For twenty centuries, the Bible has been the preeminent book in Western culture. It still holds that position in English-speaking countries and cultures, though not to the degree that it once did. Yale University Professor George Lindbeck describes the situation this way: “Until recently, most people in traditionally [Western] countries lived in the linguistic and imaginative world of the Bible. . . . The text above all texts was the Bible. Its stories, images, conceptual patterns, and turns of phrase permeated the culture from top to bottom. . . . So pervasive is this scriptural idiom that much of western literature consists of subtexts of the biblical text. . . . Thus all of experience, including sacred texts from other religions, such as the classics of Greece and Rome, was absorbed into the scriptural framework.”1
My purpose in this essay is to provide a history of the phenomenon that Lindbeck describes. I will recount two histories. First I will trace in broad outline the history of the concept of the Bible as literature.2 Then I will survey the academic study of the Bible as literature in universities in England and the United States during the past hundred years.
The Origin of the Idea of the Bible as Literature
The idea of the Bible as literature begins 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 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. The hymn to Christ with which the Gospel of John begins echoes the Greek “Hymn to Zeus” that had been circulating in the classical world for the preceding three centuries.
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. The writer of Ecclesiastes can be allowed to speak for the other writers who contributed to the anthology of literature that we know as the Bible. In a passage of self-characterization near the end of the book of Ecclesiastes, the author speaks of “weighing and studying and arranging proverbs with great care,” and of seeking to “find words of delight” (Ecclesiastes 12:9-10). Here is a portrait of the writer as self-conscious composer and stylist.
The English Renaissance
While English poets and storytellers of the Middle Ages made use of the Bible in their works, the concept of the Bible as literature as we know it dates from the Renaissance (the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in England). One reason for this is that translation of the Bible into English did not exist in a major way until the sixteenth century. Before then, owning a copy of the English Bible was actually forbidden, so it is little wonder that the Bible was not widely known. A whole century of successive English translations culminated in the King James Version of 1611, and starting then the King James Bible is what English-speaking people and literary people in England and America have meant by “the Bible.” The King James Version is itself the supreme achievement of English literature.
Starting in the sixteenth century, the concept of the Bible as literature in the West has consisted of two stories that run parallel to each other. One is the presence of the Bible in imaginative literature–the Bible quite literally as literature, that is, as works of literature produced by poets, playwrights, and storytellers.3 The other story is how people have viewed the Bible itself as a literary book.
I will tell the story of the literary presence of the Bible in works of literature—the Bible quite literally as literature—by means of a gallery of selected authors. Shakespeare is the towering figure in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Multiple books have explored the biblical presence in Shakespeare, but the best known and definitive source is Naseeb Shaheen’s book Biblical References in Shakespeare’s Plays.4 Shaheen’s tabulation ascribes approximately 1200 biblical references in Shakespeare’s plays, but he uses such a conservative grid that the total is almost certainly closer to two thousand. There are so many references to the first four chapters of Genesis in Shakespeare’s plays that scholars commonly make comments to the effect that Shakespeare must have memorized those chapters. Shakespeare refers to eighteen Old Testament books and eighteen New Testament books.
