The Bible in Literature
The books of the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, are undoubtedly the single greatest influence on the development of English literature, and the reasons are twofold. First, the traditions and stories of the Bible are constituted within a body of narratives and images that have a unique authority within both the Jewish and the Christian traditions, sustained in doctrine and culture. Secondly, translations of the Bible into English from the sixteenth century with the work of scholars like William Tyndale and Miles Coverdale and culminating in the great King James Version of 1611 bequeathed to literature a wealth of phrase and image which persists in our common culture to this day. Phrases like ‘the root of the matter’ (Job 19: 28 ), ‘lick the dust’ (Ps. 72: 9 ) are now so much part of everyday language that their biblical origins are all but forgotten.
Although it is always dangerous to refer to the Bible as literature, much of both the Old and New Testaments is, in both Hebrew and Greek originals, literature of the highest quality, and quite self-consciously so. Genesis contains stories and narratives which have inspired in their turn some of the greatest works in Western literature, notably in modern times Søren Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling (1843), from Genesis 22 , and Thomas Mann's tetralogy Joseph and his Brothers (1933–43). Job ranks with the works of Aeschylus and Shakespeare as a foundational example of tragic literature; the Song of Songs has had some influence on almost all of the great love poetry of the West after the classical period. In the four gospels, the great parables of St Luke and the accounts of the Passion alone are literary masterpieces apart from their importance within a sacred tradition. Yet the distinction should be borne in mind as the place of the Bible in literature is both a literary and a religious phenomenon, one Christian critic, T. S. Eliot, going so far as to suggest that ‘the Bible has had a literary influence upon English literature not because it has been considered as literature, but because it has been considered as the report of the Word of God’. Considered as, in the words of the translators of the Authorized Version, ‘a fountain of most pure water springing up into everlasting life’, the resonances of its narratives and poetics adorn a dramatic shape and struggle between God and his people which lie at the very heart of our greatest literature, so that William Blake (1757–1827) can affirm, categorically, that ‘the Old and New Testaments are the Great Code of Art’. In the Middle Ages a poet was called a ‘Maker’, from the Greek word poiesis (‘a making’), such that Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772–1834) famously described the ‘primary imagination’ as ‘a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM’, referring back directly to the voice of God from the burning bush in Exodus 3 , and Jesus’ claim in John 8: 58 , ‘Before Abraham was, I am’. The poet, then, is most profoundly ‘godlike’, and at the same time the most heinous of blasphemers—a paradox which characterizes the inextricable relationship between the Bible and literature, seen variously as the Bible as literature, the Bible in literature, and, most disturbing of all, literature as ‘Bible’. It explains also the profound insight of Blake in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (c.1790): ‘The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels & God, and at liberty when of Devils & Hell, is because he was a true Poet and of the Devil's party without knowing it.’ Since Milton's fellow poet Andrew Marvell (1621–78) expressed his fear of the ‘ruin of sacred truths’ in Paradise Lost (1667), critics from Dr Samuel Johnson in the eighteenth century to David Daiches in our own time have edgily acknowledged the dangerous creativity of Milton's ‘rewriting’ of the Genesis story. The Christian tradition has always needed, and, like Plato in his Republic, always feared the poets and artists.
The earliest great ‘Christian’ poem in English, the eighth-century Dream of the Rood, has a remarkable history, its earliest evidences being divided between fragments engraved on a stone cross in Ruthwell in Dumfriesshire and a complete version in the Codice Vercellae of the ninth century now in Vercelli in Italy on the pilgrim route to Rome. Deeply rooted in the liturgical rehearsals of the Passion narratives, the poem's literary form draws upon pagan poetic traditions of the riddle and late Latin examples of prosopopeia (the endowment of inanimate objects with speech). In the Dream of the Rood the cross itself speaks of its experience of Christ's sufferings and death, drawing widely upon the biblical references within the liturgy of Holy Week, from Psalm 35: 1–2 (‘Plead my cause, O Lord, with them that strive with me’) to Galatians 6: 14 (‘But God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ’) and Philippians 2: 8 (‘and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross’).
