Approach and Avoidance: The Bible as Literature

by Giles Gunn

Dr. Gunn, professor of English at the University of California, Santa Barbara, is the author most recently of The Culture of Criticism and the Criticism of Culture (Oxford University Press, 1987)

This article appeared in the Christian Century, May 18-25, 1988. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


The Literary Guide to the Bible suffers from too narrow. or at least too traditional, a view of the literary. In seeking to distance itself both from the theologians of past biblical scholarship and from the ideological controversies of current literary criticism, it risks promoting a disturbing provincialism.

Book Review: The Literary Guide to the Bible by Robert Alter and Frank Kermode. Harvard University Press, 678 pp., $29.95.

Why, with editors the caliber of Robert Alter and Frank Kermode, is The Literary Guide to the Bible (Harvard University Press, 678 pp., $29.95) still something of a disappointment?

The moment for such a volume has surely arrived, and no criticism hastened its coming more than Alter’s The Art of Biblical Narrative and Kermode’s The Genesis of Secrecy. The moment has been richly prepared for by at least two generations of biblical scholars who have been attentive to the literary properties of everything from the parables to the Davidic court history. Literary scholars as different in approach as Northrop Frye and T. R. Henn have ploughed furrows of their own in biblical studies. Thanks to form criticism, redaction criticism, genre criticism, structuralism, narratology, feminist criticism, psychoanalytic criticism and deconstructionism, studies of the literary dimensions of the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures during this decade must number in the thousands. Virtually all college and university English departments offer courses in the Bible as literature."

The editors have chosen to work with what is essentially the Protestant Bible, which, unlike the Catholic Bible, the Hebrew Bible or the Bible of Greek Judaism, is the authoritative text of the central anglophone tradition. Yet with the Old Testament they have generally followed the order of the Hebrew Bible rather than the King James and later versions. They provide chapters on most of the major books of both testaments, though not without some interesting conflations: while Leviticus and Numbers each get chapters of their own, Jeremiah and Ezekiel, as well as the 12 prophets, have to settle for chapters together, as do the Pauline epistles.

In addition to a helpful glossary and an indispensable index, The Literary Guide features some useful and, in several instances, excellent general essays such as Helen Elsom’s superb treatment of the New Testament and Greco-Roman literature, Gerald L. Bruns’s brilliant study of midrash and allegory, and an interesting essay by Alter on the characteristics of ancient Hebrew poetry. In addition to preparing the essays on the Gospels of Matthew and John, both of them rich with perceptive and unexpected observations, Kermode offers an extremely good introduction to the New Testament, balancing Alter’s equally adroit introduction to the Old -- though why, with scholars of the stature of Robert M. Grant and Harry Gamble available, Kermode took upon himself the task of supplying the chapter on the making of the canon is anybody’s guess. Equally puzzling is the inclusion of Edmund Leach’s essay "Fishing for Men on the Edge of the Wilderness," which has little to recommend it but the author’s eminence as perhaps the world’s leading structural anthropologist -- who here wishes to demonstrate that structuralism enables a style of biblical exegesis not unlike "the typological style of argument employed by the majority of early Christian writers."

Though the book lists among its contributors a number of distinguished biblical scholars and literary critics, the editors reserved so many essays for themselves and a few others that there are striking omissions. The New Testament section seems oddly empty without the presence of Wayne Meeks or James Barr, and the Old Testament section looks similarly unprovided without an essay on the historical books by someone like John Van Seters or on prophecy by Joseph Blenkinsopp. And why no women contributors, given the new and disturbing questions feminist scholars have put to an essentially male canon and to male interpretations of it?

Nevertheless, the editors have clearly established the right aim for this volume. They want to avoid duplicating the results of traditional biblical scholarship without depriving their readers of its insights, and they seek to exploit some of the more important methods of contemporary criticism without turning The Literary Guide into a forum for debating sectarian theorists. Their target is the general educated reader who seeks to understand "the Bible as a work of great literary force and authority, a work of which it is entirely credible that it should have shaped the minds and lives of intelligent men and women for two millennia or more.

What literary critics and biblical scholars share, according to the editors of The Literary Guide, is not so much an interest in the referential qualities of the biblical texts as an interest in their internal relationships, particularly as these relationships are controlled by language. Thus in his essay on Psalms, Alter raises questions about authorship, dating and the sociological context, but then devotes the bulk of his attention to issues of genre, convention, style, structure, diction, literary allusion and thematic organization. When performed as well as Alter performs it, and particularly in relation to a text like Psalms, this kind of reading can be at once informative and illuminating.

But close attention to the complex interplay of linguistic properties can also beg some of the very questions such interplay is meant to raise. Thus J. P. Fokkelman’s structural analysis of Genesis and Exodus just misses turning into a catalogue or statistical summary, and prevents the reader from ever penetrating beneath the surface of these texts to their complex interior. Robert Polzin’s self-consciously literary treatment of Deuteronomy in terms of voice all but misses the epic note the text intends to strike. Jack Sasson’s workmanlike articles on Ruth and Esther manage to gloss over much of what has lent these slight narratives their haunting. evocative power. Bernard McGinn foregoes literary analysis altogether and simply provides a history of the interpretation of Revelation.

On the other hand, when Joel Rosenberg writes on the two books of Samuel, as well as on Jeremiah and Ezekiel, or James Ackerman on Jonah and even on Numbers, or David Gunn on Joshua and Judges, or John Drury on Mark and Luke, their criticism resists any simplistic reduction to a discussion of properties or elements, literary or otherwise, and engages the claim of the text. And in the very best of this criticism -- such as Rosenberg’s interpretation of the Davidic history and parts of Kermode’s analysis of Matthew. and particularly John -- familiar texts become strange and strangely moving, compelling, almost coercive.

The deep divisions within contemporary literary criticism have much to do with the fact that we now possess a richer, if also more troubling, sense of (sic).

And one of the reasons that the literary has come to seem so much more problematic a critical category than it was 20 years ago is because we have been compelled to take into our notion of it many of the diverse, ill-classified, disruptive kinds of literature contained in the Bible.

Yet of this difficult process of critical assimilation, and what it has done to the categories by which we make sense (as Kermode once put it) of the sense literature makes for us, we hear very little in The Literary Guide to the Bible. Too often the essays treat the categories that define literature, and that enable us to talk about it critically, as though they were given with creation itself, and that all the general reader requires to appreciate the Bible as a literary document is a little (or a lot of) "expert literary appraisal." The editors and their collaborators know better; but only in selected instances have some of them managed to transcend such limited conceptions in behalf of the central purpose of the volume as a whole: to demonstrate how the literary dimensions of these texts do, indeed, make credible the power and authority they have exhibited for more than two millennia in shaping decisively the lives and minds of thoughtful people the world over.