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The Bible: literature & sacred text

30 November, 1999

From the Veritas ‘Into the Classroom’ series: Benedict Hegarty OP introduces the bible as a classic – and still living – literary text and as a sacred text, and he examines the reception of the bible in the community. This series, edited by Eoin G. Cassidy and Patrick M. Devitt, is designed for teachers of the new Leaving Cert religious education syllabus.

124 pp, Veritas, 2003. To purchase this book online, go to www.veritas.ie.


1. The Bible as living classic and sacred text
2. Text and community
3. The literature and the Bible
4. Biblical Texts


The Bible is both the foundation test of the Christian faith and one of the key documents of human civilisation. However, it emerged from a place, time and culture that can seem remote to the twenty-first century reader. This book is designed to help just such a reader by situating it in context.

Including close analysis of important texts from the Old and New Testaments, The Bible: Literature & Sacred Text brings the world of the Bible to life for the modern reader.

Benedict Hegarty OP is the chaplain at Tallaght Hospital and the curate of St. Dominic’s parish in Tallaght. He has lectured extensively in Biblical Studies and is the author of Introduction to the Bible.

Into the Classroom is a series of eleven new books designed for second-level teachers beginning the new Leaving Certificate religious education syllabus. Each of the books covers all the content in the relevant syllabus section. With their accessible and engaging commentary, they will also be of great interest to third-level students, educators and a general readership. The series is jointly edited by Eoin G. Cassidy, Head of the Philosophy Department in Mater Dei Institute, and Patrick M. Devitt, a Senior Lecturer in Religious Education at Mater Dei Institute.

CHAPTER 1: The Bible as living classic and sacred text

Examples of classic texts taken from a variety of sources
Every year publishing houses churn out books, essays, poems in their thousands. Very few stand the test of time. Some are very much of their time, but do not appeal to later generations. A minority will appear again and again. They will be discussed, re-read, re-edited. Such books have that special quality which makes them a classic. They have a facility with language; they have the skill to explore the human condition in a new and gripping way. They have the ability to change the reader mysteriously and echo on in the mind long after the last page is read.

A classic is unsettling, questioning. It broadens the scope of our freedom and introduces us to a vista of possibilities of living. A classic opens up a range of connections and suggests a variety of interpretations. It can be read again and again with deep enjoyment. The classics are open-ended. They have an element of mystery that contains a surplus of meanings. Generation after generation can appropriate them in their own social and historical moment and allow them to unfold in a new setting. The classic survives because it has a perpetual modernity that enables it to live in successive layers of history and is never really perceived as ancient even when it is. In the words of Kermode: ‘The books we call classics possess intrinsic qualities that endure, but possess also an openness to accommodation which keeps them alive under endlessly varying dispositions’. (Kermode: 1975, 44)-

The strength of a classic can be seen in two examples, Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights and Seamus Heaney’s Bogland.

A novel such as Wuthering Heights can be read and re-read and there is always something new to be discovered, other possibilities of interpretation, new angles on the story. The rain-swept bleakness of the Yorkshire moors is immensely evocative. The characterisations are deep and full of resonance. The novel has an enigmatic quality that poses many questions as it explores passion, violent anger, evil, loss, death and the supernatural.

The dark brooding mulch of the bog is the physical image for Heaney’s meditation on continuity with the past in his poem Bogland. The poem begins with a vivid contrast in scale, which itself is a reflection on American and Irish experiences. On one hand, there is the vastness of the prairie whose horizons were restlessly searched out by the wagon teams of the pioneers. The Irish image contracts to a lake that is the eye of the bog full of depth and mystery. The bog itself is the custodian of the past; it is its memory. The vegetable world is represented by the waterlogged trunks of the fir trees; the animal world by the empty skeleton of a Great Elk and human life by the buried butter. The whole thing is fluid; horizons melt into one another with levels of life reaching deep into the past.

The poem was published in 1969 when the ‘troubles’ in Northern Ireland began to heat up. The bog is a richly sensual image of the awareness of the nation remembering its long history. This history has depths and layers that shape the individual and national consciousness.

Testing the Bible as Classic
All the great religions have a central basic literature. The Old Testament fulfils that purpose for Jews and Christians. Islam has the Qur’an; Hinduism has its sacred literature, so has Buddhism and so on. The Book provides a sort of anchor and at the same time allows an enormous freedom of interpretation.