In the next century, the poetry of John Milton is the major example of a poet who incorporated the Bible into his poetry so regularly that we can say that his poetry does not exist apart from the Bible. To begin, Milton’s three major works—Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained, and Samson Agonistes—take their story line and main content straight from the Bible. But that is only the most obvious indebtedness of Milton to the Bible. His lyric poems are saturated with biblical allusions. Milton’s modern biographer William Riley Parker, after noting that Milton’s preferred English Bible was the King James Version, immediately adds that “its diction, its imagery, its rhythms, early became a part of him.”5
Several other seventeenth-century English poets are equally good examples of how the Bible took shape as literature in their compositions. One of these is John Donne, who in his religious poems shows the influence of a medieval tradition of contemplation in which a person would begin by “composing the scene,” that is, imagining himself or herself present at an event recorded in the Bible. In one of his sonnets, Donne imagines himself present at the last judgment at the end of history (“At the Round Earth’s Imagined Corners”), and the meditation that follows is a mosaic of biblical references. The poetry of Donne’s fellow metaphysical poet George Herbert is so rooted in the Bible that the author of a book entitled George Herbert and the Bible concludes that “there is scarcely a poem in Herbert’s temple—one might say scarcely a line—that does not refer us to the Bible. The readers of The Temple are assumed to be readers of the Bible as well, a group of initiates with a history and dialect in common. We cannot get past the title page of the volume without some knowledge of Scripture.”6
At the end of the seventeenth century we find in John Bunyan a writer of religious fiction and allegory whose works are equally saturated in the Bible. Through the centuries, and continuing through modern scholarly editions, it has been customary to print Pilgrim’s Progress with marginal notes that identify the biblical source or allusion for a given passage.7 A glance at such an edition confirms historian John Green’s famous verdict that “so completely has the Bible become Bunyan’s life that one feels its phrases as the natural expression of his thoughts. He has lived in the Bible till its words have become his own.”8
Running parallel to Renaissance authors’ use of the Bible in their compositions was a growing agreement among literary and religious people that the Bible itself is a very literary book. English poet Sir Philip Sidney wrote the major work of literary theory in this era (entitled An Apology for Poetry). It is a defense of literature, and one of Sidney’s chief arguments is that the Bible itself is a model of literature. David’s Psalms “are a divine poem,” writes Sidney. Biblical prophecy “is merely poetical.” The parables of Jesus are adduced as embodiments of the essential principles of literature.
In the next century, John Milton further establishes the growing agreement that the Bible itself is a work of literature. In his prose work The Reason of Church Government Milton offers his opinion that the lyric poems (“songs”) of the Bible “not in their divine argument [subject matter] alone, but in the very critical art of composition, may be easily made appear over all the kinds of lyric poesy [in literature at large, including classical literature] to be incomparable.” In other words, the poems of the Bible are the best that has been produced.
The Romantic Movement and the Nineteenth Century
The next major development in the story that I am telling occurred with the Romantic movement of the first half of the nineteenth century. Again I will paint the broad outlines of the movement, based on selected authors and commentators on the Bible. For Renaissance writers, rooting their work in the Bible was an expression of their Christian faith, but the same thing is not true of Romantic writers in England and America. For them, the Bible was mainly viewed as a work of literature only, devoid of religious belief in its content.
The best way to tell the story of Romantic writers’ devotion to the Bible is to start with comments that they made about the Bible, and then proceed to the influence of the Bible on what they wrote. William Blake uttered one of the most famous of all utterances regarding the Bible when he said that the Bible is “the great code of art” (Laocoon). By this he meant that for him the Bible is primarily a work of imagination, and further that there is something prototypical about the Bible, so that we can find the essential principles of literature and art by examining the Bible. An early biographer claimed that Blake’s “greatest pleasure was derived from the Bible—a work ever in his hand,” while a contemporary of Blake called him “a most fervent admirer of the Bible.”9 A document entitled the Blake Records reveals that the Bible was the most thumbed from use of his English books.10
We need also to note the influence of an Oxford University professor and bishop in the Church of England named Robert Lowth. Lowth lived in the eighteenth century, but his influence became massive in the next century. Lowth’s treatise On the Sacred Poetry of the Hebrews was a landmark in establishing the nature of biblical poetry. In particular, Lowth explored the dynamics of parallelism as the dominant verse form of biblical poetry, and also the importance of imagery as the idiom in which biblical poets wrote. Lowth’s book made it impossible to view the Bible as anything other than a thoroughly literary and poetic book.
English Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge absorbed this view of the Bible. During the last decade of his life Coleridge had two books next to his bed—Martin Luther’s Table Talk and the King James Version of the Bible.11 Two copies of the Bible belonging to Coleridge have survived, one of them containing numerous notes from Coleridge.12 This familiarity with the Bible is the context for Coleridge’s statement that “the words of the Bible find me at greater depths of my being” than “all other books put together.” Elsewhere Coleridge asked rhetorically, “Did you ever meet any book that went to your heart so often and so deeply?”13
The Romantics saw in the Bible the very qualities that they valued in literature. Being an ancient book, it possessed the primitivism that they valued. The world of the Bible is a predominantly natural world, so much of it seemed like nature writing to the Romantics. The affective and imaginative power of the Bible are unparalleled, and the Romantics valued feeling. Finally, the Romantics were in quest for the sublime, and they found it in the Bible.
