Biblical Narrative

You likely know the Bible as a religious text, but have you ever considered it as a literary text too? Just like any novel you read, biblical narratives can be analysed for their structure, characters, and settings, etc. The Bible itself contains many narrative stories and, additionally, there are many novels and stories that make significant reference to the Bible.

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Table of contents

    Biblical narrative definition

    Broadly, the definition of a biblical narrative is either any narrative story from the Bible, the sacred text of Christianity, or any work of fiction inspired by the Bible. There can be crossovers and overlaps between the two.

    A key tenet of both these types of texts is the praising of God and holding up the central commandments of Christianity as something to aspire to. These include believing in the teachings of Jesus Christ and the powers of redemption and forgiveness.

    In the context of narratives from the Bible, we should consider how we view these texts. While it is the representative text of a major world religion, the Bible is also a literary object written by humans that contains constructed narratives. This makes it a work of literature. In studying biblical narratives, we are not commenting on their religious validity, rather analysing their literary value, generic conventions, and literary devices used.

    Fact! It is estimated about 43% of the Bible consists of narrative fiction.

    In addition to narratives directly from the Bible, there are also a multitude of novels, poems, and plays that are inspired by biblical narratives and events. The Bible is thought to be one of the most influential literary texts in history. Its tropes and ideas can be found in many works of both classical and modern literature. For example, the iconic English author Charles Dickens (1812-1870) included many biblical allusions and metaphors in his works. These can be found in Great Expectations (1860) and A Christmas Carol (1843).

    Metaphor: a literary device in which something is used to symbolically represent something else, despite the fact that the two things are likely not linked. Metaphors can be used to highlight a deeper meaning behind something.

    Biblical narrative structure

    In terms of structure, the Bible is divided into two halves, the Old Testament and the New Testament.

    The Old Testament came first, detailing how the world came to be and the central beliefs of Christianity.

    • The Ten Commandments are included here.
    • Many of the stories in the Old Testament were presented as historical narratives, telling stories of how key events in the founding of Christianity happened.
    • Characters in these texts are typically named and recognisable figures.

    Next came the New Testament.

    • This was written after the death of Jesus Christ and consists of his teachings.
    • The New Testament is divided into the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
    • While present in both testaments, the New Testament became particularly known for containing a genre of stories known as parables.
    • Parables have representative characters whose main purpose is to communicate a moral.
    • It's important to note that the New Testament also contains historical narratives in telling the life story of Jesus Christ.

    Parable: a short and uncomplicated story that details a moral, and often religious, lesson. Parables were a common way of communicating morals in early Jewish communities. They used metaphor and subtext to do this. The form is regularly linked to the figure of Jesus Christ in the New Testament.

    Biblical narratives tended to follow a simple plot structure. They had a basic beginning, middle, and end which usually communicated a moral lesson and showcased humanity's faults. Many biblical narratives involved a human protagonist learning from their mistakes and being shown forgiveness by God. The idea of redemption is central in biblical tales. The literary device of repetition was also commonly used in these narratives to emphasise the particular belief being illustrated.

    Character in biblical narrative

    While all biblical narratives are different, there are certain commonly occurring character archetypes we can identify. These frequently aid in communicating a given moral teaching. Biblical narratives served a purpose and, therefore, the narrator did not shy away from passing judgement on characters and making clear if they were fundamentally good or bad.

    GodWhile the figure of God is not always obvious in biblical narratives, his importance means he should be considered an ever-present character. God is sometimes represented symbolically in some stories and, in others, he is shown through the figure of Jesus Christ.
    The heroThe hero is usually a human character, providing an element of relatability. This character may be a morally good character who learns an important lesson, aiding in their journey towards a better understanding of religion. If this character makes a mistake or error, the Christian virtues of forgiveness and redemption can be exemplified.
    The sinful/sinless womanFemale characters are not typically the sole focus of biblical narratives, although this is not true for every story. Women in the Bible frequently fit into two categories: either the sinful woman or the sinless woman. As was common at the time of writing of the Bible, much of this was based on a woman's virginity. A morally good and sinless female character was often represented as a virgin, like the Virgin Mary, whereas a woman who was struggling in her morality may be shown as a prostitute, like Mary Magdalene.
    The antagonistIn biblical narratives, the antagonist is key. It provides a contrast to the central character/hero and it may also challenge them. These antagonists can be used by biblical writers to represent the potentially corrupting influence of the devil. The serpent in the tale of Adam and Eve is an emblematic corrupting influence in the Bible.
    The ProphetProphets are not present in every biblical narrative, but are important when they are. This is a wise character who speaks the word of God to people. They may offer sage wisdom or advice throughout a biblical narrative. Moses, a central figure in the Old Testament, was a prophet sent by God who saved the Israelites from slavery in Egypt.

