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.
- Is the Tanakh Great Literature? : another probing post
- How Unique is your Religion? : with a fun graph!
- Distasteful Concessions: common polite pablum which is false
- Parochialism: a blinding principle we all share
- Magic Language Bias: viewing your religion’s language as unique
- The Homogenized Bible: a Christian myth