All modern forms of Western art have been immeasurably influenced by the Bible—this we can take as a given, even if we include contemporary forms such as video and other recent technological media. But literature, one of the oldest artistic forms, holds a special place. This is because the Bible is itself  literature. And this in two senses: the texts of the biblical canon, however construed, are obviously literary in their form; but those very texts are also “literature” in the sense of a genus of art. And herein lies one of the great and ongoing controversies accompanying any discussion of a sacred text and literature: At what point does the art stop and the sacred take over? Or, if we should not speak of art and the sacred as mutually exclusive, how should we understand the relationship between the sacred canon, with its divine seal, and subsequent creative works of writing that draw, directly or indirectly, their influence or their material from it? The art form we call “literature” poses these questions in a most amplified manner. For literature shares, formally and constitutively, the very essence of the sacred text. “The Bible is literature” is therefore a proposition theologically fraught.

Robert Alter and Frank Kermode, both literary scholars, edited what for many has become a seminal text in thinking about the Bible as literary art: The Literary Guide to the Bible (1987). In their Introduction they assert the Bible’s centrality in the cultural formation of the West but hold the view that models of literary criticism for “secular” texts have much to offer in our reading of the biblical canon in today’s present world. For recent criticism can promote, they claim, readings with “broad cultural justifications which remain quite apart from religious considerations,” with the result that the Bible can now enter the literary canon as much as literature can define the biblical canon (1987, pp. 2–3). This merging of the religious with the so-called secular rankled those with more protective views of what constitutes the sacred but heralded a new way of thinking about the literary nature of the Bible: the sacred text can be influenced by literary culture in just the same way as literary culture can be influenced by the sacred text, and critically both sides need each other.

The idea of literary art as somehow biblical, or of the sacred as somehow operating in fictional modern literature, is an even more challenging conception. For it is one thing to say, as Matthew Arnold had said, that the sacred can work through a literary mode, and that the Bible is our greatest proof; it is quite another to say that a work of modern literature, even if it has no ostensible religious content, can find itself in sacred territory. Alter and Kermode (1987), following Arnold’s lead, suggest that contemporary literary criticism can inform the scriptures in important and necessary ways. But others, long before their volume, have suggested that the literary itself, qua literature, carries an important sacred dimension. Nathan A. Scott Jr., an American scholar at Chicago and Virginia, began in the 1960s to redirect New Criticism away from the text as a self-enclosed and self-autonomous entity, away from what Northrop Frye had called “centripetal” criticism, and toward a criticism that takes into account the possibilities of an “outside” mediated in the form of faith or belief. Scott had understood that traditional forms of faith and belief were severely exercised (and in some cases exorcised) by a deep modernist critique, and much of modernist literature was an attempt to come to terms with their absence. But this did not mean that faith and belief in themselves were irrecoverable, even Christian faith and belief. New forms were required. In relation to his Wild Prayer of Longing: Poetry and the Sacred Scott speaks of modern “literary stratagems … which seek to reinstate the possibility of a sacramental appropriation of the world but to do so without resort to super-naturalist illusion” (1971, p. 81). The power of the sacred was still possible, its sacramental charge still available, but now through a poetry that refigures the world as sacralized, because poetry’s very figuring and refiguring is a sacramental gesture. This was a radical shift from T. S. Eliot’s idea of literary criticism earlier in the century, where criticism was to be conducted by ethical and theological standards, consciously or unconsciously, and where the Bible informed those standards necessarily, because criticism, and indeed “literature,” always comes after the dispensation that is the Christian event. For Scott, literature is not a second-order reflection or judgment on faith; literature brings us into an “existential immediacy” with life and its perishable nature, with the mystery life and death incur, and it is precisely this mystery, as Mystery, that reinvests our world with sacrament. Literature, and its poetic longing, is therefore at its best a sacramental experience.

