Category Archives: Bible

Matthew Bible

On this date in 1537 the first complete English-language Bible based upon Greek and Hebrew sources, the Matthew Bible, was published, with translations by William Tyndale and Miles Coverdale.

Frye in Symbolism in the Bible:

Already in the Middle Ages, the question had arisen of translating the Bible into the vernacular (or modern) languages.  It was resisted by authorities of the Church establishment, partly because the issue very soon got involved with reform movements within the Church.  One of these reform movements was led in England by John Wyclif, a contemporary of Chaucer in the fourteenth century.  His disciples, working mainly after his death, produced an English translation of the entire Bible, which was of course a translation of the Vulgate Latin text, not of the Greek and Hebrew.  Nevertheless, the Wycliffe Bible became the basis for all future English translations.  In the sixteenth century, the Protestant Reformation broke out in Germany under Luther, and one of Luther’s major efforts to consolidate his position was to make a complete German translation of the Bible, which became among other things the cornerstone of modern German literature.

Similar efforts were made in England.  Henry VIII, you remember, declared himself to be head of the Church, but didn’t want to make any alteration to Church doctrine, so he amused himself in his later years by executing Protestants for heresy and Catholics for denying his claim to be head of the Church.  Thus, William Tyndale, the first person to work on the translation of the Bible into English from Greek and Hebrew sources, was a refugee and had to work on the Continent.  Eventually he was caught by Henry’s goon squad and transported back to England where he was burned at the stake along with copies of his Bible.  Henry VIII, with that versatility of intention which is often found in people who have tertiary syphilis, had begun his reign by being called “Defender of the Faith” by the Pope, because he had written a pamphlet attacking Martin Luther–that is to say, his minister Sir Thomas More had written it but Henry had signed it.  However, as “Defender of the Faith,” he changed his mind about what faith he was going to defend, and in the last years of his reign the English Bible in the hands of various other translators, including Miles Coverdale, had become established as the official Bible for the Church of England for which he was now the head.  (CW 13, 420)

Cardinal Newman


On this date in 1890 Cardinal John Henry Newman (born 1801) died.

Frye in The Secular Scripture:

As with Plato, the Christian has to pass through this doctrinal system before he can understand the myths of the Bible.  In the nineteenth century Cardinal Newman remarked that the function of scripture was not to teach doctrine but to prove it: this axiom shows how completely the structure of the Bible had been translated into a conceptual system which both replaced and enclosed it.  Even the fact that the original data were for the most part stories, as far as their structure is concerned, often came to be resented or even denied.  Whatever resisted the translating operation had to be bracketed as a mystery of faith, into which it was as well not to look too closely.  (20)

More Frye and the Bible


Blake’s Plato

Reponding to Nicholas Graham’s post

I certainly agree that Frye’s reading of the Bible is guided by typology and that there is a certain prophetic power in his biblical criticism. I was by no means trying to give a full account of Frye’s reading of the Bible. My remarks were in the context of the earlier posts about the meaning of the phrase “literary criticism of the Bible.” All I was trying to suggest was that Frye’s approach relies on two fundamental literary principles, myth and metaphor or narrative and image––the mythos and dianoia that Frye devoted so much space to in Anatomy of Criticism. Typology and prophecy, as I understand those terms, are terms from biblical, rather than literary, criticism. I agree also that “vision” is also absolutely central to Frye’s enterprise, and I wrote a fairly long chapter in my book on Frye and religion (89–125) trying to make a case for its centrality and relating it to terms such as “insight,” “enlightenment,” “epiphany,” “recognition” and (the central visionary faculty) “the imagination.” But again “vision” is a term that does not spring from the vocabulary of literary criticism, though it is perhaps obliquely connected to Aristotle’s opsis. No one would want to reduce Frye’s reading of the Bible to myth and metaphor. But they are literary principles, and so no one would want to ignore them either. As I understand Frye, “vision” and “prophecy” belong to what I called the Bible’s centrifugal, kerygmatic thrust.

