Modern biblical scholarship and the modern novel grew up together, influencing one another, and transforming what it means for stories to be considered “true” or “sacred.” Before the eighteenth century, the Bible, both Hebrew and Christian, was considered to be an accurate historical record, its perfection guaranteed by its divine author. In the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, this traditional view was gradually displaced through systematic textual, historical, and archaeological scrutiny.

The pioneer of rationalist biblical study was Hermann Samuel Reimarus (1694–1768), who stripped the Gospels of their supernatural and prophetic content, reading them instead as a biography of a first-century Jewish nationalist. In the following decades, a series of German scholars (Karl Friedrich Bahrdt, Karl Venturini, Heinrich Paulus, Friedrich Schleiermacher) proposed logical explanations of Gospel miracles in an attempt at reconstructing a historically plausible life of Jesus. Thomas Jefferson’s posthumous work, The Jefferson Bible: The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth Extracted Textually from the Gospels, Together with a Comparison of His Doctrines with Those of Others (1902), followed suit with the excision of miraculous events and a focus on Jesus as a moral reformer. The shocking notion that Christianity’s most cherished narrative should not be read literally was most famously articulated in David Strauss’s Das Leben Jesu, kritisch bearbeitet (1835–1836; Eng. trans., The Life of Jesus, Critically Examined), a work that tried to reconcile supernaturalist and naturalist readings by proposing that the truth of the Bible is not historical but mythical.

The labors of biblical scholars from Reimarus to Strauss remained unknown to the ordinary believer, but the gradual dissemination of their ideas irreversibly transformed modern religious and literary culture. Even as the Bible gradually lost its sacrosanct status, the novel, which started its career as a maligned popular genre, rose to become Europe’s dominant literary form.

Academics have often described these two parallel developments as belonging to the larger process of secularization. Accounts of the origin of the novel typically emphasize its interest in material concerns and its commitment to realism, following Georg Lukács’s famous definition of the genre as “the epic of a world that has been abandoned by God” (1971, p. 88).

The ubiquitous secularization narrative conceals a much more complex relationship between novelistic and religious discourses. The novel emerged in a culture of biblical literacy; it supplemented, rather than supplanted, readership of the scriptures. It also made extensive use of biblical plots, themes, and diction. A review of the eighteenth-century British authors examined in Ian Watt’s classic secularist study The Rise of the Novel (1957) reveals a body of work profoundly indebted to the Bible, written for audiences equipped to recognize and appreciate biblical typology: Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe compares himself to the chosen people in the wilderness; Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa Harlowe models Christ-like suffering; Henry Fielding’s Joseph Andrews parodies and imitates his scriptural namesake.

The novel-consuming public not only recognized biblical references in fiction but also began to read the Bible differently than previous generations. Rather than looking for theological meanings and types, readers became interested in the emotional and moral development of characters. It was only a matter of time before writers began repackaging familiar scriptural stories and furnishing them with fashionable novelistic pleasures.

Creative renditions of the Bible had, of course, existed since antiquity. The ancient Jewish tradition of Midrashim, or rabbinical commentary, served to interpret, fill in gaps, provide background and dialogue and character depth, as well as examine the scriptures’ relevance to contemporary questions. In Christendom, biblical stories were brought to life for the edification of the faithful in Virgil-inspired Latin verse narratives, heroic epics, miracle plays, nativity plays, Passion plays, devotional poems, meditations, Gospel harmonies, courtly novels such as Grimmelshausen’s Der keusche Joseph (1666; Eng. trans., Chaste Joseph), and the monumental modern epic Paradise Lost (1667, 1674) by John Milton.

What distinguishes the modern novel from these earlier works is its formal capaciousness and ideological flexibility. While novelistic renditions of the Bible can serve devotional purposes, they can also question, reinterpret, or subvert their canonical models. In spite of reservations expressed by the novel’s great theoretician Mikhail Bakhtin, who contended that novelistic discourse (which he famously defined as dialogic) and scripture (which he saw as monologic and authoritative) are fundamentally incompatible, modern biblical fiction has proved its ability to successfully absorb and manipulate scriptural material. Furthermore, novelists elucidated the truth that the Bible itself is inherently heterogeneous and palimpsestic, open to ongoing reinterpretation and reinvention.

The modern encounter between the scriptures and the novel took place in the context of a post-Kantian obsession with the category of the aesthetic. In the eighteenth century, biblical texts began to be appreciated as literature, a quiet revolution inaugurated by Robert Lowth’s Lectures on the Sacred Poetry of the Hebrews (1753). The German romantics idolized the Bible as a supreme work of the creative imagination, a model of organic unity, and a bridge between the ideal and the concrete. Drawing on Continental thought, Samuel Taylor Coleridge insisted that the scriptures should not be read statically as a repository of unchanging truths (a practice he dismissed as bibliolatry) but dynamically and interactively, as one would read great literature.

This interpretative approach was inherited in the next generation by Matthew Arnold, who argued that the Bible is best understood as poetry (a broad term indicating the highest expression of the human imagination). D. H. Lawrence, who championed the novel as the pinnacle of writerly endeavor, considered the Gospels to be “wonderful novels” (if marred by excessive moralizing) and the books of the Old Testament “greater novels” still (1985, p. 181).

