On the “literariness” of Scripture

Some critics would claim that in general (with some exceptions, especially in Hebrew poetry) in the original language texts “the ideas in the Bible are explicated in a non literary fashion.” We have already discussed this issue of the relative “literariness” (a literary critical term) of the Scriptures in past blogs, so I will try not to repeat what was said there. I just want to point out again that there is a significantly different (perhaps minority) perspective on this. Thus, I would claim just the opposite, namely, that the “exceptions” in the biblical writings, Hebrew and Greek, are those that are “non-literary” in nature. The implications for translation are, of course, considerable as well.

However, we can further this discussion and subsequent critical evaluation only on the basis of detailed discourse analyses of these same texts, whether whole books or selected pericopes. My various efforts in this regard have been published for others to examine and criticize. But there are an increasing number of literary and rhetorical studies of the Old and New Testament Scriptures that come to a similar conclusion, for example, Robert Alter and Leland Ryken respectively, to name two of the earlier proponents. Ryken states this point well: “Because the Bible is a book with religious authority, we tend to assume that it is a theology book. But if we look at how the Bible presents its material, it resembles a literary work more than anything else. It is filled with stories, poems, visions, and letters. The thing that is emphatically not what we so often picture it as being–a theological outline with proof texts attached” (“Words of Delight: A Literary Introduction to the Bible,” Baker Books, 1992, p. 11).

Thus, I would maintain that beneath the surface of even the apparently “ordinary informal Koine Greek” of the New Testament lurks some extensive and rather sophisticated literary forms, involving among other devices, a diverse array of recursive (iterative, synonymous, contrastive) patterns–near and far parallels, chiastic structures, terraced or overlapping constructions, and so forth. These are the literary (artistic and rhetorical) forms that deliver or convey the focal theological and ethical content being expressed by these religious texts.

By the term “focal” I do not intend to imply that this refers to some esoteric “literary” meaning that lies beneath the text’s surface forms. Rather, I mean to say that the content of the text is primary; the less apparent literary forms normally serve to reinforce that more transparent content. At times certain literary structures, like the center of a chiastic construction, may function to highlight or emphasize some aspect of that surface content, but they will not deny, contradict, or confuse that content (at least I have not found that to be true). I would also agree with the observation of certain scholars that some of “the sophisticated literary forms” which are posited by their colleagues may well come from “their own imagination” and cannot be substantiated by the overall linguistic and literary composition of the biblical text itself.

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 (http://sun.academia.edu/EWENDLAND). 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 (http://www.amazon.com/Ernst-R.-Wendland/e/B001HPLMX6).
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