From the tradition of Scott’s criticism stems then another way of thinking about modern literary works and their relation to the Bible: literature, like all the arts, is not simply a handmaiden to the sacred canon, or completely separate from all its concerns (as “secular”), but shares in its very sacredness, and therefore challenges (by expanding) our understanding of canonicity at its roots. Robert Detweiler could therefore talk about a “religious reading” of certain texts not normally associated with the Bible (Kafka, Borges, Kundera, Atwood, even the author of the controversial The Story of O), whereby we read on multiple levels not to close down the text’s meaning from a particular religious or theological perspective, but precisely to open it up, to lend it the inspiration of a nontraditionally theological or religious possibility (Breaking the Fall, 1989). In this vein David Jasper, in the same year, could write about the “continuous interplay between religion or theology and literature” through which “we remain open to the risks, excitements and contingencies of the struggle for truth,” a struggle shared by all writers and readers of literature, whether inspired directly by some divine figure or indirectly by Scott’s sacral longing (1989, p. 138).

These two modes of relating the Bible to literature—the Bible as itself literary and literature as in some way “biblical”—come to mark all of what we might call “modernity.” For the very problem at the heart of the modern project, that is, the problem of recasting the foundations of authority, a project begun, we might say, by Luther’s reforms and carried forward, philosophically, by Descartes’s Cogito, becomes a question about how we author our world, even if no longer a question easily posed and still less easily resolved. For at the very basis of “authority,” as a power or right to determine, is the “author” who generates determination through origination, by bringing something into determined existence. Under the old biblical paradigm, when God (Elohim, Yahweh, Theos, Logos, etc.) is seen as the author of all things, the basis of authority is clear, and literature has its certain precedence. (John 1:1: God, as Word, was there from the beginning.) But when the generation of determination shifts to the human self, whether through a Lutheran priesthood of all believers or through a Cartesian thinking about thinking, the precedence of authority, of authorship, of origination, becomes far more uncertain or problematic. For the basis now lies in the present and the new, the ability of the self to self-determine from what has had no previous determination, or at least not a determination that can be relied upon with self-certainty. Modern authority, and hence modern authorship, is always a question of self-generation, of self-origination, and this puts biblical authority into a new light: either the Bible must be seen as its own self-originating authority, which creates a line from Luther’s sola scriptura through to Alter and Kermode’s Bible as a work of literary art subject to modern (nonecclesial, nonconfessional, even nontheistic) modes of criticism and critical engagement, or literature must be seen as participating in the very self-originating authority that constitutes the Bible, which opens up the text (both the fictive text and the sacred text) to all the modern uncertainties surrounding selfhood and self-determination. To look then at the Bible in modern literature, as much as at the Bible of modern literature, is to necessarily take both sides on board, even if the latter, this “new” (modern) way of looking at literature and its originating of authority, will dominate what is to follow.

The expanse of literature under the category of “modern” is of course unnavigable in any comprehensive way. Even thematic divisions would quickly exceed our available space. But looking at the principle forms of literature—poetry, novels, and drama—might help us to encapsulate the manner by which we might say the Bible “has come into its own” through the gestures of modernity and its self-origination: the self-authority that is the self-authoring of authority, which in turn is the self-generating of the literary, which in some mysterious way manifests the sacred.


Poetry, the most ancient of literary forms, is also the form most closely associated with the divine. This is not merely because poetry best assists in retention (mnemonically and orally), but also because, formally, it provides the author with the greatest room for semantic maneuver. If the divine, by definition, exceeds our ability to capture it wholly or even partially within the limits of this world and the constraints of our language, the poetic form, predicated on a nonpropositional structure, allows for this excess more than any other. This accounts for why a good portion of the Bible itself is made up of poetry, whether Hebrew or, in its way, Christian (Gospel sermons, prayers, parables, or Johannine revelations).

In the West, then, early modern poetry was as one might expect: steeped in biblical content and allusion. In fact, following Luther’s radical reforms, much poetry of the sixteenth century was taken up with translating the biblical text directly into various vernacular tongues, especially the Psalms, and this ambition culminated in the commission by King James of the English translation of the Bible that emerged in 1611, that most defining of translations, which did so much to anchor the English language and the culture from which it arose—that is, in the words of one poet laureate, “to fuse history with poetry.” That the version was labeled “Authorized” shows us an important turning point: the regal authority of the old medieval paradigm, as grounded in a divine right of kings, now originates a text whose departure from the original authority, the Latin text of medieval Catholicism, inaugurates a new standard of literature, at least for the English-speaking West. This standard will now open up the possibility, ironically, of challenging even regal authority.

