Thursday, 9 July 2015

The Bible as Literature by Ros Bayes

I was brought up in a tradition which believed that the Bible is God’s infallible Word, and every syllable of it is literally true.  Anything you heard about God which didn’t come from the Bible was at best suspect and at worst a demonic deception.  The flip side of this was a suspicion of people who regarded the Bible as great literature – they were concentrating on something frivolous and irrelevant about the sacred text and missing the real point of it.

I still believe the Bible is God’s word, and the plain (not necessarily always literal) meaning of it is what God intends to say.  One of my earliest moments of questioning my traditional view came when, as a student reading Religious Studies, I discovered that Matthew in his Gospel attributes to Jeremiah a quotation that is actually from Zechariah – a mistake that would be impossible if every word were literally infallible.  And I have learned to hear from God in other places too – He has broken out of the “Bible box” in which I had been taught to confine Him.

In my early twenties, as a passionate lover of poetry, I began to study the construction of the Psalms and I discovered that – as with all truly skilful poetry – the poetic form is as much part of the message as the words themselves.  I have always thought it a stroke of genius on God’s part to choose the one literary device – parallelism – which, unlike rhyme or metre, translates into every language.    

Gradually I came to see that studying the Bible as literature is not a futile exercise, but one which sheds light on what God wanted to say, and the intent of His heart in how He said it.

Some of the Bible writers feel like kindred spirits – did Goliath look down at the puny boy David and think that he looked more like a poet or a musician than a warrior?  Others seem not at ease with words, yet determined to convey the truth they are carrying.    

Matthew makes me laugh – in his eagerness to get past the mere events and show how they confirm Jesus as the Messiah, he glosses over the details.  In my head, he is running up the road, clutching the words of his story and dropping bits as he runs, so that by the time he arrives, all he has left is a sparse and sketchy outline surrounding a nugget of glorious truth.

But for me, of all the Bible writers, John is the writer’s writer par excellence, the prose writer with poetry in his soul.   He organises his Gospel within a skilful sevenfold framework.  He knows how to tell a great story – look at chapter 4 – but also how to dangle in front of the readers an ethereal vision that draws their deepest longings beyond the physical world with phrases like, “we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father.”  By the time he writes his epistles, he has become gripped and consumed by the love of God.

And the economy with which he describes his encounter with the risen Jesus in Revelation 1 gives a deeper insight than any instructional teaching on the glorification of Christ could do.  “I fell at His feet as one dead.  And He placed His right hand on me…” and at once we see the dazzling, splendid ruler of the universe stooping down in the dust and dirt on the ground to place a hand of love on his beloved disciple.

To appreciate John’s compelling account of the allure of Christ, I can recommend no better book than Jean Vanier’s “Drawn into the Mystery of Jesus Through the Gospel of John”.

Ros Bayes has 6 published and 3 self-published books, as well as some 3 dozen magazine articles to her credit.  She is the mother of 3 daughters, one of whom has multiple complex disabilities, and she currently works for Through the Roof ( as their Training Resources Developer, and loves getting paid to write about disability all day.  You can find her blog at and her author page at  Follow her on Twitter: @rosbwriting. 


  1. What a great post Ros. I can really feel the passion and I love the way you bring out stories of your won. Thank youn

  2. I found your post really interesting, Ros. Only recently have I realised what an incredible mix of genres there is in the Bible. I love the poetry of the Psalms too - I did send a proposal for a book (the Psalms as seen by an English teacher ....) to a publisher but they said it was a bit niche, which I suppose it is. I love the funny stories in the Bible or those which have a lovely ironic twist to them.

  3. Thank you for this, Ros. I was raised in a similar tradition. When I dared to allow my mind to consider that the Bible might be much more than a text book of proof texts to back up a certain theological position (which of course was not thought of as 'a' position, but the only possible position) it felt like I had moved from black and white to full colour. God has an infinite palate available to him. There is something in the Bible that speaks to all of us. I personally get frustrated with John - he clearly has an agenda he is trying to push and sometimes I feel tries to make the facts fit what he wants to say. As a journalist I'm more drawn to Luke and I feel closest to Jesus when I'm reading his accounts and more distanced when I'm reading John's (which I am at the moment!). In God's wisdom He has given us many different lenses with which to view Him. I love the Bible!

  4. Thank you Ros. I have just come back from the centre of Sheffield where someone was preaching very loudly and angrily about "what the Bible says". It was all so far from John and the God who is love that I wish I had had the courage to challenge him. Being a coward I merely hurried past with my bag of shopping and only thought about this wonderful many layered book we have inherited - great literature and great truth. Your blog has really helped me.

  5. Ros this is brilliant I have never really thought of the different characters of the writers coming through as authors themselves. Always looking for the character of God rather than also thinking on the author - now off to find the mistake in Matthew I never knew was there.

  6. On the flip side, I have just received this email from someone called 'Tom's Wife' in response to a suggestion I made on another blog that some people consider Genesis 1 - 3 allegorical but no less 'true':

    "Genesis 1-3 is absolutely NOT allegorical. It is factual. God created the world in 6 actual days. The Song of Solomon is allegorical. I believe God makes the things that are allegorical clear that that is what they are. You get into real trouble telling folks that The story of Creation is allegorical, that is a lie. If you can allegorize that then you can make anything you want be an allegory. Revelation is also NOT allegorical. I am bothered by Christians who make the Bible to say what they want instead of taking it at face value. God wanted us to understand. The things we can't fully understand we will in Heaven. You can make excuses for a whole lot of sin if you don't take Genesis literally. I love God's Word. I know beyond a shadow of a doubt it is ALL true. It is factual. Creation was in 6 literal days..."And evening and morning " were what ever day it was...1 through 6. I had to say that. Too many people are messing with God's word... it is wrong.

  7. How amusing that the one book your correspondent takes as allegorical is the Song of Solomon - which many have taken as not allegorical but a blueprint for marriage - including my brother in his book