and deepening thought of its writers; yet it is a purpose which exists germinally at the beginning and unfolds like a bud. Thus, all the principal books are linked and even welded together, and to the common consciousness form, as it were, but a single book, rather τὸ βιβλίον than τὰ βιβλία” (The Cambridge History of English Literature, Vol. IV, p. 29).

What is the “one increasing purpose” that, as Professor Cook said, “runs through the whole” and binds the more than sixty books from Genesis to Revelation in such astonishing unity? The Bible itself leaves no doubt that its unity is essentially Christological. What makes it one book is the unfolding of God’s sovereign purpose in Jesus Christ. From the protevangel (Gen 3:15), where He is seen at the dawn of history as the coming Deliverer, on through the OT presentation of Him in type and prophecy as the Messiah, to His entrance into history as Son of man and Son of God, set forth in the gospels, expounded in the epistles, and in the Apocalypse revealed in His glorious, future manifestation, in Revelation the Bible is centered in Him. What Paul said of Christ’s cosmic significance, that “in him all things hold together” (Col 1:17), applies to Scripture as to all else. Moreover, it was validated by the risen Lord Himself when, “beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:27). The crowning literary characteristic of the Bible is its unity, and this points directly to its inspiration.


R. G. Moulton, The Literary Study of the Bible (1899); A. S. Cook in Cambridge History of English Literature (1909, 1961 ed.), Vol. IV, ch. 2, 24-50; HDB (1911), IV, 3; E. Legouis and L. Cazamian, A History of English Literature (1929), 376-381; ISBE (1930), Vol. II, 1286; C. A. Dinsmore, The English Bible as Literature (1931); J. H. Penniman, A Book About the English Bible (1931); F. F. Bruce, The Books and the Parchments (rev. ed., 1963); R. M. Frye, The Bible, Selections From the King James Version (1965), ix-xxxix; C. S. Lewis, Christian Reflections, W. Hooper, ed. (1967), 152-166.