Medieval English literature is saturated with biblical allusions, from extended meditations like Patience (c.1360), which draws particularly on the Beatitudes (Matthew 5: 3–11 ) and the story of Jonah, to religious lyrics and ‘macaronic’ verse (poems in two or more languages, usually Latin and English, as in the great ‘In the vale of restless mind’, with its Latin refrain from the Song of Songs), and William Langland's dream poem Piers Plowman (c.1380). But it is Geoffrey Chaucer, especially in The Canterbury Tales (c.1387) who engages with scripture most imaginatively. Thus, for example, ‘The Parson's Tale’ is a learned instance of a medieval sermon drawn from biblical texts, while the Prologue to ‘The Wife of Bath's Tale’ begins with a lengthy reflection on John 4 , Jesus’ meeting with the Samaritan woman at the well, turning it to the advantage of the Wife of Bath, herself often married, as she questions the words of Jesus:
‘Thou hast yhad five housbondes,’ quod he, ‘And that ilke man that now hath thee Is noght thyn housbonde,’ thus seyde he certeyn. What that he mente therby, I kan nat seyn.
But perhaps the most significant and sustained example of literary intertextuality with the Bible in medieval English literature is to be found in the great cycles of the mystery plays which, quite literally, enacted the whole drama of the biblical narrative from the creation in Genesis to the end of all things in the Apocalypse. Like the Dream of the Rood, these plays are rooted in the church's liturgy, beginning probably as far back as the tenth century with the so-called Quem quaeritis within the Easter liturgy as a dramatization of the moment in Luke 24: 5 , when the two men in shining garments ask the women at the tomb, ‘Why seek ye the living among the dead?’ From these simple beginnings, drama moved from the church building into the market place and developed into the great ‘cycles’ which began with the story of Adam and Eve and focused particularly on the events of the gospels. The most developed of all these plays are the pageants of the so-called Wakefield Group in the Towneley Cycle, probably dating from the first half of the fifteenth century, and the most famous of them is the Secunda Pastorum (The Second Shepherds' Play), in which the nativity story is brilliantly counterpointed with the pantomime of Mak the sheep stealer and his wife Gyll in a parody of the Bethlehem stable, as Gyll hides the stolen lamb in a cradle and pretends to have just given birth.
These biblical dramas died out, for various reasons, by the later sixteenth century, and though essentially folk drama, they have certain literary affinities with the great early translations of the Bible into English, above all by William Tyndale (c.1494–1536), who rendered the New Testament into English in 1534 directly from the Greek, to release the common reader from ‘the popish doctors of dunce's dark learning, which with their sophistry, served us, as the Pharisees did the Jews’. Tyndale combined learning with an earthy command of English and is by far the single greatest source for the great King James Version of the Bible of 1611 which, despite its inital lack of popularity, is probably the one most influential piece of literature in the English language. In the words of Robert Carroll and Stephen Prickett, its most recent editors:
The translators' willingness to allow ambiguity of meaning and, at the verbal level, their minute attention to the music of its words, phrases, and even cadences, meant not merely that the biblical texts were given a new (and arguably quite spurious) unity, but also that the English language received a new stylistic model.
Yet it must be borne in mind that the King James Version was not the Bible of Spenser, Shakespeare, or John Donne, and that the sixteenth century saw an energetic battle between different English versions of the Bible. By far the most popular version was the Geneva Bible of 1560, often known as the ‘Breeches Bible’ (from its rendering of Genesis 3: 7 , ‘they [Adam and Eve] … made themselves breeches’). This version was the work of English Protestant exiles in Geneva and drew heavily on Tyndale, as well as Calvin himself and various French Bibles. Although never formally authorized, its popularity was largely due to its publication in a cheap edition rather than as an expensive folio, and it was the first English Bible to be divided into chapters and verses. But its literary importance was ensured because it was clearly the Bible of Shakespeare. Later, many of its particular renderings were incorporated into the King James Version.