Nicholas Graham: Frye and the Bible


Giovanni di Paulo, Dante and Beatrice Leaving Heaven, ca. 1465

Responding to Bob Denham’s post

I like and agree with all that you say about Frye and the Bible, Bob, but feel there are a few things missing, like typology and prophecy. To say that Frye is looking at the Bible from the point of view of a literary critic is correct but seems to me to be a far too cold and detached statement–Frye as a scientific anatomist.

In Fearful Symmetry Frye is learning from Blake and teaching us that the Bible is a complete book of vision. With my philosophical and theological frinds I have enjoyed many heated and lively conversations, but we always seem to reach an impass when we come to the word “vision”. Their favorite word is “insight”, the eureka moment, and this seems to be pretty well an established occurrence in consciousness, and the title of a major work by that other great Canadian thinker, Bernard Lonergan.  This “insight” is the basis for an alternative to faculty psychology, dealing with the soul and its attributes, which has now been abandoned in the wake of scholasticism. The nearest scholasticism comes to Blake’s “vision” is with the word “emanation”, as in Aquinas’ “intelligible emanations”, our participation through the act of “insight” in the light or mind of God. Understanding is what we achieve each time we have an “insight”. The historian Herbert Butterfield states that the rise of modern science outshines everything since the birth of Christianity. Modern science comes with the Enlightment and philosophers like Paul Ricoeur, Gadamer, Eric Voegelin and Leo Strauss are now trying to dismantle its stranglehold and go beyond it.

In this sense, Frye does not approach the Bible as a scientist or literary critic but, instead, as a prophet and poet. What emerges from Fearful Symmetry is Blake’s universal cry that we find at the opening of his poem Milton: “Would to God that all the Lord’s people were Prophets.” Numbers XI. ch. 29 v.

To go beyond either/or, Frye approaches the Bible both as a literary critic where he suspends value judgements but also as a prophet like Jeremiah where he uses value judgments to tear down and to build up. [See Jean O’Grady’s brilliant article “Re-valuing Value“.] The key to prophecy is typology, the Medieval approach to the Bible, displayed to us splendidly in Dante’s Divine Comedy. In “Paradiso” Canto 6, Justinian is the only speaker, and here we deal with the Law; canto 10, the Circle of the Sun, the Circle of the Sages, we deal with Wisdom; canto 17 deals with Prophecy. His great, great grandfather tells Dante must go back to earth and assume the mantle of the prophet and poet. Armed with the phases of revelation: Law, Wisdom, Prophecy, Etc., Dant must construct for us The Divine Comedy, which is nothing less than a recreation of the Bible.

Frye’s engagement with the Bible brought about a fundamental change in him as it did in Dante, and it was this change into prophet and poet that was necessary before he could present us with his lasting emanation, The Collected Works of Northrop Frye, which we must learn to read as the Bible for our time.

Frye and the Bible


Responding to comments by Russell Perkin and Michael Happy

It seems to me that Frye is looking at the Bible from the point of view of a literary critic. He begins with the assumption that, unlike other sacred books, the Bible is a unity. He is interested in the pursuing this unity as it manifests itself in the Bible’s myths and metaphors. The former he examines in terms of the movement from Creation to Apocalypse, with all of the lesser up and down U–shapes in between. The latter he examines largely in terms of recurring images. He of course brackets out any number of other features that a literary critic might legitimately want to investigate, especially those having to do with literary texture. His concern is with structure. That’s the centripetal thrust of The Great Code, Words with Power, and his Bible lectures. According to the class notes from his Religious Knowledge course, he called this the synthetic approach. The centrifugal thrust, largely absent from his Bible lectures, has to do with the kerygmatic myths to live by. That is, as a sacred book, the Bible is more than literary. Frye worries a great deal about what to call this, finally settling on “kerygma.”

