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The Bible's influence on Western Literature

Updated on August 7, 2014
Dante | Source

Christianity and Western Literature

The verdict is out on how much The Bible has influenced Western Philosophy. In part, because philosophy, since the post Renaissance era - Descartes and after - thinkers became interested in what they could know, and the three greats of philosophy: Descartes, Locke, and Kant, were all empiricists and utilitarians in some form or another, be it from different schools of thought, so religion was never their point - be it the three men did believe in a God - Descartes and Locke were Christians, and Kant was a deist. Having said this, The Bible did exert a strong influence on philosophy during medieval times - before Descartes....

Western Music has also been heavily influenced by scriptures, but this article is about literature, so both music and philosophy which I often discuss in other articles will be on the back burner.

However, literature is a different topic all together. What is implausible in reality is completely plausible in fiction, so The Bible's influence on Western literature has been unfathomable - from epic poems, short stories, novels, novellas, parables, quotes, poetry..., - too much to mention, cipher, and comprehend...!

Christianity was only known to few when Christ lived; and, Christianity was only known to few when The Four Gospels were written close to one hundred years after Christ's death. This article will focus on Christianity after it became Europe's central religion around 400 AD. Dante, in his "Divine Comedy," parodies this fact by placing the great Roman poet, Virgil, on the outskirts of Hell, stating that because he lived a few decades before Christ, he wasn't able to be saved, hence admission into Heaven was not granted after his death. However, Virgil was an okay sort of guy, this according to Dante of course, hence the reason God granted him a kind of zombie like existence after his death with no torture - between Heaven and Hell one might say.

Dante's Divine Comedy

Speaking of the big boy of literature Dante, we'll now discuss "The Divine Comedy," which is one of the indisputable greatest works of world literature, period. - The progenitor/mother of the Italian language, if one may be so bold as to say. Much of Hell is discussed in the last book of The Bible, known as "Revelation" aka "Apocalypse." Satan gets good airtime in this last book; he's described as dragon of sorts. Law, punishment, wrong/right are all weighed in Dante's poem, which was influenced by this famous/infamous last book of The Bible - Hell is separated/divided by different sections. Think of it as a great big building with different floors. I was describing Virgil on the previous paragraph and mentioning that his suffering was subdue due to him being an "okay kind of guy" so to speak. Well, Brutus doesn't fair so well. In fact, Dante places Brutus at the absolute bottom of Hell - non-stop torture of the most horrific kind are administered to Brutus every hour on the hour - the man responsible for the fall of the Roman Republic is the worst human being that ever lived - again, this being Dante's appraisal of the situation, because no one knows what God thinks of Brutus?... Killing, adultery, even a blind woman (Francesca di Rimini) who unknowingly cheats on your husband by mistake due to her blindness isn't forgiven. The work is actually a tour of Hell by Dante which commences on eve of Good Friday. In addition to Virgil, there are a few other greats of Roman/Italian culture that make cameos in this supreme work of literature - Aquinas is held in high esteem by Dante!... The work is divided in three sections - Inferno, Purgatorio, Paradiso. The work makes much reference to the Catholic Church, because Protestantism was not in mainstream when the work was composed between 1308-1321. Nonetheless, before this work was composed, Italian was a vernacular (Florence dialect), but many scholars feel that Dante's eloquent use of his native vernacular aka Italian, raised the language to new heights never before reached, and in doing so made it an official language, instead of the Florence Vernacular that it was.

Side note: In Dante's time, you had to be very careful not to enrage the Catholic Church, hence the reason the word "comedy" is in the title, so as not to confuse this narrative with the truth, or a serious/great work of literature - perhaps some of you may have questioned that, since there's nothing humorous about going to Hell for eternity. However, Dante got the last laugh, because not only is this a serious work of literature, but it's considered to be one of the greatest and most influential of all times!...

Milton's Paradise Lost

Well, Dante modeled his work after Hell and The Apocalypse, Milton decided on the beginning of time before The Garden of Eden - when Satan aka Lucifer was expelled from Heaven. A prequel... Prequels weren't as popular in Milton's time as they are today. Many of us have seeing ridiculous comedies involving - usually two young women or two young men who set out into the happens that the film becomes an unprecedented box office hit - years later a "prequel" is made to see just what these two young men/women were up to before the original movie.... Two good examples of prequels are the movies Dumb and Dumber and Romy and Michelle's High School Reunion - both these films were tremendous financial success, hence the reason for prequels later on.... A poignant point: to say Milton was brilliant, is an understatement if ever there was one; however, it doesn't take even the slightest amount of intelligence to cast the Devil and the most beautiful of all the angels. All one needs to do is read the Old Testament to come to this conclusion - Isaiah 14:12 to be exact. Today, many Hollywood narratives paint a picture of Satan as being horrific looking, which is not in accordance with scriptures, but popular among audiences nonetheless. Milton shows us the Lucifer/Satan of The Bible in all of his splendor and glory! In the tradition of Virgil, the work commences in "medias res" - middle of things. And, just as Dante did, Milton modeled his work after Virgil's "Aeneid." This work is one of the first great works of English literature, along with Francis Bacon's "Essays" and "King James version of The Bible."

