OCABS 2021 Symposium - "the 10 Points" revised w/transcript
This is a special recording of Vexed, episode 3, "10 points: What do we mean by “the Bible as Literature?”" prepared for the 2021 symposium of the Orthodox Center for the Advancement of Biblical Studies.
On today’s episode, I’d like to talk about this term – “the Bible as Literature”. The flagship program on the Ephesus School network is of course entitled “the Bible as Literature” so capably led by Fr. Marc Boulos and Dr. Richard Benton. And I’d like to unpack this today to help distinguish what we mean when we say “the Bible as Literature.”
There are a number of assumptions that form the foundation for this approach. And it is worth parsing them out. So I have put together 10 points; understand them as assumptions that form the basis of this statement. If you look it up in the dictionary, you will find that assumption means – something that is accepted as true. I say this so that it is clear and so that you may follow the line of reasoning here. So off we go.
This point sounds rather obvious, even a bit silly but it’s critical. The things we assume are obvious are those that most need distinguishing. So point #1 is: the Bible is written.
You’re dealing with something consigned to writing. This is a more weighty matter than it first seems. What do I mean by this? I mean that, its content; its message has been deposited and confined. I use that word – confined – specifically and intentionally.
It is confined to text. It is not expressed in images or pictures. It comes to us in a particular form – to letters, which form words, which form phrases, which form sentences, which form paragraphs, which form chapters, which form books. One, building on the other. In fact, the word – text – is from the Latin "textus" whose root "texere" literally means something woven; to weave; fit together; braid as in cloth. It is from this stem that we have the word “textile.”
The Bible is crafted – woven – if you will, in a particular way. It has a starting and an ending and it cannot be altered. You as the reader, as the hearer are stuck with this text the way that it is written.
Any reader of any kind of literature knows this intuitively. We take for granted the way that we read literature. We submit. We surrender to the words on the page. You might compare it to the way we take our own breathing for granted. We take in air in a particular way because the machine of our lungs works that way. It’s the system. We are locked into its way of working; its reality.
Coming back to the Bible, the sense of being locked into a particular reality in a text is embedded in the terms we use for it. The word "Bible" comes from the Greek “biblos” which means book. The word "literature" comes from the Latin for “words.” The word "scripture" is from the Latin meaning writing or written. So the Bible is a book of words written. Each of these terms reinforces their close association.
The Bible says what IT wants to say.
It’s constructed in a particular way to suit the aims of its authors. Biblical scholar Tom Dykstra in his excellent commentary on the gospel of Mark called Mark: Canonizer of Paul, expresses this well. He refers to the New Testament gospels as “cohesive literary works in which each part was carefully and deliberately crafted and organized to serve the author’s overall purposes.” He refers to the biblical authors as “literary craftsmen who came from and worked within a literary culture….”
We assume intentionality on the part of the authors.
Biblical scholar Thomas Brodie, in his 2012 memoir of his life’s study of the Bible, makes a useful comparison. He gives the example of Picasso and Picasso’s art. Consider Picasso’s paintings of faces which are distorted; strange looking. You can debate whether you like them or not, but you assume intent without thinking about it. The fact that he painted distorted faces, does not mean that Picasso could not draw a face.
Another example comes to us from Mark Twain, the master of satire. In his Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the character Pap speaks with improper grammar and Twain misspells the words spoken by Pap. He says “govment” and “git”, and “sumthin'”. Does this mean that Twain doesn’t know how to spell correctly? Well, it’s true that Twain is said to have been a flexible speller and to have complained about sticklers for correct spelling. But the answer is no, it is clearly an intentional use. Twain is giving his character a particular way of speaking to help tell the story that he wants to tell.
Twain himself speaks about this issue in his text. At the beginning of the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, before chapter 1, Twain writes a few lines which he has entitled “EXPLANATORY.” Let’s hear what Twain has to say about his crafting of his story.
