You would think after lasting thousand of years the Bible’s status as a literary masterpiece would go unquestioned, yet forums and blogs across the internet proliferate with the myopic opinions of those castigating the Bible’s literary merits. As the comments section of this blog points out some people think the Bible is poorly written and schizophrenically jumps from one topic to another without any clues.
P.Z. Myers describes the bible as the “bad book” complaining “it’s a nearly unreadable mess of contradictory stories, ancient political propaganda, arcane tribalisms, bizarre rituals, and the bragging of petty provincial bullies. There are occasional scraps of genuine literary quality imbedded in it, but it is 95% shit…”
Over at Triangulations, Sabio suggests the Bible is not a masterpiece because Isaiah 40:26 is similar to The Great Hymn of Osiris, even though stylistically the two are not similar at all, with the edge going to the far more poetic and grandiose Biblical passage.
Other bizarre criticisms include this one by a commenter on a Star Wars discussion board who insists that the Bible is bad literature because the authors couldn’t think up a name for God:
“Literary character or not it’s not a name. Come up with a name and I’ll capitalize it. Until then it’s just another insignificant title that has no meaning to me.
EDIT: This is also why the bible is bad literature (besides the loose collection of stories and inconsistencies) the authors couldn’t think of a suitable name so they left the title and expected people to go along with it as if it’s a name.”
Still others insist that the reason people think the Bible is good literature is because they just haven’t read enough Greek and Roman literature:
“I would welcome teaching the Bible as literature. It would be one more religious symbol that could be cleansed of its spiritual connotations — like Homer. The Bible is poor literature and that would be obvious to those equally exposed to the richness in ancient Greek literature. And it would be apparent that Greece and Rome influenced Western Civilization much more than the Bible ever did. So I’m not against this in principle.”
As someone who has read a great deal of Greek and Roman literature, as well as a great deal of the Western Canon, it isn’t obvious to me at all that the Bible is poor in comparison. In fact, I think the Bible stands up quite well to the best works of Greek and Roman Literature.
Keddaw, a rather thoughtless poster that has a strange understanding of what constitutes the human condition, takes up a challenge to write a modern day review of the Bible:
“Anyone looking for a coherent story or some insight into the human condition best go elsewhere, anyone looking for incest, rape, genocide, child abuse and what people hearing voices are willing to do have found their tome.”
Apparently genocide, incest, and rape aren’t part of the human condition. Somebody better go tell Elie Wiesel and other writers of the Holocaust that they’re not writing about anything relevant.
The Atheist over at The Literature Network during a conversation about reading the Bible as literature and the Bible’s undeniable influence on art claimed:
“The reason for the bible’s position in society and history has everything to do with it being pushed by the clergy and nothing whatsoever to do with its literary merit. I repeat – viewed as a book, it is a mess of contradictions, fallacies, plagiarisms, downright fantasy and deus ex machina.”
A pattern arises when glancing over these various comments. The same general criticisms emerge every time the Bible’s literary value comes under discussion. I have no delusions that people who think the Bible is bad literature will read this and change their minds; however, I think it is worth demonstrating some of the more obvious shortcomings of these common criticism. I also think it is worth explaining why I, respected literary scholars, and many other passionate readers of literature think the Bible is good literature. I plan to systematically tackle each point and demonstrate why they are insufficient grounds to dismiss the Bible’s literary merit.
Charge # 1: The bible’s position in society and history has everything to do with it being pushed by the clergy and nothing whatsoever to do with its literary merit.
According to this idea if the Bible didn’t dominate the entire cultural world of the Middle Ages and large part of European history for religious– rather than artistic–reasons then the Bible would’ve been forgotten by now. It seems no one is disagreeing that the Bible has so far stood the test of time, which is one of the best objective measures of literary worth. One side, however, thinks it has stood the test of time and been influential on the arts because of its inherent literary merits, while the other side believes it has stood the test of time and taken a prominent position in artistic history ONLY because it has been artificially thrust upon us from the outside by those in power.
Both positions have some merit. Even if the Bible does have literary merit, it is hard to imagine the Bible would’ve had the same artistic importance if the Middle Ages and Renaissance weren’t dominated by Christianity as an institution, which permeated all levels of society. So this criticism on the surface at least seems reasonable, but I think it overstates the case. Many of the Greek Myths still inspired artists long after their religious significance faded. We have no reason to assume the Bible would’ve had a different fate, even if it is reasonable to surmise that it would be a little less important in society.
