The study of scripture as “literature” plays an important role in contemporary biblical studies. The term “literature” derives from the Latin “littera,” technically meaning a “letter of the alphabet” but, more generally, “things composed of letters” or simply written texts. We still occasionally use the somewhat archaic term “letters” to refer to literature, drama, poetry, etc. (Thus, for instance, many universities include a “college of arts and letters.”) At that level of meaning, of course, the Bible is clearly literature.
In modern usage, however, literature is generally understood as fiction — novels, stories, drama, poetry, etc. When people say “I’m studying literature,” they don’t usually mean that they’re studying history, philosophy, religion or simply one of any number of other text-based disciplines. As one standard textbook on the subject puts it, “What does it mean to read the Bible ‘as literature’? Primarily that … one looks at the Bible in the same way that one would look at any other book: as a product of the human mind.”
And hence comes the debate.
While we don’t disagree that the Bible (or other scripture) can be seen as a “product of the human mind,” this formulation begs the real question: Is it only the “product of the human mind”? Is there anything at all divine about the text? Robert Alter, perhaps the greatest living literary scholar of the Bible, puts it this way when describing narrative in the Bible: “I would contend that prose fiction is the best general rubric for describing biblical narrative. Or, to be more precise … we can speak of the Bible as historicized prose fiction. … The point is that fiction was the principal means which the biblical authors had at their disposal for realizing history. Under scrutiny, biblical narrative generally proves to be either fiction … or history given the imaginative definition of fiction.”
Thus, while everyone can agree that the Bible is literature in the sense that it’s a narrative text, studying the Bible as literature in the modern academy generally means studying the Bible precisely as one would study any fiction. Which is precisely what such authors often really think about the Bible. They aren’t just treating it as fiction. To them, at its core, it actually is fiction and can thus best be studied and understood as literature rather than as history. If they’re right in this assumption, of course, then approaching the Bible in this way in fact makes perfect sense, and should, indeed, be the preferred way of reading the text.
For such an approach, the fact that the Bible eventually came to be accepted as scripture by Jews and Christians is an interesting historical footnote, but this should not distract us from studying the Bible for what such scholarship thinks it really is: literary fiction.
What do people examine when they study the Bible as literature? They look at topics such as type-scenes, language, aesthetics, literary techniques, repetition, irony, reticence, narration, character development, hyperbole, metaphor, symbolism, allegory, personification, wordplay and poetry. Just to be clear, we’re not really objecting to any of this. The Bible does contain all of these literary phenomena, and more. We can indeed understand the Bible more deeply and more richly when we understand these things. But is that what the Bible is really all about? Are these things why the Bible is so important? Is the Bible the best-selling and most translated book in history because it has intriguing type-scenes and some really rich irony? Or should we be interested in type-scenes and irony because they help us better understand the Bible as scripture?
There are many aspects to biblical studies: linguistic, geographical, historical, archaeological, ritual, literary, epigraphic, numismatic, anthropological, paleobotanical, military, etc. Each of these approaches can enrich our understanding of the Bible, as long as it doesn’t distract us from what is really important. If the Bible is not scripture, the fact that it may be pretty good fiction — not quite as good as Homer, or Dante, or Shakespeare, or Milton, of course — is really not going to rescue the text from the cultural graveyard of boring books by old dead white men. Whereas some might misunderstand the significance of the Bible because of “looking beyond the mark” (Jacob 4:14), others may face a different set of problems because they never quite reach the mark at all.
Daniel Peterson edits BYU’s Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, chairs The Interpreter Foundation, and blogs on Patheos. Among other things, William Hamblin co-authored “Solomon’s Temple: Myth and History.” Their opinions are their own.