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Brian Cummings

Words and The Word: How The Bible Became Literature

Brian Cummings, University of Sussex


The King James Bible is often proclaimed as a giant literary achievement in its own right and the source of literary effect from Shakespearean England down to modern times. But what do we mean by "literary"? What is the "literariness" of the Bible? For this idea fights with another cliché about Biblical meaning, that it is wedded to the "literal" sense, and rejects any other criterion of meaning. This latter approach has been especially associated with the Protestant tradition of which the King James is a part. Charles Taylor has written eloquently of the gulf between scriptural truth and secular truth, and the slow death of literalism that this has entailed. James Simpson has endorsed this thesis in reverse, by decrying the vampire literalism of Protestant readings as a curse on modern liberal values.


This lecture attempts to restructure the relationship between "literary" and "literal," by doing two things. One is to question the secularization thesis which finds modernity in the end of literalism. The other is to question how far early modern literary culture, including Protestant forms, was ‘literalist’. It does so by examining the biblical literariness of Shakespeare, someone who never used the King James version himself, but who in his secularity has been revered as a post-Biblical author. Could it be said instead that through Shakespeare we can relearn how to read the Bible as literature?

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