To coincide with the 400th anniversary of the Authorized (King James) Version of the Christian Bible (1611), W. W. Norton & Company published its two-volume critical edition set, The English Bible, King James Version: The Old Testament (2012) and The English Bible, King James Version: The New Testament and The Apocrypha (2012). These remarkable volumes illustrate a challenge in attempting a brief overview of New Testament literature and New Testament literary criticism, namely, that the terms involve a range of meanings.

These Norton editions are at once studies of the ancient writings themselves and a representation of the subsequent reception of those texts by translators, interpreters, and readers of all kinds—the devout and the impious, the theologically savvy and the artistically inclined. Such a project is inevitably and necessarily multi-disciplinary in nature; understandably capturing the character of the ancient Hebrew Bible as experienced in a Renaissance translation requires “an alliance between literary criticism and biblical studies” (Marks, 2012, p. xxv).

The need for such an alliance is no less true for the New Testament. The second volume of that Norton set includes excerpts from readers as diverse as the theologian and philosopher Augustine of Hippo (354–430 C.E.), the political philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679), the Methodist hymnist Charles Wesley (1707–1788), the poets Emily Dickinson (1830–1886) and Christina Rossetti (1830–1894), the German New Testament scholar Rudolf Bultmann (1884–1976), and that influential purveyor of pop eschatology and doomsday scenarios, Hal Lindsey (b. 1929), among many others. To study the New Testament with attention to literary interests requires awareness of their ancient contexts and language, but also their reception in other times and places. Literary-critical approaches to the Bible are numerous and multidisciplinary, a consequence of the overlapping concerns of language, history, theology, stylistics, and theory.

Academic disciplines do not progress in a vacuum. To separate centuries of development in biblical hermeneutics from the history of interpretation in other fields, especially historiography and literary criticism, is to overlook the fact that competent readers of English poetry, for instance, potentially contribute as much to understanding as those specializing in the biblical disciplines. Robert Lowth (1710–1787) is a case in point. He was not only a professor of poetry but also a skilled Hebraist, whose Oxford lectures, published as De sacra poesi Hebraeorum praelectiones academicae (Lectures on the Sacred Poetry of the Hebrews) in 1753, proved to be a considerable achievement, advancing appreciation of Hebrew poetic parallelism. In light of this kind of varied approach to biblical texts, it seems prudent to give some account of literary analyses of the New Testament not only by biblical scholars but also by those reading from the vantage point of other academic disciplines.

To do so, four sometimes overlapping senses of literary-critical engagement with the New Testament will be briefly touched upon here. The first looks at some of those distinctive literary-critical concerns particular to the New Testament, questions usually falling under the purview of traditional historical-critical biblical scholarship. By this I mean the study of such matters as the composition history of specific texts and the particular reading strategies of form criticism, redaction criticism, socio-rhetorical criticism, and the like, as applied to early Christian writings. The second category concerns literary approaches to the New Testament attentive to stylistic features relevant to all writings, whether ancient or modern. Close reading of the Christian canon through a literary-critical lens necessarily involves consideration of such things as narration, point of view, plot, and the use of all manner of literary devices. The third section looks at scholars coming to the New Testament from outside formal biblical studies, bringing their expertise as readers of other literature to this material. And fourth, reception criticism looks at ways readers interpret, re-imagine, and re-present the biblical texts in specific settings. The growing bibliography in this area is considerable, and so the topic warrants at least some consideration.

Anything approaching a comprehensive rehearsal of New Testament literary-critical interpretation is not possible here, so what follows is highly selective and even idiosyncratic. That said, the various works included in the References and Further Readings lists below go some way in telling that fascinating history.

Literary-Critical Concerns Unique to the New Testament.

The composition of the 27 canonical Christian writings spans just 50 or so years (roughly 50–100 C.E.), and yet the diversity of purpose, form, style, and rhetorical strategy among them is astonishing. With respect to literary matters, the New Testament is better described as a montage than a tableau vivant, the latter a scene with many silent characters but a singularity of artistic vision and representation, whereas the former involves many small artistic contributions to a larger whole.

A number of characteristics differentiate the New Testament from other literature. Its language is distinctive, for one thing, with a range of authorial styles reflecting degrees of Semitic influence on its koiné dialektos (i.e., nonliterary Greek), sometimes owing to the writers’ engagements with the Semitic-influenced Septuagint (LXX) and at other times Jesus’s Aramaic or the Hebrew Bible. These writings are also undeniably tendentious, with a clear commitment to a religious worldview. The goal of some writers is to proselytize (maybe John 20:31; Acts 26:27–29) or encourage perseverance in the faith (maybe John 20:31; Rom 5:3–5; 2 Thess 3:13; Jas 1:12). Others urge certain actions (e.g., 1 Cor 16:1–3; Phlm 10), rebuke the noncompliant (e.g., 1 Cor 5:1–13; Rev 3:14–22), warn against perceived heresy (e.g., Gal 1:6–9; 2 Pet 2:1–3), and explain doctrine (e.g., 1 Thess 4:13–18). While uniformly Christological in their outlook, their theological concerns and emphases vary.

