Evans-Pritchard once wrote, having in mind the fog in which, so he thought, the discussion of primitive religion had been plunged by Frazer, Durkheim, Marett, and others, that anyone who wanted to do fieldwork on this topic ought to have “a poetic mind which moves easily in images and symbols.”1 Such a prerequisite seems even more obviously needed for the study of the Bible. The materials in the Biblical writings (the Bible, in what I have to say about Frye’s book, is the Christian Bible, the so-called Old and New Testaments, with the apocryphal—deuterocanonical—books, Ecclesiasticus, Wisdom, I and II Maccabees, and others) include most of the traditional kinds of oral and written work: epic, chronicle, folk tale, myth of origin, epithalamion, songs of exile, collections of proverbs, letters, biographies, proclamations of salvation, apocalyptic visions.

Put together in the King James Version, they are the most widespread cult object in North America, for they rest on or near every bedside table in hotel and motel. New vernacular translations of the original Hebrew and Greek continually appear and are bought in great quantities. What it all amounts to is hard to determine. University teachers report (Professor Frye confirms the report) that their pupils—sometimes their younger colleagues—don’t know the content of the Bible and don’t know how to read the perplexing volume. Off-the-cuff references, in lectures, to Joseph and his wonderful coat, the deliverance from Egypt, the theophany of the burning bush, the suffering servant of Isaiah, the parable of the laborers of the eleventh hour or the prodigal son, Paul’s shipwreck on the shores of Malta, rarely produce a response. We know there are those who scrutinize the text for news of the coming of Antichrist and Armageddon; but we may think this has a lot in common with the hunger for fantasies (worlds in collision, flying saucers, babies possessed by demons) and the vogue of such follies as palmistry and astrology.

The ignorance of the highly intelligent seeking an advanced education in the humanities presents the universities with a technical problem, namely, how to make the body of literature in English intelligible, for Langland, Chaucer, Milton, Blake, Hardy, Henry James, Joyce, cannot be fully grasped and valued by readers who have no serious acquaintance with the Bible. (For example, The Wings of the Dove draws its pattern of feeling and not simply its title from Psalm 55: “For it is not an open enemy, that hath done me this dishonour: for then I could have borne it…. But it was even thou, my companion: my guide, and mine own familiar friend…. The words of his mouth were softer than butter…: his words were smoother than oil” [Book of Common Prayer version].)

Northrop Frye meets Evans-Pritchard’s requirement. He has “a poetic mind” and is as well the most ingenious and comprehensive of the formal critics writing in English today. As a systematic thinker about the theory and practice of his own art he has no equal. His Anatomy of Criticism2 tightened up the practice and enriched the vocabulary of literary studies. We can say he completed what had been begun by Eliot in “Tradition and the Individual Talent”: the exploration of the literatures of the past as composing an order to be circumnavigated, surveyed, and accounted for. Frye is not just a highly intelligent man of letters, as Trilling was, or Edmund Wilson. His mind is synoptic and orders—sometimes to excess—its material; so far these powers have been shown most impressively in Fearful Symmetry,3 his book on Blake, and in the exposition of forms, categories, ways of proceeding, in the Anatomy.

Frye’s notion of criticism, as it is set out and practiced in the Anatomy, is “the whole work of scholarship and taste concerned with literature which is a part of what is variously called liberal education, culture, or the study of the humanities.” Such criticism has a variety of tasks; the most important is to give a voice to what is dumb, to make the verbal fiction itself deliver up its secrets. Imaginative literature is not (Frye argues) communication, but “a disinterested use of words”; “poems are as silent as statues.”

We have to proceed inductively, rummaging through the great heap that is literature. There may be difficulties over what things are to count as data for the critic, what verbal structures are to count as parts of the heap. The difficulties are overcome—the move in argument is like Burke’s in justifying the authority of traditional institutions—by prescription, not by a discussion of conflicting value judgments. We can then look at the material under four headings: a theory of Modes, of Symbols, of Myths, of Genres. These broad topics are then divided under headings: the theory of Modes, for example, treated historically, divides into the mode of fiction in general, then into the tragic and comic fictional modes, and into thematic modes. A particular topic, imagery (which comes under the theory of Myths), for example, divides up into apocalyptic, demonic, and analogical.