Not only did the Bible come to be seen as a great work of literature, literature gained the status of a new scripture. William Blake’s view that the artist’s imagination repeats the divine act of creation, actualized in his mythopoeic and prophetic writings, illustrated the romantic belief in the sacredness of human creativity. A century later, D. H. Lawrence’s manifesto “The Future of the Novel” (1923) envisioned the replacement of all scriptures and philosophies by the triumphant new genre. The breakdown of the once impermeable barrier between the divine word and the human opened the way for new literary reconfigurations of the biblical canon.

Novelizing the Scriptures: Lives of Jesus.

The first artistically and commercially successful fictionalization of the Gospels was Ernest Renan’s Vie de Jésus (1863; Eng. trans., Life of Jesus). Following the rationalism of his German predecessors, Renan rejected accounts of miracles to portray Jesus as a sensitive poetic soul in “exquisite sympathy with Nature” (p. 132).

While Life of Jesus is not exactly a novel, it pays great attention to the art of description and characterization. Renan also takes a novelist’s liberties, as seen in the following comment on Jesus’s meals with his apostles: “At these times they all assembled; the master spoke to each one, and kept up a charming and lively conversation. Jesus loved these seasons, and was pleased to see his spiritual family thus grouped around him” (p. 282). Renan’s book, with its unorthodox message and seductive prose, was both a scandal and a triumph. More importantly, by proving that the reading public was ready for a novelistic Jesus, it prepared the ground for future fictional reworkings of the Gospels.

In the following decades, quasi-novelistic “Lives of Jesus” enjoyed great popularity, with bestselling volumes by John Robert Seeley, Frederic W. Farrar, John Cunningham Geikie, and Alfred Edersheim, whose Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah (1883) introduced Victorian readers to a Jewish perspective on the Gospels. While these nonfictional “Lives” included novelistic elements, early Gospel novelizations such as Edwin A. Abbott’s Philochristus: Memoirs of a Disciple of the Lord (1878) and Joseph Jacobs’s As Others Saw Him: A Retrospect, a.d. 54 (1895) retained nonfictional features such as lengthy expositions and scholarly footnotes. Not surprisingly, neither Abbott nor Jacobs achieved commercial success with their Jesus-novels.

Novelizing the Scriptures: Biblical Romances.

A fictional formula that appealed more to Victorian audiences was the popular romance. In America, vociferous Puritan condemnations of the novel notwithstanding, biblical tales of adventure and intrigue flourished as early as the mid-nineteenth century. Elements of epistolary and adventure fiction merge with Old Testament plots in William Ware’s Julian; or, Scenes in Judea (1841) and Joseph Ingraham’s The Prince of the House of David: or, Three Years in the Holy City (1855), followed by its sequel, The Throne of David (1860).

The Anglophone vogue for biblical romance climaxed with the sensational success of Lew Wallace’s Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1880), an exotic adventure of a first-century Jewish nobleman sold into slavery, in which the figure of Jesus makes only a marginal appearance. Wallace’s many followers included the American couple Elizabeth Stuart Phelps Ward and Herbert Dickinson Ward, whose collaborations recast biblical stories in the mold of Gothic romance; and Marie Corelli, whose bestselling Barabbas: A Dream of the World’s Tragedy (1893) offered British readers a mix of violence, eroticism, and intrigue, while delivering a sentimentalized account of a conspicuously fair-complexioned Jesus.

Exploiting the public appetite for times-of-Christ accounts, as well as the contemporary interest in archaeological discoveries, some authors produced spurious fictional narratives that pretended to be recovered ancient writings, a quasi-literary genre that the biblical translator and scholar Edgar J. Goodspeed dubbed “modern apocrypha.” The most infamous example is Nicolas Notovitch’s La Vie inconnue de Jésus-Christ (1894; Eng. trans., The Unknown Life of Jesus Christ), an account of Jesus’s journey to India and Persia purportedly based on a document found in a Himalayan monastery.

Novelizing the Scriptures: Social Critiques.

While authors of biblical romances and modern apocrypha strove to create the titillating illusion of antiquity, a different set of Bible-inspired writers preferred to focus on the scriptures’ relevance to modern times. Their writings belong to a broader movement known as “Christian socialism,” an attempt at applying the New Testament to social and labor reform.

Many reformist novels introduce Christ-like characters into contemporary settings to condemn corrupt institutions and champion the downtrodden. Well-known examples include Eliza Lynn Linton’s pioneering The True History of Joshua Davidson (1872) and Charles M. Sheldon’s In His Steps (1896), the source of the meme “What Would Jesus Do?”

In some narratives, Jesus himself appears in the modern world to shine light on its iniquities, a fictional strategy that the critic Theodore Ziolkowski calls Jesus redivivus. Such is the case with Honoré de Balzac’s “Christ in Flanders” (1831), Alphonse Louis Constant’s La dernière incarnation: légendes évangéliques du XIXe siècle (1846; Eng. trans., The Last Incarnation), Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s “Grand Inquisitor” in The Brothers Karamazov (1880), and Charles T. Stead’s If Christ Came to Chicago! (1894), which inspired the rejoinder If Jesus Came to Boston (1895) by the prominent Unitarian Edward Everett Hale. The great American socialist Upton Sinclair used movie-worshipping Los Angeles as the setting for his novella They Call Me Carpenter: A Tale of the Second Coming (1922). Jesus completed his political trajectory to revolutionary communist pioneer in Le Judas de Jésus (1927; Eng. trans., Jesus) by Henri Barbusse. While Christian socialist writings typically focused on socioeconomic ills, the object of condemnation could also be corrupt religious institutions, as in Benito Pérez Galdós’s Nazarín (1895) and Antonio Fogazzaro’s Il Santo (1905; Eng. trans., The Saint).