The Bible, however, is more than just a book. It is a classic. The Bible is one of the great classics of literature. In many ways it is a library of classics that have had a profound effect on civilisation. It fulfils the role of a classic. Read and re-read, it is the single most important influence on the imaginative tradition of Western literature, art and music, being a central source of inspiration and imagery. Frye writes: ‘My interest in the subject began in my earliest days as a junior instructor, when I found myself teaching Milton and writing about Blake, two authors who were exceptionally Biblical even by the standards of English literature. I soon realised that a student of English literature who does not know the Bible does not understand a good deal of what is going on in what he reads’. (Frye: 1981, xi-xii)

For many centuries, literacy centred on being able to read the Bible. Some of the early translations standardised national languages. When Luther (1483-1546) published his translation, it unified the various German dialects and moulded the language. The King James Version had a profound impact on English. Some of the great classics of English literature draw their themes from the Bible. John Milton’s (1608-74) greatest works, Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained and Samson Agonistes are based on the Bible. T.S. Eliot (1888-1965) wrote two famous poems around biblical themes, Journey of the Magi, and A Song for Simeon. Thomas Mann’s epic Joseph and his Brothers was published in German from 1933 to 1944 and translated into English in 1949.

Manuscript production and illumination were lavished on the Bible. The Bible was the first book to be printed in Europe. The visual arts, painting, sculpture, architecture, metal work, and stained glass have drawn on the Bible. Stained glass came into its own in the Gothic Cathedrals where it depicted generally biblical scenes. In the times of the Renaissance and Reformation, many of the great artists drew at least some of their subjects from the Bible, for example, Fra Angelico, Donatello, da Vinci, Dürer, Titian, Raphael.

Leonardo da Vinci’s best known work is the Last Supper in the refectory of Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan; Michelangelo’s most famous work is the creation scene on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Rome. Some of the most important work by contemporary Irish artists, such as Patrick Pye and others, have the same source for their material.

There is a profound sense that, in some way, the incarnation that is the visibility of God is prolonged by the artistic creation. The Bible has been the inspiration of musical works, hymns, masses, oratorios, motets, cantatas and contemporary rock music. Biblical texts are the content of much of the vocal music of Bach (1685-1750) and Handel (1685-1759). St Matthew’s Passion by Bach uses the words of the Gospel account of the death of Jesus. Handel’s Messiah is particularly well known; in it he uses texts from fourteen books of the Bible. Haydn (1732-1809) composed an oratorio on The Creation. Mendelssohn captures the fire and passion of the parts of the Second Book of Kings in Elijah and the words of Paul are breathed to life in his oratorio St Paul. In the modern scene, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Godspell, and Jesus Christ Superstar all drew their inspiration from the Bible.

The authors of the American Declaration of Independence were deeply aware of the biblical culture and mined a wide range of prophetical and New Testament teaching on the rights of the individual. When they penned the famous words ‘all men are created equal’ and ‘they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights’ the background text was Acts 10:34 ‘Truly I perceive that God shows no partiality’. See also Rom 2:11; and Col 3:25. The 1948 United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights is in the same tradition. Article 1 has the words, ‘All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights’.

The Bible has been a central source of inspiration and imagery because it questions life from so many viewpoints. The sprawling edifice of the Bible is best described as a book of books or a library that, coming from many different human situations, looks at us, speaks to us, teaches us. It does so by history, letter, sermon, analysis, proverb, truth grasped by the imagination in myth and story. The range is comprehensive.

– The historical books cast their material from a specific viewpoint. When the people obey God, their land prospers, when they disobey him there is disaster.

– In the Pentateuch, the law is given and also a vision of the spirit and meaning of law: There is no ‘class legislation’ aristocrat and peasant are one. Rich and poor, free man and slave all receive a like punishment for a similar misdeed. There is a prevailing concern for the oppressed, the disinherited, the weak, the poor, and the afflicted with respect for human life and bodily integrity. There is no imprisonment, but the guilty party had to repay the damage by hard work, Ex. 21:22, 32. The weak in society are the focus for special attention. The next of kin of a husband must marry his widow to prevent her losing her home and security, Deut 25:5-10. The alien is protected, Lev 19:34; Deut 16:12. When the time comes for a slave to be liberated he must be set up in business, Deut 15:12-15.

– The personal touch and sense of involvement is found everywhere in the letters of St Paul. ‘Timothy, who is working with me, sends his greetings … I Tertius, who wrote out this letter, greet you in the Lord’, Rom 16. ‘All the churches of Asia send you greetings. Aquila and Prisca send you their warmest wishes … This greeting is in my own hand’, 1 Cor 16. ‘Take good note of what I am adding in my own handwriting and in large letters’, Gal 6: 11. ‘Please give my greetings to the brothers at Laodicea and to Nympha and the church which meets in her house… Here is a greeting in my own handwriting’, Co14: 1518. ‘From me, Paul, these greetings in my own handwriting, which is the mark of genuineness in every letter; this is my own writing’, 2 Thes 3:17.

– Pastoral peace is found in the psalms. ‘The Lord is my shepherd there is nothing I shall want. Fresh and green are the pastures where he gives me repose. Near restful waters he leads me to revive my drooping spirit.’ Ps 23: 1-3.