This doesn’t do justice to the fineness of detail in the analysis, but it indicates Frye’s mode of procedure, which he keeps to in The Great Code. He sometimes argues that the persistence, over long periods, of similarities of structure in imaginative fictions means that underlying this unity of culture there “must” be “a common psychological inheritance.” “Must” is a dire word in argument, suggesting a transcendental argument, as in Kant, from what is empirically given to what must be the case if this is given. The argument could be truistic, but then there would be no point in saying “must.”

In the index of the Anatomy there are more references to the Bible than to any other set of books, except the poems and plays of Shakespeare. The Bible is followed closely by Aristotle, Plato, Dante, Milton, and Blake. Thus Frye is concerned with European literary culture in a broad sense; but his primary interest is in the imaginative, visionary expression of this way of taking the world, a way he believes belongs to the essence of humanity, not submerged in nature as are the other animals, but living in a universe of myth. The Bible is in the Christian era a principal contributor to our visionary account of the universe and of ourselves within it. If we are to move easily within our inherited culture, knowing how to read the Bible is not something we can do without.

The Bible, as a compilation of many books, as a sacred volume constituted by a canon or rule including this book, excluding that, and as a source of influence within literature, has plainly been squatting in Frye’s path for a long time. Sensing in his pupils the lack of knowledge and competence we have already noticed, he has given a course on the Bible for many years, and some of The Great Code comes presumably from what was first roughed out for his fortunate students. The Bible is not, for him, just literature; it is kerygma, proclamation of a saving message, not, Frye is anxious to make clear, as expressing or being a foundation for a doctrine, but kerygma nonetheless; what this implies we must presently ask. Its suitability as material for commentary by the critic and the theorist of criticism lies in its use of so many literary modes, in its offering in rich confusion metaphor, metonymy, symbol, analogy, and other figures of language in its complete account, as it were, of human history and of human mind and self-reflection: “creation, exodus, law, wisdom, prophecy, gospel, and apocalypse.”

The program of The Great Code is most conveniently stated in Fearful Symmetry.

The basis of the Bible is, like that of the epic, religious and historical saga concerned with anthropomorphic gods and theomorphic men, part of it legendary history and part prophetic vision. But the Bible is neither a single work of art like the Iliad, nor an expanded one like Mahabharata: it is the historical product of a visionary tradition. It records a continuous reshaping of the earlier and more primitive visions, and as it goes on it becomes more explicitly prophetic, until the confused legends of an obscure people take the form of the full cyclic vision of fall, redemption and apocalypse. The Old Testament begins with an account of an escape from Egypt into Canaan led by Joshua, and ends with the prophetic allegorical recreation of this event: the escape of the imagination from a “furnace of iron” into a City of God through the power of a divine humanity or Messiah.

The Gospels consolidate this vision of the Messiah into the vision of Jesus, who has the same name as Joshua, and the proof of the events in Jesus’ life, as recorded in the Gospels, is referred not to contemporary evidence but to what the Old Testament prophets had said would be true of the Messiah. The imaginative recreation of Old Testament visions in the New Testament, reaching its climax in the dense mosaic of allusions and quotations in the Apocalypse, merely completes a process which goes on to a considerable extent within the Old Testament itself.4

Frye is able to take the Bible in English as an established fact that doesn’t in practice raise severe problems for the critic whose Hebrew and Greek may not reach professional standards. Judaism and Christianity have always been hospitable to the idea of translation. In this they differ from Islam: the Koran is tied to Arabic in a way the Jewish and Christian Scriptures are not tied to Hebrew and Greek. There have been four great translations: the LXX (the Septuagint, for the Greek-speaking Jews of the pre-Christian diaspora), Jerome’s Latin Vulgate, the King James Bible (Authorized Version), and Luther’s Bible. (The best of the modern English translations, the Revised Standard Version, is closely tied to the King James.) We have to keep the original languages in mind, and profit from what the specialists tell us; but in practice it has to be assumed that a critical reading of the classic translations is sufficient for the study of the whole Bible. Specialized scholars don’t go in for this; only theologians and exceptionally vigorous literary scholars have the courage to attempt synthetic and synoptic accounts.


The central idea of The Great Code is that of the many ways of reading to which the Bible invites us one is of capital importance: it has to be read typologically, not because this is an interesting pattern after we have given the kaleidoscope a shake, but because this is how the Biblical authors, in the main, wrote.