Against this popular tradition set by Tyndale and the Puritan Miles Coverdale (chiefly remembered for his translation of the Psalms) were opposed those like Bishop Stephen Gardner of Winchester (c.1490–1555), who insisted on a more Latinate English closer to the form of the Vulgate Bible. The debate was both theological and literary, for the failure of the attempt to make the English Bible Latinate and ecclesiastical profoundly affected the course of English literature and even language, and it was Shakespeare, above all, who turned the vitality of ‘biblical’ English into the greatest of literature. Pre-eminently, perhaps, the figure of Falstaff emerges from and dies into the language of the Bible; for his defence of being a highwayman—‘Why, Hal, 'tis no sin for a man to labour in his vocation’—draws with splendid irony upon St Paul's exhortation to the Christian community in 1 Corinthians, while in his death in Henry V, Falstaff is eulogized by Mistress Quickly as the figure of Lazarus reclining in ‘Abraham's’ bosom (Luke 16; 23 ; though she changes this to ‘Arthur's’ bosom), and dying he repeats snatches from Miles Coverdale's version of Psalm 23 .
Throughout his work, Shakespeare echoes the phrases and rhythms of the English Bible, often in counterpoint, particularly in the tragedies. So, for example, we find in Antony and Cleopatra repeated use of Revelation, from the description of Cleopatra as the great harlot of Revelation 17 , to Antony as a ‘fallen star’, after the star named Wormwood in Revelation 8: 10–11 . But, above all, throughout the play there is a counterpointing with Revelation 21–2 , as Antony begins by styling his obsession with Cleopatra as a ‘new heaven’ (Rev. 21: 1 ), and Cleopatra herself dies with the words, ‘Husband, I come’ (Rev. 22: 20 ).
On more than one occasion, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, one of the greatest Shakespearian critics as well as himself a poet, compares Shakespeare's language with that of the Bible, and specifically its capacity to entertain ambiguity and sustain mystery with such precision. ‘In the Scriptures themselves’, Coleridge remarks, ‘these plays upon words are to be found as well as in the best works of the ancients and in the most delightful parts of Shakespeare.’ No less significant, but of quite a different character, Coleridge maintains, is John Milton's relationship with the Bible:
Many Scriptural poems [suggests Coleridge] have been written with so much of Scripture in them that what is not Scripture appears to be not true, and like mingling lies with the most sacred revelations. Now Milton, on the other hand, has taken for his subject that one point of Scripture of which we have the mere fact recorded, and upon this he has most judiciously constructed his whole fable.
In other words, Paradise Lost stands as an epic poem independently of Genesis 3, the poet legitimately building upon one brief but theologically crucial episode in the Bible to fulfil a particular purpose, that is, in Milton's own words, ‘to justify the ways of God to men’ (Paradise Lost, book I, line 26). The poem, therefore, is a theodicy designed, as Dr Samuel Johnson in the eighteenth century put it, ‘to shew the reasonableness of religion, and the necessity of obedience to the Divine Law’. Unlike Shakespeare, Milton is self-consciously scholarly and theological in his use of the Bible, his English style elaborately Latinate. Thus, the first 25 lines of Paradise Lost are a patchwork of biblical allusion and theological reflection, mixed also with classical and Renaissance learning from Hesiod and Ariosto, in the epic style. Herein lies the continuity between Milton and the earliest days of English religious poetry based on the Bible and biblical themes, a continuity grounded in the intermingling of Christian, biblical, classical, and pagan reference and literary form, and nowhere is this more acutely and creatively evident than in the writing and art of the most ‘biblical’ of all English poets, William Blake.
Blake saw himself as nothing less than a reincarnation of Milton, and his poetic inclination was similarly towards the epic. In his manuscript epic ‘Vala’ or ‘The Four Zoas’ (c.1795–1808), Blake mingles a ‘pagan’ mythical language with a deeply Christian and biblical poetics in which the Crucifixion lies at the heart of history as both cosmic and apocalyptic. Blake is perhaps the most ‘scriptural’ of all English poets, even more than Milton writing poetry which is deeply continuous with the Bible yet profoundly contrary to traditions of biblical interpretation in an agreement of opposites that proposes a dialectical identity of heaven and hell and ‘a vision of a kenotic movement in the Godhead leading to the redemption of a cosmic humanity’. In his late poem ‘The Everlasting Gospel’ (c.1818), Blake identifies the High Priest Caiaphas with the bishops and hierarchy of the Church, suggesting that
… Caiaphas was in his own Mind A benefactor to Mankind: Both read the Bible day & night, But thou read'st black where I read white.
