The Bible is central to the understanding of any literature. (Cf. Gabel .et al 2006:1-2). There is perhaps no other text that enjoys the same universal significance as the Bible. The Bible is a text whose interpretation and criticism whether literary, cultural or historical, has elicited composite behaviour from people of different races, thereby making biblical subject have global structure and contextualization. The biblical text has been appreciated for quite a long time by readers and scholars as a literally manifested – book format with a theological orientation. [Gitay Y2006:633].This biblically-oriented theological movement which has focused on the religious meanings of particular historical events and lessons to be drawn from such interpretations has not given much room for scholarly and cultural examination of biblical text.
It therefore, becomes imperative, to begin to address more vigorously than before; the literary value of the Bible This paper seeks to use literary analysis and ‘inculturation hermeneutics’ [Ukpong, 1995 3] to find out how much of literature is in the Bible and the extent to which the Bible and literature correspond. There has always been a theological approach to the study of the Bible. Even scholars who subscribe to the literary nature of the Bible do not feature it in their commentary (Lenard Ryken and Phillip Ryken 2006 11). The effect of this is that the concept of Bible as literature has tended to be essentially head knowledge. Estes (1995) and to some extent Gothwald (1985) hold the view that the literary criticism of the Bible has not received the same level of scholarly attention given to historical and theological issues.
Ryken and Ryken (2001:ii-iii) have explained some of the reason for this scholarly neglect by identifying the misconceptions of a literary approach to the Bible. Such fallacies include the position that a perception of the Bible as literature betrays a liberal theological bias, that the idea of Bible as literature is a modern idea that is foreign to the Bible itself, that to speak of the Bible as literature, is to claim that the Bible is fictional, that to approach the Bible as literature means approaching it only as literature and that to say that the Bible is literature denies divine inspiration. While these positions have been proved to be misleading, they have however constituted limitations in literary and biblical scholarship. Gross, S. (2009:2) believes strongly that a major reason why a literary approach to the Bible has not enjoyed sufficient scholarly attention is because of the fear that the literary investigation might assault the sensisibilities of readers and in response, might abandon their faith entirely or minutely. This research reveals that the Bible possesses its own distinctive stylistic attributes as well as general literary features. It also tries to explore areas of convergence and divergence between the poetical books of the Bible and the proverbial-philosophical worldview of contemporary Nigerian society. This is with a view to making the subject contemporaneous and in a functional sense, enhancing the universal applicability of the Bible. In view of the relative dearth of stylistic research in biblical literature, the significance of the present work becomes all the more telling in its choice of the socio-cultural and literary approach to the study of the Bible.
The Bible as Literature: Formalism and New Criticism
The crux of formalist criticism is the discovery and explanation of form in the literary work. The approach assures the autonomy of the work itself and thus the relative unimportance of extra literary considerations- the author’s life, his times, sociological, political, economical or psychological implications (cf. Gueryn W et al 1979:70).The formalist places great importance in the literariness of those qualities that distinguish the literary form from other kinds of writing.. Neither the author nor the content is crucial to the formalist. It is the narrative that speaks while the form constitutes the content.
With new criticism, came a more systematic and methodological formalistic approach to literary criticism. The new critics included a teacher –scholar-poet John Crowe Ransom and some young scholars such as Allen Tate, Robert Penn Warner and Cleanith Brooks. The ideals of New criticism included the perception of Literature as an organized ‘tradition’, the importance of strict attention to form, a conservatism related to classical values, the ideal of a society that encourages order and tradition, a preference for ritual and the rigorous and analytical reading of literary texts .The New Critics were in search of precision and structural tightness in the literary work. They favoured a style and tone that tended towards irony; they insisted on the presence within the work of everything necessary for its analysis and they called for an end to a concern with matters outside the work itself (cf. Guerin et al 1979:75). Also central to this critical standpoint was the advancement of clear reading and detailed textual analysis of poetry rather than an interest in the mind and personality of the poet, source, the history of ideas and political and social implications. (cf. Cuddon 1979 :412).
The Bible as literature can be situated under the general spectrum of ‘New” literary criticism in secular literature associated with literary critics such as Northrop Frye and I. A Richards. This approach emphasizes the uniqueness and distinctiveness of each literary product and seeks to analyze the peculiar conventions of genres, rhetorical devises, metaphor and irony and the overall resulting unity and effect. This approach focuses in part on the stylistic devices and verbal formulations which tend to be of the sort that previously draws the attention of biblical form critics and tradition critics. New literary criticism however looks at the rhetoric texture of the work as a finished whole rather than viewing it as a chronological line of development from small unit through larger cycles to last stage of composition. In this sense the bible as literature movement is closely related to rhetorical criticism as a spin off from form criticism that seeks to establish the literary individuality of text by analyzing their arrangements of words, phrases and images that structure from beginnings and endings, sequences of actions, or argumentation, repetition, point of focus and emphasis and dynamic interconnections among the parts.