The struggle against abusive power was also taken up by the earliest African American novelists, who used Old Testament stories to advance the cause of racial justice. The Bondwoman’s Narrative (2002), a recently discovered text written in the mid-nineteenth century by the former slave Hannah Crafts, references Abraham’s rejected concubine Hagar, the blessing stolen from Esau by Jacob, and the beautiful Shulamite in the Song of Solomon. Harriet E. Wilson’s groundbreaking Our Nig: or, Sketches from the Life of a Free Black (1859) used the story of Joseph’s bondage and ascension to make a case for the dignity of enslaved Africans.

Mainstream Nineteenth-Century Fiction.

As the novel reached its full maturity, the scriptures continued to be invoked not only in religious historical romances and Christian social critiques but also in mainstream literary fiction. Like their eighteenth-century predecessors, nineteenth-century novelists knew their Bibles intimately and often drew on scriptural sources to flesh out the journeys of fictional characters. Readers were likely to recognize Mary Magdalene in the heroine of Elizabeth Gaskell’s Ruth (1853); Job in the protagonist of Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure (1895); and the figure of Christ in Victor Hugo’s self-sacrificing Jean Valjean, Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s idiot-prince Mishkin, Gustave Flaubert’s Félicité, and Dickens’s many suffering innocents. Charlotte Brontë used the book of Revelation as a key intertext in Jane Eyre (1847). Leo Tolstoy’s Resurrection (1899), a magisterial catalog of contemporary injustice, ends with the hero, Nekhlyudov, finding the answer to society’s maladies in the Gospels’ message of endless forgiveness.

In France, the contes (tales) of Flaubert and Gérard de Nerval embellished biblical narratives with an Orientalist exoticism, while the short fiction of Anatole France portrayed scriptural characters with an ironic twist. France’s best-known story, “Le Procurateur de Judée” (1892; Eng. trans., “The Procurator of Judea”), imagines the elderly Pontius Pilate’s failure to recall the famous prisoner he had condemned to death. American letters of the nineteenth century were even more deeply indebted to the Bible, both for the abiding mythology of the chosen people yearning for the Promised Land and for the stately prosody familiar to every child raised on the King James Version.

Experimentation and Continuity: Modernist Mythologies.

At the end of the nineteenth century, literature’s relationship with the Bible was transformed yet again by the rise of scholarly and popular interest in non-Christian religious traditions. Sir James George Frazer’s influential study The Golden Bough: A Study in Comparative Religion (1890) encouraged a syncretic understanding of Christianity that replaced the Jesus of history with a mythical deity akin to Mithras, Dionysus, and Osiris.

While the comparative approach destabilized the traditional belief in the Bible’s uniqueness, it also introduced exciting new possibilities for the literary imagination. A case in point is the fiction of D. H. Lawrence, which explores biblical, Egyptian, Greek, and indigenous American mythologies in search of new sources of spiritual vitality. Lawrence’s scandalous 1929 novella The Escaped Cock (also published as The Man Who Died) imagines a Jesus who rejects his former teachings after surviving crucifixion. Disillusioned and sickened, he travels from Judea to Egypt, where he enters a sexual relationship with a priestess of Isis. Only through this syncretic union, watched over by the “all tolerant Pan” (Lawrence, 1956, p. 34), can Jesus experience a renewal of life—and bring new life into being.

A different kind of syncretism is found in the catholic work of James Joyce, whose Ulysses (1922) and Finnegans Wake (1939) incorporate biblical material into their complex intertextual structures alongside Greco-Roman mythology, Western literary and musical canons, esoteric lore, folk tradition, philosophy, history, politics, journalism, and popular culture.

Experimentation and Continuity: Political Engagements.

Modernist experiments in fragmenting and reconfiguring religious traditions reflected the anxiety of a Western culture undergoing rapid and violent transformation. A more straightforward response to twentieth-century crises can be found in novels that use biblical narratives for political commentary, either in the form of historical fiction or by transposing biblical plots and characters into modern times—a process Theodore Ziolkowski calls fictional transfiguration.

For authors commenting on the creation of the Jewish state, the Hebrew Bible proved particularly pertinent. The Russian Zionist Vladimir Jabotinsky promoted the ideal of a manly, militant Judaism in Judge and Fool (1926, also published as Samson the Nazirite); Moshe Shamir’s popular Israeli novel (later adapted for theater) He Walked through the Fields (1947) invoked the binding of Isaac (the Akedah) to meditate on the tension between personal and ideological commitment. A half century later, Shulamith Hareven’s Thirst: The Desert Trilogy (1996) drew on Exodus, Joshua, and Judges to revisit the idea of nationhood and condemn Israeli militarism.

Biblical narratives have also been used to censure twentieth-century totalitarian regimes. The anti-Nazi novel Profeten Jonas privat (1937; Eng. trans., Jonah and the Voice) by Harald Tandrup makes strategic use of its biblical protagonist’s status as ethnic outsider, while Der Mann im Fisch (1963; Eng. trans., The Man in the Fish) by Stefan Andres imagines Jonah’s visiting the twentieth century to witness humanity’s continuing failure at self-improvement. Disillusionment with National Socialism and communism informs Lion Feuchtwanger’s historical novel Jefta und seine Tochter (1957; Eng. trans., Jephthah and His Daughter), while Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita (1967) and Yury Dombrovsky’s Faculty of Useless Knowledge (1978) use scriptural scenes to ridicule the absurdities of Stalin’s atheistic regime. E. L. Doctorow’s The Book of Daniel (1971) brings together the ancient story of Daniel and the show trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg from America’s second Red Scare. Finally, the Jewish anarchist Abba Gordin rejects the idea of political power altogether in his Yiddish historical novel King Solomon (1960), which depicts the enlightened monarch’s voluntary abdication.