Without exception, the writers of the New Testament relate their firm convictions about the reality and veracity of their religious beliefs. The Gospels present numerous stories about individuals encountering Jesus both before and after the Resurrection, and the book of Acts continues this pattern after the Ascension (9:1–8; 22:6–11; 26:12–18). The earliest Christian writers maintain that God “speaks” to the faithful through appointed representatives (e.g., 1 Cor 12:28; Eph 4:11–12), the kindness and support of one another in the church (e.g., Phil 4:10–19), gifts distributed by the Spirit (Rom 12:4–8; 1 Cor 12:1–31; Eph 4:11–13; 1 Pet 4:9–11), scripture (e.g., 2 Tim 3:16), visions (e.g., Acts 10:1–16; Rev 1:9–20), and the presence of the Holy Spirit (e.g., John 14:26; 16:13–15). This wholly religious orientation is a fundamental starting point when considering the nature of New Testament literature, but other characteristics are relevant for scholarly analysis. Three in particular deserve notice.

Oral and written sources.

All New Testament writers incorporate sources, including oral reports by and stories about witnesses of the things Jesus said and did (e.g., Luke 24:18–24; 2 Pet 1:16–18), the subsequent interpretations of those teachings and actions by his earliest followers, claims of new learning derived from ecstatic experience (e.g., Acts 10:111:18; 2 Cor 12:14), and the scriptures, which they cite as an authority throughout. For the earliest Christians, the writings of the Prophets are a key to the meaning of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, as illustrated by the selection of scripture citations used in sermons by Peter (Acts 2:14–36) and the author of the book of Hebrews.

We know that the first generations of the Jesus movement produced writings that are no longer extant, such as a letter to Laodicean Christians (Col 4:16). The author of the Gospel of Luke (1:1–4) is aware of “many” accounts of the events related to Jesus and his followers. There are reasons also to suspect the New Testament incorporates elements of other pretextual material. There are direct references to hymns (Col 3:16; Eph 5:19), for instance, so it is reasonable to suspect traces of them and of other liturgical forms in some places. Occasional shifts in vocabulary, style, and content, in addition to other clues, suggest as much. Examples include Luke 1:46–55 (the Magnificat); 1:68–79 (the Benedictus); 2:14 (the Gloria); 2:29–32 (Nunc Dimittis); Philippians 2:6–11; Ephesians 2:14–16; Colossians 1:15–20; 1 Timothy 3:16; Hebrews 1:2–4; 5:5; 7:1–3; 1 Peter 3:18–22; and Revelation 5:9–13.

At other times, efforts to reconstruct the composition history of some writings result in hypotheses about the use of oral and written sources and their interrelationships. The best known examples are those theories about the processes behind the composition of the Synoptic Gospels such as the Two-Source Hypothesis with its proposal that Matthew and Luke share a common source no longer extant (identified as Q, Quelle, source) in addition to the Gospel of Mark. Iterations and adaptations of this basic approach to the so-called Synoptic Problem are numerous, and the fascination with the topic has a long history. As far back as 1924, B. H. Streeter seemed exasperated by the proliferation of innovative and (presumably) what he considered eccentric hypotheses: “I have … ventured to ignore many interesting theories, even though put forward by eminent scholars, which seem to me to have been adequately refuted by other writers. Very few dead hypotheses deserve the honour of a monument” (pp. xxviii, xxx). Among more recent efforts to elucidate the composition history of the Synoptic Gospels is a theory put forward by Dennis R. MacDonald, who, in Two Shipwrecked Gospels (2012), posits that Matthew and Luke as well as Mark share a common source he refers to as “Q+,” or the Logoi of Jesus, an idea that takes into consideration fragments from the writings of Papias, bishop of Hierapolis (Asia Minor). Academic consideration of the origins of these Gospels is indeed a well-traveled road.

Jewish and Hellenistic contexts.

The world of the New Testament is far from uniform, with many of its stories set in the Jewish homeland during a time of Roman occupation and others reflecting the values and interests of the Diaspora—pockets of Christian and non-Christian Jews—trying to negotiate adherence to their religious scruples while living in the shadow of Imperial Rome. The spectrum includes devout Pharisees interpreting Torah (Matt 12:1–2; 19:3–9) and Gentile converts to Pauline Christianity troubled by meat offered to pagan gods (1 Cor 8:1–13; 10:18–21, 25–28; cf. Acts 15:28–29; Rev 2:14, 20), all within the pages of the same “book.” The New Testament reflects the historical, cultural, religious, and literary environments of both Jerusalem and Rome. Adding to this plurality is the fact that first-century Judaism is not monolithic any more than other groups within the Empire. Regional differences also complicate sweeping generalizations about “Greco-Roman society” and the “ancient world.” Paul’s interactions with the Corinthians and the Philippians do not necessarily involve the same presuppositions or rhetorical strategies because no two audiences are alike in all respects.