To take the most majestic of the types, the “And God said, ‘let there be light”‘ (Genesis 1:3) has as its antitype the prologue to the Fourth Gospel: “In the beginning was the Word…. All things were made through him…. In him was life, and the life was the light of men” (John 1:1-4). The Exodus is so much the dominant collection of types for the entire Bible that Frye can even write “that mythically the Exodus is the only thing that really happens in the Old Testament.” Moses’ organization of the Israelites into twelve tribes finds its antitype in the twelve apostles; the passage through the Red Sea signifies baptism; manna signifies the Eucharist; the Law is given from Sinai and thus the most celebrated collection of moral counsels in the New Testament is the “Sermon on the Mount.” In all the Gospels the passion and death of Jesus are centered upon (despite the slight difference of timing between the Synoptics and the Fourth Gospel) the Passover; the Last Supper is a Passover meal, the Crucifixion is the journey through the desert, the Resurrection is victory over Israel’s enemies.

This is how the Bible has always been treated liturgically, in both the Jewish and the Christian traditions, though some of what is for the Christians realized antitype is for Jewish believers still to come (compare, for example, how Isaiah 53 would be read by the two sets of believers). The type-antitype relation is brought out plainly in the prayers and ritual actions of the Seder; among the Christian liturgies perhaps the most magnificent celebration of the relation is in the “Exsultet” of the Holy Saturday liturgy; this contains the famous “O certe necessarium Adae peccatum…. O felix culpa…. O vere beata nox…” (O truly necessary sin of Adam…. O happy fault…. O night blessed indeed…).

Why the typological tradition should, despite its liturgical repetition, have for so many dropped out of mind is a many-sided question. Perhaps an important cause has been a presupposition, sometimes stated, sometimes taken for granted, of much liberal Protestant work on the Bible: that the Bible records a progressive change from the primitive and barbaric, if monolatrous, society reflected in the Pentateuch to the ethical monotheism of the Prophets, and then on to the pure ethical doctrine that can be extracted from the New Testament once it is purged of apocalyptic discourse and once it is separated (as by Matthew Arnold in Literature and Dogma and St. Paul and Protestantism) from its dead carapace of Hebraicisms.

In placing typology at the foundation of his reading of the Bible Frye has done much to rob the presupposition of its plausibility. And it is the types seeking, as it were, their antitypes, antitypes turning into types that have other antitypes, the whole to-and-fro movement of a searching reading of the Bible, that makes it proper to describe the volume as The Great Code (though there is a further implication that the Bible is a code for the deciphering of the secular literature into which it has entered in its text and through its spirit).

Typology gives us only the skeleton of Scripture. There are many poetic devices that make up the density and richness of the Bible. Metaphor is picked out by Frye as one of the determining modes of Biblical discourse. We have the imagery of Eden-Paradise, an oasis imagery of trees and water, Frye remarks, having a special charm for those who were originally desert nomads. The Bible moves between the images of pastoral life, shepherds, sheep, good shepherds, lost sheep, and those of the city, Jerusalem, the city of David, the place of the Temple, consigned to desecration and destruction, the place where God’s wrath and justice are manifested in destruction and reconstruction; and finally “the Jerusalem above…, and she is our mother” (Galatians 4:26). The identification involved in metaphor is a curious, even a troublesome problem, and what Frye has to say deserves careful thought; he is certainly right in resisting moves to make metaphor no more than condensed simile or a mere metonymic reminder.

Frye’s assembly of considerations and arguments, praisings and blamings, aphorisms, Chestertonian jokes, obiter dicta, needs and will receive thorough examination and criticism from scholars and critics. Here I confine myself to raising one question, a fundamental one, as I believe, that is forced upon us by Frye: what is the place of the Bible in human life? What is the Bible about? What is the connection of what is said by the Biblical writers with the world of human history? These are simply ways of breaking down the question generated by the collision of Frye’s view with the view of the believer. I don’t assert that “the view of the believer” is something transparent and easily stated; but we have in some way to come to terms with it, precisely because Frye insists that the Bible is kerygma, the proclamation of a saving message, a collection of the oracles of God. This is not what the nineteenth-century liberal (Arnold is again the apposite figure) thought the Bible was; and it is not how students of “the Bible as literature” have taken it.