Experimentation and Continuity: Historical Fiction.

While the twentieth century introduced new modes of engagement with the Bible, readerly interest in the nineteenth-century genres of romance and historical fiction remained undiminished. The many lovers of King Solomon and King David provided material for exotic fantasy, as in Aleksandr Kuprin’s Sulamith (1908) and Theodor Heinrich Mayer’s David findet Abisag (“David finds Abishag”; 1925), both of which depict an aging ruler’s ardor for a young girl.

The most popular examples of mid-century biblical romance were Lloyd C. Douglas’s The Robe (1942), told from the point of view of the Roman soldier (and future Christian martyr) who won Jesus’s robe after the Crucifixion, and Fulton Oursler’s The Greatest Story Ever Told: A Tale of the Greatest Life Ever Lived (1949). Douglas followed The Robe with The Big Fisherman (1948), which tells the story of the apostle Peter; Oursler continued his series with The Greatest Book Ever Written: The Old Testament Story (1951) and The Greatest Faith Ever Known: The Story of the Men Who First Spread the Religion of Jesus and of the Momentous Times in Which They Lived (1953). Following the success of their novels—and the novels’ Hollywood adaptations—Oursler and Douglas achieved honorary status as spiritual authorities and found themselves deluged with letters and phone calls from devotees, quoted in devotional writing, and invoked from the pulpit.

Unorthodox fictionalizations of the Gospels garnered less profit and greater notoriety. George Augustus Moore’s controversial The Brook Kerith: A Syrian Story (1916) imagined a Jesus who, nursed back to health after crucifixion, lives a long life and reconsiders his youthful teachings. Robert Graves’s painstakingly researched King Jesus (1946) presented Jesus as the nondivine son of Antipater II, son of Herod the Great—and therefore a legitimate pretender to the Jewish throne. Time magazine called King Jesus a “heresy” and a “work of fundamental perversity” (“Old Heresy, New Version,” 1946, p. 108). Nikos Kazantzakis’s The Last Temptation of Christ (1953), frequently banned to this day, described the crucified protagonist entertaining, and ultimately rejecting, the fantasy of family life and sexual fulfillment.

The enduring appeal of historical reconstructions prompted many authors to become serial producers of biblical fiction. Saul Saphire’s 1930s Yiddish fictionalizations of scriptural heroes (including David, Joseph, Solomon, Esther, Moses, Joshua, Samson, Ruth, and Jephthah) portrayed his protagonists in accordance with Judaic tradition. Sholem Asch’s Yiddish trilogy The Nazarene (1939), The Apostle (1943), and Mary (1949) recounted the lives of Jesus, his mother, and Paul with tender lyricism, emphasizing their Jewishness while accepting the Christian view of Jesus’s miracles and messianic status. To rehabilitate himself in the eyes of his Jewish readers, Asch published another scriptural novel, Moses (1951), which includes a prophetic vision of suffering that hints at Nazi atrocities.

Other popular serial novelists of the mid-twentieth century include Gladys Schmitt, Dorothy Clarke Wilson, D. S. Lliteras, Frank G. Slaughter, and Taylor Caldwell. The fictions of Slaughter and Caldwell are known for their wealth of medical detail: the former author was a professional doctor; the latter’s best-known book, Dear and Glorious Physician (1959), retells the story of the physician-evangelist Luke.

The literary pinnacle of modern biblical fiction is undoubtedly Thomas Mann’s tetralogy Joseph und seine Brüder (1933–1943; Eng. trans., Joseph and His Brothers), in which the story of Joseph becomes grounds for reflection on the relationship between myth and history, polytheism and monotheism, sacred stories and their interpretations. Mann frequently pauses the action to offer lengthy philosophical ruminations, as in the following passage comparing Bronze Age and modern conceptions of the self:

"And is man’s ego a thing imprisoned in itself and sternly shut up in its boundaries of flesh and time? Do not many of the elements which make it up belong to a world before and outside of it? The notion that each person is himself and can be no other, is that anything more than a convention, which arbitrarily leaves out of account all the transitions which bind the individual consciousness to the general?" (Mann, 1938, p. 128).

Despite its intellectual merits, Mann’s monumental work about a Jewish hero’s sojourn in a foreign land was a dangerous undertaking in the era of National Socialism: the Nobel laureate was forced to complete his magnum opus in exile.

Mainstream Twentieth-Century Fiction.

Although twentieth-century intellectuals liked to think they lived in an age that had outgrown religious attachments, literature continued to draw on biblical tradition. A cursory survey of fictional titles from the American canon demonstrates a surprising persistence of scriptural references: F. Scott Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise (1920), William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! (1936) and Go Down, Moses (1942), Katherine Anne Porter’s Pale Horse, Pale Rider (1939), Nathaniel West’s The Day of the Locust (1939), and James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953), among others.

