Twelve Literary Traits of the Bible

The Bible is not a totally unique book. In general, its literary forms function in the same way that these forms function beyond the Bible. A story is a story, whether in the Bible or beyond it. A metaphor is a metaphor. Nonetheless, it is possible to make generalizations about characteristic literary features of the Bible, with no implication that these features do not exist elsewhere. Below are twelve literary qualities and preferred literary techniques that we often find in the Bible.

1.  A unifying story line.  Although the overall genre of the Bible is the anthology of individual books and passages, the Bible possesses a unity far beyond other literary anthologies.  The technical term for a unifying superstructure such as we find in the Bible is metanarrative (big or overarching story).  In the Bible, this metanarrative is the story of salvation history—the events by which God worked out his plan to redeem humanity and the creation after they fell from original innocence.  This story of salvation history is Christocentric in the sense that it focuses ultimately on the substitutionary sacrifice and atonement of Christ on the cross, and his resurrection from death. The unifying story line of the Bible is a U-shaped story that begins with the creation of a perfect world, the fall of that world into sin, the history of fallen human history that slowly and painfully works its way toward consummation, and the final destruction of evil and eternal triumph of good.

2.  The presence of a central character.  All stories have a central character or protagonist, and in the overarching story of the Bible God is the protagonist.  He is the unifying presence from the beginning of the Bible to the end.  All creatures interact with this central and ultimate being.  All events are related to him.  The story of human history unfolds within the broader story of what God does.  The result is a sense of ultimacy that comes through as we read the pages of the Bible.

3.  Religious orientation.  The subject of literature is human experience, and this is true of the Bible, too, but a distinctive feature of the Bible is that it overwhelmingly presents human experience in a religious and moral light.  Events that other writers might treat in a purely human and natural light—a sunrise, a battle, a birth, a journey—are presented by the authors of the Bible within a moral or spiritual framework.  Part of this moral and spiritual framework is the assumption of the biblical authors that a great conflict between good and evil is going on in our world, and further that people are continuously confronted with the need to choose between good and evil, and between working for God’s kingdom or going against God.

4.  Variety of genres and styles.  Every literary anthology of the Bible’s magnitude displays a range of literary forms, but the Bible may well out-top them all.  We need to be alert to this because the religious uses to which we put the Bible can easily lull us into thinking that the Bible is all one type of writing.  The list of individual forms, if we include such specific motifs as the homecoming story or trickster or love poem, keeps expanding.  (A complete guide to these literary forms as we find them in the Bible is Dictionary of Biblical Imagery [Downers Grove:  InterVarsity Press, 1998].)  The variety that we find in the Bible stems partly from the large categories that converge—history, theology, and literature, for example, or prose and poetry, realism and fantasy, past and future, God and people.

5.  Preference of the concrete over the abstract.  While the New Testament contains a great deal of theological writing, the general preference of biblical authors is for concrete vocabulary. This is especially true of the Hebrew language of the Old Testament.  In the Bible, God is portrayed as light and rock and thunder.  Slander is a sharp knife.  Living the godly life is like putting on a garment or suit of armor.  Heaven is a landscape of jewels.  To read the Bible well, we need to read with the “right side” of the brain—the part that is activated by sensory data.

6.  Realism.  The prophetic and apocalyptic parts of the Bible give us a steady diet of fantasy (flying scrolls, for example, and red horses), but the general tendency of the Bible is toward everyday realism.  The Bible displays the flaws of even its best characters (Oliver Cromwell famously said that the biblical writers paint their characters “warts and all”). Although the Bible does not delineate the sordid experiences of life in the extreme detail that modern literary realism does, it nonetheless covers the same realistic experiences, such as violence, murder, sexuality, death, suffering, and famine.  Of course the realism of the Bible differs from modern realism by showing us that there is a realism of grace as well as a realism of carnality.  In other words, the Bible is not content to portray the degradation of a world that has fallen into sin without also portraying the redemptive possibilities of a world that has been visited by the grace of God and is destined for glory.

7.  Simplicity.  Although the Bible is certainly not devoid of examples of the high style, especially in the poetic parts, its overall orientation is toward the simple.  The prevailing narrative style is plain, unembellished, matter-of-fact prose.  Shakespeare’s vocabulary is approximately 20,000 words, Milton’s 13,000, and English translations of the Bible 6000.  Biblical writers often work with such simplified dichotomies as good and evil, light and darkness, heroes and villains.  Of course there is a simplicity that diminishes and a simplicity that enlarges.  The simplicity of the Bible paradoxically produces an effect of majesty and authority.