Perhaps the modern dynamic between Bible and poetry, and the re-visioning of authority that attends to it, are no better captured than in John Milton’s Paradise Lost and in the reception of this epic text by later generations. For Milton, being both anti-royalist and anti-prelatical, had much disdain for ruling conceptions of authority. All his writing, whether tracts or poems, challenged traditional authority in some manner. (Ironically, his official position as Secretary for Foreign Tongues in Cromwell’s republican Commonwealth reversed many of his fellow poets’ tendencies: instead of translation from the biblical Latin into English verse, Milton translated from English to Latin, though now texts of foreign political correspondence.) And biblical authority was not immune. After the publication of Paradise Lost in 1667, with its sprawling 12 books that recount the first three chapters of the book of Genesis, embellished with the fall of Satan, whose character overwhelms the opening pages, and indeed, for many, the entire epic, there were some who felt the poet, as with his political allegiances, had overstepped his boundaries. The most famous of responses was Milton’s contemporary and friend Andrew Marvell, who in his poem “On Mr. Milton’s Paradise Lost ” expressed initial worry that the poet, now blind,

… would ruin (for I saw him strong)The sacred truth to fable and old song …

(1972, p. 192)

The idea of “ruining the sacred truth,” on the strength of prodigious poetic prowess, has become a common refrain in modern poetry and criticism ever since, raising what the literary critic Harold Bloom later called “the unresolvable aesthetic issue of poetry and belief” (1989, p. 4), unresolvable because the sacred is in both the poetry and the belief. But the sacred is not threatened merely by poetic greatness, which usurps the divine office of creation, but by what that poetic greatness suggests about authority and authorship: Whose account of the creation, of Eden, of the Fall, of restoration and redemption, now carries greater authority? Who really authors the world? In the premodern West, this question was never in doubt, and even if someone like Dante might traverse the divine cosmos under the guidance of the classical poet Virgil, the pagan muse must be left behind upon entrance to Paradise, where the more godly Beatrice, as the beatific vision of salvation, takes over. But in Milton’s first epic, we are not gaining Paradise; we are losing it. And our great guide is Satan more than the angelic order. Yet that very loss is also a gain, a poetic felix culpa by which we assume self-authority and enact self-determination, even if still under the guidance of Providence. So the poem ends: “The World was all before them, where to choose / Their place of rest …” (1957, p. 469). If the departure from Eden in Genesis leads to the unfolding of the divine narrative that becomes holy scripture, the account of God’s way with the vicissitudes of human experience, the departure from Eden in Milton is an opening onto a new world yet to be determined. In this sense, what is “lost” is the old structure of predetermined reality, and what is gained is what stands to be reimagined.

The eighteenth-century poet William Blake understood this new sense of “where to choose” in the most radical of fashions. One might even say he transformed it, following Milton’s theological audacity and poetic hubris, into “where to create.” In reacting against the Enlightenment’s valorization of  Reason, Blake felt that the force and desire required to bring things into existence, the generative power of the gods, needed desperate recovery, suppressed as they had become by rational thought. The Hebrew prophets of the Bible become the great exemplars of such an imaginative energy that is willful creation, but as much for their contrariety as for any divine affirmation. It is through opposition that joys spring forth, just as it is through Milton’s Satan that the poetic imagination is fired. Thus in “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell,” Blake speaks of a poetic energy of creation that is the very inversion of the biblical tradition: Satan, as the active power of Evil, becomes the Messiah, and Christ forms a heaven out of that which he has stolen from Satan’s abode (body, desire, imagination). The history of this inversion, claims Blake, is found in Milton’s Paradise Lost, and Milton as true poet becomes “of the Devil’s party without knowing it.” This, of course, is not just a radical but indeed a heretical inversion of authority. But it goes to the core of all Romantic thinking thereafter, the poetry of which suggests now a self-authoring poetry arising no longer from the Muse of the heavens, or out of mimetic reflection, but by its own internal powers. In the words of Blake’s Ezekiel: “We of Israel taught that the Poetic Genius (as you now call it) was the first principle, and all others merely derivative” (1966, p. 153).

