University of Oxford

Literature and the Bible in an African Context


       The question, what is literature? has proved refractory in the theory of literature. Ellis (24) is right in wondering whether the question will ever be answered or ever unanswered. Adams (1) admits that the definition of literature is rather difficult as important as it may be and observes that there is hardly any book that does it. Hough (9) believes that we all know what literature means even if we cannot articulate it in definitive terms. Encyclopaedia Britannica explains literature as a general term which in default of a peak definition may stand for the best expression of the best thought reduced to writing.

         Hirsch (56) defines literature as including any text worthy to be taught to students by teachers of literature, when these texts are not being taught to students in other departments of a school or university.  McFadden (56) sees literature as a canon which consists of those works in language by which a community defines itself through the course of its history. It includes works primarily artistic and also those whose aesthetic qualities are only secondary. The self-defining activity of the community is conducted in the light of works, as its members have come to read them (or conceive them). Wellek and Warren (20) posit that to speak sweepingly, one can say in summarising, that in antiquity and in the Renaissance, literature or letters were understood to include all writing of quality with any pretence to permanence.

        The approach of Sartre to the definition of literature is rather instructive. While placing literature within the operational contexts of history and society, he presents a definitive proposal for the phenomenology of reading. He then goes further to present a fascinating illustration of how to write a history of literature that takes ideology and institutions into account. Three fundamental questions are central to Sartre’s investigation of literature. These include: what is writing? Why write? For whom does one write? Essentially, the author chooses to discuss prose, rather than poetry (11). He posits that prose has the potential of a purposeful reflection of the world, whereas poetry is an end in itself. In prose, words signify, they describe men, situations and objects. In the case of poetry, the words are ends in themselves. While Sartre’s watertight distinctions may not be entirely tenable, the differences are there. Although criticism of a poem must pay close attention to its structure of words and symbols, it is obvious that the reader enters the poem through word association and references which are linked, however, indirectly to everyday significative language.

         What appears to be critical to Sartre’s understanding of the functions and dynamics of literature is that if it is properly utilised, literature can be a powerful means of liberating the reader from the kind of alienation which develops in a particular situation. By the same token, the writer also frees himself and overcomes his own alienation Sartre argues that literature is alienated when it forgets or ignores its autonomy and places itself at the service of the temporal power. It is the responsibility of the writer to dispel ignorance, prejudice, and false emotion.

         Meyer (1) pushes the discussion by admitting that understanding exactly what literature is has been truly challenging and that pinning down a definition has proven to be tedious. Quite often, one seems to be reduced to saying   “I know it when I see it”, or perhaps, “Anything is literature if you want to read it that way”. Sometimes the motivation for a particular definition seems like the work to copyright lawyers aimed primarily at stopping people from using the word “literature” for works which have not been licenced and those that may be referred to as the keepers of the literary tradition.

         Perhaps in bold attempts to find solution to the challenge of defining literature, Meyer presents two different approaches. These are the critical approach and the prototype approach; while the critical approach entails the usual style of defining a word in English by providing a list of criteria which must be met, the prototype approach  gives a unique dimension to the meaning of words that does not focus on a list of criteria which must be met by each example but on an established prototype, a particular good example of the word, to which other example of the word bear some resemblance. Working from the prototype approach to word meaning, Meyer tries to develop an answer to the question “What is Literature?” by suggesting that prototypical literary works are: written texts, marked by careful use of language including features such as creative metaphors, hell turned phrases, elegant syntax, rhyme, alliteration and meter, in a literary genre (poetry, prose fiction or drama), read aesthetically, intended by the author to be read aesthetically and contain many weak implications (are deliberately somewhat open in interpretation).

         Literature is an art made realisable in imaginative expression or a special use of language. Mayhead (8) observes that one of the important values possessed by literature is that it helps to preserve the precision and therefore the vitality of language. Egudu (14) has argued that whatever may be the analytical tool of literature, deliberate “manipulation of language for aesthetic effect” is its essence.  Wellek   and Warren (22) advance the discussion by holding the view that language is the material of literature as stone is of sculpture, paint  of picture and sound  of music.  According to them, it seems best to consider as literature only works in which the aesthetic function is dominant, while we can recognize that there are aesthetic elements such as style and composition in works which have non-aesthetic purpose such as scientific treatise, philosophical dissertation, political pamphlets and sermons, to mention just a few. While it is crucial to acknowledge that literature has other functions such as educating and correcting through satire, the fact remains that its primary purpose is to be an aesthetically satisfying organization of words.