One can approach a written text, sacred or otherwise, from any number of perspectives––biographical, historical, formal, sociological, cultural, religious, and so on. When I was in school in the 1960s biblical scholars such as Gerhard von Rad and Martin Noth were engaged in a type of interpretation called redaction criticism, which began to pay attention to large units of the Bible, such as the first six books, as creative, literary forms in their own right. Since that time there has been an explosion of literary approaches to the Bible, and there is a large industry today devoted to the poetics of biblical narrative and imagery. The degree of interest among Biblical scholars in such approaches is revealed by a glance at the annual programs of the American Academy of Religion and the Society for Biblical Literature. The dialogue works both ways: we have literary critics interested in the narrative and metaphorical features of the Bible, and we have biblical critics interested in the Bible’s literary features. Not long ago I was glancing at study of that most intractable book, the Book of Revelation, by Leonard Thompson, a well known biblical scholar. Thompson realizes that he can’t crack the code of Revelation without speaking about its genre, its narrative structure, and its metaphoric unity, all of which are literary matters. Which is pretty close to Frye’s approach.

One of my favorite examples of Frye’s mythical–metaphorical approach is his commentary on the Priestly and Jahwist creation accounts in chapters 5 and 6 of Words with Power. Whether the correct label for this “a literary criticism of the Bible,” I dunno. I guess I’d say it’s a reading of the Bible from the perspective of a literary critic who is interested in texts as wholes and in the structure of their narratives and imagery. Or is all of this too obvious to need remarking?

I suppose one doesn’t have to be a literary critic to pay attention to features of a text that are literary, but if you’re trained to consider the centrality of such things as metaphor in any text, you’re more likely to see things that those untrained do not. Spend ten minutes, for example, leafing through any collection of hymns. You’ll discover that God is a mighty fortress, Christ is a master workman, Christ is a star of the East, Christ is a dying lamb, the earth is a story teller, the Holy Spirit is a dove or a divine fire or a wind, Christ is a solid rock and similar figures from the mineral world (such as Rock of Ages), God’s mercy is a bright beam, Christians are soldiers (and also from that hymn, we are the body of Christ), the hour of prayer is sweet, the heart is a dwelling place, Christ is the light of light, Jesus is a shepherd; and of course all the royal metaphors imported from the Old Testament of the “Christ is king” or “Christ is ruler” variety and the associated metaphors of crowns, diadems, and thrones. Some hymns give us rather difficult instructions, such as “fold to thy heart thy brother” or “lift up your hearts,” the folding of a brother and the lifting of a heart seeming to be rather difficult things to do literally. Sometimes we get dual metaphors, as in the hymn “O Holy City,” where we’re told that “Christ the Lamb doth reign,” a figure that combines a pastoral and sacrificial image with a royal or regal one: Christ is a lamb: the lamb is a king. In “O Master of the Waking World,” we’re told that Christ has all the nations in his heart, an extraordinary metaphor that rather strains our powers of comprehension. In another hymn we’re called on to deliver our land from “error’s chain.” Why “chain”? Well, the hymnist needs a word to rhyme with “plain” and “slain,” but we nevertheless sense the direction in which the figure takes us: the heathen nations (the hymnist mentions India and Africa, along with, of all places, Greenland) are imprisoned (that is, chained) by error. Even in “My Country, ’tis of Thee” freedom is said to be a holy light, and as one of the imperatives is for it to ring from the mountain side, freedom also seems to be a bell. In “It Singeth Low in Every Heart” we’re told that the dead “throng the silence of our breasts,” indicating that in our breasts, where everything is silent, we have a host of dead souls or maybe just dead people hanging out, an image that is something of a problem for the literal minded. In “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty,” we were told in the first stanza that “God is health” and in the second stanza that God is a bird. As we’re sheltered under the wings of God, this appears to be a mother bird, a hen perhaps. The hymnist doesn’t say that God is like a mother hen, but that he is one. In one of the choral responses we implore the Lord to makes us a sanctuary, which means a sacred place or a place of refuge.

