The Bible as Ancient Literature

We often think of the Bible as a single book, but it’s really more like a library of books from the ancient world. Or, perhaps a better way to put it, the Bible is an anthology of ancient literature.

Norton AnthologyI don’t know what comes to mind for you when you think of “literature.” Merriam-Webster defines it as “writings in prose or verse; especially writings having excellence of form or expression and expressing ideas of permanent or universal interest.” That’s not a bad definition, both the generic side of it (“writings in prose or verse”) and the more specific (“writings…expressing ideas of permanent or universal interest”).

To say that the Bible is a collection of “literature” means, then, that what we have in the Bible is “writings in prose or verse.” More specifically, we have different kinds of writing in prose or verse, different literary genres—and these different genres are not unique to the Bible.

A few examples:

The opening chapters of Genesis are ancient origins stories, akin to origins stories from Egypt and Mesopotamia and elsewhere. The move from original chaos to order and abundance? Humans made from mixing dirt and divine essence? Sounds like Genesis, and it is, but these and other features are also found in other—and even earlier—ancient origins stories. Yes, the Genesis stories are distinctive—giving a strong monotheistic, “one true and living God” outlook, for instance—but as literature they’re in the same ballpark as these other stories.

The collections of laws of Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy are in the same vein as other ancient legal codes. Hammurabi’s law code from ancient Babylonia covers religious matters, slavery, military service, social conduct, and more—just like the Law of Moses. “Eye for an eye”? It’s in there, a few hundred years before Moses. The biblical laws flow in this stream of ancient legal codes, even as they present some distinctive perspectives on God and religion and society.

The stories of Jesus we know as the Gospels are ancient biographies, similar to those of Plutarch, Lucian, and the like. A focus on a particular individual, skimming their adolescence and jumping into their public life, presenting some of their important sayings and key life events, highlighting their death, all to commend them as worthy of admiration or imitation—these elements of other ancient biographies are evident in the Gospels. The claim that the subject of your biography is the promised king in David’s line bringing about Yahweh’s reign on earth, or that he rose from the dead? Not so much—but then that’s what Christians claim makes them “gospel,” or “good news.”

The book of Revelation is an example of ancient apocalyptic literature, one of a dozen or so such Jewish or Christian apocalypses from that era. Things like angelic guides and multi-headed beasts and repeated numbers might seem weird to us, but they’re the basic grammar of ancient apocalypses. They’re subversive literature, the literature of a minority feeling under siege, re-imagining their world in light of God’s coming kingdom—and John’s Revelation is no exception.

Gutenberg BibleLike all the scribes and sources and editing and collecting behind the Bible’s production (see my previous post), these kinds of historical and literary features are commonplace for biblical scholars. They are part of the scholar’s everyday work of understanding the biblical writings in their historical and cultural settings.

But these sorts of things can be scary for many Christians. And, as I suggested earlier, much of the reason for this fear is all those questionable assumptions we bring to what inspiration must involve. We have a view of inspiration—even just a view of the way God works in the world in general—that assumes that if God does something it must be clearly, discernibly divine, nothing human about it.

That’s strange, really, when you think about it. After all, one of the most fundamental convictions of Christianity is the claim that God has become human in Jesus—both fully divine and fully human, the eternal God revealed in the man Jesus.

If that’s true, why do we then insist inspired Scripture be somehow less than human?

This is an excerpt from a past post: “What is the Bible, and How Should We Read It?” This excerpt was originally published as a separate post in 2013.