The Bible is Not a Masterpiece

Is the Bible a literary masterpiece that causes all the other literature to pale next to it?  Certainly not, though many believers may think so.  And indeed, sometimes even nonbelievers try to appease believers by agreeing that the Bible is one of the greatest works of literature. (see my post: Distasteful Concessions)

Many Muslims say that there is nothing more beautiful than the words of the Qur’an when it is read in Arabic. Many Hindus believe Sanskrit is magical and uniquely enlivens their Vedas. It is no surprise that many Christians belief their holy text collection is also a uniquely special literary feat. This is what believers do – they stress uniqueness. Heck, some Western scholars, without even holding religious affiliations, believe no finer literature exists than Shakespeare — having never explored anything deeply but Western literature, this is an obvious choice.

It is a basic human trait to believe that your club has the best in its class.

One large mistake, when trying to discuss the Bible, is to buy into the assumption that it is one homogenous work — as if one author wrote it.  Conservative Christians would tell us that the Bible really has only one author — God.  They feel God planned the whole book (contrary to its obvious hodgepodge evolution) and that God guided and used men to give us his words.   Yet even with a cursory studying of the books in the Bible, we can hear the contradictory theologies and the different perspectives of all her different authors.

So, to accurately entertain the literary value of the Bible, and not concede to this Christian myth of homogeneity, we need to evaluate each book or group of books in the Bible by themselves.

Judging the literary value of a piece, yet alone a collection of pieces is fraught with subjective obstacles so we obviously won’t come to a consensus.   But I would encourage non-believers not to concede that the Bible is a literary masterpiece just so they can soften the eyes of disdaining Christians. For instance, let’s use an example of something Christians often  an example of a Biblical “masterpiece”:

Lift up your eyes on high and see: Who created these? He who brings out their host and numbers them, calling them all by name; because he is great in strength, mighty in power, not one is missing.
–Isaiah 40:26 RSV

Christians Walter Specht and Sakae Kubo try to tell us that Isaiah 40 is “[o]ne of the literary masterpieces of the OT.”  But look at this Egyptian composition from the Great Hymn of Osiris dated to the Eighteenth Dynasty (ca. 1500-1295 BCE):

Plants sprout by his wish
Earth grows food for him.
Sky and stars obey him.
The great portals open for him
Lord of acclaim in the southern sky
Sanctified in the northern sky.

You see, both Osiris (an Egyptian god) and Yahweh (a Hebrew god) control the stars and thus show their power. How can we can we not compare these two Iron Age documents as being anything but similar? Most Christians haven’t read religious documents from other traditions but naturally assume their holy books must be fantastic.

The problem here is clear and simple: unadulterated parochialism.


  • This post was inspired by: The End of Biblical Studies by Hector Avalos: pgs 223-4.  The following texts are from his notes.
  • Ancient Egyptian Literature, 3 vols. (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1976), 2:82.
  • Sakae Kubo and Walter F. Spect, So Many Versions? Twentieth Century English Versions Of the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1983), p. 234.

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Filed under Philosophy & Religion

34 responses to “The Bible is Not a Masterpiece

  1. Seriously? The Bible a literary masterpiece? Of course that is a subjective matter, what is or isn’t a masterpiece. But I’m not aware of a general consensus among conservative Christians that the Bible as a whole is a literary masterpiece or was intended to be.

    As a member of the choir I agree with a lot of what you write here. But I doubt we will make much headway with believers in divine revelation with such an approach. We all start and end with basic assumptions and usually end up talking past each other.

  2. Thanks Doug. As you say, though we agree on some points, it seems we may disagree on at least these two points:

    (1) I have not done the empirical research, but I’d love to wager that if a devout Christian were asked, “Do you think the Bible is a literary masterpiece?” that the vast majority would say “Yes”. You seem to disagree. So I guess our opinions can not be evaluated without an accurate poll. Oh well.

    (2) I wrote this post to address those times when “The Bible is Great Literature” is ever brought up. I think some believers may actually think twice if the problems with this view are illustrated. Of course those effected may be people sitting on the fence and not those with heels dug in strongly (as you allude). But it is my hope that writing this post, I offer one way for some people to start questioning their assumptions — both Christians and Atheists. I guess you don’t think it will help at all.