It is instructive to observe that new literary criticism, and to some extent formalism, stresses close reading of the text itself. As strategy of reading, New criticism views the world of literature as an aesthetic object independent of historical content and as a unified entity that reflects the collective sensibility of the artist. New criticism confines itself to careful scrutiny of the text and a formal structure of metaphor, paradox, ambiguity, irony etc.The study however acknowledges that: “all theories leak and those old assumptions give way to new ones” (cf. Osundare 1993:9). Formalism and New criticism have their own weaknesses .The absorption with details, their obsession with intensive rather than extensive criticism, their relative relevance with poetry rather than the novel and drama are sore areas for the formalist school (cf. Hugh Holman 1955:238). Besides, scholars have stressed the restriction of formalist criticism to a certain kind of literature simply because that kind proved itself especially amenable-lyric poetry generally but especially English poetry of the 17th century and the ‘modernist’ poetry that stems from Ezra Pound and T S Eliot. New critics tended to ignore or undervalue some poetry and other genres that do not easily respond to formalist approaches. (cf. Guerin et al 1979:117). The dilemma increases whenever the language of the literary work tends to approach that of a philosopher or the critic itself. The formalist approach as is often observed tend to overlook feelings and is somewhat heartless and cold in its assumption with details. Langbaum (1970) has certified New criticism sick of its very success because “we are all New critics whether we like it or not in that we cannot avoid discerning and appreciating wit in poetry, or reading with close attention to words, images, ironies and so on”(11).
The question, what is literature? has continued to loom large in the theory of literature. In a sense Ellis (1977:24) is right in wondering whether the question will ever be answered or remain unanswered. Adams (1969:1) admits that the definition of literature is rather difficult as important as it may be and observes that there is hardly any book that does. Hough (1966:9) believes that we all know what literature means even if we can’t articulate it in definitive terms. However, there have been quite a number of attempts at definition. Encyclopaedia Britannica explains literature as a general term which in default of a peak definition may stand for the best expression of the best thought reduced to writing. Hirsch (1978:56) defines literature as including any text worthy to be taught to students by teachers of literature, when these texts are not being taught to students in other departments of a school or university. McFadden (1978:56) sees literature as a canon which consists of those works in language by which a community defines itself through the course of its history. It includes works primarily artistic and also those whose aesthetic qualities are only secondary. The self –defining activity of the community is conducted in the light of works, as its members have come to read them (or conceive them). Wellek (1978:20) posits that to speak sweepingly, one can say that in antiquity and in the Renaissance, literature or letters were understood to include all writing of quality with any pretence to permanence.
The approach of Sartre (2005:11) to the definition of literature is rather instructive. While placing literature within the operational contexts of history and society, he presents a definitive proposal for the phenomenology of reading. He then goes further to present a fascinating illustration of how to write a history of literature that takes ideology and institutions into account. Three fundamental questions are central to Sartre’s investigation of literature. These include: What is writing? Why write? For whom does one write? Essentially, the author chooses to discuss prose, rather than poetry He posits that prose has the potential of a purposeful reflection of the world, whereas poetry is an end in itself. In prose, words signify, they describe men, situations and objects. In the case of poetry, the words are ends in themselves. While Sartre’s watertight distinctions may not be entirely tenable, the differences are there. Although criticism of a poem must pay close attention to its structure of words and symbols, it is obvious that the reader enters the poem through word association and references which are linked, however, indirectly to everyday significative language. What appears to be critical to Sartre’s understanding of the functions and dynamics of literature is that if it is properly utilised, literature can be a powerful means of liberating the reader from the kind of alienation which develop in particular situation. By the same token, the writer also frees himself and overcomes his own alienation Sartre argues that literature is alienated when it forgets or ignores its autonomy and places itself at the service of the temporal power. It is the responsibility of the writer to dispel ignorance, prejudice, and false emotion.
Meyer (1997:1) pushes the discussion by admitting that understanding exactly what literature is has been truly challenging and that pinning down a definition has proven to be tedious. Quite often, one seems to be reduced to saying “I know it when I see it” or perhaps “Anything is literature if you want to read it that way”. Sometimes the motivation for a particular definition seems like the work to copyright lawyers aimed primarily at stopping people from using the word “literature” for works which have not been licensed and those that may be referred to as the keepers of the literary tradition. In a bold attempt to find solution to the challenge of defining literature, Meyer presents two different approaches. These are the critical approach and the prototype approach, while the critical approach entails the usual style of defining a word in English by providing a list of criteria which must be met. The prototype approach on the other hand, gives a unique dimension to the meaning of words which does not focus on a list of criteria which must be met by each example, but on an established prototype, a particular good example of the word, to which other example of the word bear some resemblance. Working from the prototype approach to word meaning Meyer tries to develop an answer to the question “What is Literature?” by suggesting that prototypical literary works are: written texts, marked by careful use of language including features such as creative metaphors, hell turned phrases, elegant syntax, rhyme, alliteration and meter, in a literary genre (poetry, prose fiction or drama), read aesthetically, intended by the author to be read aesthetically and contain many weak implications (are deliberately somewhat open in interpretation).
