The Old Testament Is Literature Too

by Anna Blanch on July 27, 2010

For Literary Scholars, the bible is a kind of omni-sourcebook. That is, the influence of the bible on Western Literature over the last 1000 years cannot be overestimated. It is omni-present hovering at least in the background and often in the mid or foreground as authors respond to it, revisioning passages and images, either rejecting its claims, using its language and image, or basing their moral and ethical framework upon its foundation. However, the Bible, including the Old Testament is not just literature, it is Scripture. But it is also literature and as literary scholars we must be careful not to mistreat the Old and New Testaments. I wanted to share a couple of quotes from Peter J. Williams on this topic. Williams is the Warden of Tyndale House and a member of the Faculty of Divinity in the University of Cambridge.

‘Genre‘ has, in fact, been a much-used word recently as a number of scholars have stressed the literary nature of the OT. Their approach maintains that many parts of the Bible contain literary structures showing careful composition. The relevance of this to the issue of history in the OT has been to shift the focus of investigation of certain texts from their historicity to their literary nature. Authors with this literary approach vary on a spectrum from those who use the literary nature of a work to deny its historical nature through to those who accept the historical nature of the work but choose to focus on literary structures. Some such approaches to a text are called ‘synchronic‘ because they seek to view the text without regard to temporal distinction in origin, and thus interpret the whole without considering historical development. The synchronic approaches are contrasted with the diachronic ones which look at the development of texts through time. Whatever approach ultimately is taken it must be justified on a basis other than widespread use. It is important that texts are allowed to speak for themselves and that a serious attempt is made to understand the focus and themes of a text as a whole. This said, no student can afford simply to ignore historical questions.(9)

Beginning to Study the Old Testament 

Recognising a literary focus may even alter one‘s view of the history to which a narrative refers. (9). […] it is very important to read the biblical narrative with the utmost care to ensure that one is not attributing significance to an event recorded which it does not actually have. This could be to attribute a wrong international importance to a narrative or wrong archaeological significance to an event. The biblical narrative must be carefully examined in a literary way before one can properly assess its historical implications. (10)

Beginning to Study the Old Testament

Anna Blanch is founder of Goannatree, and a PhD candidate in the Institute of Theology, Imagination, and the Arts at St Mary’s College, University of St Andrews, Scotland. She is writing her doctoral thesis in the field of Theology and Literature. She also writes weekly at Transpositions, a collaborative blog examining Theology, Imagination, and the Arts.

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  • davemack

    sorry, Anna, but my Google-foo is failing me — what's the published source?

  • Goannatree

    My page numbers are relate to a version without the published page numbers (hence 9 and 10) but you get my drift right? A.
    My recent post The Balanced Scholar

  • Mike Bull


    Amen to all that. For the biblical writers, as ancients, literary structure was part of the method of communication.

    I've written a short book on the 'fractal' structure of the Bible that might interest you:
    If you are interested, I can send you a copy.

    Mike Bull
    Katoomba, Australia
    My recent post The Face of the Deep

  • Goannatree
  • Goannatree

    Mike, I'm more than happy to talk with you about reviewing the book. Send me an email at goannatree_at_gmail dot com.
    My recent post A little Scottish summer rain and Do I really need to do the first thing first

  • davemack

    many thanks for the reference

  • Kristanna

    So that’s the case? Quite a Revelation that is.

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