If we follow this trajectory of Milton to Blake as the principal vector of modern poetry’s dynamic interplay with the Bible, we might suggest, despite the dangers of such reduction, that the source of authority and authoring shifts from the predetermined text to the determining text. Consider the equally audacious Faust of Goethe (1808) as he considers how to appropriate the opening of John’s Gospel:

It says: “In the beginning was the Word”: why, nowI’m stuck already! I must change that; how?Is then “the word” so great and high a thing?There is some other rendering,Which with the spirit’s guidance I must find.We read “In the beginning was the Mind.”Before you write this first phrase, think again;Good sense eludes the overhasty pen.Does “mind” set worlds on their creative course?It means: “In the beginning was the Force.”So it should be—but as I write this too,Some instinct warns me that it will not do.The spirit speaks! I see how it must read,And boldly write: “In the beginning was the Deed!”

(2008, lines 1224–1237)

The “Word” here becomes the enactment of its very self. The poet actualizes the sacred word into being.

Is such an act—the appropriation of the Bible by, in effect, re-creating it—sustainable? We have mentioned Matthew Arnold’s nineteenth-century attempt to rescue the Bible for culture by emphasizing its enduring literary potency, an attempt in line with Schleiermacher’s earlier “Romantic” attempt to redress religion in the language of its “cultured despisers,” and with Bultmann’s later theological attempt to “demythologize” the biblical text. But participating in the creation of the sacred is quite another matter—this is what poetry, quite apart from theology, continually threatens to do in its post-Miltonic and post-Blakean (or post-Cartesian and post-Kantian) world. The modernist poets of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, from Hardy through to Lawrence, Yeats, Pound, Stein, Stevens, H.D., and Eliot (to name only some of the more prominent English-speaking poets), will have their doubts, each in their way. Or as the German-speaking Rilke wrote,

Always facing creation, all we seeis the reflection of the free and openthat we’ve darkened …

(2005, p. 57)

Eliot, for his part, will continue to see the Bible as the foundation of Western thinking and aesthetic sensibility, even if his own appropriation of the biblical text comes through a melange of Western and non-Western influences, as seen in both “The Waste Land” and the later “Four Quartets.” But there remains a certain discontinuity. If the Lord’s Prayer can still echo through “The Hollow Men” as a refrain, it ends unfinished:

For Thine isFor Life isFor Thine is the

(1952, 1971, p. 59)

The modernity of the late twentieth century is a difficult phase for poetry—of any kind—as it tries to come to terms with the torn and tattered state of its religious and aesthetic vestiges. Certain events threaten the very possibility, and Adorno’s now famous claim that poetry after the Holocaust has become inconceivable is put to the test only in the most haunting of manners by such mid-century attempts as those made by Nelly Sachs and Paul Celan. How now can the poet dare an aesthetic, when all authority to do so, including the authority of beauty and sublimity, has been rent from experience? The postmodern reaction, which in many ways was a reaction to the inbred authoritarianisms that culminated in the Auschwitz atrocities, only furthered the question, and left all manner of authorship and authority reeling. The Bible’s authority might have been at its utmost end culturally and aesthetically, but like all other authorities it was still there to be ironized, as we get in John Ashbery’s short poem “Anticipated Stranger,” whose mordant lines about the agony of living (in anticipation, as the title suggests, echoing Beckett, of some form of relief) end: “God will find the pattern and break it” (2006, p. 36). Here God retains a kind of omnipotence, but only toward his own (and perhaps poetry’s) disestablishment, or toward the violence required to destabilize the authorities (and words) patterned on his name. The poetry of the twenty-first century continues this ambivalence: the Bible and its God by no means retain cultural authority; yet at the same time, only the divine can, ultimately, keep that authority at bay.


The narrative form of the novel, as a modern invention, trades less on the ambivalence inherent in the poetic form, whereby the voice of the monotheistic God beyond all language is given its greatest room to conceal itself. (Ashbery’s Stranger: “I mean … /Oh well, less said the better, they all say” [2006, p. 36].) It trades, rather, on the development of a conscious self, coming to realize its own development, if not (as Hegel might say) its own consciousness. In this sense, the Bible is not novelistic, even if one constructs a Heilsgeschichte out of the Israelite flight from Egypt to the Promised Land, from exile to reclamation, and from prophesied retribution toward messianic hope. Neither are the trials and tribulations of the early church, as depicted in the Acts of the Apostles, or in the Pauline letters. But the four Gospels are a different matter, insofar as they narrativize the life of a single protagonist, who reveals himself in an unfolding manner, which ends in a spectacle of passion and triumph. Now the self-revealing is hardly that of modern novels—for one, it is the revealing of God, now in human form—but it nevertheless allows modernity to see the Gospel form as a kind of forerunner to the depiction of the modern interior self and to begin to understand the Christ-figure, if not in wholly biographical terms, then in a way that separates the mythologized figure from his essential character and message. That this figure was the incarnation of the divine meant all the more that the God of the Bible, in Christian terms, was most divine when embedded in human context, or in the script of this world.