The individual writings within the New Testament are never exclusively Jewish or Hellenistic because cultural and linguistic changes occurring throughout the post-Alexander Mediterranean world profoundly changed Judaism in all kinds of ways. The movement of Jews beyond Palestine, the translation of Hebrew and Aramaic texts into Greek (the LXX), and the inevitable mingling of ideas among increasingly literate and mobile populations proved transformative. Some Jews resisted and feared compromise and conformity with Hellenism (e.g., the Essenes and Pharisees, in different ways), and others adapted. The Apostle Paul illustrates the coming together of these different worlds; he is at once a student of Greek with some facility in rhetoric and, according to Luke, both a citizen of Rome (Acts 22:25–29; implied 25:10–12) and student of the Rabbi Gamaliel (Acts 22:3; cf. 5:34).

Studies of the historical Jesus also demonstrate this meeting of worlds, with some finding Jesus’s activities and teachings more akin to those of a Cynic sage than a Jewish rabbi. While study of the historical Jesus typically focuses on Jewish contexts, Greco-Roman ones are pertinent as well. After all, the Gospels are Greek with only traces of Jesus’s Aramaic language, and the four Evangelists employ rhetorical strategies derived from classical theory (see e.g., Mack and Robbins, 1989). Individual stories occasionally offer glimpses into these disparate contexts. Jesus’s parable about the poor man Lazarus (Luke 16:19–31), for one, includes clear content and concerns rooted in Hebrew scripture (Abraham, proper treatment of the poor, etc.) but also echoes of the ancient story of Odysseus visiting Hades, as told by Homer in The Odyssey.

We find another example in Dennis MacDonald’s provocative thesis regarding the composition of Mark, namely that it is “a prose epic modeled largely after the Odyssey and the ending of the Illiad” (2000, p. 3). Such work invites a shift away from near exclusive attention to Jewish contexts that dismisses other possible inspirations. The importance of the former is not denied, though MacDonald finds “the primary cultural context of the Gospel [of Mark is] in Greek religious tradition, not in Judaism” (p. 189). Often the New Testament’s connections to Judaism are obvious, as in citations of Torah or references to Jewish institutions (synagogues, the Temple, the Sanhedrin) or sects (Pharisees, Sadducees, Herodians, Zealots) or practices (offerings, festival adherence, sabbath keeping). MacDonald’s observations serve to remind us that some influences are subtler and that the New Testament includes many voices, even within a single text.

Genre and literary forms.

The study of the New Testament requires analysis of the range of genres and subgenres included within its 27 titled “books,” work that requires consideration of the distinctive characteristics of early Christian proclamation as well as relevant Jewish and Hellenistic influences. With respect to the Gospels, this means reading the stories of Jesus alongside contemporary biographies like those of Pliny the Elder (23–79), Plutarch (ca. 46–ca. 120), Tacitus (56–117), and Suetonius (70–130), as well as awareness of Hellenistic rhetorical techniques used by the Evangelists (see Burridge, 2004; Mack and Robbins, 1989). At the same time, varying degrees of reliance on Jewish precedents are obviously involved. Appeal to scripture in all four Gospels, as well as the presentation of Jesus in terms recalling characters from the Hebrew scriptures (e.g., Matthew’s interest in evoking Moses and David), indicate a clear departure from Greco-Roman genre precedents. Also important to note are the ways these writings reflect the interests of the followers of Jesus decades later. As form and redaction critical studies make clear, the oral transmission of stories about Jesus and the subsequent editorial activities of those producing written accounts reflect the concerns of the early church.

A similar mix of Hellenistic, Jewish, and early Christian influences informs the New Testament epistles. The existence of numerous letters from the first century, as well as teachers’ handbooks (progymnasmata, preliminary exercises) and ancient compendia on rhetorical theory and practice like Aristotle’s (384–322 B.C.E.) Ars Rhetorica, Cicero’s (107–44 B.C.E.) De Inventione, and Quintilian’s (35–100 C.E.) Institutio Oratoria, represents a significant resource to help discern strategies of argumentation and persuasion employed in the New Testament letters. But Paul and others depart from Greek conventions in various ways that reflect both Jewish influences and distinctly Christian ways of communicating. Many observe, for instance, that Paul prefers “Grace” to the customary use of “Greetings” in the salutations of many Hellenistic letters (see Acts 15:23; Jas 1:1), which is to say replacing chaire with the similar sounding charis. This appears to be, Powell observes, “a peculiarity of Christian writing, and it may have served as an indicator to those in the know that what followed was written by a Christian” (2009, p. 220). At the same time, when letter writers include “peace” within their salutations, as in “Grace, mercy, and peace will be with us” (2 John 3), it suggests the Jewish preference for shalom/eirēnē over the less theologically consequential “Greetings.”