The most important books of the Bible for Blake are Ezekiel and Revelation, both apocalyptic texts, and his epic vision celebrates a kenosis, or self-emptying of the Divine (see Phil. 2: 8 ), and the cross as a manifestation of an utterly alienated God.
For the Divine Lamb, Even Jesus who is the Divine Vision, Permitted all, lest Man should fall into Eternal Death; For when Luvah sunk down, himself put on the robes of blood Lest the state call'd Luvah should cease; & the Divine Vision Walked in robes of blood till he who slept should awake. (‘Vala’, or ‘The Four Zoas’, 2nd Night, lines 261–5)
Though formally uneducated, Blake was clearly well aware of some of the most significant movements in biblical criticism in the eighteenth century, not least the revolutionary ‘discovery’ of biblical poetics by Bishop Robert Lowth (1710–87), so that, in John Drury's words, ‘biblical criticism here enables biblical creativity, and in the mind of a poet who understands … the structure of the canonical books and will not “resist his genius”, the bounds of the canon are splendidly broken.’
Strangely, perhaps, the closest to Blake of eighteenth-century poets is the nonconformist hymn-writer Isaac Watts (1674–1748), in his sense of biblical dialectic, supremely in his poem ‘Crucifixion to the World by the Cross of Christ’, a meditation on Galatians 6: 14 , still sung in churches today as the Passiontide hymn ‘When I survey the wondrous cross’, although the crucial verse (which Blake would have loved) is invariably omitted from hymn books:
His dying crimson like a robe Spreads o'er his body on the Tree, Then am I dead to all the globe, And all the globe is dead to me.
Here Christ's blood becomes his regal garment, his death becomes our death to wordly things, and his death (as in John 19: 30 ) becomes his moment of victory.
In Blake, as throughout Romanticism in both England and Germany, a new mythological approach to the Bible combined with a new understanding of history to promote a sense of the need for a modern mythology and an appropriation of the Bible into literature even as biblical criticism, as an academic pursuit, was isolating the biblical texts from the rest of ‘secular’ literature. Not only were biblical narratives and the ‘design of biblical history’ finding their way into the developing genre of the novel, but the ancient interpretative practice, present in the Bible itself, of typology was reinstated in nineteenth-century literature, thereby profoundly affecting the secular culture of the Victorian age. Thus, Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre (1847) is a pre-eminent example of what Thomas Carlyle (1795–1881) called ‘natural supernaturalism’, an appropriation of the biblical drama of fall and redemption ending in a rediscovered ‘Eden’, and the work of one who, as a daughter of the vicarage, was constantly exposed to the reading of the Bible through the liturgical year. In addition Brontë was powerfully influenced by the biblicism of John Bunyan's great allegory The Pilgrim's Progress (1678, 1684), whose status in the nineteenth century was almost that of the Bible itself.
For the Victorians, one biblical passage stands out as a typological image ubiquitously present in literature. It is Deuteronomy 34: 1–4 , the brief account of Moses' view of the Promised Land from the summit of Mount Pisgah as he dies seeing the goal of his journeying but finally denied access into Canaan: ‘And the Lord said unto him, This is the land which I sware unto Abraham, unto Isaac, and unto Jacob, saying, I will give it unto thy seed: I have caused thee to see it with thine eyes, but thou shalt not go over thither’ (Deuteronomy 34: 4 ). In Charles Kingsley's novel of the working classes, Alton Locke (1850), the Promised Land becomes America as the hero emigrates from the miseries of Europe, only to die of consumption on the voyage across the Atlantic:
Yes! I have seen the land! Like a purple fringe upon the golden sea, ‘while parting day dies like the dolphin’, there it lay upon the far horizon—the great young free new world! and every tree, and flower, and insect on it new!—a wonder and a joy—which I shall never see…No,—I shall never reach the land.