The earliest novels, from the seminal Don Quixote onward, present a central character in developing dialogue with the external world, even if, as with Quixote, that world proves all too interior. Though each of the biblical Gospels has a theological agenda for their Jesus, the idea of psychological development through a linear historical framework, or of the self as a continuum of internal processes unfolding in time, beyond the allegorical journey of Bunyan’s Pilgrim, lent itself nicely to adapting the Gospel records for more modern purposes. Around the beginning of the 1800s, fictionalized accounts of Jesus’s life began to emerge, perhaps foremost among them Karl Heinrich Venturini’s ambitious A Non-supernatural History of the Great Prophet of Nazareth (1800–1802), an attempt, as Albert Schweitzer wrote, “to grasp the inner connexion of cause and effect in the events and experiences of the life of Jesus” (2005, p. 38). Like others to follow him, such as David Friedrich Strauss and Ernest Renan, the author demythologized the miracles of Jesus in a thoroughly rational account of the “cause and effect.” But since little if any “inner connexion” was indicated in the Gospels themselves, the author was pressed upon to fill in the gaps creatively, leaving a portraiture of imaginative fiction, which included dramatic dialogue and scenic descriptions typical to many novels of its day. These works became hugely influential within the biblical scholarship of the later nineteenth and twentieth centuries, but they also gave impetus—and authority—to imaginative works outside of the historicism and rationalism of the academy, so that by the late 1800s, the figure of Jesus was able to leave his historical context altogether and appear in fictional works not bound in any way by the strictures of historical reconstruction.

Such a Jesus was rendered both literally and typologically. The Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1821–1881), for example, rendered both kinds. In his novel The Idiot (1869), the main character, Prince Myshkin, an epileptic idiot savant, displays an inherent goodness amid the excess and corruption of Russian nobility and emerges as a Christ-like figure who, though unable to offer salvation, at least offers a purifying perspective on the depravities of his time. In The Brothers Karamazov (1880), a more literal figure of Jesus appears in a chapter that has now taken on a life of its own, “The Grand Inquisitor.” There, in a prose “poem” by one of the titular brothers, Ivan, Jesus appears a day after a mass burning of heretics in Seville during the Spanish Inquisition and is instantly recognized by the people. But when on the steps of the Cathedral he raises a young child from the dead, the Cardinal, the Grand Inquisitor, imprisons him for trying to outmaneuver the church. The Inquisitor argues that humans are essentially weak and rebellious, while religion offers them the happiness they seek by providing the very three things Jesus denied in the temptation of the desert—miracle, mystery, and authority. The more existential Jesus, who preaches freedom from authority, is thus told to “ ‘Go, and come no more—don’t come at all—never, never!” (1958, p. 308). Unlike the previous quests for the historical Jesus, Dostoyevsky has little concern here with filling in the gaps left by the Gospels. Rather, Jesus is recast in a new setting, both within Ivan’s tale (sixteenth-century Spain) and within the novel itself (nineteenth-century Russia), to emphasize the radical, anti-establishment nature of Jesus’s life and message.

Both these novels of Dostoyevsky expose the difficult relationship between freedom and authority at the heart of any reinterpretation or representation of Jesus: in the latter case, Ivan the atheist, like Dostoyevsky the novelist, is free to recast Jesus, yet does so only to his pious brother Alyosha, who, in praising the parable, kisses Ivan on the lips, as Ivan’s Jesus had kissed the Inquisitor, in a complex move that suggests traditional authority embraces a new freedom.