Modern readers often struggle with certain biblical genres, including some within the New Testament. Whereas sermons (such as the book of Hebrews), letters, and the prose narratives of the quasi-biographical and historical Gospels and Acts have loose parallels in the contemporary world, genealogies (Matt 1:1–17; Luke 3:23–38), testamentary texts (2 Timothy, 2 Peter), and passages with apocalyptic elements (e.g., Jesus’s Olivet discourse and parts of Jude’s letter) are less familiar. John’s Apocalypse is certainly the biggest challenge for modern readers of the New Testament. We find a colorful illustration of its mysteriousness in the postbiblical world in Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace (1869).

A brother freemason introduces Pierre Bezuhov to a prophecy. The discovery involves the manipulation of letters and numbers in such a way (a = 1, b = 2, c = 3, etc.) that by turning “the words l’empereur Napoléon into numbers on this system, it appears that the sum of them equals 666 (including a 5 for the letter e dropped by elision from the le before empereur).” The implication is clear, namely that “Napoleon is seen to be the beast prophesied in the Apocalypse” (Tolstoy, 1957, pp. 788, 789). That is not all. Applying the same alphanumeric theory to the words quarante-deux, 42, the number of months “allowed to [the beast] to exercise authority,” according to Revelation 13:5, the number is again 666. This serves as evidence that Napoleon’s power would reach its zenith in the year 1812 because in that year the Emperor would be 42 years old.

With his curiosity heightened, Bezuhov then considers whether Revelation reveals the source of the beast Napoleon’s eventual downfall. This question proves more difficult. He counts the numeric value of several possibilities, including l’empereur Alexandre and la nation russe, but the numbers do not match up with 666. However, when he tries his own name and nationality—l’russe Bezuhov—once again the total is 666 (Tolstoy, 1957, p. 789). The implications of this become clear to him in time; the Bible reveals that he is the one who must end the beast Napoleon’s reign of terror. He must assassinate the head of the French armies and so end Europe’s misery. Only much later, after his failed efforts to defeat the beast/assassinate Napoleon, does he see the folly of his ways: “His intention of assassinating Napoleon and his calculations round the cabalistic number of the beast of the Apocalypse struck him now as incomprehensible and positively ludicrous” (p. 1198). We find similarly dubious interpretations of Revelation throughout the history of the church.

Part of the issue is genre. Finding contemporary parallels is not easy. These texts are populated with strange creatures; make liberal use of symbol and imagery; often depict disturbing, violent cataclysms; reduce complex moral and ethical questions to a simplistic black-and-white binary; and insist on an insider-outsider frame of reference that refuses dissent and denies ambiguity. It is a kind of writing generally unfamiliar to modern readers and is even relatively rare in the context of the Bible. Add to this the endlessly strange history of interpretation, and the average Bible reader may be forgiven for throwing up their arms in hermeneutical despair.

Biblical Scholarship’s Attention to Literary Features of the Texts.

Academic study of the New Testament incorporates a range of methodologies and theoretical perspectives, many of them attentive to literary features of the text. Consideration of genres, subgenres, and stylistics is obviously part of the careful study of any writing and it is no less part of biblical interpretation. An understanding of genres used within the New Testament—gospels, letters, parables, sermons (Acts 2:14–36), proverbs (Luke 4:23), riddles (Mark 3:23), apocalyptic, history, biography—is a first step, though many of these writings are to some extent hybrids. John’s Apocalypse includes letters (2:1—3:22), there are apocalyptic passages in the Gospels and some of Paul’s correspondence (Mark 13:1–37; 1 Thess 4:13–18), and the book of Hebrews is either a sermon with an epistolary conclusion (13:22–25) or a letter with a sermonic introduction (1:1–4).

Furthermore, all New Testament texts employ literary devices that serve to reinforce their theological agendas and rhetorical objectives. Authors employ allegory (1 Cor 10:4; Gal 3:16; 4:22–31), apostrophe (Matt 23:37), euphemism (1 Thess 4:13), hyperbole (Matt 5:29A), irony (Matt 20:16; Luke 6:20; 1 Cor 4:10; 2 Cor 10–13), metaphor (Matt 5:14; 10:16; John 1:29; 6:35, 48), metonymy (Luke 24:37; Phil 3:3; Rev 13:3), personification (e.g., Matt 6:24), satire, simile (Matt 13:44, 45, 47), symbolism, synecdoche (Matt 10:38; John 3:16; Rom 1:25; Gal 2:7–9), and many other commonplace devices.