  3. I don’t think it can really be called literature, so much of it is repetitive, there are so many lists of names or similar laws. Obviously it is in the eye of the beholder but I don’t know many people who would read it without any spiritual aspect, or maybe just to learn what all the fuss is about. I certainly wouldn’t read it for fun.

  4. @Sabio
    There is one sense in which it is, and another in which it is not. The sense in which it is not is insofar as it is not a cohesive document written in a gripping style with a clear singular plot or message (it is no “Brothers Karamazov” or “Tom Sawyer”). There are those irritating lists that Rowan mentioned. In my opinion, however, it (or rather, parts of the Jewish portion) is great mythic literature that deserves a place alongside the Odyssey, Illiad, etc. Love, hatred, heroism, revenge, war, sickness, death and disaster!

    If you think those lists are repetitive, try reading some Pali Buddhist suttas! Now there’s repititious!

  5. TWF

    What makes it great to me is that it captures the historical mindset, and it captures a lot of other aspects of human nature. So there is a lot there you can learn from and appreciate. But to call it “great literature” is a bit of an exaggeration, for sure.

  6. I haven’t been “in the fold” for over three decades, but I never heard the Bible spoke about in such a manner. I did frequently here something to the effect “the Bible isn’t the kind of book man would write, because it deals so frankly with the personal sins and shortcomings of the people mentioned.” The thought being, I took it, that Moses would not have been inclined to write of his foul ups and even David’s followers would likely have glossed over the Bathsheba thing, etc. But beyond that, it was the alleged fulfilled prophecy that was supposedly the “pay dirt” of the divine inspiration argument. And usually the “miraculous” harmony of the writings (as the fulfilled prophecies supposedly demonstrate) spread over hundreds and hundreds of years was alluded to.

    Now I can tell you what broke the spell for me. First, I read Thomas Paine’s “The Age Of Reason” and encountered his argument about divine revelation. Which is, granting that such a thing is possible, revelation can only be limited to the first communication. After that it is a record of an alleged revelation to that person – or simple hearsay – and we are free to either accept or not accept it that person’s testimony. That made great sense to me and freed me up to examine things on their own merits.

    Secondly, I began a study of the history of the formation of the Bible. You know, Sola Scriptura is really a weak argument without the weight of tradition testifying to the authenticity of the Canon in the first place. As a Protestant I was kind of left hanging with that.

    Third, I read patristic literature (along with apocryphal and pseudepigraphal writings) and noticed how conversant they were with the pagans and their theology. These things really opened my eyes. There were so many common themes and shared ideas that I wanted to learn more about comparative religion.

    Sorry for this long statement, but my point is that I would have only dug in deeper against “village atheist” type of argumentation. But to begin at the root of the matter, asking if there is good reason to accept the notion that the Bible is inspired seems a more fruitful place to start. I have had fruitful dialogue with my Christian friends by beginning this way. And I think people generally can be lead more effectively than driven. Just my two cents.

  7. @ James
    When you said it is not a cohesive document, I agree — that is what I meant by “not homogenous”.
    But when compared to the Odyssey and the Iliad — and certainly the Maharbharata and the Ramayana, the Jewish Bible comes out sorely lacking. It is a bad compromise between fake history and fun myth. IMHO. But tastes can’t be argued, eh? Smile.

  8. @Sabio
    Yes, I was agreeing with you on that score. I can’t speak for the Maharbharata or the Ramayana, but I don’t find the bad history a problem. As I understand all these tales, they’re all pretty bad history! 😉

    I’m totally in the same boat with you on the tastes that can’t be argued. I know people out there who sincerely believe that “Mean Girls” is a film that will stand the test of time! 🙂

  9. I don’t agree that the Bible can’t stand up to other ancient literature. I posted a general and thorough response to the question of the bible’s literary merit on my blog here that mentions this post:

  10. @ Drkshadow03,
    (1) You might want to consider reading my link here on linking.

    (2) Your link is to a very long post and you have not enticed me to read it. If you want to respond specifically to my post, I am willing to discuss and keep the conversation here.

  11. 1) I know basic html already. I was just being lazy.

    2) It is a long post because much like you I wanted to write a post to address those times when “The Bible is Great Literature” is brought up so I don’t have to continually repeat myself.

    Your main argument for why the Bible is bad literature boils down to Isaiah 40:26 being similar to The Great Hymn of Osiris, even though stylistically the two are not similar at all, with the edge going to the far more poetic and grandiose Biblical passage.

