What Makes the Bible Literature?

“There is a . . . sense in which the Bible, since it is after all literature, cannot properly be read except as literature; and the different parts of it as the different sorts of literature they are.”
C. S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms

Our goal in this lesson is to explore how the Bible works as literature, but first we must answer a key question:  What makes a text literary?

We’ve mentioned that literature is made up of many different genres, but is there an overarching genre that encompasses all the other ones?  If so, what traits do they share that enable us to call them “literature?”  To our surprise, literature itself, as a whole, is a genre.  It has identifying traits just as every other genre has traits that define it.  In this lesson we will consider literature as a genre.

Imagine yourself seated on an airplane, absorbed in the textbook for this course. The person next to you asks what you’re reading, and you explain that you’re taking a class on the Bible as literature.  The person looks at you with a puzzled expression and asks, “What do you mean by literature?”  What would you say?  Whatever your definition of literature, it should touch on at least these three points:

  1. The subject of literature is human experience, portrayed concretely rather than abstractly. The ever-present motto in writing and literature courses is that literature shows rather than tells.  It shows characters in action or presents the thought process of a poet instead of listing ideas in the form of abstract sentences or generalizations.
  2. Literary authors not only portray human experience but also interpret it and offer a perspective on it. This means that we can extract one or more ideas from a work of literature.
  3. Literature is an art form. The style of expression, and the skillful technique and beauty of composition, are as significant as the content of a work.

A summary definition of literature is that it is an interpretive presentation of human experience in an artistic form.  You can expand on this definition of literature as you see fit.  For more discussion of what literature is and how it applies to the Bible, read the assigned pages in How to Read the Bible as Literature that appear at the end of this lesson.