My guess is that form critics and redaction critics and canonical critics and reader–response critics are less likely to be attuned to such metaphors than a critic interested in figurative language.

The Bible and Literature with Northrop Frye: Proposed DVD


We are delighted to present the following announcement from Bob Rodgers:

In 1981-82, as producers at the then U of T Media Centre, Bill Somerville and I recorded Northrop Frye’s classic lectures and seminars on The Bible And Literature, and have recently had them converted from analog video to the digital format. Now an independent producer, I am in discussions with Carol Moore, Chief Librarian at the Robarts Library, U of T, to adapt this material to DVD format for global distribution in the educational market. Each of 24 programs will include a full video-taped lecture, a related seminar, and interactive contextual and explanatory notes.The Main Menu reads as follows:

The Bible and Literature with Northrop Frye

Program One

An Approach to the Bible and Translations of the Bible (The Lecture)

Lecture Breakdown

Seminar Segment

Lecture Transcript

References for Lecture One

Study Guide

Series Synopses

The video and support materials are designed for private study, at home or in a library, just like a book, but with interactive references at a click. As Frye intended, the information is aimed at undergraduate students lacking the basic familiarity with the Bible he believed was needed to respond adequately to western literature. Secondary applications are for use in seminars or informal study groups where this or that section of the DVD may be used for stimulation or talking points by the seminar or group leader.

For a short video clip from the lecture segment of the pilot DVD, go to For technical reasons the picture quality of this clip is inferior to that of the DVD. We have also produced a test pilot of Program One and have a limited number of copies to send to “Friends of Frye” who would like to receive a copy by mail free of charge. If you would like one, please send us your postal address and we will do our best to get it out to you.

What we would like in return is your assessment of the value of the series, a testimonial or endorsement if it meets with your approval, and an indication as to whether or not your institution is likely to aquire it. While some units will be available earlier, we anticipate completion of the full 24 part series to take 18 months from the start of production.

We are receiving queries about this undertaking from across Canada, the US, and abroad. Your response would be much appreciated as we bring it to fruition.

Contact: Bob Rodgers, Producer …. 416 504 2196….<>
ARCHIVEsync…. 110 The Esplanade, Suite 611. Toronto. Ontario M5E 1X9

Joseph as a Fertility God


Item. “The assignment of fertility god imagery to the coat of many colors seems altogether arbitrary. Is there really a documented correspondence between fertility gods and parti-coloured coats?” ––Robert Alter.

Item. “I expect my main problem with Frye is the way he free-associates (or should I say frye-associates) in ways that I simply cannot follow (e.g., Joseph’s “coat of many colors” suggests to Frye that Joseph is a fertility god). Maybe I’m dim but I don’t see the connection, and whether it would disappear if we were to translate ketonet pasim correctly.” ––David Richter

Frye’s associating Joseph with fertility gods, as I indicated in an earlier post, goes back a long way. He makes the connection three times in essays he wrote while a student at Emmanuel College in the 1930s. It would have been helpful if Frye had provided a source for this link in his papers and in The Great Code. He didn’t, so we can only speculate. We know, first of all, that the dream interpreting priests of Bablyon were identified by their multicolored garments, and that might well be connected to Joseph’s coat of many colors. What seems more likely is that Frye picked up the association from the biblical scholarship of the time. Beatrice A. Brooks, for example, speculates that the Septuagint’s rendering of kĕthoneth pac, which changed the meaning to “coat of many colors,” might well have been a conscious editorial decision because such coats “suggested a fertility cult functionary” (“Fertility Cult Functionaries in the Old Testament,” Journal of Biblical Literature 60, no. 3 [September 1941], 250–1). W.E. Staples maintains that Joseph’s garment is “suspiciously like the veil worm by the virgin goddess Ishtar” (“Cultic Motifs in Hebrew Thought,” American Journal of Semitic Languages 55 [1938]: 47). Earlier William Foxwell Albright, the esteemed biblical archaeologist, had concluded that it was relatively certain that Joseph was worshipped at Shechem as a fertility god (“Historical and Mythical Elements in the Story of Joseph,” Journal of Biblical Literature 37, nos. 3–4 [1918], 115).

