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.

With the Gospels, the interplay of individual literary skill and the dictates of literary convention are hardest to untangle. After centuries of research, we still do not possess the recipe for writing a gospel, and cannot define the genre except ostensively: a book like Matthew, Mark, Luke or John. Yet John Drury succeeds in uncovering both the individuality and the conventionality of Mark and Luke, and Kermode applies the techniques of The Genesis of Secrecy to Matthew, and shows us ‘how we read Gospels’ as convincingly as ‘how we read novels’. Other outstanding chapters are by George Savran on the books of Kings – some of the most unpromising material in the Old Testament for a literary critic, but brought to life by him as skilfully as is the even more unpromising Leviticus by David Damrosch. Damrosch begins: ‘Perhaps the greatest problem facing students of the Bible as literature is the fact that so much of the Bible is not literature at all’ – a thought which will occur to most of the few readers Leviticus possesses, and which threatens to undermine the whole project of the Guide. Yet he goes on to show that even this collection of ritual laws is ‘readable’, holding the key to the most characteristic literary move made in the Hebrew Bible: the harmonious integration of law with narrative.

In addition to a book-by-book survey of the Old and New Testaments, the Guide contains some excellent general essays. J.C. Greenfield writes on the Canaanite background of Hebrew literature, Helen Elsom on the Greco-Roman background of the New Testament writings, and Kermode on the development of the canon – an invaluable study of a vexed and controversial topic, which reveals him as far from the outsider in technical Biblical scholarship that he professes himself. There is also an unusually good piece on English translations of the Bible, by Gerald Hammond: a rare example of an admirer of the Authorised Version who does not rubbish modern translations, though he shows all too clearly how and why recent translators have failed to provide an authoritative modern version to match that of King James’s panel. The joker in the pack is Edmund Leach, with ‘Fishing for men at the edge of the wilderness’. Leach despises Biblical scholars, so does not read them: his opening caveat, ‘I lack most of the qualifications of an ordinary biblical scholar,’ is a badge proudly displayed. It is not clear what a structural-anthropological reading of the Gospels is doing in a literary guide: but it adds a welcome touch of colour to what is otherwise a fairly monochrome collection of pieces from a single school, and a reminder that there are many kinds of structuralism, and that non-literary types may also have something to say about the Bible.

So much for the positive thesis. Whatever else the Bible is, it is literature; and a literary reading of it can be attempted. For many readers, the Guide will, as promised on the jacket, ‘unlock the door to the power, mystery and sheer interest of this most important source of Western literature’. Some of the contributors are Biblical specialists, but most are practising literary critics, and people who (like the present reviewer) work in Biblical studies should be delighted that they share our enthusiasm for the Bible, and deeply impressed by the insights they are willing to share with us. In varying degrees, most of the contributors convey a sense of frustration and disappointment with what has passed for the study of the Bible from the Enlightenment to Auerbach, and what still passes for it in most university departments of theology and Biblical studies. Their own project is defined through a contrast with an ideal type of ‘traditional Biblical scholarship’. It is worth asking how far this type is drawn from life, and how far the present volume really differs from it.

In one respect, the picture of traditional Biblical criticism is certainly accurate. The uninitiated probably think that professional Biblical scholarship is a branch of religion, part of a quest for the truth about God; and that Biblical scholars dislike ‘literary’ readings because such readings bracket out questions of truth. This was, indeed, the objection raised by some theologians in the Fifties to works such as The Bible Designed to be Read as Literature: C.S. Lewis, for example, condemned ‘merely aesthetic’ interpretation of the Bible as a way of dodging its religious claims. But Lewis was not a Biblical scholar, and it would be hard to find a single example of anyone engaged in Biblical studies whose objection to ‘the Bible as literature’ rested on this basis. As the editors correctly perceive, Biblical scholarship has (until recently) been sceptical of ‘literary’ interpretations, not on religious grounds, but for almost the opposite reason. Modern, deliberately literary readings tend to treat the Bible as a finished text, to be read holistically or ‘synchronically’ in the present; and in this they are not different from traditional religious or devotional readings, but on the contrary rather close to them, though vastly more sophisticated. Biblical scholarship as practised by professionals, on the other hand, has insisted on setting the texts within their historical context: as ‘relics, probably distorted in transmission, of a past one needed to recover as exactly as possible’ (General Introduction). Biblical criticism has thus been ‘excavative’, as Alter has put it in his superb The Art of Biblical Narrative; it has sought to dig beneath the text, not to read it as it is.

But does this suggest a contrast with literary studies, or only with recent literary studies? Traditional Biblical scholarship has not been like modern literary interpretation: but it has surely been very like traditional literary scholarship. Certainly no one in the world of Biblical studies would until recently have thought of trying their hand at a narratological reading of St Mark’s Gospel, or a structural analysis of Judges. But that hardly makes them different from their colleagues in departments of English literature or (still more obviously) of Classics. No one before the Sixties wrote narratologies of Homer, or even of Jane Austen. Biblical scholars have been slow to jump on the bandwagon, but now they are running as fast as they can to catch it. And in the study of ancient literature ‘excavative’ procedures do not necessarily represent the imposition of alien techniques on unpromising material – indeed, that charge might more plausibly be levelled at modern literary preoccupations. They are responses to perceived oddities in the text. Ancient texts are often uncertain, fragmentary, composite or the result of repeated editorial activity, existing in many recensions. To be interested in it may not seem ‘literary’ to those used to reading 20th-century literature, but it is unreasonable to represent it as somehow ‘merely historical’, positivistic or philistine.