  12. @ Drkshadow,
    Actually, my “main” argument was that the discussion is ridiculous if you buy into the homogeneity assumption. I was pointing out one piece of the Bible which is totted as great literature and showing why I thought it wasn’t. We have to take piece by piece. But please, find a chapter from Leviticus or Numbers that you think is amazing, or even from Genesis and then I will find something in the Hindu epics that put it to shame. How do you like that bravado! 😉

  13. You brought up the homogeneity assumption as a way of segueing into explaining why when reading the bible as literature we need to treat each book as a separate part. That’s not an argument against the bible, but rather a transition into an argument, which was the comparison of the single line. Not to mention the homogeneity claim is only half right anyway.

    If you look at the Bible at a macro level, there is a general overarching story: the creation of humanity to the giving of the laws to a chosen group of people to the fall of those chosen people at the hands of invaders for disobeying said laws to the redeeming of those people through the coming of a savior to the remnant communities struggling to make sense of their faith after their savior’s death. At the same time each book can stand on its own as a separate work. It’s between books where most disagreements happen, although not all, and usually it is fairly minor details. But these disagreements add to the richness of the texts.

    To create a narrative that consists of multiple genres of writing, which functions as a mostly coherent whole that covers the myths, history, cultural practices, and theological beliefs of an ancient people, whose variety of books can also simultaneously function in isolation from the whole and whose individual parts can be further subdivided into stories within books (such as in Genesis) that also can be read in isolation, is an incredible literary achievement.

  14. Unfortunately I haven’t read the Ramayana and Mahabharata as of yet. It doesn’t really matter though. Even if I granted your assertion that they’re better that wouldn’t make the Bible bad necessarily. I could equally claim Michael Jordan would put Charles Barkley to shame at basketball; this doesn’t make Charles Barkley a bad basketball player. It just means Jordan is better.

  15. OK, Drk,
    You comments helped clarify how we might be talking past each other. I think we disagree, but it would be nice to put the positions clearly enough to see how we disagree.

    So, Let me see if I can say what I meant succintly for you:

    (1) You can’t compare the Bible as a whole to anything, because the Bible is a compilations of many works.

    (2) If you wish to compare parts of the Bible to something, you have to name the players.

    (3) I never said, the bible is “bad” — you are mistating me. I said, when comparing specific books of the Bible with other literatures, I don’t think those Bible books would win “Great” awards. So you see, your last argument was mistaken. If the Mahabharata was categorically better literature than Genesis, then if those are the two books competing, we would probably not want to classify Genesis as “Great” literature.

    And, I am waiting for something from Genesis that you think qualifies as “Great” literature. Or Numbers, Or Deuteronomy.

  16. I’m not sure we’re talking past each other. I think we simply disagree. I gave an explanation for why (1) is only half true.

    As for point 3, I already explained why this approach is fallacious.

    Let’s take Genesis 1 as an example of great literature.

  17. Yes, we disagree:
    Your explanation for #1 being “half true” begs the question therefore is not explanation.
    I have already shown why you are mistaken in dismissing #3.
    It would be nice to know exactly what we disagree on and why but I feel a block in conversation style or presuppositions or something.

  18. 1) In what way am I begging the question?

    2) If Shakespeare’s Hamlet was categorically better literature than Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, we would not want to classify it as a great literature is still the same bad reasoning just covered up in semantics. As it turns out Hamlet is superior to The Scarlet Letter, but Hawthorne’s novel is still pretty damn good. Basically a work can be inferior to another and still be good since even good works necessarily must be inferior to really good works.

  19. Dark_S: you said,

    “If you look at the Bible at a macro level, there is a general overarching story. the creation of humanity to the giving of the laws to a chosen group of people to the fall of those chosen people at the hands of invaders for disobeying said laws to the redeeming of those people through the coming of a savior to the remnant communities struggling to make sense of their faith after their savior’s death. “

    Here you assumed that all the various books in the Bible were written with this as a theme in mind — as if each author thought about Jesus (“savior’s death”) when they wrote. Assuming the point of what you are trying to prove is called “begging the question” — I think (the term is used is several ways).

    Later you say,

    “To create a narrative that consists of multiple genres of writing, which functions as a mostly coherent whole …”

    Again, you are assuming what you set out to tell us.You are assuming the Bible is homogenous.