Speculating about history is always tricky because you have to make so many assumptions that are impossible to verify since history didn’t unfold that way. Quite simply there is no possible way we can know for sure if the Bible has survived on its own artistic merits or if it has survived because the religious establishment’s dominant ideology, or even a combination of the two. Religion, culture, art, and history are intimately intertwined. Nevertheless, we can say with a certainty that unparalleled artists such as Michelangelo and poets like John Milton, along with countless others, have found genuine inspiration in the Bible for their artistic creations.
Since we cannot know definitively why the Bible has been influential on the arts, we are left only with the simple fact that it has been influential on the arts. Don’t believe me? Walk into any major art museum in the world and count how many images of Jesus, Moses, and the Virgin Mary you find. Influence is a important criteria for judging artistic merit and very few literary works can match the Bible in this area.
Charge # 2: Plagiarism
Of all the charges against the Bible’s literary worth this has to be one of the weakest. Plagiarism is a fairly modern concept and not one that concerned the ancient world much. Although, the Roman poet Martial did complain about “literary thieves” in Martial 1.52.9. Myths are communal stories, and by definition communal stories are owned by nobody. If I borrowed from Chinese mythology and reworked the material into a modern fantasy novel, despite not being Chinese, the Chinese nation would not be able to sue me on the grounds of plagiarism, nor do I think most people would accuse me of plagiarism (although they might complain of cultural appropriation). This essentially describes what the Bible did in a few sections, such as the Noah story, which borrows from the Mesopotamian flood myths. They were cultural neighbors and it is common practice to share ideas and cultural tropes among neighbors, hence why Buddhism begins in India, but we don’t suggest the Japanese plagiarized or stole it.
The ancient world proliferates with examples of writers reworking the same source material. The ancient Greek playwrights and Roman poets all wrote slightly different versions of the same myths precisely because nobody owns those myths; they’re shared by the entire culture. People borrowed and rewrote each other’s stories all the time. This isn’t even an ancient standard either. People still borrow and rewrite each other’s stories all the time.
Works like Wicked by Gregory Macguire (a retelling of Frank Oz’s The Wizard of Oz), Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys (a prequel to Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre), Grendel by John Gardner (a retelling of Beowulf from a different perspective) are all contemporary books that rewrite other peoples’ stories. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is a rewriting of Jane Austen’s famous and excellent novel.
Other great writers with universally acclaimed literary merit are equally guilty of the so-called plagiarism charge. Shakespeare steals the plots of his most famous plays from other stories. Chaucer ripped off a couple of his tales from Bocaccio in The Canterbury Tales. John Milton blatantly rewrites and steals from Genesis 1-3 in Paradise Lost. These are not only major works of literature, but Shakespeare is considered by many scholars and readers to be the best writer of the English language ever. Given these examples, I think we can safely dismiss that plagiarism has any bearing on literary worth. Why would stealing some else’s plot and doing it better (i. e. Shakespeare) mean you have less literary value?
Charge # 3: A Work of Fantasy
Fantasy is another easy one to dismiss. Shakespeare’s The Tempest is a work of fantasy too. So is Ovid’s Metamorphosis. So is Homer’s two epic poems, The Iliad and The Odyssey. Fantasy novels are still published today. Not to mention I really enjoy the fantasy genre. This is just a bias against fantasy, not an actual criticism. As evidenced by these many works of fantasy that are considered good literature, fantastical or magical elements are not grounds to dismiss the literary merits of a work.
Charge # 4: Contradictions and Fallacies
These are harder to address because in most cases when someone raises this charge they do not provide any specific examples that they have in mind (notice by the way the tendency for people to declare the Bible has “bad writing” or “poorly developed characters” or “inconsistencies,” but rarely is any evidence provided from the text to support these claims). However, having actually read through the Bible I do agree that the Bible contains many contradictions. However, this also a reveals a stunning misunderstanding of the book’s nature.