         Olusegun Oladipo (5) observes that there exists a working “relationship between literature and philosophy from the perspective of ‘worldview’ and critical discourse”.  He argues that philosophy and literature are both social phenomena and forms of social consciousness.  Social, not just in the sense that they are produced by people who are “beings – in – society”, but perhaps more importantly in two respects. First, even when philosophy and literature spring from the experience of an individual or treat very abstract matters, they still constitute a reflection in the phenomena of life. (Here it should be noted that personal experience, the experience of the individual, is still human experience and human experience is essentially social – a product of our interaction, not just with nature but also with ourselves).  Second, philosophy and literature are products of the intellectual and practical needs of society and the individuals and classes comprising it. Whichever tool of analysis we use in describing or assessing literature, its relevance cannot be a work for its own sake.  It either tries to present an experience of human relevance or attempts to repackage or remodel the personality of the individual in society.  In performing any of these roles, it is not out of place to agree with Oladipo that literature operates within “some context of ideas which provide an anchor point for the web of descriptions, facts, constructions and evaluations” which it contains.

         Continuing the contextualization of literature within ideological framework,  Fasina (11) posits that literature only exists as literature within an interpretative community, emphasising that it is not an object that has an actual existence in the world but an activity – a social practice  –carried out by a select and authorized group.  Literature, Fasina argues is “essentially an ideology, and literary meaning does not reside in the text but is the product of an ideological practice”.  Asein (7) examines literature within a social-ideological context and submits  that whether a product of an individual’s creative imagination, critical intelligence or as the shared collective product of a state, literature manifests observable traits and relates in terms of its themes, total landscape and tendencies to the social, political, cultural and physical environment characteristic of its enabling state.

         By nature, literature is generally a highly maneuverable art form.  It creates and posits possibilities for social order without necessarily fragmenting entities.  Literature is an exportable commodity and has a trans-territorial status that lends its universal applicability.  However, as Asein also observes, even in that trans-contextual state, literature maintains a distinctiveness which it does not, and cannot, negotiate or compromise.  It creates its own myths and mytho-poetic hegemonies.  It recognizes its own geography and negotiates its own space. Literature, Finnegan (164-166) observes, has  gone beyond its conventional  perception of  being a written text .Its significance extends to the domain of performance And just as literature exits in performance, so does performance have a lot  to say about literature and  literary theory. To argue  that literature exists only in text or that it “‘signifies textual manifestation of writing” (Wolfreys, Robbins,et al) is highly debatable..  Widdowson  (15) does not appear to help matters as he defines literature as written works, by which he means works whose originating form and final point of reference is their existence as written textuality.


        Alter (1981:12)’s contribution to Bible as literature discourse is significant. He argues that the Hebrew Bible is a largely cohesive literary text to be read with essentially literary telescope.  Readers of the Hebrew Bible including students of narrative will be able to understand it more fully by developing an awareness of its narrative art. While he does not completely dismiss the historicity of the Bible, he sees it as secondary. It is the view of Alter that the authors of the  Alter (1992:1) has observed that the literary study of the Bible is  gathering momentum and  promises to have far-reaching consequences on both literary and biblical scholarship. Any modern attempt to look at the Bible from a literary perspective must grapple with two fundamental difficulties: The peculiar circumstances of the composition and evolution of biblical text, and the peculiar aims, even the peculiar  objects of representation  towards  which the literary art of the bible is directed.    Harrison in his main work, Introduction to the Old Testament examines the fundamentals of Hebrew poetry and  itemizes the problems associated with authorship and date.  Its approach is essentially theological.  Can the Bible have a purely socio-literary approach? Gottwald responds by observing that there are several methods or approaches to the study of the Bible.  These include the historical critical approach, the confessional religious approach, the socio-literary approach, among others, and goes ahead to scrutinize the relationship between the Hebrew Bible and other literatures within the context of the various versions and translations of the Hebrew Bible. Morgan,R .and Bartin J  agree with  Wild, L.H. on the premise that whatever tool of analysis is used in approaching a biblical text, a literary interest is inseparable from an intelligent reading of the Bible.

