Intentional “literature” in the Scriptures?

Some scholars appeal to the criterion of authorial intention when determining the genre, or type, of a piece of writing. They might go on to claim that if such writing was not intended as art, at least in part, then it should not be classified as “literature.” A certain writer might choose to use various literary devices, but so the argument goes, this is not the same as intending that the work be perceived and understood as art. Paul’s epistles might be an example of this.

The issue of authorial intention is indeed an important one in hermeneutics. I would agree that this is the ultimate aim of biblical exegesis, despite the difficulties of this quest (and the risk of being accused by literary-minded critics of the so-called “intentional fallacy”!): What did the original writers intend to be conveyed in their works, and how did they view what they were writing: as pure theology, as worship, as instruction, as prophetic warning, as pastoral advice?

Could there have been something more—a desire to express their deepest thoughts and words artistically, with beauty, feeling, rhetorical impact, and a certain rhythm amenable to memorization? I don’t know, and I don’t think that one can prove one’s conclusion on this issue one way or the other. This would apply to the question of Paul’s epistles, mentioned above. Obviously, artistry (and rhetoric) was not predominant in his mind when he composed them. But who can exclude such qualities as constituting at least part of his manifest gift of composition (undeniably in Rom. 11:33-36; 1 Cor. 13; Eph. 1:3-14; Php. 2:6-11; Col. 1:15-20)?

Then, for some of us, there is the additional consideration of “divine inspiration”: What effect, if that supernatural force was indeed in operation, might that intangible (but arguably, deciding) factor have had on the final text of the biblical authors, whether oral or written (and we recognize that there may have been a varied process of textual transmission involved here too)?

I think that there are problems, however, in trying to differentiate the various books of the Bible—some being “literary,” others not. Why the Prophets and not the Torah? Why none of the epistles of Paul, when even secular critics use his letters as examples of Greco-Roman rhetoric, or Semitic rhetoric, as the case may be? Do his epistles not have great impact and cause us to “think deeply about” them? The content of the biblical works is primary, but can we eliminate or neglect the dimensions of aesthetic effect (e.g., Song of Songs) and persuasive power (e.g., Qoheleth)? Whether the original authors initially intended these literary outcomes, we cannot tell. All we have left are the formal marks of these effects in the texts, in their micro- as well as macro-structures.

So I guess that it comes down then to what you actually discern and interpret when studying the various documents of the Scriptures: Can we identify literary strategies being applied in both the larger and smaller dimensions of the original text (as we have received it in canonical form)? In my analyses of the Hebrew and Greek texts, I do not see a patchwork manner of construction–that is, clear literary pockets appearing in a mostly non-literary matrix. Rather, I find a great diversity of functionally coherent artistic and rhetorical features in whole-cloth literary works. It must be left up to others then to evaluate the exegetical evidence and come to their own conclusions.

Among a host of studies of this subject (aside from my own stuff), I might recommend just five older, (I would say) classic works, for starters:

  1. Alter, Robert, The Art of Biblical Narrative (New York: Basic Books, 1981).
  2. Ryken, Leland, Words of Delight: A Literary Introduction to the Bible (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1982).
  3. Alter, Robert, The Art of Biblical Poetry (New York: Basic Books, 1985).
  4. Alter, R. and F. Kermode, eds., The Literary Guide to the Bible (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1987).
  5. Ryken, L. and T. Longman III, eds., A Complete Literary Guide to the Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1993).

Ultimately the issue of “literary” versus “non-literary” with reference to the Scriptures cannot be proven by deft or force of argument. It must be determined (I think) by a close and sustained analysis of the actual Hebrew and Greek texts; they speak, eloquently enough, for themselves. And the implications for Bible translation—functional equivalence, formal correspondence, whatever—must be determined, first of all, by what the exegete-translator finds in the original writings.

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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