Such studies indicate that Frye was not making an arbitrary connection and that it’s easy enough to see how he might have derived the idea from the biblical scholars of time.



David Richter thinks that Alter has “skewered” Frye because Frye says that hebel or “vanity” in the KJV sometimes means “dense fog.” In the passage Alter has in mind Frye says, “We see by means of light and air: if we could see air we could see nothing else, and would be living in the dense fog that is one of the roots of the word ‘vanity’” (The Great Code 124). But there is nothing here that attributes the sense of “dense fog” to the author of Ecclesiastes. The point Frye is making has to do with mist or vapor, not density. He asks to us imagine a world in which we could see the air. The image for such a world would be fog or mist or vapor.

Shortly before this Frye has said, “This word (hebel) has a metaphorical kernel of fog, mist, or vapor, a metaphor that recurs in the New Testament (James 4:14). It thus acquires a derived sense of ‘emptiness,’ the root meaning of the Vulgate’s vanitas. To put Koheleth’s central intuition into the form of its essential paradox: all things are full of emptiness” (123). What is it here, in a passage that Alter conveniently ignores and that says nothing about density, that calls for skewering? It is well established that the literal meaning of hebel is “breath, breeze, vapor.” Tremper Longman III indicates that the word is usually used in a metaphorical way, signifying primarily either “meaningless” or “transitory” (The Book of Ecclesiastes [Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdman’s, 1998], 62). Frye’s “emptiness” (vanitas in the Vulgate) appears to me to embrace both primary meanings. A great deal of ink has been spilt over what the author of Ecclesiastes meant by hebel, including the claim that the word refers primarily to “nothingness” (J.E. McKenna, “The Concept of Hebel in the Book of Ecclesiastes,” Scottish Journal of Theology 45 [1992]: 19–28).

Some biblical critics agree with Alter that one of the primary meanings of hebel is “insubstantiality.” See, for example, Douglas B. Miller, Symbol and Rhetoric in Ecclesiastes: The Place of Hebel in Qohelet’s Work (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2002) and André Barucq, Ecclésiaste (Paris: Beauchesne, 1968), 55–6. But not all agree. According to Michael V. Fox and Bruno Pennacchini, hebel means “absurd” (Fox, “The Meaning of Hebel for Qohelet.” Journal of Biblical Literature 105 [September 1986]: 409–27; Pennacchini, “Qohelet ovvero il libra degli assurdi.” Euntes docete 30 [1977]: 491–501). According to Edwin M. Good it means “incongruous” or “ironic” (Irony in the Old Testament [London: SPCK, 1965], 176–83). The point is that the literature on the meaning of hebel is extensive, and it illustrates that Alter’s confident assertion about wispiness is open to debate––which is why it has been translated in so many different ways: vain, vanity, emptiness, nothing, futile, futility, meaningless, incomprehensible, incongruous, ironic, nothingness, and transitory, among others.

I think Michael Happy is right in saying that to focus on minutiae is to miss the point, but even the minutiae need to be fairly assessed.

Richter, Alter, Frye


The opening panel of R. Crumb’s The Book of Genesis, translated by Robert Alter

Thanks to David Richter for the engaging discussion of the last couple of days. I hope I am not belaboring matters by “piling on,” but I wanted to address some points that I believe are worth clarifying.