In some cases, the literary devices employed by New Testament writers are associated with the ancient rhetorical arts (e.g., anaphora, chiasm, epiphora, inclusio, parallelism, paranomasia, repetition). Rhetorical analysis finds that some New Testament writings as a whole conform to certain conventions of classical rhetorical theory. One well-known example of such work is Hans Dieter Betz’s 1979 Hermeneia commentary on Galatians, though rhetorical criticism has come a long way since Betz’s brilliant contribution to the field.

Some specialized methodologies examine ways in which New Testament authors employ language and craft their presentations, and they have deep roots in the history of the discipline. For instance, form criticism, associated with such giants of academic study of the Bible as Rudolf Bultmann (Die Geschichte der synoptischen Tradition, 1921; Eng. trans. History of the Synoptic Tradition, 1976), Martin Dibelius (Die Formgeschichte des Evangelium, 1919; Eng. trans. From Tradition to Gospel, 1934), and Karl Ludwig Schmidt (Der Rahmen der Geschichte Jesu [The Framework of the Historical Jesus], 1919), attempts to discern the Sitz im Leben giving rise to different kinds of material. Why, for instance, did ancient worshipping communities preserve miracle stories or parables or hymns? Form critics focus on the preliterary, oral transmission of material the Evangelists later incorporated into their written accounts. Redaction criticism observes the ways writers edit and rearrange their sources, which sometimes are easy to identify, as in the case of citations and allusions to scripture, but at other times depend on theories about the source text (e.g., redaction critical studies of 2 Peter that build on the assumption the author adapts Jude).

Other methodologies combine reading strategies, as with socio-rhetorical criticism, associated with scholars like Vernon K. Robbins (e.g., Exploring the Texture of Texts: A Guide to Socio-Rhetorical Interpretation, 1996) and Ben Witherington III (e.g., New Testament Rhetoric: An Introductory Guide to the Art of Persuasion in and out of the New Testament, 2009). As the name indicates, this approach simultaneously draws on the insights of the social sciences to gain perspectives on such things as personal and community status in hopes of gaining clues about the makeup of specific audiences and rhetorical analysis that serves to illuminate ways in which the language of texts communicates with those audiences.

Academic Reading of the Bible by Scholars of Literature.

Scholars specializing in postbiblical literatures and art are uniquely qualified to trace ways in which characters and themes from the New Testament re-emerge in later times and places. Fortunately, books about the Bible, including those by writers with no particular commitment to its religious claims, are “surprisingly fashionable,” according to David Lyle Jeffrey, who lists among others the works of Frank Kermode, Robert Alter, Gabriel Josopovici, Stephen Prickett, Naomi Rosenblatt, Avivah Zornberg, Burton Visotzsky, Harold Fisch, Meir Sternberg, Patrick Grant, Amos Wilder, Regina Schwartz, Wesley Kort, David Norton, Meike Bal, John Gottcent, David Jaspers, and Michael Fishbane (2003, p. 182). For many of these authors, Northrop Frye among them, the focus is on the Bible’s influence as literature and there is even at times a determination to “wrest the Bible away from religion, and to create a kind of replacement for religion in the sphere of a purely secular aesthetic enterprise” (p. 182). A few examples illustrate the distinctive ways specialists in other literature read the Bible.

Susan Gubar.

Susan Gubar’s biography of Judas follows Jesus’s betrayer from the New Testament through to the twentieth century as depicted in paintings, novels, and poetry. What she finds is the disturbing reception of a New Testament story that includes religious authorities, artists, and academics lambasting “the sterility, rapacity, debauchery, and sneakiness of Judas as well as the people he represents, the Jewish race” (2009, p. 214). Judas becomes, for many, a justification for anti-Semitic sentiment (pp. 6–18, 39, and throughout). The tendency is to ignore positive features of this disciple’s life, such as obedience to the call of Jesus and ministry on his teacher’s behalf, and to fixate on the dark events occurring at the end of his story: interactions at the Last Supper, the kiss, the pieces of silver, and his grisly death (p. 352). Judas haunts Western culture, she argues, “because he stands for mendacity or vacillation, confusion or qualms not externalized in others but instead dwelling within each and every human psyche. Judas is our mirror” (p. 352).

A project like Susan Gubar’s Judas biography is extremely useful because the interpretive traditions concerning this disciple inevitably inform ways in which readers of the New Testament evaluate not only this character but also, potentially, the broader Christian story. Gubar demonstrates that “incompatible personae recycle perpetually, for each of his roles is rooted (or finds confirmation) in some aspect of his contradictory textual origins” (2009, p. 25). This perspective, gained by stepping back from the Gospels themselves to consider the story’s reception, is not always part of the interpretive agenda of formal New Testament studies. For this reason, projects like Gubar’s are a valuable complement to that work.

