The Bible as Literature – as Good as the Classics?

There are books we read and then there are great works of literature, even “classics” which move, teach and inspire us with profound and brilliant writing. Is the Bible even in that same category? 

Classical LiteratureRemember reading “the classics in high school or college? Whether it was Homer, Aristotle, Plato, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Thackeray, Hardy, Proust, Dickens, Melville, Austen, Hawthorne, Wharton, Joyce, Bellow, Fitzgerald, Steinbeck, or any number of other big names from the ancient or recent past, the writings are brilliantly beautiful, sophisticated, and compelling. While some works are more accessible than others, classic literature separates itself from the mundane and stands the test of time.

Fortunate is one exposed to such literary greatness.

Is the Bible even in their class?

Don’t doubt it. The best works of man can inspire and uplift. The Bible has the power to transform lives.

Translator Transformation
I recently heard the story of classicist, Greek language scholar and publisher, Dr. Emile Victor Rieu (1887-1982), editor of the Penguin Classics series of books. You might recall these publications from college days. Born in London, E. V. Rieu worked at Oxford University Press and then eventually at Penguin Books where he became best known for his translations of Homer’s Odyssey in 1946 and the Illiad in 1950 and for a modern translation of the Bible’s four Gospels (first books of the New Testament) in 1952.

A lifelong skeptic and agnostic, Rieu came to the Gospels translation project with purely secular motives:

Now, my personal reason for doing this was my own intense desire to satisfy myself as to the authenticity and the spiritual content of the Gospels and, if I received any new light by an intensive study of the Greek originals, to pass it on to others. I approached them in the same spirit as I would have approached them had they been presented to me as recently discovered Greek manuscripts, rather like the Old Testament manuscripts which a year or two ago were found in that cave in Palestine (Dead Sea Scrolls). That is the spirit in which I undertook my task, to find out new things.

May I add one little story? My son, who is a lay reader, when he heard that his father had undertaken this tremendous task, made a rather amusing remark. He said: “It will be very interesting to see what Father makes of the Gospels. It’ll be still more interesting to see what the Gospels make of Father.” (Interview with Dr. E. V. Rieu, December 3, 1953)

In fact, a lifelong agnostic, E. V. Rieu’s experience translating the Gospels brought him personal change and transformation of his life.

He became a Christian, a follower of Jesus Christ.

What Literature Does That? 
In a real sense, the Bible is not classic literature. It’s in a category all by itself. Yes, written by the hands of man, but inspired by the mind of God: All scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness. (Timothy 3:16) One has to read it and study it to know it and understand it.

The Old and New Testaments are not merely sacred documents. They tell a cohesive narrative – the story of God, of Man, of life’s purpose, of incredible Godly love, of incredible human hate and rebellion. There’s a logical flow and beginning and end to the narrative. There is absolute context that when misunderstood leads to absolute confusion.

Dr. E. V. Rieu uncovered that cohesive story, purpose, love, hate, logic and context. And it overwhelmed him with the truth of it.

It changed him.

In the depth of his exposure through the rigors of academic linguistic translation of the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) from original Greek to English, Dr. Rieu was transformed from a skeptical agnostic to a believing Christian. Couldn’t help it. He saw objectively, perhaps for the first time in his life, the legitimate accounting of the life of Christ, the legitimate people for and against Him, the historical setting of Roman rule, the profound words spoken in that time period rooted or tied to the profound words of the Old Testament. He had to confront the reality of this man Jesus and came to the only conclusion one can come to whenever thorough investigation is conducted: Jesus is God in the flesh, purposely injected into human history for the sake of man’s re-connection with the living God.

Nothing Like It
No, don’t be confused by the claims of the uninformed. The Bible is not man-made literature. It is the power of God that brings salvation to all those who believe. (Romans 1:18) There is no other religious text that holds up to honest scrutiny like the Biblical Scriptures. The skeptics have tried and have either become converted believers or they have to quietly move out of its way. They can’t stop it or squelch it.

As Dr Rieu would attest with his life, the Bible is an amazing literary work with the power to transform a man’s heart, mind and soul beyond any human classical literature.

Have you approached the Bible as the profound Word of God?
The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God, as it is written in Isaiah the prophet: “I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way” — “a voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.’ – Mark 1:1-3

Categories: Archaeology, Books of the Bible, Devotion, Faith, Old Testament

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