Such a freedom is furthered in later novels like the even more audacious The Master and Margarita (1938) by Dostoyevsky’s compatriot Mikhail Bulgakov (1891–1940), where the devil, Pontius Pilate, Matthew, Judas, and Jesus all meet amid the wildness of Bulgakov’s contemporary Russia, to suggest there is no “essence” of Jesus, not even a radical essence, but only an ongoing interpretation mediated through a theatrical or aesthetic sense of truth. Or in the Yiddish novel of Sholem Asch (1880–1957), The Nazarene, which appeared a year later, a new gospel written by Judas Iscariot is discovered in an old bookshop by an anti-Semitic Polish scholar, who believes he was once a Roman governor during Christ’s time, and who adds his own story of Jesus. The common feature of such novels is a dehistoricizing of the original Gospels and an emphasis on their message’s open-ended, transhistorical nature, as it is forever reconceived and appropriated by the individual. But even in those modern novels that return Jesus to first-century Palestine, such as the controversial novel The Last Temptation (1953) by the Greek writer Nikos Kazantzakis (1885–1957), or The Gospel According to Jesus Christ (1991) by the Portuguese Nobel Prize winner José Saramago (1922–2010), both of which offer more psychologically probing depictions of Jesus, an existential appropriation remains at the forefront, even if Saramago allows a magic realism to invest the actions and words of his protagonist.

Typological depictions, for their part, abound in guises and contexts too numerous to count: such works as the Spanish writer Benito Peréz Galdós’s Nazarín (1895), the Japanese writer Shusaku Endo’s Wonderful Fool (1959—deliberately reminiscent of Prince Myshkin), the Kenyan writer Ngũgĩ Wa Thiong’o’s Matigari (1986), and even, most startlingly, the young hanged boy in Elie Wiesel’s Night (1958) represent only the start. In all such renderings, the Jesus of the Bible stands cast in the shadow. But the outline of that shadow is of such familiarity that it often seems cast more in front than behind.

If rationalist scholars, in reconstructing both historically and fictionally the central figure of the Christian story, the God-man himself, implicitly granted license to later novelists for imaginative revisioning of the biblical narratives, then the figure of Jesus was just the beginning. From the Christian scriptures, other figures emerged as centrally treated: Sholem Asch’s The Apostle (1943) and Mary (1951), for example, or Barabbas (1951) by the Swedish writer Pär Lagerkvist (1891–1974), and The Four Wise Men (1980) by the French writer Michel Tournier (b. 1924). Characters from the Hebrew scriptures are even more plentiful, from Thomas Mann’s voluminous Joseph and His Brothers (1926–1943) to Frederick Buechner’s novel about Jacob, The Son of Laughter (1993). Some figures recur more often than others—Noah, Moses, and David, for instance—and often in irreverence, as with two novels published in 1984, Timothy Findley’s story of Noah, Not Wanted on the Voyage (1984) and Joseph Heller’s story of King David, God Knows.

Examples of such biblical elaboration appear endless precisely because the novel, as a genre, excels in the elaboration of character, whereas the Bible, we know, even within the Gospels, is always theologically selective, leaving plenty of lacunae for interpretation and reinterpretation to roam. The novel draws its authority precisely from that need for ongoing interpretation—the “new” is built into its name—even if to undermine, as we have seen, the old pillars of authority. It is for this latter reason that many women writers have used the novel to challenge, under a feminist charge, the inherent patriarchy of both the Bible and its religions. An exemplary novel here is Michèle Roberts’s The Wild Girl (The Secret Gospel of Mary Magdalene) (1984), which tells the story of Jesus’s crucifixion from the perspective of a woman, and controversially Jesus’s lover, Mary Magdalene. Both this Mary and Mary the mother of Jesus receive much feminist treatment at the hands of both poets and novelists, from Audre Lorde to Margaret Atwood, but other women characters from the Hebrew scriptures also figure in this regard, such as Anita Diamant’s story of Dinah, Jacob’s daughter, in her novel The Red Tent (1996).

The novel, then, represents an ongoing challenge to orthodoxy and patriarchy through its self-authorized reimagination of the biblical text. Of course, biblical allusion is a standard feature in novels since their inception. But when literature takes the Bible as its direct departure point, by amplifying its very characters and stories, and thus by re-authoring its authority in the origination of its own novelty, it raises the question anew of what originates the sacred, and indeed the sacred text.


Drama has always been a difficult literary category by virtue of its doubled formal character: it is both written and performed. The performative nature introduces a different dimension to the interaction of the sacred text with creativity, for now the creative element is enacted, and not once but repeatedly, and so differently each time. This repetition introduces not only further interpretive scope but also risk: any one performance may go wrong. This is why tragedy is principally a dramatic form.