The same intellectual upheavals of the previous two centuries that removed the Bible from its revered position made it available as a storehouse of imagery, plotlines, and themes. For example, the book of Genesis underpins works as diverse as John Steinbeck’s East of Eden (1952), Albert Camus’s La Chute (1956; Eng. trans., The Fall ), and the Arabic-language author Halım Barakāt’s Days of Dust (1969). Long-suffering Job, one of the most resonant biblical characters in the modern period, is central to the writings of Franz Kafka, Muriel Spark, Joseph Roth, and Bernard Malamud. Sacrificial Christ-figures appear in Faulkner’s A Fable (1954), Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940), François Mauriac’s L’Agneau (1954; Eng. trans., The Lamb), Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory (1940), and countless other fictions by authors ranging from devout believers to committed atheists.

In the post–World War II era of global nuclear anxiety, many writers gravitated toward the book of Revelation. Well-known apocalyptic novels include John Barth’s Giles Goat-Boy (1966), Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (1973), and Martin Amis’s London Fields (1989). Likewise, the works of Norman Mailer, Patrick White, Cormac McCarthy, and Douglas Coupland are shaped by a strong apocalyptic undercurrent.

Even as twentieth-century novelists continued to appropriate scriptural material, the Bible’s relationship with literature became the subject of systematic study by literary scholars, including Northrop Frye, Robert Alter, Frank Kermode, and Harold Bloom.

Against the Grain: The Literature of Suspicion.

In the second half of the twentieth century, literary theory and practice grappled with questions of canonicity. Who decides which works belong in the canon? How do these decisions reflect larger relations of power? How can the canon be reconfigured or rewritten? How can society recuperate voices and perspectives left behind in the canonization process? Then and now, scriptural fiction advances this conversation by offering new, subversive reimaginings of the original canon: the Bible.

One strategy is the demythologization of biblical heroes. Stefan Heym’s The King David Report (1973) recounts how Solomon, in an attempt at consolidating his political power, commissioned a whitewashed account of his predecessor’s reign; Timothy Findley’s Not Wanted on the Voyage (1984) envisions Yahweh as a senile autocrat; Joseph Heller’s God Knows (1984) features a smug and insecure David; Simone Zelitch’s Moses in Sinai (2002) portrays a Moses who doubts his god; Colm Tóibín’s The Testament of Mary (2012) gives voice to a bitter Mary who questions the apostles’ claims about her son’s resurrection. Less aggressively iconoclastic but still unorthodox renditions can be found in Michel Tournier’s The Four Wise Men (1982), which follows the lives of the Magi before they arrive in Bethlehem, and Alain Absire’s Lazarus (1988), whose protagonist struggles to come to terms with his unwanted resurrection.

Conversely, a familiar story can be retold from the point of view of a minor character, as in Dan Jacobson’s The Rape of Tamar (1970), narrated by King David’s obscure relative Yonadab, and Her Story (1987), which reconstructs the perspective of the mother of one of the thieves crucified on Golgotha. Another standard strategy is the rehabilitation of biblical villains, especially Cain and Judas. Notable examples, drawn from scores of similar works, include Frank Yerby’s Judas, My Brother: The Story of the Thirteenth Disciple (1968), Howard Jacobson’s The Very Model of a Man (1992), and José Saramago’s Cain (2009). Meir Shalev’s Esau (1994) reverses traditional biblical hierarchies by questioning the elevation of Jacob over his twin, Esau, and Rachel over her sister, Leah.

These iconoclastic re-scriptures point to the historiographical skepticism of late twentieth- and early twenty-first-century writers, whose distrust in the official biblical narratives replaced the obsessive historicism of their nineteenth-century predecessors. The historical accuracy (and authority) of the Bible is called into question in the metafictional gospels of the Nobel laureate José Saramago, the international bestselling author Philip Pullman, James P. Carse, and A. J. Langguth, all of whom portray the less-thanperfect process of scriptural composition. A more sensationalist version of the skeptical approach can be found in popular “archaeological” novels that narrate the discovery of a new apocryphal scroll, often violently suppressed by ecclesiastical authorities.

Against the Grain: Postcolonial and Postemancipatory Narratives.

Contemporary fiction’s interest in the mechanisms of suppression and marginalization encompasses not only characters within the Bible but also the historical victims of the Bible’s stewards. In cultures colonized (and Christianized) by European powers, the relationship between literature and the Christian holy book is inevitably complicated.

On the one hand, the emergence of literary fiction in traditionally oral cultures was shaped by colonial education’s emphasis on literacy and scripture. For example, Bibeli Mimo, the 1900 Yoruba translation of the Bible, influenced the pioneering prose of Daniel Olorunfemi Fagunwa, whose narratives use biblical characters alongside traditional Yoruba figures. On the other hand, biblical religion was a cudgel of cultural colonialism, a tool for programmatically devaluing and undermining indigenous practices. This ambivalence is manifest in the fictional oeuvre of Ngu˜gĩ wa Thiong’o: the protagonist of A Grain of Wheat (1967), the liberationist leader Kihika, is both a Moses leading his people out of bondage and a betrayed Christ; Devil on the Cross (1982) denounces the destructive influence of Christianity on neocolonial societies; Matigari (1987) satirizes post-independence Kenya through the story of another sacrificial Christ-figure, whose efforts to liberate the oppressed end in betrayal and death.

Biblical narratives, especially Exodus and the Gospels, were central to the project of twentieth-century liberation theology, which applied biblical teachings to contemporary conditions of social injustice. Writers who use scriptural material to explore themes of oppression, resistance, and liberation include Augusto Roa Bastos, Roger Mais, Vicente Leñero, Naguib Mahfouz, and Alain Vircondelet.