    Agreeing with you, “Great Literature” is a subject categorization, to be sure. If, for some reason, some books of the Bible (or all) is Great to you, then I am happy for you. You must find great pleasure in them. In this post and others I try to point out why it is clearly not “Great” to others of us. I hope you can understand my reasons if if you disagree. I am also pointing out that Christians can not assume to they can get common ground with unbelievers by starting with a claim that the Bible is Great Literature. Many of us disagree and for very good reasons. I am re-reading the Ramayana at present — I am again shocked at what a higher quality of literature it is compared to any book of the Bible. The Ramayana is composed with a unity intended while the Bible is an amalgam of books (which is fine) so you’d have to compare the Ramayana, say, to Genesis or to Exodus, for example — again, the quality award clearly goes to the Ramayana. It has been a long time since I have read Homer, but it may be the same there. My post is meant to say something like this.

    Mind you, even if the Bible’s books are not “Great Literature”, I see how people could treat them as a great book because it is “THEIR” book and “THEIR” guide. After all, committees got together to pick some and exclude (and condemn) other books and then governments and groups persecuted anyone who disagreed with these choices and their interpretations. I get how that can make any book precious — even if, as literature, it is poor quality. Heck, Mao’s little red book was sort of like that.

    Unfortunately, I will be busy very soon and have little time to carry on this discussion. To continue with little time I will have, I ask that we try to avoid arguing rhetoric and instead be open and practical in telling the intent behind our thoughts. Try and delineate our disagreements and our agreements.

    Hope this has been helpful. I certainly don’t like to debate for debate’s sake. I like to debate only when I see information and clarity being shared — and I certainly don’t mind disagreeing. If you have had a chance to scan any other of my posts, you may see that I have been wrong much in my life and am never surprised to find myself wrong again and again. 🙂
    [*off to pack for a trip to Europe – have a great day]

  20. I do think the Bible is a great piece of literature and I don’t come in with the assumption that it has an over-arching theme. There is nothing shocking or new to what Hector Avalos is saying that Bart Ehrman, Gail O’Day, and other scholars haven’t already said.

    But even with that angle, I still love the Bible as literature and think it is a masterwork right along side Shakespeare, The Ramayana, and whatever else you want to throw in there (since this is an entirely subjective stance).

    Looking empirically at the Bible, it’s sheer tally, amount of study being done on it (even on atheist sites) and place on the best sellers list assures it’s place as a masterwork regardless of the reason of purchase and study (to find God’s magic plan for your life or to debunk theists or whatever).

    Also you lifting up the Bible has plagiarizing other culture’s stories is not shocking either. There’s a concept of “the twice told tale” a phrase coined by another literary mastermind Nathaniel Hawthorne. This phrase goes deeper than his purpose of just a collection of already published stories. Literature is filled with re-purposed and twice and thrice told stories.

    Is Steinbeck’s “Winter of our Discontent” lessened that it’s a riff on Shakespeare? Is Faulkner’s “The sound and the fury” lessened by the fact that Shakespeare already used the phrase, or that Shakespeare got that from Ecclesiastes? Or Rogers-St.John’s Tell No Man from Shakespeare and Mark’s Messianic Secret? Or is Tolkien’s writings lessened because he borrowed from folk-tales? He took already existing mythical creatures (elves, orcs, dwarves, etc) and used them in a new way? NO! In fact it is better because those archetypes are there! Same with Harry Potter in our current day. Nothing new in Harry Potter in terms of magic, wizards and witches, boarding schools, or magical beasts… but how everything is put together is and I think it’s masterfully done.

    To really drive home the point: let’s look at Genesis as a book. Competing traditions laid down side by side and the origin stories of the various groups of Jews are put together in the Persian period. Then we see in Chapter 4, the story of Cain and Abel. This is so layered and masterfully put together. Two pre-existing characters present in all tribes of Israelites who are brothers and children of Adam and Eve (some traditions state Abel was from Eve and Adam and Cain from Adam and one of his other wives). But what is this story? It’s the story of the ancient tension between farmer and shepherd. What is this story? It is the beginning of murder in the world. What is this story? It’s the beginning of the tension between the Jew and the Canaanite and how the two are related yet at odds? What is this story? It is sibling rivalry. What is this story to many Christians who see the Bible as having a theme? It’s the story of the Grace of God: though Cain killed his brother, anybody who tries to harm Cain has to answer to God (Gen 4:15). All those layers. How is that wealth possible? Because of the masterwork of the text.

