The Bible and Literature: The Shape of the Bible

Renowned literary theorist, Northrop Frye, examines the pattern of U-shaped narratives in the bible that deal with loss, return, and deliverance.

Between 1980 and 1982 Prof. Northrop Frye gave a course under the title ‘The Bible and Literature’. This highly popular course comprised of 30 lectures and each of these lectures was recorded for posterity by the University of Toronto (links to the series are found below). The lecture series coincided with Frye’s composition of his landmark work on the same topic, The Great Code: The Bible and Literature (1982).

This review focuses on Program 2 of the series titled “The Shape of The Bible”. According to Prof. Frye, we will never know for sure whether some or all the narrative sequences in the Bible are histories or fictions or whether the biblical sequence of events are mythical or historical. In this lecture on the Bible as a literary work, Prof. Frye treats the Bible as a totally unified book, disregarding the scholarly agreement that it actually was written by dozens of writers in three different languages over a period of a thousand years.

Prof. Northrop Frye describes that the coherence of the Bible’s narrative as a whole is created by a “U-Shaped plot” pattern of loss and return and deliverance found all the way through the literary work of the Old Testament from Genesis to Christ. He also claims that the stories have been edited to present the appearance of a united Israel going through a series of disasters and restorations. He states that the U-shaped pattern is the typical shape of the structure known as comedy (as opposed to tragedy). “The entire Bible, viewed as a ‘divine comedy,’” writes Frye, “is contained within a U-shaped story…one in which man…loses the tree and water of life at the beginning of Genesis and gets them back at the end of Revelation.” The affinity between the structure of the Bible and the structure of comedy has been recognized for many centuries and according to the Prof. is the reason why Dante called his vision of hell and purgatory and heaven a “divine commedia”.

shape-of-bibleAs an example, he points to the sequence of stories about people who were originally tribal leaders in the Book of Judges. The actual heroes and the stories told about them naturally differ in content each time but they’re all set inside a similar framework: Israel deserts its God and the result is disaster; an enemy moves in, conquers the country or invades it; the Israelites think better of their infidelity, turn back to their God again; a deliverer or a judge is sent, who brings them back to a position roughly where they were before. A situation is presented which gradually becomes more ominous, then there’s a kind of gimmick or sudden shift in the plot, and eventually it moves towards a happy ending.

Prof. Frye has found six of these U-shaped curve curves (see graph). The first plot begins with the Genesis creation of a harmonious family and garden state, which is followed by five alternations of historical disasters and triumphs. Such repetitions of plot and image tie the many books of the Bible together, and also create a sense of Deja-vu and premonition, hinting that discreet events have some greater symbolic significance, that they are both themselves and not themselves, that time may be an illusion.

Prof. Frye has identified in the last U-Shaped what for all Christians is the very last triumph brought on by Jesus which concludes with a final ascent back to harmony in the eternal city of Jerusalem. And coincidentally today I came across a passage in a book I am reading by John Shelby Spong that reminded me of this last sentence. Here’s the excerpt from; The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic, page 243;

“He (Jesus) came to his own and his own received him not” (John 1:11). The right of God to rule the world has been dismissed. The messianic claim has been renounced. God could never again be seen in the power of symbols of either religion or politics, in church or state. Something quite different was to be revealed in Jesus of Nazareth. Pilate was the final foil through whom the revelation of Jesus would be received. Jesus’ revelation would carry him and his disciples beyond the scope of religion and beyond the realm of the world’s most powerful symbol of authority. They would be born to a new dimension of human life. The doorway into that new dimension would be opened in the death of Jesus, accused by entrenched religion, executed at the hands of the state. You can read my review of Bishop Spong’s; The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic.

This lecture has left an imprint on me and Prof. Frye does a terrific job of describing the six major stories so succinctly, here’s the link to the lecture, we hope you find it as interesting as I have.

The Shape of The Bible” – A lecture given by Prof. Frye on Sept. 16, 1980 for the Bible and Literature course “The Shape of The Bible”.

All 30 episodes of the “The Shape of The Bible” series can be found HERE; Copywrite Heritage University of Toronto

About Northrop Frye

Northrop Frye was a renowned literary critic and theorist. A survey of almost 1000 journals has revealed that Prof. Frye is the eighth most frequently cited author in the arts and humanities, among a company that includes Aristotle, Shakespeare and Freud. Frye gained international acclaim for his book about William Blake entitled “Fearful Symmetry” (1947), but it was his book “Anatomy of Criticism” (1957) that is considered one of the most important works of literary theory published in the twentieth century. A bibliography of his work and commentaries on it published in 1987 contains 2500 entries. As is suggested by this growing body of commentary, the criticism that Frye produced is not only literary but literature itself, and is likely to survive as long as some of its subjects. In 1939, Frye joined the Department of English at Victoria College (now called Victoria University) in the University of Toronto, and he remained there for the rest of his life. Northrop Frye died in January 1991 at the age of 78.

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