A similarly ambivalent relationship with the Bible is found in African American fiction, which makes extensive use of biblical language and imagery, often intermixed with African spirituality and magic, while exposing the racist underpinnings of white Christian society. Zora Neale Hurston’s historical novel Moses, Man of the Mountain (1939) retells the story of Exodus, highlighting its relevance to contemporary racial politics. Her enslaved Hebrews speak in black dialect; her Moses sees less importance in external regulations (such as the Ten Commandments) than in finding freedom and power from within. As Hurston explains in an authorial introduction, her protagonist is not the “Moses of the Christians” but the powerful magician of African legend: “Wherever the children of Africa have been scattered by slavery, there is the acceptance of Moses as the fountain of mystic powers” (Hurston, 1995, p. 337).

In addition to Hurston’s masterpiece, Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), biblical narratives reverberate in Richard Wright’s Native Son (1940), Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952), James Baldwin’s Another Country (1962), Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo (1972), Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon (1977) and Beloved (1987), Alice Walker’s The Color Purple (1982), and Sherley Anne Williams’s Dessa Rose (1986). The Christian scriptures’ liberationist potential is ruthlessly scrutinized in Toni Morrison’s Paradise (1997)—published soon after she won the Nobel Prize in Literature—which draws on Exodus, the Gospels, and the Apocalypse to describe the dystopian black community of Ruby. Ruby’s inhabitants, who read the Bible religiously and name their streets after the Gospels, find themselves violently replicating structures of racial and gender oppression.

Against the Grain: Feminist and Queer Rewritings.

The problem of oppressive gender dynamics is central to feminist scriptural fiction, which seeks to subvert the androcentrism of the Bible and its traditional exegetes. A common starting point is what the theologian Elisabeth Fiorenza calls the “hermeneutics of experience,” an effort to reconstruct or rehabilitate the life stories of biblical women like Eve (whose role in the narrative of the Fall was used for centuries to justify women’s inferior status), Ruth (whose otherness and vulnerability represents the plight of all biblical women), and Mary Magdalene (whose demotion from disciple and financial supporter of Jesus to repentant prostitute evinces a patriarchal fear of female power). Such reconstructions can also focus on lesser known figures, as in Leonard Angel’s The Book of Miriam (1997), which includes the scriptural writings of Miriam, prophetess and sister of Moses, suppressed by centuries of male Jewish scholars and secretly studied by generations of women.

Some feminist writers seek to redress the gender imbalance of Christian cosmology, with its emphasis on God the Father and his Son, by invoking the figure of the Mother Goddess and celebrating women’s sexual and reproductive powers (e.g., Michèle Roberts, Marianne Fredriksson, Alice Walker, Ki Longfellow). Conversely, authors like Angela Carter reject the essentialist notions of gender promoted by Father-centered and Mother-centered mythologies. The dangers of gender essentialism are vividly portrayed in Margaret Atwood’s celebrated The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), which imagines a dystopian patriarchal society based on literal readings of biblical passages.

The allied project of queer biblical study questions scriptural condemnations of homosexuality while reclaiming relationships that can be construed as homoerotic: Ruth and Naomi, David and Jonathan, Jesus and John. Queer engagements with the Bible appear in Djuna Barnes’s Ryder (1928), which invokes the figure of Sophia (divine wisdom) to rewrite Genesis and paint the vision of a lesbian paradise; Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness (1928), which posits homosexuality, or “inversion,” as a gift of God; Jane Rule’s Desert of the Heart (1964), which, like Well of Loneliness, makes a case for same-sex love through biblical references; Guy Hocquenghem’s Eve (1987), which splices the book of Genesis with accounts of the author’s AIDS-ravaged body; and Randall Kenan’s A Visitation of Spirits (1989), a black coming-out narrative that weaves together magical realism and scriptural citation to explore the power of biblical patriarchy.

The authority of the Bible is rejected altogether in Jeanette Winterson’s Bildungsroman (and Künstlerroman) Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (1985), whose heroine strives to liberate herself from the oppressive influence of her evangelical mother. By naming her chapters after the books of the Hebrew Bible (from “Genesis” to “Ruth”), Winterson creatively (re)interprets biblical themes and narratives. Another example of a fictional polemic on the Bible’s claim to authority is Gore Vidal’s Live from Golgotha: The Gospel According to Gore Vidal (1992). Vidal undermines scriptural reliability through an explosive mix of queer satire, postmodernist mise en abîme, and science fiction.

Against the Grain: Biblical Science Fiction.

In spite of being a popular genre, science fiction has produced some of the most interesting fictional experiments of the last century. Its flexible ontology, its use of mythological archetypes, and its interest in the interface of science and philosophy—Are we alone in the universe? Do replicants have souls? Will we destroy our planet?—make science fiction particularly well suited for engagements with religion. The use of biblical narratives goes back to the genre’s origins: Jules Verne’s novella L’Éternel Adam (1920; Eng. trans., The Eternal Adam) reveals that humanity’s ur-ancestor was in fact the survivor of an older, annihilated, civilization.

Science-fiction writers can take on scriptural material unhindered by traditional spatiotemporal constraints. Space travel allows them to reimagine familiar stories from new perspectives, as in Lee Correy’s Starship through Space (1954), which presents the Tower of Babel from the point of view of aliens. Time travel opens even richer possibilities, granting eyewitness access to biblical events (often with highly unorthodox results), as in Arthur Porge’s “The Rescuer” (1962), Michael Moorcock’s Behold the Man (1969), Robert Silverberg’s “Up the Line” (1969), Garry Kilworth’s “Let’s Go to Golgotha” (1975), and Gore Vidal’s Live from Golgotha.