Elsewhere in prose, in a passage which he planned to use in the second volume of Modern Painters (1846), John Ruskin contemplates the beauty of the Alps between Chamouni and Les Tines as a kind of metaphorical Pisgah granting a glimpse of eternity: ‘And then I learned—what till then I had not known—the real meaning of the word Beautiful.’ Ruskin here draws upon not only the Bible, but after it, Milton's use of the Pisgah experience in the last two books of Paradise Lost, innumerable nonconformist and evangelical hymns such as Isaac Watts's ‘A Prospect of Heaven makes Death easy’ (‘There is a land of pure delight’), and finally the poetry of Wordsworth and Coleridge.
Among Victorian poets, Tennyson uses the Pisgah sight to describe the death of King Arthur at the end of The Idylls of the King (1842), Swinburne returns to it in his poem ‘Evening on the Broads’ (1880), but perhaps most interesting is Matthew Arnold's use of it in Empedocles on Etna (1852). For Arnold's Empedocles is a latter-day Moses, or rather his Victorian antithesis, for he receives no vision of the future and for him there is no Promised Land but only death without consolation. The ironic echoes of Deuteronomy 34 in Empedocles flow from the pen of the Arnold of ‘Dover Beach’ (1867) for whom the ‘sea of faith’ has finally withdrawn. But there is another side to Arnold, evidenced in his later studies of biblical interpretation, St. Paul and Protestantism (1870), Literature and Dogma (1873), and God and the Bible (1875). In Literature and Dogma Arnold attempts to recover the Bible as work of literature, its terms to be understood as poetry and as a magnificent achievement within the corpus of ‘World literature’ (a phrase taken from Goethe's term Weltliteratur) alongside Aeschylus, Sophocles, Dante, and Shakespeare. In chapter 1, Arnold suggests that theologians have claimed a scientific precision for words like ‘grace’, ‘new birth’, and ‘justification’ which, to St Paul, were literary terms, and he insists that in the Bible there is ‘a sense of the inadequacy of language in conveying man's ideas of God, which contrasts strongly with the licence of affirmation in Western theology’. Arnold, then, returns to the Bible and to poetry as an escape from the hard-edged ‘science’ of the nineteenth century, a soft-focus Bible with its tentative ‘language thrown out at an object of consciousness not fully grasped, which inspired emotion’. Here, clearly, a particular understanding of the nature of poetic language has a profound effect upon Arnold's understanding of the nature of theology itself.
In stark contrast to Arnold, the language and poetics of early twentieth-century modernism are sharp and precise in their interactions with the Bible. If the novelist D. H. Lawrence (1885–1930) continues the traditions of Victorian fiction in, for example, the Edenic themes and imagery of Lady Chatterley's Lover (1928), a year earlier a poem by T. S. Eliot (1888–1965), ‘Journey of the Magi’, is a crisp intertext with Matthew 2, its images as hard and penetrating as the coldness which they describe. But by the far the greatest ‘biblical’ epic in the first half of the twentieth century, greater even than Thomas Mann's Joseph tetralogy, is James Joyce's Finnegans Wake (1939), described by Thomas Altizer as ‘the culmination of our Western literature…a culmination that is ending or apocalypse itself.’ The Wake embodies a liturgical action which is centred on the Eucharist, in writing and text, re-enacting the biblical narrative from Genesis to Revelation in a manner not achieved even by Blake, Joyce's poetic predecessor. It opens in Dublin, which is Eden, ‘riverrun, past Eve and Adam's, from swerve of shore to bend of bay’, in a final triumph of Romanticism's mythological aspirations. On the first page, in which ‘bland old isaac’ rubs shoulders with Sir Tristram, is suffered a fall ‘of a once wallstrait oldparr is retaled early in bed and later on life down through all christian minstrelsy’.
Though deeply Catholic, even as the Geneva Bible and the King James Version are deeply Protestant, Joyce's remarkable, intricate and punning language is actually within the tradition of English of Chaucer, the English Bibles of the sixteenth century, and Shakespeare, with its ease of punning, its entertaining of ambiguity, and its sharp refusal of definition. Its last lines, with their themes of adoration and ‘coming’ relate to the visionary last two chapters of Revelation.