“In this book a number of dialects are used, to wit: the Missouri negro dialect; the extremest form of the backwoods Southwestern dialect; the ordinary “Pike County” dialect; and four modified varieties of this last. The shadings have not been done in a haphazard fashion, or by guesswork; but painstakingly, and with the trustworthy guidance and support of personal familiarity with these several forms of speech. I make this explanation for the reason that without it many readers would suppose that all these characters were trying to talk alike and not succeeding. Signed, THE AUTHOR.”
With Twain, his use of satire is so effective, that I’m not sure if he isn’t ribbing the reader with this explanation. Even if he is giving us an eye wink here, it is interesting that he has made the effort to preface his story to help the reader follow his story. Twain has full control. He is telling his story, his way. And that’s the point.
Point # 3
The Bible comes from a tradition of classical literature.
The ancient epics formed the culture and identity of the time. If we take a look at the 1st century AD, for example, and the cultural setting in which the New Testament books were written, we can hear the influence of the ancient epics. Dennis MacDonald is a biblical scholar whose work I follow. And in Professor Macdonald’s body of scholarship, he argues that the biblical authors were quite aware of the Homeric epics. And he writes about the connection between the culture of classical antiquity and the Biblical text and the influence of classical antiquity on the Bible. In a piece he wrote called “Imitations of Greek Epics in the Gospels, he cites a first century contemporary to the evangelists. Listen as this 1st century source describes the influence of the Homeric epics on 1st century culture.
“From the earliest age, children beginning their studies are nursed on Homer’s teaching. One might say that while we were still in swathing bands we sucked from his epics as from fresh milk. He assists the beginner and later the adult in his prime. In no stage of life, from boyhood to old age, do we ever cease to drink from him.”
This 1st century source goes on to describe manuscript collections at that time. He writes:
"Among the catalog of manuscripts from Greco-Roman Egypt, more than 600 were Homer, then Demosthenes (4th century BC Greek orator) with 83. Euripides (5th century BC Greek dramatist) with 77 and Hesiod (8th/7th century BC Greek poet) with 72."
Macdonald, explains that literary education in antiquity to a large extent, involved imitating poetry even for writing prose. The beginning student would trace the letters of the names of homeric characters. Later he might create a list of archaic words in the Iliad; ask the grammatikos (teacher of literature) for definitions, and then paraphrase the model. So much a part of the culture was narrative poetry that there were special classes of performers. Homeridae, members of an ancient guild of Homeric recitation and rhapsodes called song stitchers, recited the epics publicly. The stories of the poets provided ancient artists both Greek and Roman, with many favorite characters and episodes. They appear on temple friezes, wall paintings in private homes, sarcophagi, vases, mosaics, gems, mirrors, jewelry boxes, and even coins. Even Christians owned such objects. For example, on a 3rd century Christian sarcophagus, there is a depiction of Odysseus strapped to the mast and sailing past the Sirens which is thought to symbolize the journey of the soul to heaven. Today, one need only watch the ongoing excavation of 1st century Pompei to see the influence of Homer on wall paintings & sculpture.
In the Bible, we find literary linkages to the Homeric epics; shared themes, motifs & imagery. The Bible is replete with classical motifs – temples, chariots, kings, family conflict/rivalries; conquest; infidelity; revenge, abuse of power and also motifs the give us a window into the physical/practical setting. We have sheep, land, desert, mountain, vegetation, water, gardens, seas, seafaring, shipwrecks. Professor Macdonald’s work compares the imagery and motifs in the Homeric epics with those in the gospel of Mark. He writes:
“In the Odyssey, one find adventures at sea, feasts for thousands, cavemen, inept and cowardly comrades, a meeting with the dead, murderous rivals, the hero’s secrecy, and the recognition of his true identity.”
And he finds analogs in Mark, for example, characters such as the Gerasene demoniac, the Syrophoenician woman and blind Bartimaeus. He also sees parallels between scenes in the book of Acts and the scenes in the Iliad. Professor Brodie also writes about this literary sharing.
In his memoir, he talks about his study of the character Jacob in the book of Genesis. He makes connections with Homer’s Odyssey. The account of Jacob moving the great stone Genesis chapter 29 verses 1-10 resembles the Odyssey’s story of the Cyclops moving a great stone in the Odyssey book 9.
