Biblical Literature

HB as LitIt must be difficult to write a Very Short Introduction. Although the series is published by Oxford University Press, I’m not being a shill. As someone who writes the equivalent of several of these little books a year, I imagine it must be nearly impossible to confine what you need to say to such a small space. I recently read The Hebrew Bible as Literature: A Very Short Introduction, by Tod Linafelt, and I imagined the anguish of my colleague as he had to decide what to leave out. Professors these days appreciate short books because there is an actual chance that students might read them. The Bible itself is intimidating as a textbook—massive and brooding as it is. Then, in addition to the Ding an Sich, the instructor also has to provide interpretive tools. One of the most common these days is that of the Bible as literature.

This obvious assignment is not without dispute, however. Literature is defined by some as a secular category. The Bible, as a set of one, is a holy book. That is to say, it can’t be considered literature at all. As a collection of written texts, however, the Bible can be understood as a literary venture as well as a sacerdotal one, and for many schools this is the only way the Bible can be legally taught. Not only that, but almost all scholars now realize that, protestations aside, the Bible is literature. It is one of the great books of the western canon. Civilization for huge swaths of the planet was based, in some way, on this book (the Bible, that is). Understanding it as literature is the venture of a lifetime, and condensing that down to an easily digestible Very Short Introduction is no mean task. Linafelt performs his duty admirably. The basics of prose and poetry are covered, as well as their interaction. The examples he chooses are compelling and I learned quite a bit myself, even having taught the Bible many years.

As I read, it struck me that the main objection to the Bible as literature revolves around the concept of truth. Linafelt raises this question early, and it stayed with me throughout the book. In a kind of sacred exceptionalism, “Bible believers” treat literature literally. Ironically, this can lead to grave misunderstandings. Truth, however, is a difficult concept to pin down. Many people equate literature with fiction and truth with fact. Truth is actually a bit more fluid than that. As any poet knows, some truths can’t be expressed in prose. Or history. Or philosophy. And some truths are best expressed in fiction. That brings us back to literature as a form of truth. I suppose that’s a good thing too, because were I to write much more I might be in danger of accidentally composing a Very Short Introduction. As long as I’m being a shill, just consider this a very short introduction to a Very Short Introduction.