Is the Bible Literature?

A friend of mine recently suggested that intelligent people view the Bible not as “the word of God” but as literature. Let’s leave aside the fact that Jesuit priests are reputed to be highly intelligent. I don’t know any Jesuits, so I can’t ask them how they view the Bible, but I suspect most of them probably view it as something more than a work of literature — as do faithful Christians in other denominations. Let’s also leave aside the post-modern idea that “literature” is a subjective construct of some sort; we’ll assume that we know what the word refers to — printed matter like Don Quixote and The Sun Also Rises.

What I think my friend was suggesting was that one can appreciate the content of the Bible as a collection of fables or folk-tales, without being drawn into or distracted by a discussion of its other facets.

The first question that one might ask is, is that how the authors intended their work to be understood? Probably not. Even the most charming or morally uplifting stories in the Bible were probably intended to be read not as works of the human imagination but as fact. But the question of authors’ intentions, while useful as an aid to literary analysis, can be treacherous; it can lead us back in the direction of post-modern literary analysis. So let’s leave it aside too.

If we examine the text itself, we find not only stories but also bits of speculative genealogy, accounts of battles, and numerous sets of rules. Many of the rules are quite explicit — horrifyingly so. It’s difficult to think of a work of literature (or, if you prefer, another work of literature) that devotes so much wordage to telling people what they should and shouldn’t do, much less prescribing severe punishments if they don’t do what they’re supposed to do. The most charitable interpretation would be to say that the Bible is part literature, part history (inaccurate history, at that), and partly a really inadequate self-help book.

If we consider the Bible a piece of literature, we might compare it to The Canterbury Tales, or to the Iliad and Odyssey. All are ancient. All contain bits that may be inspirational or morally uplifting. But there are important differences. The Canterbury Tales was definitely written by one person (though he borrowed freely from older tales) and was understood to be a work of fiction. The Iliad and the Odyssey may have had multiple authors, and may have been conceived as history rather than as fiction, but each of them exhibits a unity of plot that is nowhere in evidence in the Bible as a whole. Even the Decameron has a frame-story and an overall structure that give some sense of unity to the collection, in spite of its diversity.

Conceived strictly as ancient literature, then, the Bible is rather distinctly inferior to other examples of ancient literature. It’s a mishmash.

I suspect, however, that my friend was less interested in a discussion of the book’s literary merit than in suggesting that one’s appreciation of the nicer bits in the Bible can be or ought to be divorced from one’s observations of the deplorable and dangerous antics of conservative Christians. I’m not sure I’m willing to go there. I think we need to acknowledge that our view of the Bible cannot properly be extricated from the realities of Christianity as a social institution.

In the absence of the social institution(s) of Christianity, the Bible would be of very little interest to anybody but scholars. It would be less read, and less respected, than the Iliad or The Canterbury Tales. And outside of college classrooms, damn few of us have ever read or even spent a moment contemplating the Iliad or The Canterbury Tales. There’s plenty of good literature, ancient and modern, that’s of greater merit than the Bible as literature — and what else is it good for, if not for its literary value? The supposed historical records in the Bible are notoriously unreliable, and a good many of the behavioral injunctions and prohibitions are vicious.

Yes, love is preached here and there in the Bible, but love is preached in many other books,both ancient and modern, from around the world. I can’t see much point in viewing the Bible as an especially useful or admirable source of admonitions on brotherly love. And not, certainly, given the context in which those admonitions are to be found. Works by modern authors advocating charity and compassion are not, in most cases, also riddled with recommendations for death as a punishment for trivial transgressions.

No, the only reason to even glance at the Bible is from within a social context that includes the institution of Christianity. And Christians do not, for the most part, look at the Bible as a piece of literature. More commonly it’s seen as a source of moral injunctions. Some of the injunctions are admirable, but many of them are not.

What are we to say of a book that is viewed by the leaders of prominent and influential social institutions as a source of moral injunctions, many of which, though believers would prefer not to admit it, are flawed or deeply objectionable? Dare we shrug and say, “Oh, well. Think of it as a work of literature. Don’t worry about all that other stuff.”

To do so would require an act of willful blindness that I’m not comfortable with. Even if the Bible were as good as the Odyssey, the antics of the conservative Christian community would spoil it as literature.

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