Fr. Paul Tarazi in his magnum opus, the Rise of Scripture, writes about how classical fables function in the Bible. Like classical Greek fabler Aesop, the biblical school uses fable at times. In book of Judges chapter 9, we hear such a fable. The trees, vines and bramble have a voice to speak and are stand ins for people. Fr. Tarazi in his commentary on Luke-Acts makes a compelling case that the Jason we find in Acts 17 is intended by the author to make a connection with the mythic Jason of Jason and the Argonauts and their quest for the golden fleece. Fr. Tarazi writes:
“…it is quite appropriate for Luke when speaking of a mission among the native Greek people to convey his message using elements from Greek mythology that he can assume are well known to them. As the Old Testament writers before him used terminology common among Ancient Near Eastern peoples to describe the effects of God’s prophetic word, Luke also communicates with his audience in their own “language”.”
In the world of classical literature, it was common practice for writers to imitate classical themes and make them their own.
Professor Brodie gives Virgil as an example. The Roman poet Virgil who wrote the epic poem the Aeneid, at the time of Augustus Casesar around 19 BC was schooled on Greek authors. Brodie has this to say:
“…The kernel of ancient writing was not in allusions; it was in taking hold of entire books and transforming them systematically. Virgil did not allude to Homer; he swallowed him whole. And there are comparable systematic transformations within the Bible.”
We find Professor Macdonald again useful on this topic. He cites the example of Quintilian, Roman educator and rhetorician in the 1st century AD who wrote in his Institutio Oratoria, how literary education worked at that time. And he describes this process of absorbing a literary work in order to then create a new work of one’s own. Quintilian wrote that teachers should equip future orators with literary models to inform their compositions. The goal was to saturate students in exemplary texts – and for Quintilian – Homer was the model par excellence. The learner was to absorb them such that they would be able to imitate them without having to consult them physically. He writes, “by frequently rereading the models one can adapt them with more subtlty.” Professor Macdonald argues for and explains this practice. He argues that this is what the writer of the gospel of Mark did – he took imagery, symbols and themes from Homer and transformed them into the story that he wanted to tell. Macdonald calls this literary ‘”mimesis.”
Over the centuries, the Bible was perceived as a work of classical literature and prized as such.
We find the biblical text housed among works of classical literature. In the book, Secrets of Mount Sinai: The story of Finding the World’ Oldest Bible – Codex Sinaiticus, James Bentley tells the story of the discovery of the Codex Sinaiticus. He writes about Professor Nicolas Panagiotakis, an expert in the literature of the Middle Ages, who in 1975, had reviewed the manuscript collection at St. Catherine monastery at Mt. Sinai. He had this to say about what he found there:
“Apart from it store of manuscripts, the library possesses another 5000 printed books, some of them dating from the earliest years of printing. I saw an Odyssey, published in Florence in 1428 with spaces left for the insertion of ornamental capitals. The find also contains speeches by early Christian fathers of the church, such as St. John Chrysostom. And alongside these were found pagan works, such as eight pages of Homer’s Iliad and four pages from a 10th century edition of the works of Aristotle.”
A few yeas ago, I visited the Loire Valley in France. It’s a beautiful river valley where the French kings had their country castles. And on a tour of the Chateau of Chenonceau, which was built in the late 1500s, I was struck by a collection of paintings. Together on one wall were 3 paintings. Two were biblical scenes, lovely pieces by French painter Jean Jouvenet. One was Jesus overturning tables in the temple, more commonly known as the cleansing of the temple.
It’s interesting that we find this story told in slightly different ways in all 4 gospels. If you’re interested in looking up those references, they are as follows:
John 2: 12-25
It would be interesting to do a little study comparing the 4, but I digress.
The other painting was the prophet Samuel appearing to Saul. If you’d like to look up the reference, it’s from 1Samuel, chapter 28. And the 3rd painting was by an unknown Italian painter. The piece is unsigned. It depicts the Greek god Apollo visiting & receiving hospitality from Admetus the Argonaut & the king of Pherae in Thessaly.