  21. Woohaa! Luke, you were on a roll today.
    Miss your blogging days? 🙂

    (1) Not Shocking
    Something does not have to be shocking to be of value and to bear repeating. And for many Christians, believe it or not, a lot of stuff is still shocking. And so, using “this is not shocking” seems rather odd way to try to discuss something.

    (2) Masterwork of Literature
    As you said, calling anything a “masterpiece” is subjective unless someone was going to build us an objective rubric — which won’t happen. So that, if you and Drkshadow are inspired by it and find it wonderful, then great. Thought I doubt Leviticus, Numbers and Titus do much for you. 🙂

    But, I’m not sure if you have read the Mahabharata or Ramayana — you might find the differences in quality very interesting though we are talking of literature from similar times in history.

    I am actually surprised that many find the Bible as exciting as they do and that they read it over and over — shows you what faith will do. Like I said, the deep influence and repeated readings of billions of people of Mao’s little red book goes to show us what people will call “Great” and read over and over.

    Fun contributions today — thanks.

  22. Yeah, I had a little bit to say 😉

    “And for many Christians, believe it or not, a lot of stuff is still shocking.”
    – I guess I’m shocked that it is shocking. It is not in the churches I have attended nor those I have preached in (which go from an intellectual church like I’m at now, to little farming churches). In fact, when I present these ideas, they are excited about them, not shocked. But then again, it’s prolly the messenger. If you present these things here, people react negatively. But when I say the same thing, they react positive. Christian Privilege?

    “Thought I doubt Leviticus, Numbers and Titus do much for you.”
    -ha! No doubt. Canon within the canon sort of thing. Every Christian has their favorite pieces to draw from, no argument then. However, to lift up that fact doesn’t subtract from enjoying the Bible and naming it a masterwork/piece because each book is separate. And to say that fact detracts from the Bible is akin to yelling at the library for their collections “not hanging together.” Sure some books refer to others, but even then those writers have their own “canon within the canon.” Jesus keeps quoting Isaiah more than any other book so much so I’m thinking he didn’t read anything else. Anywho.

    I’ll have to check out the Mahabharata or Ramayana some day. Right now I’m stuck on exploring the Gospel of Luke and the Tao te Ching and the various translations there of.

    Hope you’re having the best day ever. Thanks for the response.

  23. @ Luke

    (1) Bible is many books
    Yeah, so what I am saying it that for a meaningful discussion of the meaning of the style of Bible writing and content, you have to discuss book by book. Simple as that. Really pretty common sense — well, unless you think the Holy Spirit planned it all out and possessed humans to write a book that he had planned out from the beginning of creation. But neither of us believe that.

    (2) Jesus quotes Isaiah
    I think Matthew-the-forger quotes Isaiah to make him fit the Jewish prophecy scheme he was forcing on his Jesus. But that is another conversation which I am sure you are better versed on than I.

    (3) Shocked vs Angry
    When I say “shocked”, I don’t mean angry. I tell lots of Christian friends and acquaintence stuff they are surprised to hear — and they are excited to hear them too. The message goes just fine — you may be surprised to hear lots of folks like me. 😉 Even Christians
    The messager may not be as negative as you imagine.

  24. PS, Luke: You have a chance to read some of the Ramayana in my post called “Hero’s Wife” — since I note that you are commenting on a few posts. You may enjoy it.

  25. Well, if you don’t see that Genesis establishes the animosities of the various Canaanites that will play out in later books, the covenant, and leads directly into the Exodus story with Joseph and his brother in Egypt in which God reaffirms of the Covenant with Abraham in Genesis through freeing his descendants and giving them the commandments to follow as his chosen people, and then telling them to take back the land, with Exodus leading right into Numbers and them spying the land out as the beginning of that process, with that it leading right into Joshua conquering the land, with that leading right into Judges and the different tribes now established in territories after conquering parts of the land and fighting there neighbors, with that leading right into Saul’s rise to kingship to create a more unified front in I and II Samuel, with his abysmal failure as a king leading to David’s rise as his replacement, with David and Solomon’s actions leading to the splitting of the kingdom, with the weakened kingdom due to the split and punishment of God for Judah and the Israelites not keeping their side of the bargain in the Covenant , with the destruction and exile with the hand of invaders (Kings I and II, various prophets), with the return to the land with the Persians and God’s relenting and rebuilding (Daniel, Ezra), as consisting of a mostly unified cohesive story I don’t know what else to tell you. The books do basically continue from each other, or when they don’t usually because they’re a unique and distinct genre (such as in some of the Prophets, psalms, proverbs) they try at least to fit into the basic overarching narrative (such as saying the Psalms were written by king David) that has already been unfolded. But to pretend there isn’t a larger narrative continuing from each book is disingenuous.