Bible as Literature
Alter Robert’s (1981:12) contribution to Bible as literature discourse is profound. For instance, he has argued that the Hebrew Bible is a largely cohesive literary text to be read with essentially literary telescope. In other words, there is a proposition that the readers of the Hebrew Bible will be able to understand it more fully by developing an awareness of its narrative art. While he does not completely dismiss the historicity of the Bible, he sees it as secondary. It is the view of Alter that the authors of the Bible had a striking literary consciousness that modelled their overall perception of life. He goes further to argue that while the literary study of the bible is gradually gathering momentum and that it promises to have far-reaching consequences on both literary and biblical scholarship, any modern attempt to look at the Bible from a literary perspective must grapple with two fundamental difficulties: The peculiar circumstances of the composition and evolution of biblical text, and the peculiar aims, even the peculiar objects of representation , towards which the literary art of the Bible is directed.(cf. 1992:1) Harrison R.K (1969) in his main work, Introduction to the Old Testament examines the fundamentals of Hebrew poetry and in his investigation of the poetical books itemizes the problems associated with authorship and date. Its approach is essentially theological. Can the Bible not have a purely socio-literary approach? Gottwald (1987) responds by observing that there are several methods and approaches to the study of the Bible. These include the historical critical approach, the confessional religious approach and the socio-literary approach among others. Gottwald goes ahead to scrutinize the relationship between the Hebrew Bible and other literatures within the context of the various versions and translations of the Hebrew Bible. Morgan, R and Bartin J ( 1988) and Wild, L.H. seem to agree on the premise that whatever tool of analysis is used in approaching a biblical text, a literary interest is inseparable from an intelligent reading of the Bible.
Also interested in the literary and critical approach to the Bible is Daniel Estes (1995), but admits that there are several limitations and challenges in engaging in such a venture. Rather than examine the book of Job from a dialectical point of view, Greenstein (2003:652) seeks to situate the linguistic possibilities of Job within the operational realm of poetics. In a similar view, Gabel, Wheeler, York and Citino (2005) make a bold attempt to look at the Bible from the perspective of forms and strategies of biblical writing, its actual historical and physical settings, the process of canon formulation and the nature of biblical genres including prophecy, apocalypse and gospel. While situating history, social setting and literature within the ‘Deuteronomic School’, Person (2002) expresses his uneasiness with the redaction critical method as a basis for distinguishing the work of one from another and goes ahead to offer suggestions for overcoming the dilemma. These include a link of text criticism with redaction criticism and the recognition of other literary activities by investigating scribal culture elsewhere in the ancient near East. He concludes by observing that Deuteronomic literature could have evolved gradually over a long period of time, even if no systematic remissions were made.
Gabel,et al (2006:1-2) have observed that reading the Bible as literature should not be uncomfortable for persons who hold the religious view (though it may seem a little strange at first and it places no demands upon the many persons who, for reasons of their own, take a sceptical or noncommittal view of the Bible. The Bible, according to them, is the common heritage of everybody, irrespective of various religious beliefs: and it should be studied to a point, without getting into religious controversy. The authors argue that the Bible, in some fundamental respects, is not different from the works of Shakespeare, Charles Dickens and Bronte, stressing that literature in this sense, is viewed in its broadest perspective. There is however, a narrower sense of the term that encompasses what is known as belles lettres –poetry, short stories, novels, plays and essays But even then, the Bible does contain this kind of material. In addition, the Bible contains genealogies, laws, letters, royal decrees, instructions, prayers, proverbial wisdom, prophetic messages, historical narratives, tribal lists, archival data, ritual regulations and other materials quite difficult to classify. Though an essentially instructional maual, Warshaw Thayer (1978) attempts an enlightening overview of the various literary approaches to the study of the Bible by categorizing the broad spectrum of biblical literature into four parts namely: bible as literature, bible in literature, bible and literature and bible and its contexts.