Harold Bloom.

The prolific and provocative Harold Bloom is certainly among the better-known literary critics of recent decades and one occasionally turning his considerable acumen to biblical texts. His examinations of the Yahwist (J), the “greatest writer in the Hebrew language” in his estimate (2002, p. 116), is certainly the most familiar example of this work, owing to his speculations about the author being a woman (see Bloom and the translator David Rosenberg’s The Book of J, 1990), but on various occasions he treats Christian writers as well.

His way of approaching Paul, to illustrate, combines literary theory with a close reading of the apostle’s letters. One of Bloom’s most significant and enduring contributions to literary studies is the observation that great writers experience an artistic “anxiety of influence,” the concern that their originality is potentially overshadowed and overwhelmed by genius precursors. He first put forward this hypothesis in 1973’s The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry. To be seen as derivative is artistically fatal, so writers find ways to distance themselves from powerful artists of the past. With respect to poetic influence, Bloom argues, “creative freedom can be evasion but not flight. There must be agon, a struggle for supremacy, or at least for holding off imaginative death.” Art is “a contest for the foremost place” and when “threatened by the prospect of imaginative death, of being entirely possessed by a precursor, [poets] suffer a distinctively literary form of crisis. A strong poet seeks not simply to vanquish the rival but to assert the integrity of his or her own writing self” (2011, pp. 6, 7, 8).

When turning to St. Paul, Bloom acknowledges that the apostle’s “literary genius is beyond doubt.” At the same time, however, he also detects in his writing a form of that crisis of anxiety just described: “Paul, a Hellenistic Jew, conceived of the Covenant as the Septuagint … called it: diatheke, God’s testament of grace, an expression of his will, and not as the Hebrew berith, a reciprocal covenant. Paul’s strong misreading of Judaism is very difficult for me to accept because it is Hellenistic Christianity rather than the Jewish Christianity of James the Just, the brother of Jesus” (2002, p. 132). Regardless of one’s assessment of this conclusion, Bloom’s approach to biblical writings illustrates the potential for literary theory to offer fresh perspectives on familiar texts. His work touching on the study of the New Testament is also diverse, including major studies of Jesus, the Gospel of Thomas, and the King James Bible.

Northrop Frye.

Of course, Bloom is not the only major literary critic to examine biblical writings; among the more important to do so is Northrop Frye, whose book The Great Code: The Bible and Literature remains relevant. Amos Wilder describes Frye’s work as an “inestimable contribution in [the] area of biblical rhetorics” though he acknowledges that this approach to the Bible that foregrounds artistry and aesthetics over historical and social contexts and theological issues “will not satisfy even today’s post-modernists” (1991, pp. 16, 17). Frye describes his book as “a study of the Bible from the point of view of a literary critic,” building on the premise that a “literary approach to the Bible is not in itself illegitimate; no book could have had so specific a literary influence without itself possessing literary qualities” (1990, pp. xi, xvi). The archetype literary criticism of the structuralist Northrop Frye focuses on recurring mythic patterns within biblical and subsequent literature.

C. S. Lewis.

Another literary critic well known for engaging the Bible is C. S. Lewis. Having noted Harold Bloom’s interest in biblical topics above, it seems fitting to mention his recollections of time spent with Lewis when both were at Cambridge in the 1950s. “C. S. Lewis was the most dogmatic and aggressive person I have ever met,” he recalls. “Lewis had just left Oxford to become Professor of Medieval and Renaissance English at Cambridge. I attended a few of his lectures, and for a while regularly talked with him at two pubs on the river.” The anecdote is illuminating in that it presents two remarkably nuanced, sophisticated readers of literature experiencing the Bible in ways that could not be further apart. “As I was twenty-four, and he fifty-six and immensely learned, I attempted to listen while saying as little as possible. But he was a Christian polemicist, and I an eccentric Gnostic Jew, devoted to William Blake.” Perhaps predictably, given Bloom’s setup here, his assessment of Lewis is not positive: “he whacks me with a Christian cudgel on nearly every page.” Bloom distinguishes “the scholar-critic C. S. Lewis, admirable exegete of Edmund Spenser and other Renaissance poets, and Lewis the lay theologian” who fuses Christian apologetics and fiction (2006, pp. 1, 2). As is clear from Bloom’s appraisal of Lewis, attitudes toward religion are never far from the surface when evaluating not only the Bible but also its commentators.

