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Reading the Bible as Literature (3)

This is our third article in a series on reading the Bible as literature. The first post summarized and provided examples of a literary approach to Scripture. The second addressed the validity of this method with respect to Scripture’s organic inspiration. In this article we want to consider the question, “Can a literary approach do justice to the truth and historicity of Scripture?”

Robert Alter characterizes the Biblical narrative as “prose fiction.”[1] For Bible-believing Christians this may sound heretical: by using the word “fiction,” does not the author effectively call the Bible a collection of made-up stories that may be nicely told but are not real? Reading further, we find that Alter’s commitment to the historical truth of Scripture’s stories is not the traditional Reformed view. This calls into question the whole enterprise. If reading the Bible literarily implicitly denies its historicity, we cannot trust it to bring us to a closer understanding of it.

But when these scholars use the term “fiction,” they do not mean that the story is made-up and detached from historical fact. Rather, it means that “literary shaping and artistry play no less significant a role in biblical historiography than in fiction.”[2] The persons and events of the story are truly historical, but the story is told in a literary fashion. The characters truly spoke, but the author chose what to report of their speech and how, based on literary principles, to report it. In other words, we can characterize the Biblical narrative as “fictional” with respect to its form, not its function or content. V. Philips Long suggests, “It would be far better, at least with respect to the perceptions of the average person, to substitute a term like artistry to describe the historian’s literary technique, and reserve the term fiction for the nonfactual genre of that name.”[3]

Meir Sternberg discusses this matter in much detail in chapter 1 of The Poetics of Biblical Narrative. He chides earlier biblical scholarship for not making this proper distinction. “Historiography and fiction are genres of writing, not bundles of fact or nonfact in verbal shape.”[4] Sternberg gives the example of the 1959 historical narrative by Garret Mattingly, The Defeat of the Spanish Armada (1959), which recounts events of history in an artistic way, using literary techniques to select and shape the text.[5] Nothing prevents us from recognizing the same artistry at work in the biblical accounts, while insisting on their essential historicity.

In earlier decades, it was customary to lump the Hebrew Bible together with other Ancient Near East writings. Comparison with Babylonian and other writings convinced many scholars that the Bible was little more than a collection of myths. If the Bible belongs to the same “genre” as these other writings, which are clearly not historical in nature, then the Bible stories cannot to be understood as history.

Thankfully, most Bible scholars today recognize that this lumping-together is unwarranted. The Old Testament is a rather unique document among other literature from antiquity. For instance, it avoids the style of the epos, which is poetry celebrating the legendary heroes, such as the Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh, the Babylonian Enuma Elish,[6] or the Greek Illiad and Odyssey. Moreover, one must be careful with the concept of “genre.” A genre is a collection of writings with formal similarities that indicate their purpose and function; for instance, the genre of fairy is marked by (among other things) the clause, “Once upon a time…” and is intended as a fictional story with a moral lesson. But the similarities between biblical stories and other Ancient Near East literature are too superficial to speak of the same genre. To conclude that biblical narratives served the same purpose as Babylonian legends is therefore unwarranted.

The modern literary approach to the Bible acknowledges the uniqueness of the Bible. Much of this uniqueness lies in its deliberate, self-conscious historical focus. Meir Sternberg discusses this in detail:

Of course the narrative is historiographic, inevitably so considering its teleology and incredibly so considering its time and environment. Everything points in this direction. … [T]his art of narrative has no parallel in ancient times. Alone among Orientals and Greeks, it addresses a people defined in terms of their past and commanded to keep its memory alive.

The very identity of Israel as a nation is bound up with the historical reality of its narrative. Her faith consists of remembrance of past history and hope in future events.

It is this cultural imperative that accounts for … “the greatest surprise” in the whole story of history writing. It explains how there suddenly emerged a people “more obsessed with history than any other nation that has ever existed” [7]

In other words, the Bible stands out as unique among ancient literature precisely because it makes a clear claim of being historical. The message for the ancient Israelite and today’s Christian alike is that our identity lies in unique historical events of the past, rather than in the philosophical ideas expressed in myths.

Thus literary criticism acknowledges the historical truth claim of the biblical narrative. This makes it useful for the Bible-believing Christian, whose faith embraces the Bible as historical truth. However, it must be admitted, for a Bible scholar to acknowledge the truth claim of the narrative does not imply that he believes in its truth value.[8] Scholars like Alter and Fokkelman are strong in their defense of the historical truth claim of the Bible, but are not personally committed to its historical truth value. This is a reason for caution: we can generally trust their work in the text, but when they draw theological conclusions our paths go in different directions.

Example: Esther 1:1-3, etc. The story of Esther, for all its novel-like qualities, clearly wants to be read as history. The events are explicitly anchored to a specific time and place during the rule of a well-known king. Likewise, the book ends with a reference to a historiographic document, the Book of the Chronicles of the Kings of Media and Persia. For the Israelite reader, it really matters that these events happened: why else would he or she celebrate Purim? The literary reader can respond in two different ways. On the one hand, the unbeliever may reject the truth claim of the story, and perhaps feel superior to the author of the text who thought that this legend actually happened. On the other hand, the believer not only recognizes the truth claim, but gives his assent to it: with the Israelites of 2000 years ago, we receive this narrative as a factual description of the great work the Lord has done for us.

In our next article we’ll consider the benefits of a literary approach to Scripture.


[1] Robert Alter, op. cit., chapter 2: “Sacred History and the Beginnings of Prose Fiction”.

[2] V. Philips Long, The Art of Biblical History (Grand Rapids: 1994), p. 61.

[3] V. Philips Long, op. cit., p. 63.

[4] Meir Sternberg, op. cit., p. 26.

[5] ibid., p. 28.

[6] Robert Alter, op. cit. p. 32ff compares the creation story of Enuma Elish with Gen. 1-2, and concludes that “the monotheistic writer works with very different theological assumptions but also with a radically different sense of literary form.”

[7] Meir Sternberg, op. cit., pp. 30f.

[8] For this useful distinction, see e.g. V. Philip Long, The Art of Biblical History, pp. 176f.

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