I understand Frye’s argument in the following way. The Bible has the structure of two mirrors, each reflecting the other; and what the Biblical writers say refers in a primary sense, even where the intention of the writer seems historical, to other parts of the Bible. It is isolated from ordinary questions about truth and fact—to raise such questions is a solecism into which both fundamentalists and radical critics fall. Its function is not to point beyond itself, and to summon us to faith, with its conjoined virtues of humility and obedience, but to elevate us beyond faith to the higher life of vision. Our encounter with the Bible can induce in us a version of what Frye calls “upward metamorphosis,” the making of all things new spoken about at the end of the Apocalypse.

…the Bible deliberately blocks off the sense of the referential from itself: it is not a book pointing to a historical presence outside it, but a book that identifies itself with that presence. At the end the reader, also, is invited to identify himself with the book. Milton suggests that the ultimate authority in the Christian religion is what he calls the Word of God in the heart, which is superior even to the Bible itself, because for Milton this “heart” belongs not to the subjective reader but to the Holy Spirit. That is, the reader completes the visionary operation of the Bible by throwing out the subjective fallacy along with the objective one. The apocalypse is the way the world looks after the ego has disappeared.

As no one knows better than Frye, the questions that press upon us once we reflect on referential, descriptive, and other uses of language, on the logical status of fiction, the sense and testability of particular historical statements, on metaphor and metonymy, on the connections of sense with reference (to use Frege’s standard example, “the evening star” and “the morning star” differ in sense but have the same reference), and other topics, are many and teasing. In most kinds of writing there is no need to be wary and to raise such questions, but here we must. We read, for example, that (Frye is following Aristotle) “History makes particular statements,” whereas “Poetry expresses the universal in the event, the aspect of the event that makes it an example of the kind of thing that is always happening”; and later that “A myth is designed not to express a specific situation but to contain it in a way that does not restrict its significance to that one situation”; and then we come to the conclusion that “Its [the myth’s] truth is inside its structure, not outside.”

One can’t read this without raising questions here about “inside” and “outside,” and about how we get, as we surely must, from our knowledge of particular happenings to the kind of thing that is always happening. I think we are meant to think that Frye has clarified a set of problems, whereas he has complicated very greatly these problems and added a quite unnecessary one, namely, how the truth of a myth, at least where it is to be considered “poetic”—and Frye thinks “the Biblical myths are closer to being poetic than to being history” (the truth I take it being the universal)—is inside the structure of the myth. Does this mean we mustn’t fidget and ask silly questions about the archaeology of Ur of the Chaldees or Jericho or about whether or not there was an Exodus from Egypt? Plainly these are not the only questions, and perhaps not the most important questions, about the Biblical stories; but they can’t be proscribed.

Immediately after this excursus on myth and history, Frye stresses the impossibility of taking the Bible as through and through poetic; if we were to do this “we should have no criteria for distinguishing…Jesus from the prodigal son of his own parable.” This seems right. But once we have allowed the distinction between fiction and fact, between poetry and history, to be made, then it seems inadequate to argue “that if anything historically true is in the Bible, it is there not because it is historically true but for different reasons.” What can these be? Well, they “have something to do with spiritual profundity or significance.” This seems weak, even when Frye elucidates spiritual profundity by referring to the admittedly poetic and unhistorical book of Job or to the heroic stories of enslavement and deliverance, stories in which “priority is given to the mythical structure or out-line of the story,” in Judges.

Frye’s emphasis throughout is that if we want to understand the Bible, we can only do so by examining the intentions of the Biblical writers themselves. If we do this, then we seem forced to conclude that the historical and, if we must use the phrase, the spiritually profound are conceived by them otherwise than Frye supposes. The catharsis, or whatever it is Frye thinks to be brought about by a faithful reading of the Bible, is connected in some cases with its reference to what lies outside the poetic myth or the literary aspect of the structure of typology. There are many instances of this. I choose only one: Paul’s insistence on the non-mythical, historical, brutally factual character of the Crucifixion. When he writes (I Corinthians 1:23) that “we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles,” we may gloss what he says as follows. To the Gentiles the preaching is foolish; for the Greek world is full of stories about dying, suffering, and resurrected gods, but these things happen in illo tempore (as Mircea Eliade puts it), not “under Pontius Pilate.” As to the Jews, here is the Messiah of promise, this scarecrow figure on a gibbet; and for this to be a stumbling block it has to be as historical as the Roman procurator under whom the Crucifixion happened.