    Estes is interested in the literary and critical approach to the Bible but admits that there are several limitations and challenges in engaging in such a venture. Rather than examine the book of Job from a dialectical point of view, Greenstein (2003:652) seeks to situate the linguistic possibilities of Job within the operational realm of poetics.  In a similar view, Gabel, et al  make a bold attempt to look at the Bible from the perspective of forms and strategies of biblical writing, its actual historical and physical settings, the process of canon formulation and the nature of biblical genres including prophecy, apocalypse and gospel.

    While situating life and the humanities within the context of biblical literature, Oyegoke (157-159) recalls how modern psychoanalytic theory of literature borrowed the biblical Joseph’s story to identify a human trait christened the Potiphar complex- a trope with which to read and understand human behaviour. The biblical Joseph’s story speaks to many aspects of life’s experience; for example, the right kind of attitude in time of suffering is an uncomplaining one that trusts in God and keeps in mind that it is ultimately beneficial to be blameless. Apart from the vivid dreams, their interpretation, and actualization, the story throws light on the complexity of the human psyche.:   (Genesis 39:6-16). Spangenberg  (30-34) ‘s critical approach to the study of literature and the bible is within the framework of  paradigm shift noting that the intricate relationship between the Bible and  modern literary theory is a systematic phase in the historical movement of biblical  studies. He echoes the position of scholars if this critical shift that it is possible to study biblical literature in the same way we study general literature  and the analysis of biblical narratives can be given a purely literary approach.

     As illuminating as these contributions have been, the missing gaps are quite noticeable, particularly in the situating and detailed examination of the literary genres in the Bible, and the place of figurative language in biblical literature.  In carrying out a study on biblical literature, it is perhaps important to begin by acknowledging the various challenges facing a task of this kind.  A literary approach to the Bible has always been an interesting task because of its diverse interpretative dimensions and also owing to the mixed nature of biblical writings. Metzger B M and Cogan D (460 – 461) have observed that at least three impulses and three corresponding types of material exist side by side in the Bible:  The didactic or theological impulse to teach religious truth, the historical impulse to record or interpret historical events and the aesthetic impulse to recreate experiences.  This combination of religious documentary and literary interest in the Bible has made the literary study of the Bible different from the study of other types of literature.  Unlike other writings that tend towards abstraction, what literature does is to re-create an experience as tangibly as possible.  Literature takes human experience rather than abstract thought as the subject and puts a reader through an experience instead of appealing primarily to a group of ideas.  The truth that literature presents is the truthfulness to human experience.

Literature, Bible and African Culture

         Martey E. (44) and Manus C. (4) have asserted that an expression of the African cultural heritage, language and literature have certain implications for theological reflections in Africa. They argue that in any biblical passage, it is possible to find a message that addresses itself to an African audience, adding that African oral literary forms such as folklore, which is composed of traditional legends, beliefs, customs and fables, have functional relevance in the Bible.   In biblical tradition, folk stories are short narratives with some etiological significance of the history of Israel and her heroes which people could easily memorize and from which they invented aphoristic clichés uttered from time to time. On the significance of oral texts in Africa vis-à-vis biblical scholarship, Amewowo  has argued that the African has in its culture an oral literature, history, folklore, etiology, poems, songs and talks, transmitting values which could and should have been used as pedagogical aids to introduce Africans to the literary genres of the Bible. It is this contextualization of the biblical discourse within the framework of African cultural essence and application that Ukpong calls inculturation hermeneutics. This approach to biblical interpretation seeks to make the African, and for that matter, any socio-cultural context, the subject of interpretation.

