The English Bible and Literature

Kevin Killeen

in British and Irish Literature

ISBN: 9780199846719
Published online September 2012 | | DOI:
The English Bible and Literature


The centrality of the Bible to Anglophone culture and to its literature is evident and everywhere. No work has sunk so far into the marrow of the culture and had such diverse meanings for different ages. This centrality has not lessened palpably over the last century or so, accompanying its decline in religious “authority.” Indeed, the sense that the Bible can be read as a piece of literature is very much a product of this decline, as it has come to be seen as part of Western “cultural” as much as religious heritage. Although the Bible has been thoroughly naturalized into the English language, it remains of course a collection of foreign texts—Hebrew, Greek, Aramaic—and, in terms of the history of its diffusion, Latin. While any number of foreign texts—Homer, Virgil, Dante, Miguel de Cervantes, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Fyodor Dostoyevsky—might be thought to have sunk into Anglophone consciousness, none has done so quite as far down at the atomic level. It is there in the phraseology and prosody of the language, in the often invisible half quote, or in the inherited paradigms of thought. It provides the common stock of stories and cultural vocabulary of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity in all their splintered forms. Equally important are the habits of interpretation that have been honed on the Bible over centuries: literary hermeneutics are, historically speaking, a late-in-the-game development on a history of biblical hermeneutics that had been developing since at least Augustine. The skills of the literary historian have much in common with those of the biblical exegete, which have, over two millennia or more, attracted an unparalleled range of both scholarly and nonscholarly attention. All such recommendations of its vast historical reach and remit nevertheless come up against the Bible’s increasing modern-day neglect, relatively speaking at least. Whereas once it provided a common vocabulary of thought, even for those suspicious of its ideology and its religion, many modern readers, even quite educated ones, are simply unschooled in the Bible, evidence perhaps that it has not entirely made the transition to being seen “merely” as literature. C. S. Lewis thought that the “Bible as literature” was an oxymoron—that if you were reading it as literature, you were reading it wrongly. This article makes no attempt to engage with any Lewisian right reading, but it does propose that the history of interpretation and to some extent the history of theology may be a prerequisite for understanding the role of the Bible.

Article.  9027 words. 

Subjects: Literary Studies (British and Irish)

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