Reading the Bible as Literature: An Introduction. Jeanie C. Crain. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2010. vi-21.
As one of the most influential books in the world, the Bible has been studied intensely for centuries. Most people view the Bible as a religious text, which it indeed is, but few choose to study this book under a different light. The Bible can also be read as a prominent piece of literature that is full of rich, beautiful imagery and language. Dr. Jeanie C. Crain has thoroughly studied the Bible in this light and her book, “Reading the Bible as Literature” is a guide for students who endeavor to do the same.
Dr. Crain’s purpose in writing this book is to introduce the common tools of literary analysis and to help the reader develop an appreciation for the Bible as a piece of literature, apart from its religious affiliation. In the Preface and Chapter One, Crain introduces this purpose, describes the literary approach used in the Bible, and describes some basic background knowledge about the Bible.
The Bible is divided into two collections of texts, the Hebraic or “Old Testament” and the Christian or “New Testament,” both of which exist in their own traditions and must be examined as unique texts. Neither supersedes the other in importance.
Interpreting the Bible can be difficult for many reasons. The original form of the Bible, from the Hebrew manuscripts, had none of the organizational elements we see today like punctuation, space between words, or paragraphs. This created the possibility for multiple interpretations of words or passages. Additionally, as English readers we inherently read the Bible in translations of the Hebrew or Greek original. There are many translations of the Bible in existence and each places a different amount of importance on being literal (form-based) or idiomatic (meaning-based). In order to maintain some of the original style, Dr. Crain references the New Revised Standard Version because this translation “describes itself… as retaining much of the original languages while making them accessible to modern readers” (p. vi). These differences from the original manuscripts can make interpreting and literary study difficult.
A literary approach to the Bible involves a holistic approach focused on reading in context, understanding, and assessing. The unity and coherence of the text are emphasized, while building the basis of literary analysis in the reader. Some of the literary concepts used within the Bible include intertextuality, typology, prophecy, symbolism, meta-narrative, and monomyth.
Studying the Bible in this literary-focused manner can be approached three ways: the literature of the Bible (isolated excerpts), the Bible in literature (how literature has used the Bible), and the Bible as literature (the Bible as a whole has literary value). Unlike the first two approaches, the third approach acknowledges that the Bible itself has literary beauty and should be studied as such. This is the approach Dr. Crain takes with her book.
In preparation for the study of the Bible as literature, an overview of the history and culture of the people of the Bible is necessary. The original land of the Hebrew people is Canaan. Later renamed Palestine, Canaan is about 150 miles long and 70 miles wide, lying between the eastern side of the Mediterranean Sea and the inland deserts. The land is very geographically diverse with mountains, coastal plains, rivers, valleys, and deserts. Abraham, considered the founder of the Hebrew nation, left his country to reside in Canaan. Abraham brought many beliefs of cultures into the creation of the Hebrew nation like the view of the universe as Heaven above the Earth and the “realm of Death” below. Unlike the polytheistic religions in the surrounding cultures, the Hebrew religion is clearly monotheistic.
These opening statements of this textbook effectively summarized the purpose of the text: to introduce the common tools of literary analysis and to help the reader develop an appreciation for the Bible as a piece of literature. Dr. Crain also used foresight by thoroughly addressing many probable reader questions, like “Why read the Bible as literature?” “Can the Bible be read outside of its religious context?” “Does the Bible share common literary patterns with other writings?” Answering these questions early in the book is very important for grabbing readers’ attention and for supporting the premise of the whole book. Dr. Crain also gave a concise overview of the literary devices used in the Bible. She introduced many literary devices and efficiently defined and explained each. She also carefully defined words essential to this study that can be interpreted many ways (Bible, New Testament, Old Testament, etc.).
Readers come from many different backgrounds and levels of exposure to the Bible. At the end of the chapter, Dr. Crain provided a brief overview of the culture and history surrounding the Bible to provide common background knowledge for all readers. These cultural and historical descriptions at the end of the chapter were very much abbreviated. As an avid reader of the Bible, I was able to understand the brief sketch of the origins of the Hebrew culture and faith, but a previously unexposed reader might have been confused by the snippet of information thrown in at the end because of a lack of detail and context. This section of the chapter should have been lengthier and more detailed to properly set the reader up for Biblical study.
The first few pages of the book “Reading the Bible as Literature” were written very well in language that is easily understood and synthesized. However, the organization of some of the ideas made a linear reading of this passage rather difficult. I found myself flipping back to previous pages to clarify consecutive concepts. Related ideas seemed to be dislocated from one another.
In conclusion, the Preface and Chapter one of “Reading the Bible as Literature” prepares the reader very well for the rest of the book and a study of the Bible in a literary setting. Dr. Crain clearly addresses questions that many readers have prior to this study and provides an overview of the history of the texts, literary devices, and strategies that will be used to study the Bible as literature.