         He argues further that to make a specific socio-cultural context the subject of interpretation means that the conceptual framework, its methodology and the personal import of the interpreter are consciously informed by the worldview of, and the life experience, within that culture.   This is because literary and religious forms do not arise from and live in a vacuum. “Peoples’ experiences shape what appears in their literature” Camp (12).This perhaps explains why the relationship between religion, the bible, culture and society is as Olupona  puts it is” obvious and imposing”.  Scholars are also in agreement that the Bible is enmeshed in the society in which it is located. The politicians use it, the lawyers quote from it. Barrett (10) notes that it is extremely difficult to state where religion begins and where it ends. Among the Yoruba for example, traditional medicine, as Buckley (:1) indicates, “is linked to religion”.

         What this amounts to is the fact that the African experiences are crucial to an understanding of biblical texts. Heerden strongly believes that “the perceived gap between African culture and the western packaging of the Christian gospel necessitates reflection on the possibility of meaningful and enriching dialogue between facets of African culture and biblical texts.  In interpreting the Bible across cultural lines therefore, it is important to ask some questions: Is culture a thing created by God? Or is it entirely a human device? Is there anything in a people’s culture which can be said to be sacred? Is there any aspect of culture which may be considered essential to a people? What is the role of religion in culture?

         Utuk (18) has observed that when God created man, he endowed man with certain innate abilities, among them the ability to create a culture of its own. As Kraft (103) also observes, “there is not now or ever has been a human being who is not totally immersed in and pervasively affected by some culture”. It is possible to argue that after God had created the first man and woman, the Bible account states that he put them in a garden to tend. Since such tendance of the environment is not found among animals, it is arguable that God made man to a cultural and culture producing being.  Virtually all the scholars who have undertaken to study the African religious consciousness have reached one conclusion, namely, that the idea of God, or rather of the Supreme Being, is not foreign to Africans.  Parrinder (399) believes that the earlier view that African religion was crudely fetishistic with the idea of God. being at variance with was misplaced and misleading.

Africa, as a mirror of Literature and the Bible

       Healey and Sybertz (13) have used the narrative metaphor to justify their emphasis on enculturation theology in Africa and to explain why the oral literature of Africa should be a part in an enculturation theology. According to them, the dialogue between African oral literature and biblical texts is part of “an on-going African journey of inculturation and contextualization”—rooting the gospel in local African cultures and societies. The guides on this journey are African proverbs, sayings, riddles, stories etc. Healey and Sybertz also go ahead to underine the difference between Africanising Christianity and Christianising Africa and argue that it is not a matter of taking the traditional customs of African culture and making the best ones fit into Christianity. It is not also of African cultural values being mediated through Western culture and thought pattern. Rather it is to start from the reality of the African context and see how the story of the gospel can become a haven of it. This implies an active dialogue between the gospel and African culture. True dialogue involves a mutual two-way challenge and enrichment. The African culture challenges the Christian faith to be truly universal. This means being faithful to the gospel as good news to all people and all cultures. At the same time, the Christian faith challenges and illuminates African culture and tradition.

         Heerden (433-436) has contributed significantly to the discourse on the mirroring quality of Africa on literature and the Bible by articulating the functional relationship between African cultural values and biblical texts. He observes that dialogue is not only about similarities and differences inwording imagery, content, and so on, but that these features are inherent to the proverbs and Bible texts themselves. He then goes ahead to draw attention to the African proverbs and biblical texts that affirm each other; those that have matching ideas and motifs, the African proverb that illustrate a biblical passage, that illustrate African proverbs and biblical texts that share literary features. While illustrating with an African proverb and a biblical text that share the literary feature of paradox, he cites an Ewe proverb: The hare says: “walking slowly leads to death”. The chameleon says:  “walking quickly leads to death” He juxtaposes this with Proverbs 26:4-5: “Do not answer fools according to their folly, or you will be a fool yourself. Answer fools according to their folly or they will be wise in their own eyes”


  Beyond the conventional relationship between literature and the Bible is the vital place of the African. experience. There is a significant sense in which the African oral literature can be made to interact with the Bible in such a way as to promote mutual value. Besides, a biblical discourse within the framework of African cultural essence has implications for literary scholarship.





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