With these endorsements of the Bible ringing in our ears, we can discern biblical influence everywhere in the writings of the English and American Romanticists. I will start with the American fiction writer Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864). The best index to the indebtedness of Hawthorne to the King James Bible comes from James T. Fields, the editor and publisher to whom Hawthorne attributed his success as a writer. Fields claimed that “Hawthorne was a diligent reader of the Bible, and when sometimes, in my ignorant way, I would question in a proof-sheet, his use of a word, he would almost always refer me to the Bible as his authority.14 We can see its influence in Hawthorne’s most famous work, The Scarlet Letter. Hawthorne’s imagination was so thoroughly influenced by the Bible that the presence of the Bible is felt in the very construction of key episodes in the story. Like Milton, Hawthorne was adept at composing whole scenes on the basis of single Bible verses. The guilt-induced physical decline of Rev. Dimmesdale is an extended narrative example of the truth summarized in Psalm 32: 3-4: “When I kept silence, my bones waxed old; through my roaring all the day long. For day and night thy hand was heavy upon me” The final confession scene in which Dimmesdale at last attains forgiveness is an outworking of James 5:16: “Confess your faults one to another, . . . that ye may be healed.” Those two verses are the axis between which the whole story moves—unconfessed sin as the problem, confessed sin as the antidote.
The famous scaffold scene in which Dimmesdale confesses his sin is a virtual mosaic of biblical echoes. As Dimmesdale invites Hester to join him on the scaffold, he begins his address to her, “… in the name of Him, so terrible and so merciful, who gives me grace at this last moment, to do what—for my own heavy sin and miserable agony—I withheld myself from doing seven years ago. . . .” Shortly later Dimmesdale says, “Thanks be to Him who led me hither!” Again, “God is merciful.” “May God forgive thee,” Dimmesdale says to Chillngworth. And Dimmesdale’s dying words are, “Had either of these agonies been wanting, I had been lost for ever! Praised be his name! His will be done! Farewell!” The most striking of the allusions in this passage is the statement “his will be done,” echoing Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane: “Not my will, but thine, be done” (Luke 22:42).
Hawthorne’s contemporary American fiction writer Herman Melville (1819-1891) was not an orthodox Christian, but as one scholar says, he “knew the Bible well, inheriting from his church-going age an almost unconsciously profound biblical awareness that left Scripture the ground on which his mind invariably walked.15 Two scholars have written entire books on Melville and the Bible, and one of these shows that the number of biblical references increased steadily during the course of Melville’s career.16
The second half of the nineteenth century in England is known as the Victorian period, named after the reigning Queen Victoria (1337-1901). Alfred, Lord Tennyson, is perhaps the most representative poet of his age, and as such he typifies the way in which Victorian novelists and poets alike rooted their literary productions in the Bible. There are more allusions to the Bible in Tennyson’s poetry than to any other source.17 But in addition to direct allusions Tennyson’s poetic style is continuously reminiscent of the Bible, leading one literary critic to write that his poetry “is infused with biblical language and imagery, so that even when a direct allusion is not apparent Tennyson’s words hold religious overtones.”18
The literature of England and America in the nineteenth century was as thoroughly a triumph of biblical influence as the Renaissance of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries had been. The quickest proof for that statement is to list the authors who have had whole books (in addition to dozens of articles) written on their indebtedness to the Bible: Percy Shelley, Lord Byron, Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Charles Dickens, and Robert Browning.
Running side by side with literary authors’ use of the Bible in their compositions was the usual body of thinking about the Bible as literature. As already noted, during the Romantic movement at the beginning of the century this took the form of praising the Bible as containing the very qualities that the Romantic writers prized in the literature that they themselves wrote. The new development at the end of the nineteenth century was the exaltation of a specific English Bible, the King James Version of 1611. Among English-language people, the concept of the Bible was identical to the King James Version from the latter seventeenth-century to the middle of the twentieth century. This had long been the situation by the time Victorian enthusiasm for the King James Bible became codified.