It has long been debated whether the Bible is in any way tragic in the sense that tragedy has been handed down to us since the ancient Greeks. Elizabethan theater, on the cusp of modernity, would suggest it was not, for in avoiding direct biblical subjects, even if saturated in biblical imagery and language, the Elizabethan stage, with Shakespeare at its pinnacle, did not find in the biblical material a source for either their tragic or their comic scenes, or for the characters whose fortunes rise and fall in those scenes. One might think that the last days of Jesus provided the strongest possibilities, and the medieval passion plays might corroborate this, but the conspicuous paucity of references to Jesus in modern dramatic literature, and the wholesale lack of examples where Jesus takes a central dramatic role (beyond liturgical and evangelical intentions, and a few musicals), suggests that there may be a general incompatibility between Jesus and the stage. For one, Golgotha is not a tragic event, insofar as its main character is seen (at least theologically) to defy the sense of “flaw” that marks the tragic fall, and therefore to defy death itself. Nor is it comic, insofar as its resolution, a rising from the grave and an ascension into heaven, is not one inherent within the given cosmos: the harmonization that comes through Christ’s salvific act in fact reorders the cosmos (this, at least, is Paul’s understanding, and much of Christian theology immediately to follow). Thus, under the conventions of the classical dramatic form, the Christian story does not obtain. As Nietzsche preached, it was always going to be “Dionysus vs. the Crucified.”

There is occasional reference to Jesus in the plays of Bertold Brecht (1898–1956)—the song sung by the priest in Mother Courage and Her Children, for example—and of Samuel Beckett—perhaps most famously at the beginning of Waiting for Godot (1953), with the discussion of the thieves on the cross. But such references and allusions are not central. The Italian playwright Dario Fo (b. 1926) provides some striking exceptions: Mistero Buffo (or The Comic Mysteries) (1969), for example, a farce in the medieval tradition of the jester or jongleur, where Jesus is seen from the vantage of an unruly, bawdy, and caustically anticlerical crowd; or the sardonic monologue The First Miracle of the Infant Jesus (1977). But Fo’s parodic approach, returning to the Middle Ages for its inspiration and material, may in fact rely on the incompatibility just suggested. Serious modern drama has largely steered clear of Jesus as a main dramatic character, and other biblical figures, whether Christian or Hebrew, have fared little better (Jonah [1969] by the Romanian writer Marin Sorescu provides an exception here). Perhaps this is in part because the role of sacred or saintly figures must be assumed by a live actor, and, as poetry and novels have shown, if not the Gospels themselves, such characters are more alive in the imagination when renarrativized within the scripted constructs of the text alone.

Whatever the case, much drama has drawn upon character conflict typologically rooted in the Bible, whether that of Adam and Eve, the Serpent and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah and his sons, Abraham and Sarah, Sarah and Hagar, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers, Moses and his people, Samson and Delilah, Job and his friends, Job and Yahweh, and numerous other examples. Moreover, paradigmatic movements within the Bible have often proved potent to modern dramatic action, such as expulsion from Paradise (Eden), flight from depravity (Sodom), emancipation from slavery (Egypt), movement toward a promised land (Canaan), exile from home (Babylon), etc. Much modern drama has also drawn upon biblical lore, including, perhaps even especially, that surrounding the devil, as with the ever-fertile Faustian tradition that began with Christopher Marlowe’s sixteenth-century Doctor Faustus, and was used by Goethe as a gateway into the modern assertion of a self freed from traditional authorities, as we have already quoted above. Angels too have been a recurring theme. So though Western drama has largely stayed clear of the Bible for its dramatis personæ, this is hardly to say the Bible and its characters are not dramatic and have not had immense influence on how dramatic conflict might be portrayed and, if not resolved, then held in the kind of tension that operates between traditional systems and those who dare, tragically, comically, or otherwise, to break them.

Future Possibilities.

“Religion and literature” has developed into its own field of enquiry, not merely because of the widespread nature of its cross-pollination, but because in the very process of that pollination, something transpires to change the very constitution of both elements. In the context of modernity, however broadly construed, we have seen this change turn on the question of authority. The sacred text carries, traditionally, an authority from “on high”; the literary text, as imaginative creation, increasingly carries its own internal authority as part of its modern legacy. But the more one looks at what constitutes “on high,” and the more one probes the modern claim to internal authority, the more either side blurs with the other. This is not merely to anthropologize the nature of the sacred, nor merely to divinize the process of artistic creation. Rather, the “author” is drawn out of “authority,” and the process of authoring, like that of pollination, carrying seeds from one source to germinate another, becomes a sacred process in itself, altering both sides with a mutual longing, as it had done long before modernity embarked on the quest of self-origination.