The bible is a collection of many different works cast into the mold of a mostly coherent overarching single work. The best way to think of it is as an entire library of different books contained in a single volume. The overarching theme is the history and evolving relationship of the Ancient Hebrews with God.
The mistake often made then is to try and read the Bible as a single coherent book. The Bible is a compendium of different genres and different writers. Any literary discussion of the Bible always has in mind the documentary hypothesis, which recognizes that there is minimally four writers for the Torah, and many more writers once we add other sections into the mix, written during different time periods and with slightly different theological and ideological viewpoints. Given this knowledge of the Bible’s literary nature it is safe to say there are going to be some disagreements (the term I prefer to “contradictions”). This might suggest that the Bible isn’t divine and infallible, but I don’t see why it would speak against its literary value. The Iliad also has contradictions and inconsistencies here and there (probably because certain theories suggest it was written by multiple authors as well), but it is still considered to be great literature. The disagreements are an example of its literary worth, not a fault against it; we get a variety of stories and an assortment of perspectives on the divine will, allowing for a rich and dynamic reading experience full of many possible interpretations.
With that said, occasionally the Bible has contradictions within the same story narrative. I agree this is problematic and not in the favor of the Bible, but this only happens once in awhile and for the most part isn’t too distracting to appreciating the overall narrative or the individual stories.
Charge # 5: Deus Ex Machina
Aristotle in his Poetics rails against Deus Ex Machina in Greek Tragedy. When an author doesn’t know how to end a story, it is all too easy for an author to rely on some super-powerful force like a god to intervene and fix everything. The problem with this technique is it deadens the dramatic tension and also it is an unearned solution, the protagonist doesn’t have to do anything to solve his problems. The problem with Deus Ex Machina is that it comes out of nowhere. You have a character struggling with a situation, performing actions to solve his problems, and then a god comes out to fix everything, invalidating all of the character’s earlier struggles.
The problem here is the Bible is a different beast altogether from Greek drama. This is what happens when one sticks to so-called rules of literature or art, without considering the specific nature of the artwork itself or without understanding why those rules are there in the first place, but just dogmatically knowing Deus Ex Machina are bad without understanding the reasons why they are bad.
If the Bible has a central conflict it is this: will God help this group of people in their time of need or will he abandon them? The many stories of the Bible show God and the characters testing each other, exploring the limits of this relationship. Yes, God comes and saves the day, but often the external conflict was never really the point; the internal conflict involving that relationship between the Israelites and God is the point, which changes the entire nature of how we should view divine interference. The story isn’t about Jews contending with invading Assyrians in which God just randomly shows up, but Assyrians are able to invade because the Israelites failed to heed God. The divine interference isn’t some out-of-the-blue resolution, but is the point of story itself.
So why then is the Bible Good Literature?
The simplest and most objective answer is that thus far it has survived the test of time. However, I think a more specific answer can be given; the value of literature can be assessed through three overlapping categories: Influence, Aesthetics, and Wisdom.
The Bible is the ultimate literary anthology. You have fantastic myths, political intrigue, military narratives, poetry, epistles/letters, proverbs, parables, short stories, history, revisionist history, all loosely tied together under a theme of the history of the Jews and their relationship with God. The Bible combines genres that often would have appeared separately in the ancient world and combines them loosely into one giant book with a vague overarching theme and subject. In other words, the Bible is a kind of ancient experimental literature and needs to be read with that in mind. It is a book that can be read as a single connected narrative (starting from the creation of humanity to the giving of the laws to a chosen group of people to the fall of those chosen people at the hands 0f invaders for disobeying said laws to the redeeming of those people through the coming of a savior to the remnant communities struggling to make sense of their faith after their savior’s death), but also a book whose parts can be read separately such as Genesis, which is the story of the patriarchs, whose stories of fathers and sons lead directly to the Exodus account (the next book). Books like Genesis can be further subdivided into individual stories that function isolated from the rest of the narrative. I could for example talk about the Adam and Eve story separately from the rest of the Bible and it pretty much stands on its own. I could do the same for the Sodom and Gomorrah episode or The Book of Esther. To create a narrative that consists of multiple genres of writing, which functions as a mostly coherent whole that covers the history, cultural practices, and theological beliefs of an ancient people, whose constituent parts can also simultaneously function as a coherent work in isolation from the whole and whose constituent parts can then be further subdivided into isolated stand-alone stories within a single book (such as in Genesis), is an incredible literary achievement.