    Calling something a masterpiece is NOT subjective, otherwise we could never be able to call anything a masterpiece. Literature is neither subjective, nor objective. It’s intersubjective. It also has the advantage of being intersubjective across cultures and time.

  26. @ DarkShadow
    When something did not fit your History genre, you called it a unique and distinct genre — well, there you go, not homogenous. And even the prophecies were retro-prophecies. And why did you leave out the Christian canon?

    And I refuse to quibble about subjective vs intersubjective. The Bible can mean whatever you want to you. Enjoy! (to me, especially after conversing with you, it remains poor literature).

  27. No, as I said with Psalms, even though these other books are stylistically different, they do actually fit into that broad historical narrative and now that I went through the basic structure of the Tanakh this should be evident. Psalms were written by King David, for example. Solomon wrote Ecclesiastes. Did they really write these work or is it merely attributed to them? It doesn’t matter given the nature of this argument. These are characters we met earlier and those attributions represent a clear attempt to fit them into the narrative. Do I seriously need to do this for say Isaiah, which also fits into the narrative of Kings and even tells us which kings he prophesied under. The prophecies might be retro-prophecies by which I’m assuming you mean they were written after the events and fit into the narrative, but this is a point in favor of my argument, not yours. How hard would it have been to plug in a prophet to the proper part of the narrative history after the fact?

    Besides, my position isn’t that the book is homogenous. My position is that a general overarching story does exist in the book and does bring the disparate and distinct parts together (and this is evident by looking at the text and seeing that books continue into each other, later parts reference back to earlier parts even in stylistically diverse material, and even the general plots are cyclical in nature), yet at the same time these were and can still be read as separate books (and this is evident by looking at the text and noticing that there is theological disagreement between books and sometimes disagreements in micro-level details and the vast stylistic diversity of the books, and that you could basically read each book separately and it would make sense as its own story/material).
    Sabio, I had no delusions I was ever going to change your mind about your opinion. I was merely linking back to a blog post that included your post as a common courtesy (if someone mentions me on the internet I would like to know so I can choose to respond) and then I took you up on the offer to continue the conversation here.

    You claimed you wrote this post to whip out in times of discussions when Christians bring up the Bible as good literature. I already suggested to you that your arguments aren’t convincing for several very specific reasons and the post doesn’t really accomplish that goal.

  28. @ Dark,
    (1) Curious, you haven’t mentioned the Christian Bible yet (New Testament). Why? Do you consider that part of what you see has an “Overarching Story”? Do you think Jesus was part of that overarching story? Do you think Matthew tried to make Jesus part of that story?

    (2) I’d imagine that you’d also use the phrase “has an overarching story” for both Hindu, Buddhist and Muslim scriptures, correct?

    (3) When texts were excluded from the Canon (and there are several versions), do you think they were excluded because of not fitting the ‘overarching story”?

  29. 1) I’m Jewish. I have only read through the New Testament once and sections of the Gospel (like the lovely sermon on the mount) a few times. I basically excluded it on my recent responses to save time; you’ll notice I included it in my earliest responses. I do think you can add it to the overarching story and you can maintain the basic story I outlined, except then the first half of the Bible, especially sections of the prophets, becomes prophecies about the coming of Jesus and the failure of the Israelites to keep their end of the Covenant becomes part of the reason Jesus is needed, plus Genesis 3 takes on additional importance with its concept of Original Sin, Kings is brought to fit into Jesus’ story. Once the New Testament is superimposed the same basic story exists, but certain elements are highlighted and reinterpreted.

    2) I would for the Qu’ran probably, which I’ve read parts of, but stopped. I haven’t read the books of those other traditions to be able to tell you.

