Sunday, April 21, 2013

Thoughts on the Bible as Literature

William Dever has some thoughts about the Bible as literature:
Today the preoccupation of many biblical scholars is with the Bible as "literature," to the extent that history no longer matters much. It is not a question of whether the stories tell us anything about actual events in the past, but only about how these stories "function"; not what the stories say, but "how they are able to say what they say." Since the stories are all myths anyway (i.e., fiction), their ancient and modern use must be to give them theological legitimacy. In approach to the Hebrew Bible, there are no privileged experts, no right interpretations, only whatever will "sell" to a particular community. Thus the emphasis of New Literary Criticism and the New Historicism advertises itself to the "margins," any anti-establishment constituency --- the radical left; the world of grievance politics; doctrinaire feminism; psychological criticism; extreme third-world liberation theology; the Green movement; and, more recently, queer theory. I regard much of this as "radical chic." Of course, the Bible is "literature" (what else?), especially didactic literature, and therefore it is more about the literary imagination of a few creative minds than it is about "real life." But I shall try to show that what makes this literature believable at all is that it does reflect some actual events. That's why the stories "work." (William G. Dever, Did God Have a Wife? [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2005], 72-73.)
Dever hits on some important points here, that might easily get lost in some of his sarcasm. While Dever describes himself as not even a theist, he understands some things about the situation perhaps better than some believers.

  1. Of course the Bible is literature. This is somewhat tautological. But like most literature, it suffers in translation. With most literature, we could probably say that it suffers from translation. Isaiah's use of puns is completely lost in translation, as are Paul's uses of both rhyme and alliteration. Ancient authors generally tried to express themselves in the best language they could command. But most of that is stripped away by the translation process (usually by translators of lesser literary capacity).

  2. The Bible as literature movement is of use primarily to people on the margins, not to believers. Believers do not need to think of it as literature in order to find reasons to read the text. It is those who are outside the core of belief that need to make up an excuse to read it. While the core or believers focus on internalizing the messages, those on the fringes are often on the fringes because they have difficulty internalizing the messages, and are interested in finding or concocting alternate messages more to their liking. They want to find that although the Bible really disapproves of (fill in the blank) that there is some secret way of reading the text that allows them to think that the Bible approves of their particular vice.

  3. The stories in the Bible do not work if they are not historical, if they do not reflect some actual events. As a myth the parting of the Red Sea is quaint but hardly worth remembering, much less devoting a week's worth of time on every year. If it is a foregone conclusion that the Exodus never occurred, is it really worth foregoing bacon? It is not clear why anyone should have faith in a figment of the imagination. So treating the Bible as merely literature has a tendency to cause people to lose any faith.
It seems to me that treating scripture as mere literature is a recipe for undermining faith, which is why I am not a fan of either the Bible as literature classes or of classes on the Book of Mormon as literature. Scripture is not merely literature. Yes, it is literature and has literary qualities (in the original languages) but it is more than literature.