Reading The Bible As Literature: An Introduction. Jeanie C. Crain. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2010. 213 pp.


Jeanie C. Crain wrote Reading The Bible As Literature: An Introduction to help the reader better understand the Bible as a literary text. That is, one that increases the meaning of language in a way to analyze the text on a deeper level. To quote the author: “this book, in introducing the Bible as literature, pays attention to what a text is saying and how it says it.” To me this is an interesting approach, as I have always viewed the Bible and been exposed to the Bible on a strictly religious level. The Bible has been studied extensively and by many people throughout the world for many years. I am fairly confident, though, that most of this has been with the same intentions as my previous studying; primarily as a religious and spiritual enrichment. Additionally, I agree with the author that literature “deeps and enriches our lives, and it has the potential for making us into better people.” I think that this could be especially true with the Bible as literature, as it is ultimately meant to help people live better lives which are more meaningful and God-centered.

The first chapter begins with some basic definitions used when referencing the Bible. First and foremost, the author states that “the ‘Bible’ includes the authoritative Jewish and Christian canons and consists not of original manuscripts but ‘copies of copies of copes’ of texts.” Different denominations have adopted and use slightly different books and orders for their Bible. The most commonly used term for “Bible” includes the Old Testament with thirty nine books and the New Testament which has twenty seven books. But it represents “a single story: the past and the future.” The Bible is composed of “four broad periods: the Patriarchs, Settlement in the land of Canaan, the Monarchy, and Post-Exile and Intertestamental/New Testament.”

There are many different names used in the Bible to refer to ‘gods’ or ‘divine powers’. The name Jehova dates back to use in 1518CE (Common Era). The original forms of the texts have been modified many times and, in some cases, in dramatic ways. Originally, the Bible was passed down through spoken word. Eventually, when it started being written, it was in the Hebrew language. This has led to a great variety of translations of the Bible. Some translations are more literal, creating a more direct link to the Greek and Hebraic languages of many years ago. Other translations have more of a feel for the context, maintaining the overall meaning of the stories, resulting in almost paraphrasing. The “three major monotheistic religions – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – find in the Bible a foundational set of texts.” This proves the validity of the Bible as literature since so many believers read the Bible. Many, many people over many years have used this text as a source for their religion, beliefs, and life as a whole. The Bible clearly “deserves to be recognized as among the world’s greatest literature,” as the author states; and I completely agree.

The New Testament makes many mentions of the Old Testament and at times this is done through direct quotes. These were often referenced based on other stories or who was in power at the time because  there were not specific references within the original stories. This creates intertextuality throughout the Bible. That is, “use and reference of other texts to influence meaning.” I think that this could lead to some great confusion for the reader, especially one who is not very familiar with the Bible as a whole. Also, needing to know past occurrences in the text to really understand what one is reading can be frustrating and discouraging. This also makes the literature more difficult to analyze and relate to at times. Typology could also contribute to some of these same obstacles. Typology tends to connect the New Testament through stories, events and characters of the Old Testament. However, it is not as widely used anymore.

The Bible is very present in the world as a very recognizable piece of work, of course. In fact, as the author states, “the Bible remains the major source and influence for modern writing, running through all of Western literature.” Many literary concepts can be found in the Bible. Some examples are allusions, plots, genres, and stories. The Bible has foreshadowing and recurring themes and uses many images and repeats many of these images throughout, as well. The Bible uses metaphors and symbolism extensively. Also, Jesus is referred to as many different names, some examples including “I am” and “the light of the world”. I feel that this language can help create clarity but also some confusion with vague concepts. Sometimes such a comparison can help the reader to better relate to the concept and make a more solid relationship to what the author is trying to portray. However, if the reader is not familiar with the comparison, or does not understand the relationship that is trying to be made, it could cause confusion.

It seems to be a very daunting task to read the whole Bible and even more so to be familiar with all of the stories and their characters. I know I certainly do not and I am sure that many people in the world share my lack of knowledge in this area. In addition, as the author notes, “most everyone will agree that readers have interest in the Bible and that how they read it – religious, moral, literary, historical – certainly does make a difference.” However, “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.” Knowing the Bible well certainly helps the reader to better understand and analyze this as a piece of literature with a scholarly intent which is why “the Bible can be allowed in classrooms if taught from perspective other than religious.”

“Biblical criticism generally requires readers to ask questions about the origin, preservation, transmission, and message of biblical texts.” The author explains that teaching the Bible as literature is most commonly done through three different strategies. They are the literature of the Bible, the Bible in literature, and the Bible as literature. After reading the author’s assessment of each style, I will express my interpretation of each type. The literature of the Bible seems to me to further analyze and describe what is actually written, focusing on certain stories and concentrating on a particular theme. This type would take a deeper look at a story and imagine who wrote the story and in what time period, likely dissecting a fairly small portion of the Bible to better understand what message the author was trying to get across to the readers on a more concentrated level. I feel the Bible in literature relates to other works that make reference to the Bible, whether it is a specific passage or an overall story or theme. This happens quite often, whether the reader notices it or not. In some instances the reference may be very subtle and in others glaringly obvious. Finally, the Bible as literature seems to me to be the most extensive subject. It can be related to studying any other literary work. Over time, more and more scholars started presenting the Bible as literature. It became a recognized piece of literary work and was accepted as having so many of the same qualities at its core as any other piece of literature available. In my opinion, analyzing any literary work is usually very intimidating, and the Bible is no different. There seems to be so many underlying concepts and allusions. So many questions the reader might have cannot actually be answered without the opportunity to ask the author. I think this is a critical part of interpreting a literary work. I think literary analysis is meant to be open to interpretation by the reader. This is also the point of literary works; to evoke deeper thought in the reader and allow one to formulate one’s own interpretation. I think this helps each individual reader to allow inspiration, encouragement, and hopefully overall progression for oneself. I think this is especially true with the Bible because it is based so much on one’s beliefs and previous experiences, religious affiliation, trust in God and His promises and plans.

“We analyze the Bible to understand it,” as we do with any other literary piece. Reading the Bible as literature can be compared to reading a variety of other works as literature. As the author states, “a literary approach to the Bible rightfully should begin with reading, understanding, and assessing.” The reader must think about the piece of literature as a whole and identify a main theme, or point. The Bible can easily be “used in literary analysis – story theme, genre, plot, character, setting, and point of view – and looks at form and technique.” Then the reader analyzes the work to create and understand it with deeper meaning, resulting in thought provoking evaluation and further exploration of one self. “A traditional literary reading of the Bible takes a basic approach.” Literary analysis looks at the Bible more as a whole, taking note of symbolism, genre, themes, and characters. This helps the reader to “resist the idea that there exists only one correct interpretation,” which is true for nearly every literary work.

I think that the chapter set the reader up to be more successful in reading the Bible as literature. I think it could also make the reader more comfortable with some of the terminology and more confident in the approach to reading the Bible. The author provided helpful definitions and background information. Some possibilities presented would be becoming more familiar with the Bible, learning what to look for in evaluation, and how to approach reading the Bible to better analyze what one is reading. Also, to have the reader think about what they are reading on a deeper level and create greater meaning. My personal experience related to the subject is basic exposure to the Bible. I know the basic plots of most of the major stories. However, I have never taken a literary approach to reading the Bible. This chapter has increased my interest in taking this type of approach, which I think was also probably a goal of this chapter.  The Bible is some of our oldest literature. It only makes sense that we should study this to see where we came from. Not just in a religious context, but in a literary context.