Is the Bible a literary masterpiece? For many it is impossible to disentangle their religious beliefs or their antagonism towards religion to judge the question fairly. Among literary critics this is a rather uncontroversial question. As Harold Bloom states in his book, The Shadow of a Great Rock, the KJV is “the sublime summit of literature in English.” While on an aggregate site that consulted 25 different recommended reading lists put out by literary critics and major colleges, the bible appeared on 7 out of 9 relevant lists (excluding lists that only included novels or were solely 20th century works). It made 77% of the relevant lists.
The influence of the Bible on Western culture is inestimable. Often this influence includes everyday expressions, modes of thought, references, etc. Sometimes it is argued that you don’t need to read the Bible to understand these references, but it is precisely this fact that proves the Bible’s influence on culture. To put it more simply, the bible has been so influential on our culture that we often don’t need to read it in order to understand the expressions and ideas that originated within it; we can take them for granted since they are that integrated into the fabric of the culture itself.
A more explicit influence can be seen in the arts. Walk into any museum and you’ll see endless walls of artwork based on Biblical stories. Biblical allusions abound in literature, performing many different functions. Indeed, authors such as the anonymous writer of Beowulf, the Arthurian romances of Chrétien de Troyes, John Milton, Charles Dickens, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Leo Tolstoy, Charlotte Bronte, Herman Melville, Mark Twain, Lord Byron, John Steinbeck, Ernest Hemingway, Toni Morrison, William Faulkner have all written works with Biblical allusion. This is not even close to being an exhaustive list. A major writer like Shakespeare, often considered the Greatest English Writer, uses a staggering 1,300 biblical allusions throughout his plays, according to a study by Naseeb Shaheen.
Many of the artists turn to these stories for inspiration because the stories found in the Bible are memorable: Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, Cain’s slaying of his brother, The Great Flood, the binding of Isaac, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Joseph and his brothers, Moses and the Burning Bush, King David’s seduction of Bathsheba, Jonah and the Whale, the story of Job, Esther and Haman, The Sermon on the Mount, Jesus walking on water, the turning of water into wine, etc. This also is hardly an exhaustive list. I bet I don’t need to describe any of these stories in detail to you and you can probably retell large chunks of those episodes from memory.
As the late literary critic D. G. Myers wrote in response to someone complaining about the horribleness of the Lot story:
“Whether or not your interpretation of it is correct, you remember Lot’s story “to this day.” Quite a testament to its power as literary art!”
You might find this story nasty and immoral, but nobody ever said literature is required to be uplifting and inspiring. This story is powerful and memorable. Even people who dislike the Bible can still remember the story after encountering it. Like Myers, I agree that its ability to shock and stick in one’s memory is a testament to its power as literature.
The Bible, however, is more than a bunch of memorable stories. The language of the Bible is at times quite beautiful and there are some powerfully constructed metaphors. Some of my favorite are:
“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.
“Raise your eyes and look out from where you are, to the north and south, to the east and west, for I give all the land that you see to you and your offspring forever. I will make your offspring as the dust of the earth, so that if one can count the dust of the earth, then your offspring too can be counted. Up, walk about the land, through its length and its breadth, for I give it to you.” Genesis 13:14 – 13:17
“For wisdom is better than rubies; no goods can equal her.” – Proverbs 8:16.
“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
“What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.” – Ecclesiastes 1:9
“We must all die; we are like water that is poured out on the ground and cannot be gathered up.” – II Samuel 14:14
“How deserted lies the city,
once so full of people!
How like a widow is she,
who once was great among the nations!
She who was queen among the provinces
has now become a slave.
Bitterly she weeps at night,
tears are on her cheeks.
Among all her lovers
there is no one to comfort her.
All her friends have betrayed her;
they have become her enemies.” – Lamentations 1
Another quality that bolsters its status as a literary masterpiece is its ability to be interpreted in many ways. Often this is seen as a demerit against the bible, despite the fact that many literary works have multiple ways they can be interpreted. The tens of thousands of articles on Shakespeare’s works suggests there are many different ways people understand Shakespeare. To pick another example, there are many different ways people have interpreted Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, a candidate for the Great American Novel. Is it an allegorical story in which the ship’s precarious journey is a symbol of the United States as a nation on the eve of the Civil War where the democracy of sailors is threatened by Ahab’s tyranny and the ship itself (the nation) is threatened by the whale (a symbol for obsession, representing the U.S.’s debate over slavery)? Is this a story about the evils of capitalism represented by the whaling industry and how sometimes nature fights back against the system’s attempts to exploit it? Is this a story about alienation and the quest to find a connection with human beings? Is it about the search for transcendence and meaning itself and the way absolute meaning often alludes us? Is it about the dangers of getting caught up in others’ irrational obsessions? All of these rhetorical questions are based on actual interpretations by literary critics.
If there was a single objective meaning to a literary work there would never be any reason for discussion about that work afterwards. Instead all we would need to do is read the work and we would all come to the same conclusion, but rarely does literary interpretation work out so neatly. I see no reason we should praise some writers for their ability to be interpreted in many different ways, calling it depth and complexity, but change this standard for the Bible.
As I pointed out in my post on the Cain and Abel story, the bible packs a lot of meaning and depth in a story that is only around 350 words (the equivalent of modern day flash fiction). Like any other work of Great Literature, the Bible offers insight into the historical practices and ideas of the ancient culture that produced it and explores problems and concerns that are part of the human condition in a way that even a modern audience can appreciate.