That this quest has encountered numerous setbacks—the “self” of self-origination, of authoring one’s own authority, has proved a frail and fractured invention—suggests that the Bible might continually be worked and reworked into our literary creations in ways that open up how we conceive both of origin and self. For even though the biblical text has lost so much of its social and moral authority within our late modern consciousness, if that consciousness itself falls into question, by virtue of its own authority, which has shown itself faltering, or sustainable only through coercive and abusive means—the authoring of authority is never not political—then the entire matter of origination goes back, we might say, to its origins. The Bible may no longer be our authority on how the world began, literally. But if the question of how we began as human beings becomes intimately related to how we continue to begin as human beings, how we continually reconstruct the human project, then the sacred text remains a matter of utmost importance, even exigency, in all our creative endeavors.




  • Alter, Robert, and Frank Kermode, eds. The Literary Guide to the Bible. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1987.
  • Ashbery, John. “Anticipated Stranger.” The New Yorker, 9 October 2006, p. 36.
  • Blake, William. “Marriage of Heaven and Hell.” In Complete Writings: With Variant Readings, edited by Geoffrey Keynes, pp. 148–158. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1966.
  • Bloom, Harold. Ruin the Sacred Truths: Poetry and Belief from the Bible to the Present. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1989.
  • Detweiler, Robert. Breaking the Fall: Religious Reading of Contemporary Fiction. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox, 1989.
  • Dostoyevsky, Fyodor. The Brothers Karamazov. Translated by David Magarshack. London: Penguin, 1958.
  • Eliot, T. S. The Complete Poems and Plays, 1909–1950. London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1952, 1971.
  • Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von. Faust Part One. Translated by David Luke. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.
  • Jasper, David. The Study of Literature and Religion: An Introduction. London: Macmillan, 1989.
  • Marvell, Andrew. “On Mr. Milton’s Paradise Lost.” In Complete Poems, edited by Elizabeth Story Donno, pp. 192–193. London: Penguin, 1972.
  • Milton, John. Complete Poems and Major Prose. Edited by Merritt Y. Hughes. Indianapolis, Ind.: Bobbs-Merrill, 1957.
  • Rilke, Rainer Maria. Duino Elegies and the Sonnets of Orpheus. Translated by A. Poulin Jr. New York: Mariner, 2005.
  • Schweitzer, Albert. The Quest for the Historical Jesus: A Critical Study of its Progress from Reimarus to Wrede. Translated by W. Montgomery. Mineola, N.Y.: Dover, 2005.
  • Scott, Nathan A., Jr. “On the Fallacies of a ‘Close Reader’: A Reply,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 39, no. 1 (March 1971): 76–82.

Further Readings

  • Atwan, Robert, George Dardess, and Peggy Rosenthal, eds. Divine Inspiration: The Life of Jesus in World Poetry. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.
  • Detweiler, Robert, and David Jasper, eds. Religion and Literature: A Reader. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox, 2000.
  • Eliot, T. S. “Religion and Literature.” In Selected Prose of T. S. Eliot, edited by Frank Kermode, pp. 97–106. New York: Harcourt, 1975.
  • Frye, Northrop. The Great Code: The Bible and Literature. New York: Harcourt, 1982.
  • Hass, Andrew W., David Jasper, and Elisabeth Jay, eds. The Oxford Handbook of English Literature & Theology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.
  • Jasper, David, Stephen Prickett, and Andrew W. Hass, eds. The Bible and Literature: A Reader. Oxford: Blackwell, 1999.
  • Monta, Susannah Brietz, ed. Special Issue: “What Is Religion and Literature??” Religion and Literature 41, no. 2 (Summer 2009).
  • Scott, Nathan A., Jr. Wild Prayer of Longing: Poetry and the Sacred. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1971.
  • Streete, Adrian, ed. Early Modern Drama and the Bible: Contexts and Readings, 1570–1625. Basingstoke, U.K.: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.
  • Ziolkowski, Theodore. Fictional Transfigurations of Christ. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1972.

Andrew W. Hass