Reading the Bible

John Barton

  • The Literary Guide to the Bible edited by Robert Alter and Frank Kermode
    Collins, 678 pp, £20.00, December 1987, ISBN 0 00 217439 1

‘Everyone communes with the Bible,’ wrote Marilyn Butler recently in her Cambridge inaugural lecture, commenting on the recent re-inclusion of the Biblical canon in the canon of English literature. Northrop Frye celebrated the literary rediscovery of Scripture in The Great Code, and now Frank Kermode and Robert Alter, two critics who have given a new rigour and seriousness to the ‘Bible as literature’ movement, have brought together a constellation of literary and Biblical specialists, from both sides of the Atlantic, to explain the Bible from a literary standpoint for what the blurb calls ‘cultivated general readers’. It is hard to see how the task could be performed better. At its best, the Guide does not merely introduce lines of interpretation unfamiliar to the non-specialist, it also breaks new ground; and, as would be expected from the editors’ own works, it seeks to appeal to readers who are prepared to open their minds to literary theory. Thus it avoids the kind of uncritical aestheticism which used to spoil ‘literary’ readings of the Bible, while not being in the grip of any doctrinaire method. The editors’ positive thesis – that the Bible can be read, in Jowett’s famous phrase, ‘like any other book’ – is ably vindicated by almost all the contributors. There is also a negative thesis: that previous Biblical criticism has been defective in literary perception – of which more later.

A ‘General Introduction’ by the editors identifies the turning-point in Biblical studies which has made their work possible: Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis (1946). ‘The first chapters, comparing Old Testament narrative with Homeric narrative and meditating on the unique relation of ordinary-language realism to high “figural” meanings in the Gospels, not only offered new perspectives on the Bible but also suggested new connections between the achievements of the Biblical writers and the entire tradition of Western literature ... It was no longer a matter of equating conduct with Hebraism and culture with Hellenism ... the Bible could be seen as a source of aesthetic value.’ The working-out of this insight entails, above all, some attention to the conventions with which Hebrew and early Christian literature operated: not ignoring the religious subject-matter, but grasping the fact that like any other subject-matter it could be conveyed only through the medium of a specific literary culture. The outstanding essays here are those which most clearly continue this insight of Auerbach’s, including Kermode’s ‘Introduction to the New Testament’ and his chapter on St John’s Gospel, and Alter’s Introduction to the Old Testament and his essay ‘The Characteristics of Hebrew Poetry’ – probably the best treatment of this difficult subject now available. Attention to conventions does not mean, however, that the majority of the contributors wish to banish the author – though a few do, notably the Post-Structuralist Dutch scholar J.P. Fokkelman, who writes arcanely on Genesis and Exodus, getting the volume off to a rather misleading start. No Biblical author is more obviously in control of the conventions he uses than St Paul, and the single essay on the Pauline Epistles, by Michael Goulder, does full justice to the Apostle’s originality, and his ability to outsmart his opponents by mobilising the rhetorical devices of his day.

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