In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section The English Bible and Literature

  • Introduction
  • Reference Works
  • Journals and Databases
  • The Bible as Literature
  • Hermeneutics
  • Feminist Interpretation
  • Bible as Object
  • Bibles
  • Apocrypha and Parabiblical Texts
  • Translation Histories

British and Irish Literature The English Bible and Literature
Kevin Killeen
  • LAST REVIEWED: 14 June 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 20 September 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846719-0022


The centrality of the Bible to Anglophone culture and to its literature is evident and everywhere. No work has sunk so far into the marrow of the culture and had such diverse meanings for different ages. This centrality has not lessened palpably over the last century or so, accompanying its decline in religious “authority.” Indeed, the sense that the Bible can be read as a piece of literature is very much a product of this decline, as it has come to be seen as part of Western “cultural” as much as religious heritage. Although the Bible has been thoroughly naturalized into the English language, it remains of course a collection of foreign texts—Hebrew, Greek, Aramaic—and, in terms of the history of its diffusion, Latin. While any number of foreign texts—Homer, Virgil, Dante, Miguel de Cervantes, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Fyodor Dostoyevsky—might be thought to have sunk into Anglophone consciousness, none has done so quite as far down at the atomic level. It is there in the phraseology and prosody of the language, in the often invisible half quote, or in the inherited paradigms of thought. It provides the common stock of stories and cultural vocabulary of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity in all their splintered forms. Equally important are the habits of interpretation that have been honed on the Bible over centuries: literary hermeneutics are, historically speaking, a late-in-the-game development on a history of biblical hermeneutics that had been developing since at least Augustine. The skills of the literary historian have much in common with those of the biblical exegete, which have, over two millennia or more, attracted an unparalleled range of both scholarly and nonscholarly attention. All such recommendations of its vast historical reach and remit nevertheless come up against the Bible’s increasing modern-day neglect, relatively speaking at least. Whereas once it provided a common vocabulary of thought, even for those suspicious of its ideology and its religion, many modern readers, even quite educated ones, are simply unschooled in the Bible, evidence perhaps that it has not entirely made the transition to being seen “merely” as literature. C. S. Lewis thought that the “Bible as literature” was an oxymoron—that if you were reading it as literature, you were reading it wrongly. This article makes no attempt to engage with any Lewisian right reading, but it does propose that the history of interpretation and to some extent the history of theology may be a prerequisite for understanding the role of the Bible.

Reference Works

The Bible and English literature is a topic that has been well served by encyclopedic reference works, although many have a religious affiliation of one or another sort at their core. General reference works—not specifically concerned with literature—might include the various biblical dictionaries and commentaries, such as Metzger and Coogan 1993; Day 1992; and Freedman, et al. 2000, and the traditional concordance, such as Strong 1890. An awareness of the traditions of exegesis makes the links between hermeneutic traditions clearer, as seen in McKim 1998 and Skolnik and Berenbaum 2007. The material history of the Bible and its publication history have become increasingly interesting, and the standard reference points, here Pollard 1911 and Ackroyd, et al. 1963–1970, remain very useful.

  • Ackroyd, P. R., Christopher Francis Evans, G. W. H. Lampe, and S. L. Greenslade, eds. The Cambridge History of the Bible. 3 vols. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1963–1970.

    Provides a detailed and still-useful account of the Bible by era; its translation history; and the political, social, and theological issues around its diffusion.

  • Day, A. Colin. Roget’s Thesaurus of the Bible. San Francisco: Harper, 1992.

    Internet resources may make the concordance or biblical thesaurus less essential points of reference than they once were, but they remain a useful way of navigating through the Bible and the seeing connections and allusions.

  • Freedman, David Noel, Allen Myers, and Astrid B. Beck. eds. Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000.

    DOI: 10.5117/9789053565032

    Valuable, reliable reference source for the Bible. Both Eerdmans Dictionary and Roget’s Thesaurus (Day 1992) come from a school of historically orientated criticism of the Bible so useful for contextual readings although less useful for reading the scriptures as valuable fictions.

  • McKim, Donald K., ed. Historical Handbook of Major Biblical Interpreters. Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1998.

    Compendious, historically organized account of the development of interpretation and hermeneutics and the various exegetical impulses and priorities that have shaped the ways the text was read and how that fits into a broader history of reading.

  • Metzger, Bruce M., and Michael David Coogan, eds. The Oxford Companion to the Bible. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.

    Among the many resources that might be cited for engaging with the history of biblical reception and the way the Bible has been incorporated into the cultures that use it.

  • Pollard, Alfred W., ed. Records of the English Bible: The Documents Relating to the Translation and Publication of the Bible in English, 1525–1611. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1911.

    Standard reference point for early history of the English translations together with important sets of documents and prefatory and bibliographical material.

  • Skolnik, Fred, and Michael Berenbaum, eds. Encyclopedia Judaica. 22 vols. 2d ed. Detroit: Thomson Gale, 2007.

    Magnificent, scholarly encyclopedia on all aspects of Judaism with rich attention to the history of the text and the history of its interpretation.

  • Strong, James. The Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible. New York: Abingdon-Cokesbury, 1890.

    Collates the places where words appear in the Bible. The most invaluable pre-Internet tool for negotiating the Bible.

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