The Literary Style of the Bible

“The simplicity of the Bible is the simplicity of majesty.” – Northrop Frye

“The Biblical vocabulary is compact of the primal stuff of our common humanity — of its universal emotional, sensory experiences.” – John Livingston Lowes

“[The Bible] engenders a new elevated style, which does not scorn everyday life and which is ready to absorb the sensorily realistic, even the ugly, the undignified, the physically base.” –Erich Auerbach

Much of this course has been devoted to exploring the diversity of styles in the Bible, from the expansive storytelling of biblical epics to the intense brevity of its proverbs.  Now it is time for us to step back and look at what brings these many distinct voices into harmony.

One unifying stylistic quality of the Bible is its prevailing realism.  By and large, the Bible is concerned with ordinary, flawed people.  Everyday events — birth, marriage, work, death — are important.  Even in the realm of poetry, biblical writers generally prefer concrete, natural images — rock, tree, stars — to grand abstractions.

We may also observe that throughout the Bible, simplicity is a stylistic hallmark. Everywhere we look, the writing is plain and unembellished.  The vocabulary is relatively limited.  Biblical writers prefer a few brief meaningful words to an extended discourse.

Because so much of the Bible existed originally in oral form, oral speech patterns are common. It is a book where people talk — to each other, to God, to us.  You will find more dialogue in the pages of the Bible than in any other book until the modern novel.

At heart, the Bible is deeply elemental.  It deals with experiences that are true for all people, in all places, in all times.  As we read the Bible, we move in a world of sun and rain, countryside and road, seedtime and harvest.  Archetypes are the very “air” that we breathe as we read the Bible.  This universality no doubt accounts partly for its influence throughout the centuries and across cultures.

Finally, the style of the Bible is an affective style.  It moves us.  It catches us up in the spirit of the events that are portrayed.  The Bible confronts us, shakes us to view our lives and the world around us through the prism of its stories and poems.  By virtue of its scope, its artistry, and its all-pervasive humanity, it is the story of humankind. It is, ultimately, our story.