Bloom’s remarks notwithstanding, Lewis’s considerable contributions to biblical studies warrant attention. He published only one book directly about the Bible (Reflections on the Psalms, 1958), but he remains one of the more influential Christian writers of the twentieth century, shaping the way in which generations of Bible readers experience its stories. His children’s books are a big part of this. Anyone who read The Magician’s Nephew (1955) as a child may well carry that book’s imagery with them when reading the Genesis creation stories as an adult. Similarly, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1950) and The Last Battle (1956) potentially inform readers’ views on substitutionary atonement and eschatology later in life.

Beyond Narnia, however, Lewis wrote sermons and works of popular theology, and his academic career focused on literary works that themselves engaged the New Testament, among them Edmund Spenser’s The Fairie Queene (1590; see e.g., chap. 7 in Lewis’s The Allegory of Love: A Study in Medieval Tradition, 1936) and John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667; see A Preface to “Paradise Lost,” 1942). His last major scholarly work, The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature (1964), reconstructs the medieval worldview that was itself deeply informed by scripture. As Lewis himself puts it, “there are perhaps no sources so necessary for a student of medieval literature to know as the Bible, Virgil, and Ovid” (1964, p. 22; though he does not examine medieval readings of the Bible in this particular book). These extensive and diverse contributions—both popular and scholarly—illustrate ways in which a Medievalist offers much to the study of the New Testament, or at least its reception.

More recently, the specialists in English literature David Lyle Jeffrey and Gregory Maillet helpfully identify what they consider “the most obvious of literary features in terms of which the text of the Bible as we have it invites us to read it” (2011, p. 100; full discussion, pp. 100–134). They are:

  • (1) binary construction;
  • (2) archetypal narrative;
  • (3) grand narrative;
  • (4) covenant history;
  • (5) the relationship between history and allegory;
  • (6) confessional autobiography;
  • (7) etiological or eponymous narration;
  • (8) poetic language and biblical wisdom;
  • (9) parables; and
  • (10) internal skepticism concerning the limits of literary language.

While certainly not an exhaustive list, this at least provides some sense of the range of interests addressed by literary criticism of the Bible as a whole, and the New Testament in particular.

Studying the Bible through the Lenses of Reception.

Leo Tolstoy’s presentation of a muddled reader’s approach to the book of Revelation reminds us that the Bible is not solely the possession of ecclesial authorities rigidly holding to dogma and theology to regulate interpretation of the canon. Nor does it belong exclusively to a privileged academic community with access to interpretive tools and information out of reach for others. The Bible is in the public domain and so belongs just as much to nonspecialist readers and the art forms they consume, broadly defined. Creative engagements with the New Testament abound, and through these sometimes eccentric, sometimes irreverent, and often ironic re-presentations of its sacred content they reach audiences far more varied than those associated with the church pulpit and lecture hall podium.

There is a growing bibliography—by scholars from biblical and literary studies, in addition to other disciplines—treating the reception of the Bible in diverse media. Robert Alter, for instance, whose contributions to the study of the Bible as literature (e.g., The World of Biblical Literature, 1992) is second to none, turns his attentions to creative writers engaging the Hebrew Bible in Canon and Creativity: Modern Writing and the Authority of Scripture (2000). The list of academics doing similar work on artists in different media engaging the New Testament is long and varied, with studies ranging from the use of Gospel parables in Victorian novels (Colón, 2012) to echoes of Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount in the blues lyrics of Robert Johnson, Son House, and Muddy Waters (Burnett, 2014).

Reception studies of the Bible have some roots in literary theory of the 1960s and 1970s, particularly the work of those challenging formalist approaches to interpretation such as the dominant New Criticism associated with scholars like I. A. Richards and his peers. Richards’s work, including Principles of Literary Criticism (1924) and Practical Criticism (1929), disputed the relevance for interpretation of external considerations such as an author’s biography or the social context out of which a given poem or novel arose. Close reading of the text itself is the priority for the literary critic.

A shift away from such views occurred, however, in the work of theorists like Wolfgang Iser. Iser argues that central to “the reading of every literary work is the interaction between its structure and its recipient,” and so “an exclusive concentration on either the author’s techniques or the reader’s psychology will tell us little about the reading process itself” (1989, p. 31). Describing the interaction of the two is no simple matter; “the two partners in the communication process, namely, the text and the reader, are far easier to analyze than is the event that takes place between them” (p. 31). Theorists continue to grapple with such issues, but for our purposes here, I simply note this shift away from an entirely text-focused reading strategy toward approaches acknowledging the reader’s contributions. This acknowledgment of the “two partners in the communication process” informs contemporary biblical hermeneutics as well. The traditional historical-critical methodologies alone do not exhaust the meanings of the biblical text, and such matters as the audience’s historical moment, cultural and religious contexts, presuppositions, and many other factors are pertinent considerations.

The Tasks of Literary-Critical Reading of the New Testament.