While some science-fiction narratives reimagine individual biblical episodes, others play with the idea of scripture: George R. R. Martin’s “The Way of Cross and Dragon” (1979) introduces a secret sect called the Liars, who compose holy books, including the Bible, in order to soften the harsh truth about our entropic existence; Philip K. Dick’s experimental “gnostic” VALIS trilogy (1981–1982) mixes the form of fiction with theological speculation and reflection; Dave Duncan’s series The Great Game (1995–1997) imagines a human space traveler who becomes the hero of a sacred scripture in an alternate universe.

The related genre of fantasy also boasts a robust (if more conventional) relationship with the Bible, as exemplified by the work of J. R. R. Tolkien (The Lord of the Rings) and his close friend and colleague C. S. Lewis (The Chronicles of Narnia), a devout Catholic and an Anglican, respectively. Tolkien and Lewis have inspired many contemporary imitators such as Brian Godawa, whose biblical fantasy series Chronicles of the Nephilim highlights larger-than-life biblical heroes. Lewis’s enduring significance to young adult readers motivated the outspoken atheist Philip Pullman to compose his bestselling “anti-Narnia” fantasy series His Dark Materials (1995–2000).


Paradoxically, the trajectory of the biblical novel has been both linear and circular. Despite the continuing long-term trend toward iconoclasm, the greater part of scriptural fiction—in terms of sales and readership—returns again and again to old-fashioned historical retellings of canonical narratives.

The Christian romance is a flourishing, and lucrative, genre. One current fashion is the focus on female heroines, as evident in a number of series: Women of the Bible by Ann Burton, The Wives of the Patriarchs by Jill Eileen Smith (also author of The Wives of King David series), and Women of Genesis by Orson Scott Card.

The most commercially successful work of contemporary biblical narrative is the 16-volume Left Behind saga (1995–2007) by American evangelicals Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, who also co-authored a quartet of novels based on the canonical Gospels. An example of the rapture fiction genre, Left Behind has spawned a multi-million-dollar franchise that includes young adult fiction, graphic novels, collectors’ editions, devotionals, video games, and two film adaptations. Unapologetically ideological, the series aims to convert unbelievers and deepen the faith of the converted, using none-too-subtle techniques of conspiracy theory fiction and action film.

While the scale of the Left Behind phenomenon is unprecedented, the authors’ strategy of repackaging scriptural material as exciting pleasure reading harks back to Christian Gothic and adventure romances of the nineteenth century. Like the Bible itself, biblical fiction undergoes continuous remaking to suit the needs and tastes of each generation.



Primary Works

  • Hurston, Zora Neale. “Moses, Man of the Mountain [1939].” In Zola Neale Hurston: Novels and Stories, edited by Cheryl A. Wall, pp. 335–595. New York: Library of America, 1995.
  • Lawrence, D. H. “The Man Who Died.” In The Short Novels of D. H. Lawrence, Vol. 2, pp. 3–47. London: Heinemann, 1956. First published as The Escaped Cock in 1929.
  • Lawrence, D. H. “The Novel.” In Study of Thomas Hardy and Other Essays, edited by Bruce Steele, pp. 177–190. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1985. First published 1925.
  • Lukács, Georg. The Theory of the Novel: A Historico-philosophical Essay on the Forms of Great Epic Literature. Translated by Anna Bostock. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1971. English translation of Die Theorie des Romans: Ein geschichtsphilosophischer Versuch über die Formen der grossen Epik, first published in 1920.
  • Mann, Thomas. Joseph and His Brothers. Translated by H. T. Lowe-Porter. New York: Knopf, 1938. English translation of Joseph und seine Brüder, first published in 1933.
  • “Old Heresy, New Version” [review of King Jesus by Robert Graves]. Time, 30 September 1946, p. 108.
  • Renan, Ernest. The Life of Jesus. New York: A. L. Burt, 1863. English translation of Vie de Jésus, first published in 1863.