8.  Preference for the brief unit.  Linked with this simplicity is a marked preference for the brief literary unit.  Biblical poets tend to write brief lyrics, for example, not long narrative poems.  Most long narratives in the Bible such as the story of Abraham or the Gospels are actually cycles of stories in which the individual episodes are briefer and more self-contained than what we find in a novel.  The prophetic books are actually anthologies of self-contained oracles and snatches of narrative.  Other familiar biblical genres reinforce this tendency toward simplicity—proverb or saying, parable, lists of individual commands or rules, summaries of what various kings did, occasional letters (epistles) in which the authors respond to a list of questions that have been asked or crises that have arisen in local churches.

9. Elemental quality. The Bible is a book of universal human experience.  It is filled with experiences and images that are the common human lot in all places and times. The Bible embraces the commonplace and repeatedly shows ordinary people engaged in the customary events of life—planting, building, baking, fighting, worrying, celebrating, praying. The world that biblical characters inhabit is likewise stripped and elemental, consisting of such natural settings as day and night, field and desert, sky and earth.  Even occupations have an elemental quality—king, priest, shepherd, homemaker, missionary.

10.  Oral style.  Even though the Bible that we read is a written book, in its original form much of it existed orally.  This is true because ancient cultures were predominantly oral cultures in which information circulated chiefly by word of mouth.  The literary forms of the Bible show his rootedness in an oral culture.  The prevalence of dialogue (directly quoted speeches) in the Bible is without parallel in literature generally until we come to the novel.  Everywhere we turn in the Bible, we hear voices speaking and replying.  The spare, unembellished narrative style of the Bible arises from the situation of oral circulation of the stories.  Additionally, many of the non-narrative parts of the Bible also show signs of oral speech—the prophetic discourses and oracles, the psalms (which were sung in temple worship), the epistles (which were read aloud in churches), and the Gospels (where the words of Jesus form a leading ingredient).

11.  Aphoristic quality.  An aphorism is a concise, memorable statement of truth—in the words of English poet Alexander Pope, “What oft was thought, but ne’er so well expressed.”  The Bible is the most aphoristic book of the Western world.  It is filled with sayings that are part of the common storehouse of proverbs:  “pride goes before destruction” (Proverbs 16:18); seeing “eye to eye” (Isaiah 52:8); a “house divided against itself” (Matthew 12:25).  This quality is present not only in the wisdom literature of the Bible but in all parts of the Bible and most notably in the sayings of Jesus.

12.  The literature of confrontation.  When we read Shakespeare or Dickens, we find ourselves moved to agreement or disagreement, but we do not ordinarily feel that we have been confronted by someone or something that requires us to make a choice.  By contrast, when we assimilate the Bible we feel as though we have been personally confronted with something that requires a response.  While this choice is ultimately for or against God, the ideas of the Bible, too, require us to believe or disbelieve them.  The Bible displays a vivid consciousness of values—of the difference between good and evil—with the result that it is virtually impossible to dispassionately entertain the ideas that confront us as we read the Bible.

Summary.  Perhaps none of the twelve features noted above is unique in itself.  But if we put them together, they produce a book that is unique.  Reading the Bible is not just like reading another book.  It has an affective power and aura of authority that cannot be duplicated.  It possesses a quality of encounter that other books do not display, so that as we read we are confronted with the voice and presence of God and are virtually compelled to believe or disbelieve what we are reading.  The Westminster Confession of Faith provides an apt summary of the things that make the Bible unique:  ” the heavenliness of the matter, the efficacy of the doctrine, the majesty of the style, the consent of all the parts, the scope of the whole (which is to give all glory to God), the full discovery it makes of the only way of man’s salvation, the many other incomparable excellencies, and the entire perfection thereof, are arguments whereby it doth abundantly evidence itself to be the Word of God.”

The foregoing material was composed by Leland Ryken as part of the introduction to The Literary Study Bible:  ESV, published by Crossway Books of Wheaton, Illinois.  The entire introduction can be found in that book.

Leland Ryken

Leland wants to see people growing and reading the Bible as literature. He has been a college teacher of literature for over half a century, authored some sixty books, and now continues to bless the Church through his resources made freely available on this site.

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