An appreciation for the literary artistry of the Bible began early in the history of interpretation. It reached a high water mark during the era of the Renaissance and Protestant Reformation, when poets and storytellers viewed the Bible as a literary model to be emulated, and when interpreters of the Bible were sensitive to its literary style and genres.

The idea of the Bible as literature received sporadic attention throughout the twentieth century, but its most notable revival began in the late 1960s, when high school and college courses in the literature of the Bible became popular. By the 1980s, the literary approach had attracted the allegiance of biblical scholars, whose traditional methods became strongly influenced by, and often replaced by, tools of analysis long practiced by literary critics in the humanities.

How Literary Is the Bible?

Acceptance of a literary approach to the Bible has always been rendered difficult (and sometimes suspect) because of the mixed nature of biblical writing. Three impulses and three corresponding types of material exist side by side in the Bible: the didactic or theological impulse to teach religious truth, the historical impulse to record and interpret historical events, and the literary/aesthetic impulse to recreate experiences and be artistically beautiful. This combination of religious, documentary, and literary interests in the Bible has made the literary study of the Bible different from the study of other literature. Literary critics of the Bible find themselves sharing the same book with scholars who approach it with very different methods.

Despite this complexity, the literary approach to the Bible can be defined with precision. It is rooted in an awareness that literature is itself a genre with identifying traits. These include the impulse to image reality and human experience instead of conveying abstract information, the presence of literary genres, reliance on figurative language and rhetorical devices, an interest in artistry as something intrinsically valuable (with special emphasis on unity), and stylistic excellence. A literary approach to the Bible begins with these features as its agenda of concerns and proceeds to apply familiar tools of literary analysis to the parts of the Bible that are most thoroughly literary in nature.

An Imaginative Book.

To say that the Bible is an imaginative book is to call attention to the most important differentia of literature—its impulse to image reality. Whereas expository or informational writing tends toward abstraction and proposition, the aim of literature is to recreate an experience as concretely as possible. Literature takes human experience rather than abstract thought as its subject, and it puts a reader through an experience instead of appealing primarily to a grasp of ideas. The truth that literature portrays is primarily truthfulness to human experience in the world.

Biblical writing as a whole exists on a continuum between the poles of the expository and the literary, or between propositions and images (including characters and events), but the literary impulse to incarnate meaning—to image experience—probably dominates. Wherever we turn in the Bible, we find appeals to our image‐making and image‐perceiving capacity. The Bible is consistently rooted in the concrete realities of human life in this world, and a literary approach is sensitive to this experiential dimension.

It is a truism that whereas history tells us what happened, literature tells us what happens. Literature portrays universal human experience and as a result does not go out of date. A literary approach to the Bible is therefore interested in the universal, always‐recognizable human experiences that are portrayed. In the Bible, we see ourselves, not only characters and events from the past. Adam and Jacob, David and Ruth are paradigms of the human condition as well as figures in historical narrative.

Because biblical literature embodies its meanings in characters, events, and images, it communicates by indirectness. It gives example rather than precept. The result is that literature puts a greater burden of interpretation on a reader than straightforward expository prose does. Even such a simple literary form as metaphor (“God is light”) requires a reader to interpret how one thing is like another. Here, too, the Bible shows itself to be a work of imagination. Again and again we find that biblical writers entrust their utterance to a literary medium in order to achieve the memorability, affective power, and truthfulness to lived experience that are characteristic of literature.

Literary Genres in the Bible.

The commonest way to define literature is by its genres or literary types. Through the centuries, people have agreed that certain genres (such as story, poetry, and drama) are literary in nature. Other types, such as historical chronicles, theological essays, and genealogies, are expository (informational). Still others can fall into either category. Letters, sermons, and orations, for example, can move in the direction of literature by virtue of experiential concreteness, figurative language, and artistic style.

The Bible is a mixture of genres, some of them literary in nature. The major literary genres in the Bible are narrative or story, poetry (especially lyric poetry), proverb, and visionary writing (including prophecy and apocalypse). The New Testament *letters frequently become literary because of their occasional nature, figurative language, and rhetorical or artistic patterning. Other literary genres of note in the Bible include epic, tragedy, gospel, parable, satire, pastoral, oratory, encomium, epithalamion (wedding poem), elegy (funeral poem), and a host of subtypes of lyric poetry (such as nature poem, psalm of praise, lament, love poem, psalm of worship, hymn).

