Lately I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about the application of literary criticism/theory to biblical texts, and was recently challenged with a surprisingly simple question: Is the Bible even literature in the first place?
Postmodern literary critic J. Hillis Miller has expressed his doubts regarding the claim that the Bible constitutes literature. According to Miller, the approach to the Bible as word of God carries an entirely separate set of assumptions that call into question its suitability to be read (and approached critically) as literature:
The reasons to read (or not to read) the story of Abraham and Isaac in Genesis are quite different from the reasons to read (or not to read) Dickens, Wordsworth, Shakespeare, or even Dante and Milton, religious poets though these latter two are. The demands made on the reader by sacred and secular texts are quite different from one another…The Bible, for Christians in our culture, has absolute authority as God’s word. That word was dictated to various inspired scribes and prophetic mediums. It was canonized by the highest church and state authorities.
Miller goes on to argue that the main reason the Bible has been given its authoritative status as an icon of Western culture is because “in recent centuries [biblical authority has] tended to be sanctioned by state power.” For Miller, the Bible’s religious status as “the Word of God” calls into question its cultural status as literature. While Miller is correct to note the power dynamics that complicate reading the Bible as literature, his argument—brief as it is—ultimately lacks any qualitative substance.
One of the most obvious difficulties with Miller’s claim is that he employs an anachronistic understanding of the dichotomy between sacred and secular, a categorical division that did not emerge with prominence until the European Enlightenment. The selections of texts that constitute what we today refer to as the Bible were composed in an historical context in which the division between “sacred” and “secular” simply did not exist. Moreover, Miller seems to operate on a set of theological assumptions of the meaning behind the Bible as “God’s Word” that is almost solely informed by conservative American Evangelicalism. This much is evident from his simplistic characterization of the Bible as “absolute authority,” and “dictated to various inspired scribes and prophetic mediums,” which by no means adequately represents the vast canvas of Jewish and Christian traditions regarding sacred scripture. The insistence that the Bible is not literature because of the way it is read by one specific community of readers operates on the same logic as the claim that Shakespeare’s The Tempest can only be properly read through a postcolonial lens.
In my opinion, a far more appropriate (and difficult) challenge is whether or not the application of post-Enlightenment methods of literary criticism are applicable to an ancient text composed in now-dead languages. While Shlomith Rimmon-Kenan argues in her book on narrative fiction that one may engage in an analysis of the elements of story regardless of translation, this still leaves the question of time and historical context.
James Kugel, for instance, engages in no small amount of academic hand-wringing over the lack of a universal, trans-historical standard for literary interpretation. For Kugel, “there is nothing timeless or universal about literary values. Texts are framed in an environment of convention, and read in an environment of convention, and sometimes the conventions are not the same. In the case of the Bible and the modern literary reader, the disjunction is enormous.”
This is of course true, but we should acknowledge that differences in literary conventions are almost always a matter of degrees—twenty-first-century American literary conventions are not the same as seventeenth-century German literary conventions, and yet most of the time we are able to get along just fine regarding seventeenth-century German narrative works as literary, at least to a certain degree. In Kugel’s view, while the Bible is an important historical (and theological) artifact, it is nonetheless inappropriate to apply modern literary theory to it as if it were part of the accepted literary canon:
One does not read the U.S. Constitution as literature, nor Muzzey’s History of the American People as literature, nor (to stick to an American context) Billy Graham’s sermons, Poor Richard’s Almanac, or the monthly bulletin of the Federal Reserve as literature…In some important ways, the Bible is not literature, and, more precisely, ‘literary analysis’ is not, simply because it exists, an operation to be performed on any text that comes along.
For Kugel, none of these examples constitute literature because none of them claim to be literature themselves. Furthermore, he argues, just because literary criticism is a hammer in our tool belt does not necessarily imply that the Bible is our corresponding nail.
Yet, as Adele Berlin has responded to Kugel, “The question of literariness should not be decided on the basis of function, nor on how the work identifies itself. Few works, after all, claim to be literature.” For Berlin, the Bible is in fact literature precisely “because of its artful verbal expression and compelling ideas.” Instead of writing off the entire enterprise of biblical literary criticism, Berlin argues that a more nuanced approach is necessary: one that includes sensitivity to historical context as well as knowledge of current and ancient literary conventions: “Modern competence alone is not enough; it must be balanced by knowledge of philology, scribal practices, ancient near eastern history, literature, etc.” Moreover, the task of literary formalism isn’t to read into the text what isn’t actually there, but to describe formal elements that are (at least in some sense) universal to all narrative systems. Formalism is about description, not evaluation.
I suggest that Berlin’s “artful verbal expression and compelling ideas” is helpful in determining whether the Bible can or should be read as literature. For my part, I prefer a simple maximalist definition of literature: that which is widely read or viewed for enjoyment or personal edification. Counter to Kugel, biblical narrative is not dependant upon anachronistic applications of literary theory. And against Miller, the fact that some readers of Biblical narrative belong to communities that understand the text as the word of God while other readers do not makes little difference; sacred literature must first be literature before it can become sacred.
 J. Hillis Miller, On Literature, New York: Routledge, 2002, pp.83, 85.
 Ibid, 86.
 See, for example, Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Harvard University Press, 2007).
 Rimmon-Kenan, 8-9.
 James Kugel, 229.
 Kugel 218-19.
 Berlin, 323-24.
 Berlin, 324.
 Berlin, 326.