Literature You Should Know: The Bible

Charlton-Heston-as-Moses-The-Ten-Commandments-1956-ParamountIt’s the #1 best-seller of all time, translated in whole or in part into over two thousand languages.  It’s been banned and burned but never totally destroyed; in fact, despite Diocletian’s best efforts, it’s the best-attested book that survives from antiquity, with Julius Caesar’s Gallic Wars a distant second.  It contains practically every genre you can think of—comedy, tragedy, archetypal narrative, lyric poetry, wisdom literature, dream-vision and allegory, family drama, courtroom drama, political thriller, history, genealogy, epistle, biography and autobiography.  An anthology of sixty-six books written over thousands of years in three different languages by kings, priests, prophets, shepherds, and fishermen, it nonetheless tells a single metanarrative story of redemption:  the history of the people of Israel, the coming of Jesus of Nazareth, and the way a simple Jewish carpenter changed the world.  And nearly two thousand years after the last words were penned, authors and filmmakers continue to grapple with its content, with mixed success.  Exodus: Gods and Kings is just the latest example proving that the Book is always better than the movie.

No matter what you believe, you need to read the Bible, for no other book in human history has changed so many lives or had such an impact on language and culture anywhere in the world.  Even considered solely on its literary merits, it is wholly unique.

But you don’t have to take my word for it.  A Dictionary of Biblical Tradition in English Literature, for example, contains over a million words’ worth of entries tracing the appearance of Biblical names, imagery, and allusion over the centuries that English has existed as a written language—and that’s just English!  Nor is there any lack of books considering the Bible as the source of art and/or as a work of art itself, such as Augustine’s On Christian Doctrine and City of God, Bonaventure’s Retracing the Arts to Theology, Robert Alter’s The Art of Biblical Narrative and The Art of Biblical Poetry, Stephen Prickett’s Words and the Word, and David Lyle Jeffrey’s People of the Book.  And specific translations of the Bible have had enormous effects on the languages in which they’re written, as seen in studies like The King James Bible and the World It Made and the fact that Martin Luther’s translation of the Bible into German formed the foundation for standardizing Modern High German.

Illustration from the Book of Kells depicting the arrest of Christ
Illustration from the Book of Kells depicting the arrest of Christ

At this time of year, especially, reading the Bible puts the season into context.  Once you know the history of Jacob’s move to Egypt and the Biblical account of the Exodus, for example, the significance of Passover becomes clear, with each element of the seder either recalling how God delivered Israel from bondage in Egypt or looking forward to the promise of Messiah.  For Christians, Holy Week marks the fulfillment of that promise in Jesus, Whose words during the Last Supper transform the seder into the Eucharist and Whose death and resurrection bring ultimate salvation to anyone who believes in Him, Jew or Gentile.  As J. R. R. Tolkien says in “On Fairy-Stories”:

The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man’s history. The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation…. There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true, and none which so many sceptical men have accepted as true on its own merits…. It is not difficult to imagine the peculiar excitement and joy that one would feel, if any specially beautiful fairy story were found to be ‘primarily’ true, its narrative to be history, without thereby losing the mythical or allegorical significance that it had possessed…. The Christian joy, the Gloria, is of the same kind; but it is preeminently (infinitely, if our capacity were not finite) high and joyous. But this story is supreme; and it is true. Art has been verified. God is the Lord, of angels, and of men—and of elves. Legend and History have met and fused.

So tolle, lege—take up the Book and read.  You’ll never encounter another epic quite like it.

Elisabeth G. Wolfe

Elisabeth G. Wolfe, from Llano, Texas, is an alumna of the 2012 Taliesin Nexus Filmmakers Workshop. She is also a freelance translator and editor, indie historical fiction novelist, and adjunct professor of English at the Baptist College of Florida.