Goethe's Faust

This work doesn't flow poetically as well as Virgil, Dante, or Milton (probably due to the German language not being as poetic as Latin or even it's Germanic counterpart, English...). Furthermore, the work is profound and very intellectual, requiring extensive knowledge of Philosophy, Greek Mythology, Religion, and Classical Antiquity as a whole in order to be fully understood. Part II of the tragedy is totally inconsistent with Part I - Part I is taught in German middle schools as curriculum, but Part II of the tragedy is only intellectually accessible to few.... It's in the line with other complex works of world literature such as T.S. Elliot's "Waste Land" and James Joyce's "Ulysses." Part I (the part which uses Biblical narratives) is a retelling of the 'Book of Job'. Satan wagers with God that he can get Faust to sell his soul to him for knowledge, which Faust does.... The 'Book of Job' is one of the most influential books of The Bible....

Final Thoughts

I chose these three great works of literature to express my point. However, there are so many works of literature influenced by The Bible that it'd be impossible to list them all. If such a book could be written, it would occupy a tremendous amount of space - we're talking miles and miles long. Dostoevsky, Dickens, Tolstoy and, even modern writers like James Joyce and Anton Chekhov were inspired by The Bible, not to mention obscure and little known writers who used scriptures as inspiration as well. Last, some writers like Nietzsche, used scriptures as comedic parodies for their intellectual, but twisted and esoteric philosophical ideas....


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    • John Sarkis profile imageAUTHOR

      John Sarkis 

      5 years ago from Los Angeles, CA

      Hi Marlene, thank you so much for stopping by and commenting.

      I tried to "pack it in a punch" as they say. However, there isn't enough space on our earth to put in all the books The Bible has influenced - infinite!...

      Take care of yourself!

    • MarleneB profile image

      Marlene Bertrand 

      5 years ago from USA

      This is a wonderful testament about the bible and how many authors, whether they admit it or not, borrow a lot of their material from the greatest book ever written. I really enjoyed reading your very enlightening publication.

    • John Sarkis profile imageAUTHOR

      John Sarkis 

      5 years ago from Los Angeles, CA

      Thank you Suzette. I'm glad you enjoyed my article.

      Take care. I hope you're having a great weekend!

    • suzettenaples profile image

      Suzette Walker 

      5 years ago from Taos, NM

      Great article! I found this interesting and fascinating. You have chosen the three greatest pieces of world literature that are based on the Bible. I would have chosen these same three myself. Voted up+ and shared.!

    • John Sarkis profile imageAUTHOR

      John Sarkis 

      5 years ago from Los Angeles, CA

      Hi Alicia,

      Thank you so much for stopping by and commenting.

      Enjoy your weekend!

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 

      5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      This is an interesting and informative hub, John. I enjoyed your analysis very much.

    • John Sarkis profile imageAUTHOR

      John Sarkis 

      5 years ago from Los Angeles, CA

      Hi Tirelesstraveler, go for it --- and thanks!!! Anything you do will be okay. I'm glad you enjoyed the article.

      Take care!

    • tirelesstraveler profile image

      Judy Specht 

      5 years ago from California

      May I link your hub to mine on the bible and literature? You have a beautifully written hub here I would like to promote. -Also shared on Face Book

    • John Sarkis profile imageAUTHOR

      John Sarkis 

      5 years ago from Los Angeles, CA

      Theresa, as usual you're too sweet and kind, and I appreciate very much. You know, I was thinking of doing another hub, but this time on Bible's influence on music - from Bach, to even Mahler, and so on. The Bible has influenced Western music almost as much as Western Lit.

      Thanks again and I hope you have a wonderful weekend


    • phdast7 profile image

      Theresa Ast 

      5 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      Wonderful John. I hadn't examined these works closely in 40 years since I was in college. Do several more hubs on this topic, like a series, each time examining different authors and how they drew upon and or incorporated biblical texts into their work. Really fascinating. :) Theresa Sharing.

    • John Sarkis profile imageAUTHOR

      John Sarkis 

      5 years ago from Los Angeles, CA

      So true... I think "Moby Dick" is probably the greatest American novel ever and it's really just a parody of scriptures. Twain, Faulkner, too many more to mention.

      Thank you for stopping by.

    • dahoglund profile image

      Don A. Hoglund 

      5 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      I think it is hard to understand American and other literature without some knowledge of the Bible. Much of the imagery in some works comes from Biblical knowledge. I would even say that the Bible should be taught (note: I know it is not Politically correct) in the schools. It should not be taught from a view of religious indoctrination. In the United States it whould probably be the St. James version(?) I am Catholic, so it is not the version I am most familiar with, but it is the one that most writer's knew. Faulkner is a writer who is full of such references, Mark Twain was not always reverent, but he knew the Bible.

      voted up, useful, and interesting . voted up and shared


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