Secondary Works

  • Bassard, Katherine Clay. Transforming Scriptures: African American Women Writers and the Bible. Athens, Ga.: University of Georgia Press, 2010. An examination of biblical references in the literature of African American women in several genres. Discussions of literary fiction range from slavery narratives by Hannah Crafts and Harriet E. Wilson to contemporary novels by Toni Morrison and Sherley Ann Williams.
  • Benedix, Beth Hawkins, ed. Subverting the Scriptures: Critical Reflections on the Use of the Bible. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009. A collection of essays analyzing twentieth-century, post-Nietzschean literature (poetry, fiction, drama, and nonfiction) that subverts or contends with biblical texts. Includes analyses of novels by Johnny Cash, Margaret Atwood, Toni Morrison, Franz Kafka, Simone Zelitch, and Tim LaHaye.
  • Bevan, David, ed. Literature and the Bible. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1993. An anthology dedicated to twentieth-century literary appropriations of biblical material, especially ones that interrogate their canonical source text. Includes chapters on Angela Carter, Muriel Spark, Dalton Trevisan, John Steinbeck, Michel Tournier, and Julio Cortázar, as well as chapters on post-Holocaust and postcolonial writings.
  • Boitani, Piero. The Bible and Its Rewritings. Translated by Anita Weston. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999. An examination of biblical rewritings, what Boitani calls re-Scriptures (ri-Scritture), from Geoffrey Chaucer to Michel Tournier. The volume does not focus exclusively on prose fiction but includes extensive discussions of William Faulkner, Joseph Roth, and Thomas Mann.
  • Deena, Seodial Frank H., and Karoline Szatek, eds. From Around the Globe: Secular Authors and Biblical Perspectives. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 2007. This volume includes essays on biblical writing divided into geographical sections: United States and Canada, Latin America and the Caribbean, Europe, Asia and the Middle East, Africa. Essays discuss poetry and drama as well as fiction but focus predominantly on twentieth-century prose narrative.
  • Fisch, Harold. New Stories for Old: Biblical Patterns in the Novel. Basingstoke, U.K.: Macmillan, 1998. An analysis of the persistence of biblical narrative patterns in modern fiction, emphasizing the influence of biblical realism on the English novel (Daniel Defoe, Henry Fielding, George Eliot), as well as the literary reincarnations of Job (in Franz Kafka, Joseph Roth, and Bernard Malamud) and Isaac (in Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, S. Y. Agnon, and A. B. Yehoshua).
  • Frontain, Raymond-Jean, ed. Reclaiming the Sacred: The Bible in Gay and Lesbian Culture. New York: Harrington Park, 1997. Also published in Journal of Homosexuality 33, nos. 3–4 (1997). A collection of essays examining queer engagements with biblical material from the seventeenth century onward. Includes discussions of fiction by E. M. Forster, Radclyffe Hall, Jane Rule, and Jeanette Winterson. Frontain’s introductory essay offers a useful overview of queer biblical rereadings.
  • Jasper, David, and Stephen Prickett, eds. The Bible and Literature: A Reader. Oxford: Blackwell, 1999. Fiction is just a small faction of this anthology dedicated to literary and critical uses of the Bible, but the introductory essays by Jasper and Prickett provide an excellent introduction to biblical literary criticism and contemporary literary readings of the Bible.
  • Jeffrey, David Lyle, ed. A Dictionary of Biblical Tradition in English Literature. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1992. Individual entries explain biblical concepts and characters, listing their renditions and interpretations in English literature (all genres). Dictionary also includes a “Biblical Tradition in English Literature” section, which lists scholarly works on the subject, divided into “Selected General Studies” and “Use of the Bible by a Single Authors or Groups of Authors.”
  • King, Jeannette. Women and the Word: Contemporary Women Novelists and the Bible. New York: St. Martin’s, 2000. An examination of literary responses to the Bible by female British and American writers, informed by the theoretical work of Julia Kristeva. Authors discussed include Sara Maitland, Toni Morrison, Michèle Roberts, Emma Tennant, Alice Walker, and Jeanette Winterson.
  • Knight, Mark, and Thomas Woodman, eds. Biblical Religion and the Novel, 1700–2000. Aldershot, U.K.: Ashgate, 2006. This collection elucidates the novel’s understudied engagement with biblical religion. Theoretical essays include an account of the novel’s impact on Bible-reading practices and a reconsideration of Mikhail Bakhtin’s stance on novelistic engagements with the scriptures. Chapter discussions of individual authors include Richard Fielding; Charlotte and Emily Brontë; D. H. Lawrence; John Updike and Richard Ford; Dan Jacobson, Stefan Heym, and Joseph Heller; Jeanette Winterson; and Douglas Coupland.
  • Lemon, Rebecca, Emma Mason, Jonathan Roberts, and Christopher Rowland, eds. The Blackwell Companion to the Bible in English Literature. Chichester, U.K.: Blackwell-Wiley, 2009. A collection of essays dedicated to the field of “Bible and literature” studies. Includes sections on medieval, early modern, eighteenth-century and romantic, Victorian, and modernist literature.
  • Liptzin, Sol. Biblical Themes in World Literature. Hoboken, N.J.: KTAV Publishing House, 1985. Organized into chapters dedicated to individual characters from the Hebrew scriptures, this volume offers brief summaries of each biblical story and catalogs its literary renditions in all genres.
  • Mort, John. Christian Fiction: A Guide to the Genre. Greenwood Village, Colo.: Libraries Unlimited, 2002. A nonacademic bibliography of Christian fiction with brief summaries of selected works. Includes a chapter dedicated to biblical fiction, as well as chapters based on genre (historical fiction, sagas, westerns, romances, fantasy and science fiction, mysteries and thrillers) and denominations (Catholic fiction; Amish, Mennonite, and Quaker fiction; Mormon fiction).
  • Phy, Allene Stuart. “Retelling the Greatest Story Ever Told: Jesus in Popular Fiction.” In The Bible and Popular Culture in America, edited by Allene Stuart Ply, pp. 41–83. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1985. An account of popular U.S. novels based on the Gospels from the mid-nineteenth century to the 1970s.
  • Stevens, Jennifer. The Historical Jesus and the Literary Imagination, 1860–1920. Liverpool, U.K.: Liverpool University Press, 2010. Excellent overview of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century British fictionalizations of the Gospels, with special emphasis on the work of Oscar Wilde and George Moore.
  • Vance, Norman. Bible and Novel: Narrative Authority and the Death of God. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013. A postsecular analysis of Victorian novels that refutes the traditional secularist account of the genre. Individual chapters are dedicated to the work of George Eliot, Thomas Hardy, Mary Ward, and H. Rider Haggard.
  • Ziolkowski, Theodore. Fictional Transfigurations of Jesus. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1972. A field-defining discussion of modern fictional transfigurations: novels set in contemporary times but based on biblical plots. Ziolkowski’s introductory chapters offer an overview of nineteenth-century “Lives of Jesus” as well as a useful taxonomy of Jesus fictions.

Magdalena Mączyńska