Genre study is central to any literary approach to the Bible because every genre has its own conventions, expectations, and corresponding rules of interpretation. A biblical story, for example, is a sequence of events, not a series of ideas. It is structured around a plot conflict, not a logical argument. It communicates by means of setting, character, and event, not propositions. In short, the literary genres of the Bible require us to approach them in terms of the conventions and procedures that they possess.

Literary Language and Rhetoric.

Literature uses distinctive resources of language. This is most evident in poetry. Poets, for example, think in images and figures of speech: God is a shepherd, people are sheep, the tongue is a fire. It is noteworthy how much of the Bible is poetic in form, including books in which it dominates: Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, and most of the prophets.

The whole realm of figurative language looms large in any consideration of the Bible as literature. Figurative language in the Bible includes metaphor, simile, symbol, hyperbole, apostrophe (address to someone or something absent as though they or it were present), personification, paradox, pun, irony, and wordplay. These resources of language are not limited to poetry but pervade the entire Bible, including parts of it that would not be considered primarily literary. Everywhere we turn in the Bible—in narrative, in the prophecy, in the Gospels, in the New Testament epistles, in apocalypse—we find figurative language. In fact, it is hard to find a page of the Bible that does not contain figurative language.

The literary use of language also includes rhetorical devices, or language arranged by stylized patterns. Examples include parallel sentences or clauses (the standard verse form in biblical poetry), any highly patterned arrangement of clauses or words or phrases, rhetorical questions, question and answer constructions, imaginary dialogues, and the aphoristic conciseness of a proverb. These rhetorical forms pervade the Bible, lending a literary quality to the Bible as a whole, giving it qualities of conscious artistry and heightening the audience's attention.

Artistry in the Bible.

Literature is an art form, and one of the criteria by which we classify something as literary is the presence of beauty, form, craft, and technique. The elements of artistic form include pattern or design, unity, theme and variation, balance, contrast, symmetry, repetition or recurrence, coherence, and unified progression. The artistic spirit regards these as having inherent value.

When judged by these criteria of aesthetic form or beauty, the Bible contains artistic and literary masterpieces. The stories of the Bible are models of concise shapeliness, with every detail contributing to the total effect. Biblical poetry, as well as some of its prose (notably the discourses of Jesus), is composed with conscious artistry in the form known as parallelism, in which two or more lines use different words to express the same idea in similar grammatical form. Whole books of the Bible show similar evidence of artistic patterning, with the gospel according to Matthew, for example, alternating between sections of narrative and sections of discourse.

The most basic of all artistic principles is unity, and one of the things that has set off the literary approach to the Bible from other approaches is a preoccupation with unifying patterns and literary wholes. Literary unity consists of various things: the structure of a work or passage, a dominant theme, an image pattern, or progressive development of a motif. Whatever form it takes, unity is evidence of an artistic urge for order, shapeliness, and wholeness of effect.

Several functions are served by the artistry that we find in the Bible. Artistry intensifies the impact of what is said, but it also serves the purposes of pleasure, delight, and enjoyment. These purposes are abundantly satisfied when we read the Bible, as has been repeatedly shown by literary critics, who assume and find conscious artistry and design there.

The Literary Unity of the Bible.

The central protagonist in the overall story of the Bible is God. The characterization of God is the central literary concern of the Bible, and it is pursued from beginning to end. Hardly anything is viewed apart from its relation to the deity.

The Bible is also unified by its religious orientation. It is pervaded by a consciousness of the presence of God. Human experience is constantly viewed in a religious and moral light. One result is that the literature of the Bible invests human experience with a sense of ultimacy. A vivid consciousness of values pervades biblical literature.

Literary archetypes also unify the Bible. Archetypes are master images that recur throughout the Bible and throughout literature. They are either images (light, water, hill), character types (hero, villain, king), or plot motifs (journey, rescue, temptation). The Bible is filled with such archetypes or master images, which lend an elemental quality to the Bible and make its world strongly unified in a reader's imagination.

The Necessity of a Literary Approach.

The foregoing discussion suggests why a literary approach to the Bible is necessary. The Bible is, in significant ways, a work of literature. It will yield its meanings fully only if explored in terms of its kinds of writing. Understanding it depends partly on the reader's ability to be receptive to concrete pictures of human experience, to know what to expect from various literary genres, to interpret figurative language and recognize rhetorical patterns. Finally, a literary approach can also enhance the enjoyment of the Bible.

Leland Ryken