Bible as Story 

An introduction to Biblical Theology, specifically the story and the stories: students discover the kernels of the over-arching story (metanarrative), from creation to apocalypse, and how to read the biblical genres, especially narratives.

The Character of Biblical Narrative

"Biblical narrative is meant to instruct and motivate rather than to impress and delight. It appeals more to the will and the intellect than to the senses and sentiments."

"It is not joy in a description that 'imitates' life...that motivates the biblical narrator, but the drive to uncover relationships and to illumine connections and to give narrative form to a particular conception of life." [Uriel Simon, Reading Prophetic Narratives (tr. L. Schramm; Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997) 266.]

Story does not Mean ...

  • Fiction in the modern sense
  • History in the modern sense
  • Myth in the popular sense

Rather, the Biblical story is the myth or “fairy-story” that came true, as JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis noted:

“The Gospels contain a fairy-story, or a story of a larger kind, which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories. They contain many marvels -- peculiarly artistic, beautiful, and moving: 'mythical' in their perfect, self-contained significance; and among the marvels is the greatest and most complete eucatastrophe. But this story has entered History and the primary world; the desire and aspiration of sub-creation has been raised to the fulfillment of Creation. The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man's history.” (JRR Tolkien, “On Fairy-stories”)

“[God] sent the human race what I call good dreams: I mean those queer stories scattered all through the heathen religions about a god who dies and comes to life again, and, by his death, has somehow given new life to men.” (CS Lewis, Mere Christianity 2.3)

The biblical story may contain fiction, history and myth (as it contains poetry and letters), but its meaning and truth is cosmic, more true than the details of the Vietnam War. The biblical drama is set in the world of human beings, in time and space, in history.

Yet it is also “Faerie” in Tolkien's sense of an enchanted place. “It was in fairy-stories that I first divined the potency of the words, and the wonder of things, such as stone, and wood, and iron; tree and grass; house and fire; bread and wine” (Tolkien). In the biblical storyworld, rock, wood, water, mountain, bread and wine, are effective media of God's grace.

How to Read the Bible as Story

1. Recognize that the Bible is “from far away, a long time ago, from a different culture” — the “threefold alienation” (J.P. Fokkelman, Reading Biblical Narratives 21), yet recognize that biblical writers provided the text with “devices, signals and shapes” to stand the “onslaught of time” and guide the reading of a “loyal listener” (22).

  • Divine inspiration: “as products of a deliberate and meticulous designing intelligence they have been crafted to speak for themselves, provided there is a competent reader listening closely” (Fokkelman 21).

2. Be aware that the Bible’s reader is immersed in a “story-world” not unlike Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings.” In this story-world common features of everyday life take on great importance: light, water, trees, mountains, breath, oil, shepherds, vineyards and all manner of plantings. Moreover, the story both recalls or echoes earlier events, especially striking failures and divine promises, and envisions the future based on what has happened earlier in the story.

3. There are a few simple rules of “biblical grammar” that will help the beginning reader: biblical narrative is terse (i.e., brief, concise, precise) and there are few characters. Therefore any detail (motives, landscape, agents) in a story should stand out, heighten the reader’s awareness.

  • I use the term biblical grammar because, just as grammar is the rules of usage for a language, the Bible has its own rules of usage that the reader must recognize in order to understand the story, especially the significance of its imagery. For example, special individuals are born miraculously, when prophets are called by God they respond that they are unable to perform the task, betrothal scenes begin at a well and proceed in expected ways.
  • One might think of the biblical story as a game (e.g., Monopoly) and the grammar as its rules.

4. Ellipsis refers to information that is not presented in a story. There are different levels of ellipsis: a blank is information that is not included because it is not necessary to the story; a gap is information that is not given but readers are expected to supply for themselves — sometimes readers are expected to supply the wrong information. Gaps make the story more interesting, keep the reader active.

5. Sequence of events and individual words and phrases are important to finding the deeper meaning of biblical stories.

6. Good readers of the Bible will not assume the story before they have read the story. They will allow the story to speak for itself. The story will inform the reader in stages who its God is. 

St. Ephrem the Syrian (4th century) on the Mysterious Depth of Scripture:

"Lord, who can grasp all the wealth of just one of your words?

What we understand in the Bible is much less than what we leave behind, like thirsty people who drink from a fountain.

For your words have many shades of meaning,
just as those who study it have many different points of view.

You have colored your words with many hues 
so that each person who studies it can see in it what s/he loves.

You have hidden many treasures in your word
so that each of us is enriched as we meditate on it.

Your Word is a tree of life
that offers blessed fruit in abundance;
like the rock gushing water in the desert
it is for each of us a refreshing fountain."

(Adapted from The Catholic Prayer Book; ©Servant, 1986)


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Story Analysis *

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The Christian Bible *


Benedict XVI on Interpreting the Bible

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