    Setting in biblical narrative

    In any narrative, the setting is key to helping us contextualise. Depending on the biblical narrative, the type of setting and its relative importance varies.

    In historical narratives, the setting tends to be real, historical, and tangible. In the Old Testament, many of these narratives tell the history of the Hebrew people and their journey. In the New Testament, many of these stories focused on telling the story of Jesus Christ. These narratives were mostly based on what would now be modern-day Israel and Palestine. The locations are recognisable and would have been easily found on a map at the time of writing.

    This helped to ground these stories and emphasise the writer's belief that they are factual. Settings such as these also gave key cultural context to stories.

    Biblical Narrative, a map of Palestine, StudySmarterFig. 1 - A map of Palestine, where many biblical narratives are set.

    In the case of parables, the setting took a backseat to the meaning of the narrative. While settings in parables were regularly real and important, they were not always as central as in historical narratives. Parables focused on getting across a moral instead.

    Biblical narrative example

    As we covered above, there are both narratives directly from the Bible and also genre fiction substantially inspired by the Bible. Below are examples of these biblical narratives inspired by the Bible.

    Biblical narrative: 'The Parable of the Prodigal Son'

    'The Parable of the Prodigal Son' is found in the Gospel of Luke in the New Testament and is told by Jesus Christ. It tells the story of a father with two sons, one who loyally stays with his father and another who asks for his inheritance so he can go off on his own. However, he wastes his fortune drinking and gambling and is left penniless.

    The son returns, begging for his father's forgiveness, and is welcomed with open arms. His father throws a party in his son's honour to celebrate his return. The son who remained with his father is infuriated by this, not understanding why his brother is appreciated while he has not been, despite his loyalty.

    The intention behind this parable is to teach the virtues of redemption and forgiveness, essential to Christianity. As with many parables, the setting is not key here, nor are recognisable characters. The focus is on communicating a particular moral and teaching readers a lesson.

    Biblical narrative: A Christmas Carol (1843)

    A Christmas Carol by the novelist Charles Dickens is an iconic Christmas tale. It follows the miserly character, Ebenezer Scrooge, who hates Christmas and is cruel to all he encounters. Before Christmas, he is visited by three spirits, who show him his past, present, and future. He is made sharply aware of how selfish, greedy, and money-hungry he has become. By the end of A Christmas Carol, Scrooge has changed into a benevolent character, fully appreciating Christmas and using his riches for good.

    Despite the fact A Christmas Carol is one of the most famous Christmas tales of all time, it only took Charles Dickens a mere six weeks to write!

    Dickens's novel has multiple biblical allusions and references. The story of Scrooge's journey towards goodness is a tale of redemption, just like in 'The Prodigal Son'. This establishes A Christmas Carol as a Christian story. The values that Scrooge learns in the process of his redemption can be seen as traditional Christian values. For example, doing charitable work, treating those around you kindly, and using what you have for good.

    Biblical Narrative, an illustrated image of Charles Dickens, StudySmarterFig. 2 - An artist's impression of Charles Dickens.

    Biblical Narrative - Key takeaways

    • The Bible contains many narratives which can be treated as literary works.
    • Two common biblical narratives found in the Bible are historical narratives and parables.
    • There are also many literary works inspired by events in the Bible.
    • There are certain character and genre archetypes present in multiple biblical narratives.
    • 'The Prodigal Son' is an example of a narrative from the Bible, while A Christmas Carol (1843) by Charles Dickens (1812-1870) is a novel inspired by the Bible.
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    Frequently Asked Questions about Biblical Narrative

    What is a biblical narrative?

    A biblical narrative is a constructed narrative present in the Bible. There are also many novels inspired by events in the Bible.

    What is the main theme of biblical narratives?

    Common themes in biblical narratives are redemption and forgiveness.

    How do you read a plot in a biblical narrative?

    Reading plot in a biblical narrative is the same as reading plot in any other story. We can find a recognisable beginning, middle, and end, with a moral lesson present.

    What are two characteristics of a Bible story?

    Two characteristics in a Bible story are the teaching of a moral lesson and the potential corrupting influence of an antagonist, representing the devil.

    How to interpret a biblical narrative?

    A biblical narrative can be interpreted by considering its themes, characters, and generic conventions, 

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