When I was in the final year of my undergraduate degree way back when I took a seminar on Shakespeare. Before a tutorial one morning I mentioned to a friend who happened to be in the class that i’d almost finished reading the Book of Revelation (the final book of the Bible). A fellow student happened to hear me and said lightly, “Oh, the Bible, I read that once.” Genuinely interested, because I knew this woman to be well read, “how long did it take you to read the whole thing?”
I asked because I was nearing the end of a 4 month epic stint of reading 3-6 chapters a day in the midst of my other academic work and I was almost done. “Oh, a couple of days I think” she replied. To which I was genuinely astonished. I thought at that moment that she must have been much much faster at reading that I.
About an hour later some issue or another had come up where there seemed to my mind to be suggesting a typological reading, that is a link between a phrase or image from both the Old Testament and the New Testament in the work we were studying – It may have been “Measure for Measure.” My friend who i’d mentioned my Revelation reading to at the beginning of class had drawn a link to a certain moment in one of the gospel, and I was reinforcing her point by mentioning an old testament moment which Shakespeare might have been echoing. After I used the phrase Old Testament, my fast reading colleague asked (I believe sincerely) “Is the Old Testament in the Bible, I thought it was a completely different book.” At which moment I wondered what book she had been referring to in our original conversation about reading the “whole” Bible from cover to cover, Genesis to Revelation.
I don’t tell this story for any reason other than to offer a kategoria for why I think Biblical Literacy is a fundamentally important part of being an excellent teacher of Literature, in whatever language, at whatever level, regardless of what your personal religious or spiritual beliefs may be. Some of these reasons include:
1. The bible is still the best selling book of all time.
2. It has played a fundamental shaping role in the development of western literature.
3. For genre studies there are types of literary writing for which the bible presents the earliest example we still have, or the largest example from such an early period: think parable, and some of the wisdom writings in the very least.
4. The watershed in historical and literary terms of the Gutenberg Bible, the King James Authorised Version and even the link between contemporary literary and translations such as the Message means that to ignore it entirely or to treat it with contempt is inconsistent with good literary critical practice.
5 . To me it’s more than just a book, but it’s a darn good book! the narrative shape has been influential in both content and style on generations of authors and on us as readers; whether people are responding in positive or negative terms it is part of the grammar of western societies. One misses so much when you haven’t read the key texts. This is essential for you as a teacher, and for your students!
If you like your job as a teacher of literature (and i’m sure you do!) and you want to do the best by your students, I would strongly encourage you to put some time and effort into increasing your literacy of the bible. There are resources around for this – among them, the Bible Society and the Big Bible Project (run out of CODEC, Durham University). If you’re interested I’m also thinking about putting together a list of resources for those who teach english literature who’d like to improve their biblical literacy; let me know if you’d like a copy.
Why do I not say the same thing about the Koran or Buddhist Writings?
Simply because, in my experience, the development of Western Literature has been so fundamentally tied to the history of the publication of the Bible. The sheer significance of the King James Authorised Version (known as the KJV) cannot be underestimated. The number of phrases that made their first appearance in the KJV alone is enough to make it a work of fundamental importance to scholars and teachers of Western Literature.
Let me leave you with this fabulous little clip from the Open University about the literary significance of the King James Version: