Reading the Bible as literature


Unless you are studying a specific module, or are required to due to your religious affiliation, it is quite uncommon to write the task “read the Bible” down on your to-do list. As a 1st Year English student, my ‘Classical & Biblical Backgrounds to English Literature’ module asks students to read the Bible as literature. To do this, one must not be fixated on the authenticity or validity of the events that unfold through this old religious text, but instead focus on its great cultural and literary influences, and why it remains such a relevant text today.

For someone who had never read or encountered a single story within the Bible (except maybe a vague retelling of the story of Adam and Eve) and with no religious bias, I had no idea that I would become so invested in my experience and personal thoughts on The Bible. It seems at the same time incomprehensibly important yet when reading, can be frustratingly archaic.

I was immediately stumped with the question of how we can critique a language so outdated

One of the first big words we learn in our Biblical module is hermeneutics – that is, the “theory of interpretation, especially the interpretation of biblical texts” – where we should always remain open-minded about the plethora of perspectives that might arise from a literary reading of the Bible. Indeed, I endorse an open-minded approach to all works of literature, but as soon as I began reading Chapter 1 of The Book of Genesis, I was immediately stumped with the question of how we can critique and analyse a language so outdated, filled with many moral teachings and implications that are no longer in line with the attitudes of our modern society.

You see, it’s not a matter of the language itself (although that is unsurprisingly old-fashioned, as the King James translation of the Bible was first published in the 17th Century) where repeated uses of ‘thou’ and ‘thee’ can seem confusing. It’s the way language implying outdated views on gender, marriage and family can make you deeply uncomfortable. Take the following sentence as an example of, for lack of a better word, misogyny, when the narrator describes the creation of women:

“This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh: she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man” (Genesis 2.23)

It does not take a literary scholar or an experienced feminist to point out how modern readers, especially women, may read this line and the creation story with understandable discomfort and perhaps even rage. Another more extreme case of blatant sexism is exemplified in the scene where God condemns Eve for giving Adam the fruit from the forbidden tree and in turn, punishes her with the pain of childbearing amongst other forms of subservience:

“in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee” (Genesis.3.16)

I do not have to point out that, in the 21st Century, most of us neither consider giving birth to children a feminine ‘sorrow’ nor agree with the idea that one’s husband ‘shall rule over thee’ – the outdated and unjust implications here are obvious.

It is, however, important to keep in mind that we must contextualise whatever we examine. In this case, we have to agree that its language and views were true to the time of its publication, despite being backward now. We must also distinctly recognise our intentions when criticising outdated attitudes – is it out of pure spite or out of a justified curiosity and sense of righteousness? There is undoubtedly no single and easy answer to any of these questions, but I believe it is more critical that we ask these questions and challenge these traditional perspectives than to cement the answer itself.

We must distinctly recognise our intentions when criticising outdated attitudes

Of course, one may contend that we’re merely reading too much into this and that we cannot change a creation story so old and set in stone, but I would propose that we’re not asking the right questions. It is indisputable that we cannot alter the events in The Bible, but can moral teachings be changed through updating the language? How much of the Bible can we omit or amend before we harm the integrity of the work? Can we selectively delete parts of it for it to reflect our modern thinking? As a text that is fundamental not only to literature but to almost every aspect of humanity, we must question whether shaking this very foundation does more damage or good to how the Bible shapes our societal conventions.

Gender inequality and reproductive condemnation no longer have a place in our modern society. Though the words of this religious text should not be taken literally, simultaneously we cannot simply erase the significance of The King James Bible in our past. But we do have to ask ourselves, what role do we want the Bible to play in our present and future spheres of cultural, religious, literary and universal influence?

Image: Joel Muniz via Unsplash

One thought on “Reading the Bible as literature

  • Hi Audrey,
    Thanks for the article.
    Just wanted to ask what version of the bible you read, was it the original or one of the adaptions of it, like the New KJ or the 21st cent KJ?
    The reason I ask is because I am working on an adapted version of the King James to be read as literature, (potentially titled The Wholly Novel.)



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