In its recent Focus On essay series, Oxford Biblical Studies Online hosts an essay by Prof James Crossley entitled ‘Literature, Fiction, and the Ongoing Creation of New Bibles‘. I have excerpted his opening and the final paragraph:
Though obviously integral to Jewish and Christian literature, the Bible—much like classical mythology—has long functioned as a major resource for poets, playwrights and novelists, at least in western literature and for virtually all of the major figures of its assumed canon from Shakespeare through Mary Shelley to Samuel Beckett. This can often be ornamental—and perhaps unconsciously so, such is its weighty reception—but the Bible as a cultural resource is one that has gathered momentum since the Enlightenment.
As part of his examination of the Bible in literature, Hugh Pyper argued that the ongoing creation of new Bibles in translations, editions, interpretations, etc., has helped generate a means of the Bible’s own cultural survival (Pyper 2006). Pyper was employing ideas from memetics, to which we can add an angle based on the dynamics of Empire (not to mention the accompanying new markets for Bibles): the Bible, its literary reception, and constant recreations of new understandings about the Bible, can thus be seen as a case study in either a form of dialectical materialism or postcolonial hybridity and complexity (cf. Bhabha, 1994: 102-122). Indeed, we might note that playing the revolutionary game of seizing power with a similar-but-different sort of power, or conventional postcolonial notions of mimicry, are (unsurprisingly) also integral to the Bible and its literary reception. In all the entanglements we have seen, the Bible does not remain the same, whether reusing the language of the oppressor (e.g., Angelou, Johnson) or reinscribing imperial power for new purposes (e.g., the new republic of heaven in Pullman’s His Dark Materials). Memories of a theocratic-imperialistic Bible remain strong but are now more unpalatable to contemporary liberalism and so can instead be flipped to create dystopian imperialism we would presumably want to avoid (e.g., Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale). Receptions of the Bible in literature are seemingly endlessly refracted through new interpreters and new traditions creating new Jesuses, new Gods, and new Bibles. It is little wonder that someone as comfortable (or uncomfortable) with ambiguity and the creation of literary precursors as Jorge Luis Borges could easily perpetuate readings of the Bible and biblical stories in a labyrinthine and ultimately unknowable universe (see further Walsh and Twomey 2015).