Sometimes the contributors to the Guide want to have it both ways. While ostensibly objecting to ‘fragmentation’ of the Biblical text on aesthetic grounds, they are in fact making historical proposals which ought to be evaluated by historical, ‘excavative’ tools. Alter himself is keen to counter all suggestions that Biblical books are compilations from earlier, sometimes mutually inconsistent documents – a hypothesis common in scholarly treatments of many parts of the Old Testament. The hypothesis is rejected as though it represented a reprehensible desire to reconstruct the original form of the text, when what critics should be doing is to read the texts as they stand. But in the process Alter contrives to suggest that he knows better than the critics what the original form was, and that it was not composite anyway. Even alleged textual corruption is usually explained away by arguing that anyone really attuned to the genius of Hebrew narrative would not find anything amiss. Western, and especially Christian, positivistic, unliterary scholars have invented difficulties where none exist. The possibility of a modern, holistic reading is thus deployed in order simultaneously to rule out an interest in the original form and to suggest that we know what it was. This is illicit. If Alter wants to enter the fray on behalf of a particular historical theory about the original form of Biblical books, he is of course well-equipped to do so. But he should not then reject, from a great aesthetic height, the historical interest of other scholars who may come to different historical conclusions – as though it demonstrated their own literary ineptitude and proved them to be mere grubbing archaeologists of the text. The impartial reader of the Bible will surely feel that there are some books that look pretty disjointed and ill-edited, and that the Hebrew text is sometimes corrupt. Such a reader will be open to persuasion that this is mistaken: but will not wish to be fobbed off by being told in the same breath both that he is wrong and that the question is unanswerable, and, indeed, unaskable by anyone of literary sensibilities.

In one important respect, in fact, the Guide shows itself far from certain about such questions, and swings uneasily to and fro between historical scholarship and modern interpretation. In the Old Testament section the essays follow the order of books in the Hebrew Bible, which produces some surprises for the English reader. For example, the books of Ezra and Nehemiah are discussed before Chronicles, and quite separately from the other historical books (Joshua to Kings), because in the Hebrew Bible they belong to the division called ‘the Writings’ rather than standing with the other histories directly after the Pentateuch. Ruth, in the same way, is detached from Judges, and handled separately, while the minor prophets are treated as what they are in the Hebrew canon, but not in the English Bible – ‘the book of the Twelve’, a single book in 12 sections. This is interesting, and curious. Is a ‘literary guide to the Bible’ a study of the English Bible, or of the Hebrew? The intended readership implies the former, and this raises the question not simply of the order to be followed but also of the exclusion of the Apocrypha. The Old Testament here is the Protestant Old Testament, but arranged in the Hebrew order: a decision which surely reflects the Protestant or Jewish provenance of nearly all the contributors.

The editors give what is perhaps really a rationalisation of this decision: ‘we have chosen what is virtually the Protestant Bible for literary reasons only; it is, more than the others, the Bible of the central Anglophone tradition, the single book that most easily comes to mind when we speak of the Bible.’ It would be truer to say that this is the Bible of the central Anglophone religious tradition – though even there the apocryphal books have been much more important than they are in, say, the German Lutheran tradition. But the Bible the student of English literature needs to know in order to understand unannotated texts of Shakespeare or Milton certainly includes the Wisdom of Solomon, Ecclesiasticus, Tobit, Judith, and even the story of Susanna – Shylock would not have called Portia ‘a Daniel come to judgment’ if he had not read Susanna, for it is there rather than in the book of Daniel that Daniel is a wise judge. The collection would have been more useful as well as more coherent if the Apocrypha had been included.

Now this hints at a more deep-seated problem, and undermines the claim to be offering literary interpretation as opposed to ‘historical’ criticism. For not only has the English Bible included more books than the Hebrew Old Testament, and in a different order. The literary features of the Bible that have been important for English-speaking readers have not been those analysed here – which relate to the conventions and generic structures of ancient Hebrew literature – but have depended on the tradition of reading inherited from the Middle Ages. It is the Bible as a Christian text in Latin or English, not the Hebrew Bible studied by Alter and his colleagues, which is the Bible of the Anglophone tradition: a Bible read without benefit of any sense of the ‘characteristics of Hebrew poetry’. There is a contradiction in the Guide on this. If its authors have misinterpreted traditional Biblical criticism, they seem equally to have misperceived the true significance of their own work.

For if the editors really wanted to produce a literary guide to the Bible as a monument of Western literature, one might have expected them to commission a series of studies of the history of interpretation: Rezeptionsgeschichte is well advanced in Biblical, Patristic and Medieval studies. But in the present volume only Bernard McGinn’s essay on Revelation really belongs to that genre. If, on the other hand, they wanted to show how the Bible could be read as a finished text, the ‘huge, sprawling, tactless book sitting there inscrutably ... frustrating all our efforts to walk around it’, in Northrop Frye’s words, they might have imitated Frye himself, and commissioned a holistic reading. Some of the contributors, notably Fokkelman, are clearly committed to such a project, but the Guide as a whole does not take its tone from them. What they have done, in fact, is to produce a historical guide to the literature of the Hebrew Bible (not the Christian Old Testament) and of the Greek New Testament, showing how these two bodies of literature took shape in the ancient world, how their authors were both enabled and constrained by the conventions available, and how their first readers are likely to have perceived them. So much the better. But their interpretations will have to take their chance at the bar of historical scholarship, and not claim the diplomatic immunity that literary critics seem to expect from inspection by the despised customs officials appointed by the pocket-state of the Biblical specialists. Fortunately there is every sign that the distinguished contributors will survive the ordeal with most of their luggage intact. This is an excellent collection of historical scholarship, with only occasional lapses into doctrinaire holistic interpretation. Biblical scholars have a great deal to learn from it, for it is much closer to their concerns than appears on the surface.