Two things stuck out for me. The first is that they were all painted in the same era – the 17th century and the second is that they were all mounted on the same wall. Of course, I can’t know how the paintings and décor may have been moved around over the centuries, but it seems to me that it makes a statement about how classical literature was perceived: The Bible and Greek mythological themes were both cultural touchpoints and sources of inspiration.
The Bible is a Looooooonnnnnngggg story.
The Old Testament is longer than the Iliad and Odyssey combined. In Fr. Tarazi’s, the Rise of Scripture, he points out that here are 593,493 words in the Old Testament (the shorter Hebrew canon), compared to 269,183 words in both the Iliad and Odyssey.
You have to deal with the fact that it’s a long story.
You, as the reader, as the hearer, submit to the story. Your submission to the whole story is assumed. You wouldn’t, for example, read one chapter of the Harry Potter series or one volume of the Lord of the Rings series and then claim you know the story. Similarly, when you watch a movie, you suspend judgment to follow the story. Remember that movie from back in the 1990s called, The Sixth Sense? As I watched it, I found myself intrigued and drawn in by the story and I thought that I understood what was going on but it wasn’t until the very end that the story was fully explained and complete. And it was then that I realized that I had gotten it all wrong. It’s a great thriller. See it if you’re a fan of psychological thrillers.
Turning to an ancient source. Quintilian, 1st century Roman educator and rhetorician I mentioned earlier, wrote about how to teach children the classic texts. He calls the classics, “literary models” and he advocates not only frequent reading and re-reading but he writes that these works are not to be studied “merely in parts, but that children must read through the whole work from cover to cover and then read it afresh.” I was stunned when I came across this.
This is what I’m talking about. You also have to submit to the biblical story from cover to cover, long though it may be.
The Bible is a unity. It has an internal consistency.
The Old and New Testaments are one book. And the books are put in a particular order.
So we have a long story that starts with Genesis and ends with Revelation.
The way that something is written tells you something valuable about what the author wants to say.
Recall earlier I said that the Bible comes from a particular tradition of classical literature – you might call it a literary context. Professor Brodie wrote about this issue. He wrote:
“If a newspaper announces cheap flights to Mars, it is important to note whether the advertisement occurs in the travel section or in the cartoon-jokes page. Clarity on the literary factor is rule one.”
The Bible is not ordinary writing. It is neither comic strip nor newspaper. It’s an epic instructional story. This is the literary context we will be talking about on this program.
The purpose of this epic instructional story - as with all good classical literature – is to teach.
We know from the text itself that its purpose is to teach the hearer something. It is instruction whose purpose is to impart instruction. The great classical epics shared this purpose and this is well known.
You might be familiar with the Great Courses series. You can find them online. In the course on the Roman Empire, Prof Gregory Aldrete expresses this very point about Livy’s history of Rome. He says:
“Livy’s history of early Rome is filled with incredible stories of legendary heroes such as Mucius (he’s referring to Mucius Scaevola here) and many of these figures are now regarded as belonging more to the realm of myth than of history. Nevertheless, these stories of early Roman heroes were repeatedly told to Roman children by their parents. While ostensibly presented as Roman history, these tales served a much more important purpose than simply informing children about the past. They were also a way of inculcating Roman values in the next generation of Romans and of giving them a stronger sense of community and group identity. They provided role models and defined expected standards of behavior and morality. In this context, whether or not the stories were strictly true is less significant than the didactic purpose that they served.”
Tom Dykstra, again in his commentary on the gospel of Mark, explains the Bible’s didactic purpose this way. He writes:
“Scripture is not read simply so that the reader might become more knowledgeable about something, or to learn the truth about something in order to satisfy curiosity; it is read with a view to finding out how God decrees that one should think and behave.”
So ends the 10 points. There are a number of other points. So stay tuned for a future episode in which we will explore another 10 points – assumptions – to help us distinguish what we mean when we use the term “the Bible as Literature.”
Thank you for listening. Until next time, this is VEXED.