Concerning Alter’s catching Frye in his mistranslation of the word that is translated as “vanity” in the King James Bible: Frye does not say the word means fog; he says that the word “has a metaphorical kernel of fog, mist, or vapour” (143) –Alter translates it as mist, vapour, breath – and that “[i]t thus acquires a derived sense of ‘emptiness,’ the root meaning of the Vulgate’s vanitas.” Frye also notes that the word is echoed in James in the New Testament. The passage in James is: “Whereas ye know not what shall be on the morrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapour, that appeareth for a little time, and then vanisheth away.” The difference between fog and mist is the density of the vapor, a fairly hazy matter. Frye does go on in his discussion of Ecclesiastes to speak of “dense fog,” but this is a page later and in a different context: “We see by means of light and air: if we could see air we could see nothing else, and would be living in the dense fog that is one of the root words of the word ‘vanity’” (144). So actually, it hardly qualifies as a mistranslation and it does seem like quibbling on Alter’s part. Alter hardly skewers him, except perhaps in his own mind; he is skewering a phantom, since he doesn’t bother providing a fair representation of what Frye says in the first place.

As for “overarching unity,” Alter makes the very same point as Frye about the Bible’s unity and coherence in his discussion of allusion in The World of Biblical Literature: he writes that for all the Bible’s “diversity, there is also a kind of elastic consensus that expresses itself in certain shared values and concepts, accompanied by a shared set of images, idioms, model figures, and exemplary stories. . . . certain notions of God, man, nature, and history that came to define national consciousness were locked into these habits of allusion. God’s sovereign power seen as a transformation of primal chaos into order and the liberation from Egyptian bondage seen as the great sign of Israel’s historical election were so central that writers of the most disparate aims and backgrounds repeatedly rang the changes on these ideas as they had been classically formulated in Genesis and Exodus, respectively. Allusion, then, becomes an index of the degree to which ancient Hebrew literature was on its way from corpus to canon, even if certain later institutional notions of canonization would have been alien to it. For the prominent play of allusion requires that the sundry texts be put together, taken together, seen, eve in in their sharp variety, as an overarching unity.”

Alter of course downplays this unity (he admits it but resists the dynamic imaginative logic of the allusiveness he is discussing), and that is fair enough, since it is not what Alter is particularly interested in as a realist or mimetic critic (and he is a very good one, there is no doubt). But he does see the Bible as having, even in its “sharp variety,” “an overarching unity.”

Also, why such a denigration of typology? The Hebrew Bible or Old Testament, as Frye points out, “is much more genuinely typological without the New Testament than with it. There are, in the first place, events in the Old Testament that are types of later events recorded also within the Old Testament. . . . For Judaism the chief antitypes of Old Testament prophecy are, as in Christianity, the coming of the Messiah and the restoration of Israel, though of course the contexts differ” (102). Where else did the Jews who wrote the Gospels get the idea in the first place? They got it from their own Bible. Biblical typology and narrative are the basis of the West’s dialectical and revolutionary sense of history, and it didn’t come from Christian myth alone, but originally from Judaic myth. The Christian Bible and the way it presents itself to be read is not illegitimate simply because it includes as part of its canon the Hebrew scriptures and reads them in a different way and according to a different typology from that of the Hebrew Bible.

Nor is Frye a biblical scholar who can be readily accused of reading the Bible through Christian doctrine. As he points out, quite to the contrary his own Methodist roots gave him a strong sense of the Bible as story, as narrative, not as doctrine. His primary reading of the Bible is a reading of the King James Bible, precisely because he is interested in the Bible in its own right as an imaginative and “kerygmatic” structure, but also as a mythological and prophetic language of imagery and story that has deeply informed Western literature. Why should such an approach be scorned or dismissed out of hand, when it can give us deeper understanding of that culture and its literature?

I can certainly understand why one might want to call a critic like Bloom to task (and Alter does a very good job of it in The World of Biblical Literature), given the erratic and idiosyncratic nature of his criticism. But why make Frye, a critic and thinker of genuine genius and consistent and systematic interpretive principles and practice, the subject of the same ill treatment? Why is his form of criticism – which is in fact the farthest thing from free association – not as legitimate as the other biblical critics and theorists mentioned in your course outline, all of whose approaches are bound to be limited in one way or another? Some of the other critics you mention – but certainly not all – may have better Hebrew but, compared to Frye, their grasp of narrative structures and metaphorical imagery is rudimentary at best.