    3) I think they made decisions based off what they felt was religiously authoritative at the time (with the exception of the Book of Esther), excluding books that didn’t quite have that “divine whiff.” However, since all of the books were based in shared oral stories and many were based loosely in actual history (thus have a linear movement), some of the books were written by the same group (like the Deuteronomist) and cultures tend to write in basic themes anyway (Torah, God, and land) is it so surprising that those factors would lead to some unity naturally?

  30. @ Dark:
    (1) Do you think the Torah has more than one author? Do you think those authors have different voices and purposes?

    (2) Ah, to judge the level of literary excellence of a work, I would assume that some familiarity with works at a similar time period would help.

    (3) Yes, like the Hindu scriptures, it is not surprizing that there would be certain level of unity between certain texts both because:
    (a) People wrote after looking at the writings of previous writers and trying to fit in.
    (b) Editors chose works that fit together to some degree.

    But when these phenomena are clear, the variety of voices and different opinions and lack of agreeing unity of purpose are a little more clear.

  31. PS Dark,
    Since we know the Tanakh and the Christian Bible canon were compiled and edited entities, and if one is looking at the Bible as a whole, one is critisizing its compiler’s choices and the redactors which is an entirely different affair from judge the author of any particular piece of literature. Don’t you think?

  32. 1) I buy into the Documentary Hypothesis. So I do think there is more than one author with different purposes, hence why there are differences on a micro level, but in which a unity of a general basic narrative (not unity of purpose) unfolds because of the reasons you mentioned in point (3).

    2) I said I haven’t read any of the Indian Epics or anything but the first couple of the pages of the Koran; however, that doesn’t mean I haven’t read a great deal of ancient literature. I have read through most of the major works of Ancient Greece and a decent portion of Rome, plus a lot of the Mesopotamian myths such as The Epic of Gilgamesh, the Enuma Elish, the Innana cycle of myths as adapted by Diana Wolkstein from the original sources, and selections of other myths from Sumerian Mythology (ed. Samuel Noah Kramer), Norse Mythology collection as adapted by Kevin Crossley-Holland from the original sources, selections of Egyptian mythology from various sources, plus various nonfiction articles and sources that summarize other mythologies such as Mitanni and Hittite.

  33. I think the “Micro” – “Macro” level distinction is rather contrived. But I am not sure to explain how. But I will make a quick attempt: I agree with you about the Document Hypothesis and similarly, other words are amalgams and redactions– you call this “Micro” non-unity(homogeneity). But I like wise see the efforts of those writing other books trying to sound as if they belong to some big picture as a similar non-unity on your macro scale.

    Yep, I did’t think I could explain it.
    Either way, as I look back I think part of our discussion difficulty is represented in your comments:

    I don’t agree that the Bible can’t stand up to other ancient literature.

    I never used the phrase “can’t stand up to”

    Your main argument for why the Bible is bad literature boils down to

    I never said “bad literature”, I just wrote why I don’t think it is a “Masterpiece” .

    Your main argument for why the Bible is bad literature boils down to

    Even when you summarize, you use the same over statement.

    Unfortunately I haven’t read the Ramayana and Mahabharata as of yet. It doesn’t really matter though. Even if I granted your assertion that they’re better that wouldn’t make the Bible bad necessarily.

    Again, I didn’t say “bad”

    You claimed you wrote this post to whip out in times of discussions when Christians bring up the Bible as good literature.

    Again, you exaggerate. I said not “Masterpiece” and you change that to why it is not “good”.

    So looking back I think much of the tone of disagreement is you hearing something different than I said. Possibly because you have a large investment in the Tanakh as far as identity, faith or some other such thing.

    I think I have explained why I would not consider the Tanakh or the Christian bible as MASTERPIECES but your milage may vary. I explained how I think it is important to judge piece by piece but you want some “overriding theme” so you think my point is wrong (I guess).

    So I think we have explored each other’s positions well. Don’t you?

  34. Fair enough. I see your point now about the distinction between saying something is bad and not a masterpiece. After all, it could just be okay (not award-winning, but not awful). If I’m understanding you correctly that is closer to your position?

    I misunderstood your position somewhat because in the original post on my blog the various other critics of the bible I quoted along with you outright say the Bible is bad literature. And I think saying the bible isn’t a masterpiece still leaves open the possibility that you mean the Bible is bad literature along with them, but thanks for elucidating your view to clear up the misunderstanding of your actual position.

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