Thoughts on Reading the Old Testament as Literature

Here are a few of my notes on what it means to read the Old Testament as Literature.

What Reading the Old Testament as Literature Is

Reading the Old Testament as literature means that one reads the text critically. One of the reasons people often enroll in a class like this is because they are interested in studying the Old Testament from an academic perspective. The general assumption behind this reasoning, I guess, is that “academic” or “critical” seems opposed to “spiritual” or “religious” ways of reading the Bible.  One goal of the class is to think deeply about this opposition and arrive at sensible ways of understanding how the categories relate to each other.  In fact, as we brought up in Wednesday’s class, I believe that one can inform the other.

Reading the Bible as literature means that one undertakes study of the text while simultaneously (even if momentarily) disengaging from any demands of it being a source for “spiritual truth,” dogma, or doctrine.  Consider Brettler’s quotation of Baruch Spinoza:  “I hold that the method of interpreting Scripture is no different from the method of interpreting nature, and is in fact in complete accord with it” (3).  Literary study of the Bible does not start with the presupposition that the text is a wellspring of a “deeper truth.”  Often, and this has been true for hundreds (if not thousands) of years, the demands placed upon the Bible by its readers become an obstacle in appreciating its literary or artistic merit or understanding how its literary features advance theological, political, and ideological agendas. The fewer demands we have, the better.

Successful literary study of the Bible demands that you allow yourself to “try out” new ways of reading, and then re-read the next and constantly refine your relationship to it.
This type of reading demands that one consciously apply a variety of established hermeneutical practices. The Jewish Study Bible lists several of these, and we will familiarize ourselves with some of the following reading strategies (to name a few): Form Criticism, Redaction Criticism, Post-structuralism, Advocacy criticism, and Marxist criticism.  Many of these strategies are often applied to “secular” works of literature, and almost all of them grant a level of interpretative leeway that is, I would argue, very exciting and healthy.  Note that these are specific methods of interpreting the text, while the “historical-critical” method that Brettler introduces is a broader attitude toward the text.

Reading the Old Testament as literature necessitates that you question heavily definitions of the Bible as the “Inerrant word of God” or as “divinely inspired” and displace them for the time being.  Above all else, studying the Old Testament as literature is to emphasize how human these writings are. That is, the Old Testament was written by humans and for human concerns.

What Studying the Old Testament as Literature is Not

It’s not a process of discovering how the Old Testament can tell you more about your personal feelings for God or about your own spiritual life.  Other devotional ways of reading the Bible exist to make such applications, if one so desires. Studying and reading the Old Testament as literature is a process that focuses on the texts as artworks, as political writing, and as theology.  In class discussion and in writing, we will be extremely careful to keep the categories of devotional and literary study separate.

Studying the Bible as Literature does not mean that we insist the Old Testament is a series of fables or that its patently false (fiction).  Similarly, this way of reading the Bible does not insist that the Old Testament is a document that is historically true in the scientific, strict sense of the phrase.  To seek historical veracity is to ask the wrong question, we will see.

Studying and reading the Old Testament as Literature is not a forum to peddle personal beliefs to other people. Also, it’s not a forum to develop one’s own personal theology at the expense of others’ learning experiences.

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About Andrew Battista

Andrew Battista is Librarian for Geospatial Information Systems at New York University
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