While situating life and the humanities within the context of biblical literature, Oyegoke (2006:157:159) observed that modern psychoanalytic theory of literature has borrowed the biblical Joseph’s story to identify a human trait christened the Potiphar complex- a trope with which to read and understand human behaviour. The biblical Joseph’s story speaks to many aspects of life’s experience, for example the right kind of attitude to life in time of suffering is an uncomplaining one that trusts in God and keeps in mind that it is ultimately beneficial to be blameless. Apart from the vivid dreams, their interpretation, and actualization, the story throws light on the complexity of the human psyche as in : Genesis 39:6-16. Spangenberg 1998 30-34 ‘s critical approach to the study of literature and the bible is within the framework of paradigm shift noting that the intraticate relationship between the bible and modern literary theory is a systematic phase in the historical movement of biblical studies. He echoes the position of scholars of this critical shift that it is possible to study biblical literature in the same way we study general literature and the analysis of biblical narratives can be given a purely literary approach. As illuminating as these contributions have been, the missing gaps are quite noticeable, particularly in the situating and detailed examination of the literary genres in the bible, and the place of figurative language in biblical literature.
In carrying out a study on biblical literature, it is perhaps important to begin by acknowledging the various challenges facing a task of this kind. A literary approach to the Bible has always been a tedious task because of its diverse interpretative dimensions and also due to the mixed nature of biblical writings. Metzger B M and Cogan D (1993, 460 – 461) have observed that at least three impulses and three corresponding types of material exist side by side in the Bible: The didactic or theological impulse to teach religious truth, the historical impulse to record or interpret historical events and the aesthetic impulse to recreate experiences. This combination of religious documentary and literary interest in the Bible has made the literary study of the Bible different from the study of other literature. Unlike other writings that tend towards abstraction, what literature does is to re-create an experience as tangibly as possible. Literature takes human experience rather than abstract thought as the subject and puts a reader through an experience instead of appealing primarily to a group of ideas. The truth that literature presents is the truthfulness to human experience. Biblical writing as a whole exists in a continuum along the lines of the expository and the literary or between proposition and image (including character and events). But the literary impulse to incarnate meanings– to image experience probably dominates. Wherever we turn in the Bible, we find appeals to our image making – and image perceiving capacity. Here lies the power of poetry and the essence of literature.
Situating appeals within the context of the poetic tradition, Okpewho (1985) argues that the essence of true poetry lies in its power to appeal strongly to our appreciation and in a sense lift us up. The Bible is consistently rooted in the concrete realities of human life in the world, and a literary approach is sensitive to this experiential dimension. Whereas history tells us what happened in the past, literature tells us what is happening. Because literature presents universal human experience, it is relevant all the time. In the Bible, it should be observed, we see, not only characters and events in the past but also personalities of timeless significance: Adam, Jacob, David and Ruth are paradigms of the human condition as well as figures of historical narratives. Biblical literature gives examples rather than precept. The obvious consequence of this is that literature puts a great burden of interpretation on the reader. Even a literary form as metaphor in for instance, God is light, requires a reader to interpret how one thing can be like another. Here again, the bible displays itself as a work of imagination and creativity
While the Bible is fundamentally a devotional, and by implication, a spiritual book, its literary value is clearly not in doubt. The Bible has sufficient artistic materials to justify its appreciation as a literary masterpiece. There are many factors that make the Bible fit for a literary enquiry. To begin with, it is observed that the literary study of the Bible is gradually gathering momentum and that it promises to have far-reaching consequences on both literary and biblical scholarship. The Bible has a lot of literary features. Such characteristics include the presence of figurative language, the central character, and the oral quality among others. Besides, investigations reveal that the Hebrew bible is a largely cohesive text to be read with essentially literary telescope. The study has implications for scholars and teachers of literature, religion and culture. The study has discovered that there are many uses to which the Bible can be put. These include economic, theological, philosophical, literary, linguistic and sociological and argues that a multi-disciplinary approach is central to the realization of this objective. As a way of strengthening the value of biblical education, students of the humanities should be encouraged to take Bible Knowledge as a course of study at the secondary and post-secondary levels. This study also explores the possibility of situating literary studies within the context of moral instructions. Teachers of literature should become more sensitive to the biblical foundation of many literary works. Or out in another way, literary study of biblical texts should now occupy scholars. After all, there is hardly any piece of literature that does not have a biblical connotation.
Besides, this study has cultural implications. Literature and religion are crucial parts of the culture of a given people. There is therefore, the need for a reawakening of the cultural heritage of the contemporary Nigerian society. Gone are the days when parents sit their children under the moonlight and tell them stories rich in proverbs and philosophy. This traditional exposure contributed greatly to the moral upbringing of the younger ones. The study provides ample information on research into biblical literature and cultural scholarship. The result of the study should therefore provide feedback to curriculum developers and educationists at different levels. It should also increase awareness and involvement of college and university teachers who are directly involved in the dissemination of knowledge. The foregoing suggestions will contribute significantly to the emergence of a workable tool for the field of Bible as Literature:
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