The Problems of Teaching Biblical Literature

The Dilemma of Teaching the Bible as Literature

Influence of the Bible on Western Society

If you’re an English teacher, you probably already know most of what is mentioned here, but it’s possible some new teachers might not have given the issue much thought.

Actually, the issue doesn’t just relate to English teachers. Biblical literature (and religion in general) is pretty difficult to avoid in the teaching of history and the arts. Even though not every Westerner is a member of a Biblically-based religion, Western society has been influenced by the Bible in many ways.

I’m most familiar with the literary influences. The Bible underlies earlier English writers like Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Milton (the Big Three back when I was taking English classes at UCLA in the mid 1970s),  and pretty much any other Western writer prior to the modern era. However, its influence is still visible in more contemporary works by Steinbeck, Faulkner, Hemingway, Golding, Atwood, O’Connor, and many others. Even contemporary bestsellers like J.K. Rowling and Stephen King make use of Biblical elements. ( see this article and  this article ) for some interesting examples.

Michelangelo’s David (image copyrighted by PrakichTreetasayuth and licensed from

However, literature is only part of the picture. I was reminded of this frequently while I was teaching. For instance, some of my Jewish students who were taking AP Art History would complain about the endless (from their point of view) procession of Christian images they were studying. Even with the course’s recent inclusion of much more study of non-Western art, the enormous amount of religious imagery in the Western part is hard to miss. Music is just as much affected as the visual arts. I got a reminder of that every year as December neared. Someone almost always questioned the number of Christmas songs in the holiday music concert. The long-time vocal music teacher, who was Jewish–a cantor and the son of a prominent local rabbi–had to keep pointing out that the bulk of the most challenging seasonal music was Christian in origin. He didn’t mention the Bible specifically, but in fact the vast majority of the Christmas songs were explicitly Biblically based.

The Prevalence of Biblical Illiteracy

Prominent as the Biblical influence in our culture is, I was always surprised at how many students struggled with material that required knowledge of the Bible. I taught two classes that included some Biblical literature: Freshman Honors English, and World Literature and Composition. For most of my career, I taught at least one of those classes, and sometimes both, so I had a lot of opportunity to observe how little Biblical knowledge students brought to the class.

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For example, in Freshman Honors, we used an anthology that included Biblical texts and parallels in later literature. One of the sections features passages from Genesis and Mark Twain’s Adam’s Diary. You would be amazed at the number of students who couldn’t distinguish between the two. I still remember a student asking how Genesis could possibly have a reference to Niagra Falls in it. Eventually, we had to drop Zora Neale Hurston’s Moses, Man of the Mountain from summer reading because students couldn’t distinguish what Hurston said about Moses from what the Bible said about him.

Nor did the seniors in World Literature do any better. More than once, I got questions about why Santa Claus wasn’t in the Christmas story–from students who really weren’t kidding, much as I wish they were. The classic example, though, came from an essay written at the end of The Epic of Gilgamesh unit. One of the topics I used had to do with the differing attitudes toward heroism between ancient Sumerian society and our own. Many years ago, I received an essay on that topic that started this way: “Every society has its heroes. For example, Hinduism has Buddha, and Jewism has Jesus.” If one wanted to be nitpicky, that doesn’t directly misrepresent the Bible per se, but it’s hard to imagine that someone who can’t distinguish between Christianity and Judaism (or even name them correctly) has much Biblical knowledge.

Possible Controversy over Teaching the Bible

Since Western cultural literacy demands some knowledge of the Bible, and since most students seem to have very little of that knowledge, some study of the Bible as literature is essential. Public schools have the obligation not to advocate any particular religious philosophy, so in English classes, we’re obviously teaching the Bible as literature, not as a religious text. However, that distinction isn’t always easy to make, particularly with teenagers. Even some adults have difficulty figuring out what the difference really is. At best, handling the material requires a delicate balancing act on the part of the teacher, as I’ll explain below.

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I worked in a high school in a relatively liberal community, so the curriculum was seldom challenged. In fact, I just glanced at a list of the eleven most commonly banned books ( found here ), and five of the eleven are or have been part of the curriculum in at least one course, all without protest. In the longer list of forty-six challenged books from the Radcliff Publishing Course Top 100 Novels of the Twentieth Century ( found here  ), I counted twenty-two that are or have been part of the regular curriculum, as well as an additional eleven that are commonly on reading lists for book reports–again, all without challenge.

What one book did get challenged during my thirty-four years at the same school? The Bible. Generally, the reasons weren’t anti-religious. Parents objected not because they felt all religious literature should be banned, but because they were not Christian and had a problem with part of the New Testament being taught. However, atheists have from time to time mounted challenges against all religious literature, so you could encounter that as well. Students often objected too, but the motivation was more often avoiding something they feared might be boring. Typically, I’d start with several students objecting, but it didn’t take long to win them over.

Strategies To Teach the Bible as Literature without Having Issues

Explain what you are doing clearly, concisely, and early.