– In vivid language the prophets rage against the society of their day. Amos condemns social injustice with ruthless severity. He describes the wealthy merchants with their lust for economic power as they trample on the heads of the poor and defenceless. ‘… they have sold the virtuous man for silver and the poor man for a pair of sandals, because they trample on the heads of ordinary people and push the poor out of their path’, Amos 2:6-7. The public leaders revel in luxury and are corrupted by indulgence, unconcerned over the ruin of their country. He compares the society ladies to the fat, sleek cows of Bashan selfishly urging their husbands to injustice for drunken excess. ‘Listen to this word, you cows of Bashan living on the mountain of Samara oppressing the needy, crushing the poor, saying to your husbands “Bring us something to drink!”‘, Amos 4:1. Like many a prophet, he deals devastating attacks on hypocritical religious practice. ‘I hate and despise your feasts, I take no pleasure in your solemn festivals … Let me have no more of the din of your chanting, no more of your strumming on harps. But let justice flow like water, and integrity like an unfailing stream’, Amos 5:21-4.

– Some of the Biblical material is richly reflective. ‘Yes, naturally stupid are all men who have not known God and who, from the good things that are seen, have not been able to discover Him-who-is or, by studying the works, have failed to recognise the Artificer. Fire however, or wind, or the swift air, the sphere of the stars, impetuous water, heaven’s lamps, are what they have held to be the gods who govern the world. If, charmed by their beauty, they have taken things for gods, let them know how much the Lord of these excels them, since the very Author of beauty has created them. And if they have been impressed by their power and energy let them deduce from these how much mightier is he that has formed them, since through the grandeur and beauty of the creatures we may, analogy, contemplate their Author’, Wis 13:1-5.

– There is sober wisdom in the advice of ‘Be steady in your conviction, sincere in your speech. Be quick to listen and deliberate in giving an answer. If you understand the matter, give your neighbour an answer, if not, put your hand over your mouth’, Ecc 5:10-14.

– The haunting cadences of Ecclesiastes give a sense of the futility of life. ‘Vanity of vanities, Qoheleth says. Vanity of vanities. All is vanity!’, Ecc 1:2.

– The Song of Songs with its playful sensuousness is a delight. ‘I hear my Beloved. See how he comes leaping on the mountains bounding over the hills. My beloved is like a gazelle, like a young stag. My Beloved lifts up his voice. He says to me, “come then, my love, my lovely one, come. For see, winter is past, rains are over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth. The season of glad songs has come, the cooing of the turtledove is heard in our land.”’ Song 2:10-12.

– The story of Jesus with its sharply crafted sayings, its challenging vision and ultimately triumphant love has captivated people through the ages.

The Influence of the Language of the Bible
The biblical message of care for the neighbour has reverberated down through the centuries. In the coldness of pagan society, the early Christian communities were places of warmth and support. Following the teachings of Christ, the great monasteries were the only places of medical care for centuries. State involvement in health care and education is a modern occurrence. Until then, religious orders and congregations met the biblical challenge of service. For centuries, the Churches ran the schools and hospitals.

In South America, from the beginnings of colonial expansion, the Gospel values of justice, liberty, peace and reconciliation motivated many evangelists and missionaries. People such as Bartolome de Las Casas (1484-1566), Antonio de Montesinos, Antonio Vieira (1608-1697) vigorously protested against the treatment of the indigenous peoples and the rural and urban poor. The words of a sermon by Antonio de Montesinos preached in 1511 are powerful and eloquent. ‘I have come up on this pulpit, I who am a voice of Christ crying in the wilderness of this island. This voice says that you are in mortal sin… for the cruelty and tyranny you use in dealing with these innocent people. Tell me, by what right or justice do you keep these Indians in such cruel and horrible servitude?’ Bartolome de Las Casas is equally eloquent. ‘What we committed in the Indies stands out among the most unpardonable offences ever committed against God and mankind and this trade [in Indian slaves] as one of the most unjust, evil, and cruel among them.’

In modern times, Archbishop Oscar Romero spoke up for the tortured, the slaughtered and the’ disappeared’ of El Salvador. He was shot dead while saying Mass. In the sermon just minutes before his death, he spoke in the words of Jesus telling the story of the wheat, Jn 12:24. ‘Those who surrender to the service of the poor through love of Christ, will live like the grain of wheat that dies. It only apparently dies. If it were not to die, it would remain a solitary grain. The harvest comes because of the grain that dies. We know that every effort to improve society, above all when society is so full of injustice and sin, is an effort that God blesses; that God wants; that God demands of us.’

Today; in the sprawling urban shanty towns, groups of people find new hope, dignity and a sense of justice as they pray with the Bible. Linking the Gospel to issues of poverty; justice, social and political liberation has given rise to liberation theology. This is an attempt to give a systematic Christian understanding based on the Bible to the people’s dreams and struggles for a better life.


Kermode, F. (1975), The Classic, (London).
Frye, N. (1981) The Great Code. Bible and Literature, (New York and London). 




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