The most often quoted statement in regard to the veneration of the King James Bible in both England and America in the second half of the nineteenth century is this one by Thomas Babington Macaulay: “The English Bible . . . is a book which, if everything else in our language should perish, would along suffice to show the whole extent of its beauty and power.” This is by implication a claim that the Bible is a supreme work of literature, embodying the qualities of beauty and power that are preeminently found in literature.
The Twentieth Century
In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in England and America, the Bible was primarily a book that Christian writers and readers accepted as their religious authority for life. From this religious attitude toward the Bible flowed the literary use to which writers put it. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the religious view of the Bible gradually waned, and correspondingly the Bible was often regarded by literary authors as a work of literature only—religious literature, to be sure, but not a sacred book. As we move into the modern era, the Bible was regarded even less as a religious authority that dictated people’s beliefs and lives.
As noted above, for William Blake and other nineteenth-century literary authors, the Bible was “the great code of art”—the central literary text of the Western imagination and a model and inspiration for literary authors in the process of composition. The modern attitude toward the Bible is encapsulated in the following comment by modern British playwright Samuel Beckett: “I am aware of the Christian [that is, biblical] mythology. . . . Like all literary devices, I use it where it suits me.”19 The phrase “like all literary devices” suggests how most modern writers regard the Bible—as a literary phenomenon only, on the same level with any other literature. Of course Christian writers like T. S. Eliot and C. S. Lewis continue to view the Bible as Shakespeare and Milton and Bunyan did—as both a sacred religious authority and as a literary book.
As the twentieth century unfolded, Western civilization became increasingly secularized, and correspondingly the Bible became less dominant as the central cultural force in England and America. Coupled with the point made above that literary authors and literary scholars came to view the Bible as a literary book rather than a religious authority (whereas for Renaissance writers like Shakespeare and Milton it was both), we might expect that the Bible became less prominent in Western literature than it had previously been. But this expectation turns out to be incorrect. The Bible remains the most frequently referenced book in modern literature, and in terms of sheer quantity, there may be as much biblically-rooted literature in the modern era as in previous ones. For readers who want more information than I will give in this article, I commend my book The Legacy of the King James Bible (already referenced in footnote 3). According to David Bevan, in his book Literature and the Bible, “the Bible remains . . . the most pervasive source-book for twentieth-century authors across many countries.”20
American novelist Ernest Hemingway can be taken as a representative specimen. Hemingway lived an indulgent lifestyle that was as far removed from Christian morality as can be imagined, so there is no possibility that the prominence of the Bible in Hemingway’s fiction is evidence of religious commitment. Despite that, Hemingway never outgrew his childhood acquaintance with the Bible. A quick proof of this is the title of one of his novels: The Sun Also Rises. This title is taken from Ecclesiastes 1:5. In fact, Hemingway quotes Ecclesiastes 1:4-7 before the title page of the novel. I note in passing that Hemingway and his literary friend John Dos Passos read the Bible together in their early literary acquaintance.
While the rootedness of Hemingway’s stories in the archetypes of the Bible has been well documented, a more obvious biblical influence is Hemingway’s prose style. It is a commonplace that the stories of the Bible are almost all embodied in a spare, unembellished prose style. Hemingway adopted the same style. Of course this biblical style is mediated to Hemingway (as to almost all English-language authors) through the King James Version. One literary critic writes that in Hemingway’s style “a purely colloquial modern English and an English which belongs in its essence to the King James version of the Bible are brought together to mutual advantage.”21
Modern English and American literature has its quota of Christian writers who perpetuate the lineage of Christian writers from the past like Milton and Bunyan. For these writers, the Bible is both a religious authority and a literary model. T. S. Eliot is the best example of such a modern writer. Eliot’s nativity poem entitled “Journey of the Magi” takes its story material straight from the account in the Gospel of Matthew of the journey of wise men from the East to visit the infant Jesus (Matthew 2:1-12). Cast into the form of a dramatic monologue, the speaker in the poem is one of the wise men who recalls his journey as an old man. In addition to making the biblical story come alive in our imaginations, Eliot offers an interpretation of the event. This is the first poem that Eliot wrote after publically affirming his Christian faith, and it is significant, therefore, that he portrays the birth of Jesus in terms of its sacrificial aspect—as leading eventually to the death of Jesus as an atonement for sinners. In fact, the motif underlying the poem is the search to find Jesus and then following him after finding him. I note in passing that what we see on a small scale in this poem by Eliot appears also in Eliot’s famous play Murder in the Cathedral.