Yes. Carry me along, taddy, like you done through the toy fair. If I seen him bearing down on me now under whitespread wings like he'd come from Arkangels, I sink I'd die down over his feet, humbly dumbly, only to washup. Yes, tid. There's where. First. We pass through grass behush the bush to. Whish! A gull. Gulls. Far calls. Coming, far! End here. Us then. Finn again! Take. Bussoftlhee, mememoree! Till thousends-thee. Lps. The keys to. Given! A way a lone a last a loved a long the
In this end there is a beginning, for the end of this last sentence is the first sentence of the whole book, but as in Revelation 21 , it is a creation made anew.
Twentieth-century fiction has remained fascinated with the Bible, though usually far more pedantically than in Joyce's work. In the second half of the twentieth century, encouraged no doubt by cinema's fascination with the stories of the Bible, there has been a flourishing sub-genre in fiction which retells biblical narrative. One of the more successful books by English novelists in recent years is Howard Jacobson's The Very Model of a Man (1992), a complex, postmodern revisiting of the story of Cain with satirical leanings which are not always under control. Feminist writers have repeatedly taken up the legends of Mary Magdalene, a figure compiled from a variety of gospel references to different women, though of these only Carolyn Slaughter's Magdalene (1978) and Michèle Roberts's The Wild Girl (1984) can claim to be serious literature. In a note at the beginning of her novel, Roberts reflects:
Medieval and later tradition in art, hagiography, legends, poems and plays collapses the figure of Mary Magdalene, briefly mentioned in the Gospels, into that of Mary of Bethany, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, and also into that of the sinful woman who anoints Christ. Although many modern scholars distinguish separate figures in the gospel accounts, I have chosen to follow the tradition of centuries, the spinning of stories around a composite character.
Although her claims are, to an extent, scholarly—she refers, for example, to her use of the Nag Hammadi gospels—Roberts is following an ancient synchretistic tradition in literature which is present even in the Bible itself. Thus she claims in The Wild Girl ‘to imagine another long-lost gospel retrieved from its burial place’. Biblical scholarship, on the other hand, has tended, at least in more recent centuries, to be dissective, separating out different strands entangled in the biblical texts and their traditions in the interests of historical precision and careful thought. Nowhere has this literary/theological tension been more acutely felt then in the long list of novels, dating well back into the nineteenth century, which explore, in one way or another, the ‘life of Christ’. These may refer to the gospel narratives directly or indirectly, and critical reaction to the best of them has tended to be a confused mixture of literary appreciation and religious confusion or outright disapproval. Critics, even in the twentieth century, have, it seems, never quite overcome Marvell's fear of the ‘ruin of sacred truths’, or else feel uncomfortable at the intrusion of the gospel story into fictional narrative. Thus, for example, criticism has remained divided over William Faulkner's Pulitzer Prize-winning A Fable (1954), an extended parable of Christ's Passion set within the First World War, while the recent film by Martin Scorsese has ensured both the notoriety as well as the place within literature of Nikos Kazantzakis's The Last Temptation (O Teleftaios Peirasmos, 1959), described by Peter Bien, its translator, as ‘the summation of the thought and experience of a man whose entire life was spent in the battle between spirit and flesh’.
In this brief chapter it has not been possible to be inclusive, but only to refer briefly to some of the major instances in English literature of the Bible in literature. Almost no mention has been made of literature outside the English tradition. Little has been said of modern poetry. Perhaps here mention should be made of Geoffrey Hill and particularly his collection For the Unfallen: Poems 1952–1958 (1959) in which ‘Canticle for Good Friday’ stands out as a remarkable meditiation on the cross from the perspective of Doubting Thomas. Neither has anything been said, except fleetingly, of the Bible in postmodern fiction, plays, and poetry.
The intention has rather been to provide a generous overview of the subject from the earliest times in English literature. For more detail, by far the best (and essentially the only) reference book is David Lyle Jeffrey's A Dictionary of Biblical Tradition in English Literature (1992). Useful also is the two-volume anthology of poetry based upon specific passages of the Bible from Genesis to Revelation, Chapters into Verse (1993), edited by Robert Atwan and Laurance Wieder. Finally, The Bible and Literature by David Jasper and Stephen Prickett (1999) is an annotated collection of literary passages based on selected biblical readings, with detailed introductory essays and bibliographies.