More on “the literature of Scripture”

Is there “literature” in Scripture? Or put another way, are any (many, most, some) biblical texts (books, pericopes, passages) “literary” in nature–that is, manifesting a discernible artistic, rhetorical, emotive, etc. character, to a greater or lesser extent? I discuss this issue in some detail in Translating the Literature of Scripture (Dallas: SIL Academic, 2004), so just a few observations here:

If the Scriptures do include literary texts (and I assume that they do–generally throughout), then some sort of a “literary” approach to translating such passages is necessary, what I call a “literary functional equivalence” (LiFE) method. This would include the various principles and procedures of rendering these texts correspondingly, with the same impact and appeal, in the target language, whether English or any other.

On the other hand, if there is little or no literature in the Scriptures, then this conclusion would of course affect our manner and goals of translating the various texts that we encounter. But if not literature, what could we be dealing with then? Certainly not pure dogmatic theology, formalized exposition, or rote liturgy (in the case of the poetic passages). Perhaps it is simply a matter of definition. For “literature” then, I turn to The Concise Oxford Dictionary, which says simply “written works, especially those regarded as having artistic merit.” Webster’s New World has as definition #2b: “all writings considered as having permanent value, excellence of form, great emotional effect, etc.”

If we accept these definitions, which I do, then our evaluation depends on what we actually find when closely analyzing the diverse texts of Scripture, in the Greek as well as the Hebrew Testaments. My studies over the years would clearly indicate that we are indeed reading (and especially hearing!) texts that do have, over and above their expression of varied theological-religious content, also “artistic merit … permanent value, excellence of form, great emotional effect, etc.” Even many of the non-poetic books (narratives, epistles, legislative discourse) often feature poetic devices—patterned repetition, rhythmic-cadenced expression, chiastic constructions, lyric inserts, figurative language, rhetorical questions, hyperbole, allusion, irony, wordplays, alliteration, assonance, and so forth.

The exegete-translator must then determine the communicative aims of those literary-oratorical forms (individually or as functional complexes) and render the TL text accordingly, with that dimension of meaning and significance in mind. If possible (given the necessary creative and competent personnel), this should be done directly in the translation itself, but if not, then at least indirectly, explaining the nature and purpose of the prominent literary forms of the original text in explanatory footnotes.

Three broad functional categories of native American Indian poetry, for example, are matched in corresponding African (southeastern Bantu) oral art forms, ancient and modern, which include various prose (narrative, sapiential-didactic, judicial, and dramatic) genres. This “literary” inventory provides the stylistic and rhetorical resources needed for creative and competent translators to duplicate something of the vibrant textual dynamics, along with the essential content, of the biblical literature in their mother tongue.

About ewendland

I am currently an instructor at the Lutheran Seminary, Lusaka, ZAMBIA (since 1968). My academic training has been in biblical studies (BA, Northwestern College; MST, Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary), Bible translation (several SIL courses), linguistics (MA, University of Wisconsin, Madison), and African languages (PhD, UWM). I am a “retired” translation consultant for the United Bible Societies (having worked with projects in Malawi, Zambia, and Zimbabwe). I currently still serve as an external examiner in Zambian languages (University of Zambia) and as visiting professor in OT, NT, and Ancient Studies at the University of Stellenbosch, South Africa, with an affiliation to the Centre for Bible Interpretation and Translation in Africa ( My research and writing interests focus on the literary (structural, poetic, rhetorical) analysis of biblical texts and their oratorical translation, especially in southeastern Bantu languages (
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