Reading the Bible as Literature. Jeanie C. Crain. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2010. [1-20]
The first chapter of Reading the Bible as Literature by Jeanie C. Crain includes important definitions, explanations about the ever-changing form of the Bible, and translations that are necessary to understand the Bible as literature. It serves as an introduction for examining the literary elements of the Bible. It reveals a small portion of the traditions involved in interpreting the Bible, as well as the culture and religion in Ancient Israel and the Jewish world view. The main emphasis of the first chapter is that readers and authors of the Bible each see it differently. We are so unique in our thinking; no matter what, we will never have a crystal clear understanding of the Bible. Personally, I had never thought about that point before, until I participated in a Bible study this summer. I would come to the study feeling as though I had a complete understanding of what we had studied, but then someone would bring up a thought that would make me reevaluate my answers, like my answers were incorrect. Thanks to our individual thought processing, there is never a completely right or wrong answer. What really matters is how we interpret the Bible and apply it to our lives. Crain emphasizes in the first chapter that studying the Bible as literature focuses on the use of literary elements in the Bible and allows for easier interpretation of its complex meanings.
The Bible is collected religious works (Christian and Jewish) written by various authors. Each chapter of the Bible, written uniquely by a different author, is providing a recommendation or tip on how to better live our lives to serve God. These recommendations or tips, called canons, are types of laws that govern a church. Reading the Bible as Literature focuses on the “anthologized thirty-nine books of the Old Testament and the twenty-seven books of the New Testament (Crain 2).” The Bible has “more than 100 million worldwide sales every year (6).” Its powerful messages have changed people’s lives. It is known as the “world’s greatest literature (6).” Based on this classification, wouldn’t it only make sense for us to spend time teaching and studying the meanings of the Bible as we would any other literary work?
In answer to that question, there are three approaches taken in textbooks for teaching the Bible as literature: the Bible in literature, the literature of the Bible, and the Bible as literature. The Bible in literature teaching approach focuses on the influence that the Bible has had on other literary works. For example, Huckleberry Finn was based on the story of Solomon in 1 Kings. Teachings of the literature of the Bible focus on “a narrowed definition of literature and [extract] narratives that seem independent and capable of standing on their own.” It’s also important to note that the literature of the Bible tends to disregard the Bible as religion. The Bible as literature focuses on better understanding the complexities of the Bible. The main approach to this teaching is that the Bible fits in the same category of other world literature. This approach has created much criticism. Many believe that the Bible should not be put in the same category as other world literature, because it is much more esteemed. Also, it is argued that it is against religious practice to study the Bible “as something other than scripture.” When teaching any of these approaches, it is important to remember that readers interpret things differently. For example, “religious, moral, literary, [and] historical (14)” are all different interpretations that readers may have of the Bible. Reading the Bible as literature “provides a way to bridge what has been described as a gulf or a gap of ‘ignorance’ between it and general literature (11).”
The study of the language of the Bible is important in order to truly understand the images the Bible portrays. Language is such an important aspect, because the Bible’s “strongest unifying principle consists of the imagistic, metaphorical, and symbolic uses of language.” Referring to Jesus Christ as a lamb, the Lord as our shepherd, light and dark, and the devil as a snake are just a few examples of the many symbolic and metaphorical language uses in the Bible. It’s important to note that English literature has been highly impacted by the Bible, “the latter contributing to the language, style, expression, and very tone of literature (11).” Since Western literature has been so highly affected by the Bible, studying the language of the Bible will provide as an aid for studying other literature.
Similarly, the language of the text often uses symbols and metaphors throughout, which directly relates to the intertextuality (the application of referring to another author’s work) of the Bible. Biblical writers often referred to other Biblical work; for example, Moses is written about in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. Allusions were made quite often between the New Testament and the Old. Apparently, “the New Testament contains a total of almost 300 direct quotes from the Old Testament (7).”
The form and translations of the Bible have constantly changed throughout time. An example of differed form is "Hebrew manuscripts...made no distinction between paragraphs...or even separation into words." As noted earlier, translations of the Bible differ in meaning. Translations are somewhat opinion-based; the author must choose what to emphasize in their work and what to edit out. To be objective, Crain uses the New Oxford Annotated Bible (NRSV) to supplement her writing, because "this translation bases itself upon the critical editions of original texts and subscribes to no particular confessional allegiance."
Another case of objectivity, yet a seemingly minor one, is that in Reading the Bible as Literature, Crain refers to historical dates as CE or the Common Era and BCE or Before the Common Era, instead of the usual use of BC and AD. To me, this was a drastic change, and I didn’t like it. But, after careful thought, I realized Crain used these new terms as a way to be less subjective. These terms would in no way offend anyone, which is something very important to society these days. However, it would take quite some time for society to transition into this change.
The stories of the Bible are experiential. “The Bible speaks in images that arise out of bodily experience, appealing to and being shaped by the imagination and the emotions (12).” It “images reality and truth (12)” by focusing on the human experiences of others, so that we may be able to direct our life toward the truth of conforming to God’s image. To do so, this truth must “be uncovered by tracing images…appropriate to the visual and sensory, emotion, and imagination (12).”
Since the Bible is experiential, these experiences are always questioned. To every literary work, there comes some form of criticism-the Bible is no exception. “Biblical criticism should be understood as an umbrella term for the study and investigation of biblical writings (16).” Any form of literature requires careful observation, research, and interpretation. There are four main forms of criticism. First, textual criticism is a study based on the authenticity of the text of the Bible “to determine evidence on which to base a text and to eliminate error (16).” “Ancient scribes made errors or alterations when copying manuscripts by hand (Wikipedia),” which is why eliminating error is one main reason that the text of the Bible is studied. Second, biblical, historical, and literary criticism “investigates the date and place of a composition, its author…or reconstructs the historical situation out of which a writing arose (16).” This form of criticism relates directly to redaction criticism. Redaction criticism studies the same things as biblical, historical and literary criticism-the only difference being that redaction criticism focuses on the editors (redactors) of the Bible. Both of these forms of criticism study the differences between redactor’s/author’s work-what they left in the Bible to be emphasized, what they left out, what they changed. For example, Deuteronomy 34 describes the death of Moses, yet Moses was not the one who wrote it. How would the author or the redactor know what to include about Moses’ death or what to leave out, without actually witnessing his death? Redaction criticism seeks to answer questions such as these. Narrative criticism “looks at the particular way a story is told in relation to complex literary structures such as plot, characterization, and closure (17).” This form of criticism studies the different approaches of narrators and how these differences affect the viewed outcome of the story. Each of these forms of criticism “help [readers] resist the idea that there exists only one correct interpretation of a particular passage (17),” as Crain puts it perfectly.
After reading the first chapter of Reading the Bible as Literature, I am so excited to continue with my studies of the Bible. I feel that I have new knowledge on how to analyze what I am reading and discern complex meanings. When studying the Bible previously, I had a set idea on what I thought the chapter meant, only realizing that my answers seemed incorrect in comparison to others’ ideas in my study group. Now, I know that everyone is supposed to interpret the Bible differently, since we each have different thoughts and experiences. In this chapter, Crain explains what is expected of reading the Bible as literature, while providing a framework of how to study it as literature. Reading the Bible as Literature will inform me to be open to other interpretations, criticism, and ideas that I have never been exposed to before. I can’t wait to expand my knowledge of the Bible through studying it as literature.
Reading the Bible as Literature. Jeanie C. Crain. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2010. [1-20]
"Textual Criticism." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., 05 Sept 2012. Web. 8 Sep 2012. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Textual_criticism>.