A lot of the language and writing is in fact quite beautiful in Psalms, in Proverbs, in Song of Songs, in Ecclesiastes, in sections of the various Prophets, in sections of the New Testament, even in Genesis, Kings, and plenty other places of the Bible.
Such examples of beautiful language and descriptions (though hardly exhaustive):
“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.” – Psalm 23
“To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; a time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away; a time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; a time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.” – Ecclesiastes 3.
“So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.” - Matthew 7:12
“Spare Me the sound of your hymns, and let Me not hear the music of your lutes. But let justice well up like water, Righteousness like an unfailing stream.” – Amos 6:24 – 25.
“A wise son brings joy to his father; a dull son is his mother’s sorrow.” – Proverbs 10:1
“For wisdom is better than rubies; no goods can equal her.” – Proverbs 8:16.
“What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.” – Ecclesiastes 1:9
“And so I set my mind to appraise wisdom and to appraise madness and folly. And I learned–that this too was pursuit of wind: For as wisdom grows, vexation grows; to increase learning is to increase heartache.” – Ecclesiastes 1:18.
“Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.” – James 1:27.
“We must all die; we are like water that is poured out on the ground and cannot be gathered up.” – II Samuel 14:14
Not only is the writing beautiful at times, but it contains extremely sophisticated rhetorical techniques. Many of the Biblical stories provide the basic framework of later fictional stories (typology), which more properly is an element of influence, but also suggests that the structures of the stories themselves are beautiful and fulfilling. So it has aesthetic merit on a sentence and structural level.
Many of the stories (the content) are compelling and still speak to us today. They have a dramatic power as stories. You might not like the Sodom and Gomorrah episode, you might even find it repugnant, but you’ll never forget the story once you read it. There are so many memorable stories in the Bible: Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, the Tower of Babel, Noah’s ark, Lot and his daughters, Abraham sacrificing Isaac, Jacob wrestling an angel, Joseph and the betrayal of his brothers, Moses and the Exodus story, Samson’s defeat, the rise of King David over Saul, the seduction of Bathsheba, the wisdom of Solomon during the incident with the baby, etc.
The stories of the Bible have inspired countless artists, writers, and musicians. The Bible is the core of the Western Canon, along with Shakespeare, and the Greeks. So the work is influential and is important for its typology, as well as its specific phrases and ideas that play out in other artistic works. You can pick up any work within the Western Canon and nine times out of ten there will be some Biblical allusion somewhere within it. Go into any art museum and you’ll see evidence of the Bible’s influence on art everywhere.
Wisdom is the insight and meaning a text can bring for a reader. The bible’s most obvious value in this category is the historical insight into the beliefs and practices of another culture and time period. However, too many people stop there and dismiss the Bible as irrelevant beyond the cultural and historical insights it can provide.
The best ancient literature reminds us that the problems and tribulations of yesterday are still the problems of today. I truly believe a soldier stationed out in the Middle East today can relate to the experience of the Achaeans in The Iliad, tired of fighting for years on end with no results and missing their absent families. The Bible is no different. Anyone can relate to sibling rivalry and jealousy that plays a prominent role in the Joseph story and the Cain and Abel story. I’ve met many people who have the jaded view towards life and ennui found in Ecclesiastes. Most of us agree with the basic ideals of Jesus wanting to help the poor and needy. The book of Job deals with the difficult issue about why bad things sometimes happen to good people.
And, of course, if you’re of a religious bent the Bible can offer spiritual guidance.
In conclusion, the Bible is an anthology designed to appeal to the literature lover who enjoys many different genres full of wisdom, beauty, and compelling and shocking stories. Within literary studies it is pretty widely accepted that the Bible is good literature. Many major literary critics such as Harold Bloom, Mortimer Adler, Clifton Fadiman, Good Reading: a Guide for Serious Readers, Martin Seymour-Smith, the St. John’s Reading List, include the bible or select books from the Bible as part of their list of the Western Canon and great works. Many of the common criticisms of the Bible are merely double-standards applied selectively to discredit the Bible, but when addressed don’t appear to be sufficient grounds for dismissing the Bible’s literary worth.