Is the Bible Literature in the Way That, Say, Joyce’s “Araby” is Literature?

Like any piece of difficult literature, the Bible must be WORKED WITH and deciphered to be appreciated.

Superficially, the Bible seems rather unliterary in many places, and a quick reading of a story or poem may leave one shrugging.

But prominent literary critics (Harold Bloom, Northrop Frye, Frank Kermode, and Robert Alter among them) have all taken rewarding stabs at reading the Bible as “literature.” One should really read, for example, Robert Alter’s books on the Bible (such as his The Art of Biblical Poetry) before dismissing its literariness out of hand.

I agree that there is a lot of horrific stuff in the Bible, and that most people who profess belief in the Bible do so, in large part, because they have never carefully read it or thought about it.

But it is also true that one can get into the Bible (as literature) in the same way that one can get into other ancient literatures (such as Homer’s Odyssey or the Baghavad Gita).

A person who does not see much value in reading the Bible as literature is likely to be IMPATIENT with literature as such, and would probably have similar opinions about reading the stories and novels of James Joyce.

I agree that the Bible is littered with cruel, sexist, and absurd passages, but this is different from saying that when it tells a story or charges its language with poetry, that it does so in ways that are not worth studying. And whatever else the Bible is, it is an undeniably powerful STYLIZED WORLD, one that has gripped the imaginations of countless people, both past and present.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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