The Academic Study of the Bible as Literature
The foregoing history is one aspect of the concept of the Bible as literature: the Bible as transmuted into imaginative literature. In each of the eras I have surveyed, the poets and storytellers of a given era were influenced in their own handling of biblical material in their compositions by the then-current attitudes toward the Bible as a work of literature. But when we speak of the Bible as literature, we usually have in mind the other half of the picture—the academic study of the Bible itself in its literary dimension. This, too, has a history of its own.
That history begins at the start of that twentieth century. This does not mean that people did not view the Bible as literature; as shown above, that awareness began with the writers of the Bible. But the movement that coined the phrase “the Bible as literature” and organized it into an academic program is a distinctly modern phenomenon. The starting point is a literature professor named Richard G. Moulton, who developed an interest in the Bible as literature while teaching literature at the University of Chicago. Moulton’s first book on the Bible as literature was entitled The Literary Study of the Bible. An Account of its Leading Forms of Literature Represented in the Sacred Writings. The subtitle identifies Moulton’s specialty, namely, identifying the various literary genres in the Bible. Along with this book of literary criticism, Moulton published something even more impressive—an edition of the entire Bible arranged according to its genres, with introductions and notes that reinforced the literary qualities of the Bible. The book bore the title The Modern Reader’s Bible: The Books of the Bible . . . Presented in Modern Literary Form.
If I may be allowed a personal note, these two books by Moulton are where my own career in the Bible as literature started. The approach represented by Moulton is of course simplistic by modern standards, but what was breathtaking to me was the comprehensiveness of Moulton’s framework (encompassing the whole Bible) and the confidence that he exuded about the literary nature of the Bible.
As the twentieth century unfolded, a whole movement emerged around the teaching of the English Bible as literature in the major universities in England and the United States, especially the latter. One manifestation of this movement was anthologies of selections from the King James Version of the Bible. Representative titles include these: The Bible Designed to Be Read as Living Literature (1936), The Bible for Students of Literature and Art (1964), The Bible: Selections from the King James Version for Study as Literature, and The Bible’s Greatest Stories (1990). What is not covered by these books is the large number of courses (probably a majority) in which the professor chose to teach from the King James Bible instead of an anthology. For the current status of Bible-as-literature courses, one can simply use an internet search engine to see the energy that the movement still holds.
Running parallel to the anthologies noted above were books of literary commentary on the English Bible. These were written by university professors who taught courses on the Bible as literature. Their books were not works of specialized literary criticism but surveys of biblical literature that could readily be used as supplemental textbooks in an academic course. Representative titles include these: The Bible as English Literature, The English Bible as Literature, The Literature of the English Bible, The Bible and the Common Reader, and The Bible as Literature. Those books are single-author books, but sometimes anthologies of essays by diverse authors filled the same role. Titles include The Bible Read as Literature: An Anthology (1959) and two books published under the auspices of Indiana University, which sponsored a thriving summer workshop for high school teachers of the Bible as literature for a decade in the seventies and eighties; the books are entitled Literary Interpretations of Biblical Narratives (1974) and Literary Interpretations of Biblical Narratives Volume II (1982). Two additional books in this category were intended less as supplements to academic courses than as freestanding scholarly books that applied the methods of literary analysis to the Bible: The Literary Guide to the Bible (1987) and A Complete Literary Guide to the Bible (1993).
