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Literary Evolution in a Biblical Perspective

Christina Cunnane's picture

Literary Evolution in a Biblical Perspective

"Biological evolution is but part of the application of the evolutionary concept," (Calverton 520). Since Darwin's description of evolution as a process of change in biological systems, the word evolution has been applied to many subjects. V. F. Calverton describes modern thinking about history, philosophy, religion, and literature as a result of the process of evolution described by Darwin. Calverton explains in his article about literary evolution and social forces that "in almost every phase of thought, be it purely logical or experimental, man has learned to think in terms of the evolutionary concept," (Calverton 520). This is especially true in analyzing the work that embodies the culmination of literature and religion, the Bible. Evolution is commonly thought to be in competition with religion, especially that of Christianity. However, not even Christianity has been able to escape Darwin and his revolutionaries. The construction and generativity of the Bible demonstrate the ability for literature to be both a product and a source of evolution.

There are many versions of the Bible that have been combined, translated, or changed to create the finished product in the King James Version. The King James Version was the most accepted and celebrated English translation of the Bible. The more recent translations include the Revised Standard Version and the New English Bible which has been said Adam Nicolson to have been "motivated by the opposite, an anxiety not to bore or intimidate. It is driven, in other words, by the desire to please and, in that way, is a form of language which has died," (Yardley). (It is important to note that the Bible I shall refer to, unless specified, is the King James Version, which includes both the Old and New Testaments). The Bible is a collection of many books based on Scriptures. The translators of the Bible were responsible for piecing together work from previous sources. They were faced with the same challenges of what details to retain, change, or discard as authors are today. This act of selection itself is an excellent example of the evolutionary changes this piece of literature has undergone (Yardley).

The content of Bible has also gone through extensive evolution. The "original" Bible of Judaism contains the Torah, the Prophets and the Writings. These were taken as selections from previous Scriptures. The King James Version is the evolutionary product of the Hebrew Bible. This Christian version captures the entire contents of the Hebrew Bible. The "books of the Old Testament and their component parts may be identified as narratives, poetic works, prophetic works, law, or apocalypses," (Craddock). The many narratives present in the Old Testament include the books of Ruth, Jonah, and Ester. "It is likely that such books developed from folktales or legends," (Craddock). The folktales and legends evolved for a long time before being placed into the confines of a written work. However, the constraints of paper did not keep the Bible from becoming a non-narrative story.

The age of Jesus and his followers spawned the creation of the New Testament, most of which were written after Christ's death from 50AD to 150AD. All of the books were translated from Greek, although it has been said a few were originally in Aramaic. The language of the Greek New Testament was the common literary style during the time period. There were over 5000 Greek manuscripts that provided the basis for the 27 books of the New Testament. Like the Old Testament, the New Testament is the product of the literary evolution of these manuscripts. Many centuries were spent debating what was actually to be included in the accepted version. In 367AD Bishop Alexandria finalized the 27 books of the New Testament which remain the same today. In addition to Gospels, the New Testament contained narratives and other literary forms. Most of the narratives revolve around the birth of Jesus and his infancy (Craddock). Like narratives in the Hebrew Bible, the narratives in the Christian Bible serve as predecessors for future narratives.

The Bible itself is extremely generative. Countless numbers of literary works have either directly or indirectly referenced the stories or characters depicted in the Bible. Popular novels such as Moby Dick, The Grapes of Wrath, Catch 22, Howard's End, On Beauty, East of Eden, Absalom, Absalom!, Song of Solomon and many others contain countless references to the great book. The Chicago Tribune explains that "trying to understand American literature and history without some knowledge of the Bible is like trying to make sense of the ocean despite a complete ignorance of fish," (Schools). The Bible is one of the earliest steps in literary evolution, equivalent to that of the eukaryotic cell in biological evolution. The degree of generativity is important proportional to the time lapsed; an ancient protist is more likely to create a higher degree of diversity than an extinct primate. The Bible is an extremely tool in analyzing literature and many teachers have expressed the need for students to be familiar with the Bible as a purely literary work (Schools).

The Bible is the most widely distributed book in the world and is extremely important as a literary work. "The literature, art, and music of Western culture in particular are deeply indebted to biblical themes, motifs, and images" (Craddocks). The innumerable examples of literature that have made references to or are direct tributes to the Bible reveal that it is extremely generative. The generativity of the Bible allowed it to be the evolutionary ancestor of future works. The "patchwork" done during the construction of the Bible shows that it was the product of literary evolution. The combining/changing of the Scriptures and manuscripts reveal that even religious literature is not immune to evolutionary forces. The story of creation is a product of evolution!


Works Cited


Calverton, V. F. “Social Forces and the Evolution of Literature.” Social Forces, Vol. 4, No.3. (Mar.,1926), pp. 519-522. Accessed 4/20/07.


Craddock, Fred B. and Gene M. Tucker. “Bible.” Microsoft Encarta Online Encyclopedia 2007. Accessed 4/20/07.


“Schools Need to Teach Religion.” The Chicago Tribune May 2005. Accessed 4/20/07.


Yardley, Jonathon. “’God’s Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible by Adam Nicolson.” Washington Post May 2003: BW02. Accessed 4/20/07.