I always started a Biblical unit with an explanation of both why Biblical literacy was important and how teaching the Bible could be made consistent with constitutional requirements. (You may not get challenged directly on legality, but having worked in a district in which a large number of the parents were lawyers and a large number of students wanted to be, I found it useful to cover all the bases. It’s better to be prepared, just in case.)

The first handout focuses on the value of Biblical literature, the second on legal issues. I used both for years, so these are rather old and not especially good examples of graphic design. At the bottom of this post, you can download the Word originals if you want to rework them. That may also be useful for the legal one, which is California-centric. It would be better for you to provide case law and opinions relevant to your own state.

Make sure your own knowledge is as complete as possible.

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Good preparation is important for teaching any subject, but it’s especially important in handling Biblical literature. Despite the fact that many students will be Biblically illiterate, some of them can and will ask relatively obscure questions. It’s not a problem if you can’t immediately answer a question. Offering to find the information or encouraging students to research it themselves and report back aren’t bad strategies. It is a problem, though, if you give inaccurate information. Knowing how adolescents are, you know someone will correct you later on. That will make students who are already nervous about the subject matter more nervous.

Manage discussion carefully.

Class discussion is an area in which studying the Bible as literature can really go off the rails in a big way. While students generally don’t start proselytizing for their own point of view, it’s not uncommon for some of them to declare whatever they believe to be the only possible interpretation.

Normally, of course, students getting excited about their opinion of literature is exactly what you want, and the more animated the discussion gets, the better. That atmosphere can be a problem for Biblical discussions, though.

The key, as in so many other situations, is balance. I never had a problem with student briefly stating their own religious beliefs as long as they prefaced them with “I believe” or some similar statement and do not imply that everyone should believe as they do. I also made it clear to students that they couldn’t ridicule a religious perspective different from their own or even argue with someone else’s.

To set the right tone, it’s important to lead by example. I wouldn’t normally hesitate to give my own interpretation of literature, but in Biblical discussions I typically respond to interpretive questions with, “Some people believe that…, other people believe this,” and so on. This is another point where knowing what you are talking about is important. You don’t want to misstate the view held by a particular religious group if you can help it. Ideally, every English teacher who taught the Bible as literature would be well versed in the study of comparative religions. No one can be knowledgeable about every possible variation, but it helps to know the major ones.

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Near of the beginning of the Biblical unit, I always talk about some of the major variations in the ways in which the Biblical text can be interpreted. It’s important to realize that some groups believe in full verbal divine inspiration–that is, that every word has been divinely inspired and is normally to be interpreted as literally as possible. Others believe that the Bible contains divine inspiration but that all parts may not be equally divinely inspired. Others (Universalists, for example) believe that the Bible and many other religious texts contain divinely inspired truths. Still others believe that the Bible is divine inspiration conveyed in ways that the original audience could understand; the general ideas are true, but the details, particularly with regard to science and history, may be concessions to what the original audience could understand and accept. Then there are those who see the Bible as divinely inspired but not literally true on factual matters. In this view, the stories are symbolic or allegorical, rather than literal. At the opposite end of the spectrum from full verbal divine inspiration would be people in non-Biblical religious traditions, who would regard the text as containing no inspiration at all.

You might expect some knowledge of the vast differences of opinion to be common knowledge, but that’s another area high school students have a problem with. To illustrate that point, I sometimes used a chart showing that even on such a simple question as what books were in the Bible, there were wide differences of opinion. As with the earlier documents, if you’d like to adapt this material, I’ve included the Word copy as a download at the end of this post.

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To see how a variety of interpretations would play out in practice, let’s look at the story of the serpent in the Garden of Eden, for example. Taking the text at face value, the serpent is a serpent, and the story is partly an explanation of why serpents have no legs, though that obviously isn’t its main point. Later interpreters, however, saw a variety of different truths in it. Christian commentators almost universally see the serpent as either symbolic of Satan or literally Satan. Medieval Kabbalistic Jewish commentators sometimes saw the serpent as Lilith (Adam’s first wife in the Talmud). Gnostics in early Christianity inverted the story by making the serpent the hero of the story, the one who brings knowledge to Adam and Eve that the creator (in Gnostic thinking an inferior being who was not the true God) had tried to keep from them. Roman Catholic thinkers saw the eating of the forbidden fruit that the serpent helped to engineer as the origin of original sin, but some of them also referred to it as felix culpa (fortunate fault) because it was a necessary step in the spiritual development of the human race. That’s just some of the more prominent beliefs associated with the story. One could write a book about it, and I’m sure people have.

I wouldn’t bring up every possible variation, of course, but I would try to make sure the students understood that there were different ways to look at the story. I would also try to ensure balance in the discussion. If one view seemed to be predominating, I would be sure to mention a different one. That way, a quiet student who didn’t necessarily agree with the majority would still feel safe in believing something else.

That’s really the heart of a good discussion on the Bible as literature. Everyone can voice his or her view–or not voice it. Either way, the classroom is a safe space to hold that view. If you create that kind of atmosphere, you should have minimal problems with the unit.

Word Downloads

(If you just want the PDF format, you can download that directly from the viewer windows above.)

Legal Issues



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(A form of this article was published on October 31, 2017.)

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