The Norton critical edition of the New Testament and Apocrypha in the King James Version mentioned at the outset includes a section—more than 500 pages in length—titled “Context, Reception, Criticism.” As noted above, the diverse ways in which readers engage the Christian canon and the motivations behind their responses to it are seemingly endless. The editors organize this section under the headings “Historical Contexts,” “Exegesis,” “Poetic Reimaginings,” “Case Studies” (indicating sample responses to debated topics), and “Translation” (different English translations of the same passage placed side-by-side for the purpose of comparison).

To read this substantial collection of excerpts (see Hammond and Busch, 2012, pp. 973–1508) that ranges from ancient writers like Josephus and Pliny the Younger to twentieth-century thinkers like T. S. Eliot and Paul Ricoeur reminds us that the writings of the New Testament resist overly simplistic definitions. It is an ancient collection but one made new with every translation. It is a religious collection, but when incorporated into “The Dream of the Rood” (one of the earliest extant English language poems) or an Elizabeth Gaskell novel, it becomes art. It is potentially part of High Church tradition when assimilated to a Reginald Heber hymn (“Holy, Holy, Holy! Lord God Almighty!”), but as part of an African American spiritual like “Done Found My Lost Sheep,” it evokes a very different setting. It is associated with North American evangelicalism in the New International Version but Roman Catholicism in the New Jerusalem Bible. Clearly, as the editor Austin Busch observes, the body of literature interpreting or otherwise responding to the New Testament “is wildly expansive; it is probably no exaggeration to claim that more has been written about the New Testament than about any other comparable collection of literature ever” (Hammond and Busch, 2012, p. xxix).




  • Bloom, Harold. Genius: A Mosaic of One Hundred Exemplary Creative Minds. New York: Warner, 2002.
  • Bloom, Harold. The Anatomy of Influence: Literature as a Way of Life. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2011.
  • Bloom, Harold, ed. C. S. Lewis (Bloom’s Modern Critical Views). New York: Chelsea House, 2006.
  • Bloom, Harold, and David Rosenberg. The Book of J. New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1990.
  • Burnett, Gary W. The Gospel According to the Blues. Eugene, Ore.: Cascade, 2014.
  • Burridge, Richard A. What Are the Gospels? A Comparison with Graeco-Roman Biography. 2d ed. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2004.
  • Colón, Susan E. Victorian Parables. New Directions in Religion and Literature. London: Continuum, 2012.
  • Frye, Northrop. The Great Code: The Bible and Literature. Toronto: Penguin, 1990.
  • Gubar, Susan. Judas: A Biography. New York: Norton, 2009.
  • Hammond, Gerald, and Austin Busch, eds. The English Bible: King James Version. Vol. 2: The New Testament and Apocrypha. New York: Norton, 2012.
  • Iser, Wolfgang. Prospecting: From Reader Response to Literary Anthropology. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989.
  • Jeffrey, David Lyle. Houses of the Interpreter: Reading Scripture, Reading Culture. Waco, Tex.: Baylor University Press, 2003.
  • Jeffrey, David Lyle, and Gregory Maillet. Christianity and Literature: Philosophical Foundations and Critical Practice. Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 2011.
  • Lewis, C. S. The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1964.
  • MacDonald, Dennis R. The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2000.
  • MacDonald, Dennis R. Two Shipwrecked Gospels: The Logoi of Jesus and Papias’s Exposition of Logia about the Lord. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2012.
  • Mack, Burton L., and Vernon K. Robbins. Patterns of Persuasion in the Gospels. Sonoma, Calif.: Polebridge, 1989.
  • Marks, Herbert, ed. The English Bible: King James Version. Vol. 1: The Old Testament. New York: Norton, 2012.
  • Powell, Mark Allan. Introducing the New Testament: A Historical, Literary, and Theological Survey. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2009.
  • Streeter, B. H. The Four Gospels: A Study of Origins, Treating of the Manuscript Tradition, Sources, Authorship, and Dates. London: Macmillan, 1924.
  • Tolstoy, Leo. War and Peace. Translated by Rosemary Edmonds. London: Penguin, 1957.
  • Wilder, Amos N. The Bible and the Literary Critic. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1991.
  • Further Reading

    • Cunningham, Valentine. “Bible Reading and/after Theory.” In The Oxford Handbook of the Reception History of the Bible, edited by Michael Lieb, Emma Mason, Jonathan Roberts, and Christopher Rowland, pp. 649–673. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.
    • Firth, David G., and Jamie A. Grant, eds. Words and the Word: Explorations in Biblical Interpretation and Literary Theory. Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 2008.
    • Keefer, Kyle. The New Testament as Literature: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.
    • Sternberg, Meir. The Poetics of Biblical Narratives: Ideological Literature and the Drama of Reading. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985.

Michael J. Gilmour