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The Bible as Literature: Questions

1.Is the Bible really literature?

If the Bible were put on trial for being literature, there is ample evidence to convict. Psalms, the longest book of the Bible, is pure poetry. Certain books of the Bible must have left their original readers scratching their heads like a college freshman reading Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake. Just read Zechariah, Ezekiel, Isaiah 53-55, or Daniel 10-12.

2.Was the Bible originally intended to be literature?

Yes, it was intended to be read as sacred literature. Why use poetic structures, meter, metaphors, similes, imagery, dramatic dialogue, irony, elaborate wordplays, and a host of other literary devices so abundantly if one intends only to write informative prose? Newspaper reporters don’t write that way.

3.Is it a mistake to read the Bible as literature?

No, since that is what it is. To read it otherwise makes it something it is not and often leads to huge misunderstandings.

4.Was the Bible intended to be taken as truth?

Yes, but as literary truth—as poetic truth—not simple prosaic truth. Sacred literature can be authoritative and true without being simplistic.

5.Is the Bible consistent or contradictory?

Let’s put it this way: It believes itself to be consistent. The biblical writers see themselves as complementing each other, not contradicting each other. Each of them knew and revered the biblical texts that had come before. They had no intention of contradicting what they believed to be inspired.

To the extent we see contradictions, we may be missing their point or reading what they wrote in a way they did not intend.

Does the Bible contradict itself or complete itself? Jesus himself feels free to take issue with the Hebrew Bible of his day (Matthew 5:21-48), yet without denigrating it. The reason is, I think, that he saw himself as fulfilling its original spirit, while dismissing as inadequate the literal letter (see Matthew 5:31-32).

Three final comments about reading the Bible:

1.One must be careful not to attribute guilt by association

A book is not liable for the sins of those who misuse it. Just ask Karl Marx. If theological lunatics have used the Bible as their happy hunting ground, that does not make the Bible a bad book.

Human beings have a tendency to pervert and abuse the good. Some criminals lure “good Samaritans” in order to rob and kill them. That does not make being a good Samaritan a bad thing. Being misread by fanatics is a cross the Bible has to bear, in a manner of speaking.

2.One must be careful not to attribute guilt by categorization.

The Bible is not defined by other books it may be compared to. You cannot say Republicans, Democrats, Socialists, Libertarians, and Monarchists are all the same because they talk politics.

The Bible, the Koran, and the Bhagavad-gita are all different and must stand or fall on their own merits.

3.One must be careful not to attribute guilt by presupposition.

When discussing the nature of the Bible, it is always tempting to beg the question. It is easy to create a straw man (for example, by presupposing what the Bible intended) and then burn (or idolize) the straw man.

Whether the Bible is “The Good Book” or “The Bad Book” often depends on the mindset of the person reading it. The Bible reads differently through the eyes of faith than through the eyes of doubt. And yet ironically, the presuppositions of both faith and doubt can turn out to be erroneous.


This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on May 23, 2007 9:21 AM.

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