Another approach that thrived in the last four decades of the twentieth century was the teaching of selections from the Bible alongside works of English and American literary authors. Almost always the centerpiece of academic courses based on this approach was an anthology of selections from the Bible coupled with poems and stories that were rooted in a given passage from the Bible. Representative titles of such anthologies include The Enduring Legacy: Biblical Dimensions in Modern Literature (1975), The Bible as/in Literature (1976), and The Bible and Literature: A Reader (1999).
A single principle underlies all of the books named in the preceding paragraphs. The underlying premise is that the Bible possesses literary features that appear in imaginative literature generally. A story is a story. A poem is a poem. The whole Bible-as-literature movement was energized by professors of English and American literature who saw the potential in applying what they did in their literature courses to the Bible. A famous statement of the principle that undergirded the movement was the following one made by British literary scholar C. S. Lewis: “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.”22
Two of the most influential spokespersons for the academic side of the movement have been Robert Alter and Leland Ryken, who have influenced different parts of the academic world, both literary and religious. Alter’s landmark book The Art of Biblical Narrative (1981) remains the most universally acclaimed book by a literary scholar among biblical scholars (as distinct from literary scholars). Alter’s follow-up book The Art of Biblical Poetry (1985) was less influential but in the same vein as the trail-blazing book. Alter has continued to write on the literary nature of the Bible, including a book entitled The World of Biblical Literature (1992).
Ryken’s first book on the Bible as literature was entitled The Literature of the Bible (1974), a pioneering experiment in applying then-current literary critical methods to the Bible. Later books were more influential: How to Read the Bible as Literature (1984) and Words of Delight: A Literary Introduction to the Bible (1987, 1992). Ryken, too, has continued to publish in the area and is co-editor of a reference book entitled Dictionary of Biblical Imagery (1998).
Preceding the influence of Alter and Ryken was Northrop Frye, the dominant name in literary scholarship in England and America in the third quarter of the twentieth century. Late in his career Frye published a long-anticipated book on the Bible as literature (The Great Code: The Bible and Literature, 1982), but it was almost an after-thought to the earlier influence of Frye on viewing the Bible as literature. Frye famously claimed that the Bible should be the basis for all teaching of literature in the schools. “The Bible . . . should be the basis of literary training,” claimed Frye. “It forms the lowest stratum in the teaching of literature. It should be taught so early and so thoroughly that it sinks straight to the bottom of the mind, where everything that comes along later can settle on it.”23
Frye’s thesis that the Bible is the paradigmatic Western text continues to be widely accepted in England and America. Frye taught at the University of Toronto in Canada, and he was so influential in his own country that his thinking led to an entire high school literature curriculum in Canada, comprising a dozen separate (though coordinated) anthologies of selections from the Bible and parallels in English and American literature. The organizing principle of the curriculum was the unfolding sequence of the Bible from Genesis through Revelation and the archetypes of the literary imagination. Those two frameworks completely superseded the usual historical arrangement of English and American literature.
The foregoing survey has focused on the academic study of the Bible as literature in university education. The success of that movement is attested by a series of anthologies intended for the general population—trade books rather than textbooks, filling the category of “popular” rather than academic. The preferred format has been to choose specimens of imaginative literature that use a biblical passage as their source, and to print the biblical passage along with the poems or stories based on that passage. Representative titles include The Gospels in Our Image: An Anthology of Twentieth-Century Poetry Based on Biblical Texts (1995), Chapters into Verse: A Selection of Poetry in English Inspired by the Bible from Genesis through Revelation (2000), and The Poetic Bible: A Selection of Classic and Contemporary Poetry Inspired by the Bible from Genesis through Revelation (2001).
The books that I have surveyed show the vitality of the idea that the Bible is a literary book in English and American universities for at least a century. The sheer quantity of book titles that I have adduced might seem to paint a fragmented picture, but that is not the case. Anyone who moves from one book to the next will see a clear unity at work. The starting point is that in its literary genres and techniques the Bible is just like familiar English and American literature. Regardless of how that insight might be applied, ordinary imaginative literature supplies the framework within which the Bible is read and analyzed. Naturally literary scholars have taken the lead in this venture, though many biblical scholars have assimilated the methods of literary scholars to the degree to which their discipline allows.