I don’t here want to dispute over Paul’s claim, but simply to note it; for if we are to accept Frye’s view that the Bible has a double-mirror structure, and that this structure represents the intentions of the authors, then we have also to note that here the intention is to use the structure and at the same time to go beyond it: to take the crucified one as the antitype of the figure in Isaiah 53 (“he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities,” v. 5) and also to assert that the antitype is to be identified with a given man, Jesus of Nazareth, who belongs to history in the same way as do Paul and Gamaliel. What Frye a little contemptuously calls the scholars’ “obsession with the Bible’s historicity” is perfectly justified by the ethos and concerns of some of the Biblical writers themselves. Whether or not there is good evidence for what the writers assert as historical is another, and logically independent, question. But they do make such assertions, and stress that their historicity is crucially significant.

There are many other difficulties in Frye’s treatment of a number of questions. He falls too easily into persuasive definition: e.g., “there is no real evidence for the life of Jesus outside the New Testament”—a bullying way of saying that Frye doesn’t think the evidence outside the New Testament is sufficient. There are several loose—too loose—generalizations about Marxism, of the kind that have been repeated from author to author during the past fifty years: e.g., “The burning-bush contract introduces a revolutionary quality into the Biblical tradition, and its characteristics persist through Christianity, through Islam, and survive with little essential change [persuasive definition again] in Marxism.”

But this is a magnificent book, a necessary recall to some fundamental principles of Biblical interpretation, and a collection of problems and questions of the first importance for critics, Biblical scholars, and the educated public in general. If I were asked to pick out the best thing in the book, I should choose the three pages (pp. 123-125) on Ecclesiastes, perhaps the most misunderstood and under-appreciated book in the Bible. Frye shows that the weary cynicism often attributed to the author is a misreading. “Only when we realize that nothing is new can we live with an intensity in which everything becomes new.” I ended my second reading of The Great Code with feelings of pleasure and envy: Frye’s architectonic power is so astonishing.5

Professor Alter’s approach is that of the literary critic, not that of the general theorist. He takes the Hebrew texts of the Jewish Bible and subjects them to the kind of critical analysis one might apply to Shakespeare or Proust. Of course, the stories of Ruth and of David the King, to choose two of his mostloved subjects, have a character quite unlike anything else in literature. The combination in the history of Israel of literary skill, moral passion, consciousness of mission, with low economic development and third-rate political status, is a marvel. We might well say that never has the world owed so much to so few.

The fundamental question is: “What role does literary art play in the shaping of biblical narrative?” To answer this question Alter has to move over some of the same ground as Frye, though he doesn’t have to consider typology as having significance beyond the Hebrew Bible. But he necessarily stresses the quasi-symphonic character of the writings, the extent to which we are offered certain basic themes with a multitude of variations, “type-scenes”—the barren wife and the fertile concubine, the annunciation to the barren, the encounter at the well with the chosen maiden, and others—that provide “the grid of conventions upon which, and against which, the individual work operates.” Again, he is also concerned with metaphor. He says very finely that the stones that seem to accompany Jacob’s career are more than symbolic, though they are this: “there is something incipiently metaphorical about them: Jacob is a man who sleeps on stones, speaks in stones, wrestles with stones, contending with the hard unyielding nature of things.” But such considerations are always urged with a view to a fuller analysis of the literary work.

Alter’s work is in part an attack upon what he calls “the modern provincialism of assuming that ancient writers must be simple because they are ancient.” He tries to show, on the whole with success, that the astonishing literary effects often achieved by the authors of the Bible and the “redactors” who wove together their material from different sources are the results of art and not of artlessness. Sometimes the argument seems a bit strained, as, for instance, when he argues that the conflict between Genesis 1:26, 27 and 2:18-24, the conflict between the creation of man as at once male and female and the separate creation of Eve from Adam’s rib, “makes perfect sense as an account of the contradictory facts of woman’s role in the post-edenic scheme of things”; we have side by side, in the milieu of the redactor, the conventions of a patriarchal society and the thin line of a contrary woman-centered tradition, that in which Rebekah, Tamar, Deborah, Ruth stand. It is surely more plausible to argue, with Dr. E.A. Speiser, that the reverence of the redactor for the sources called “J” and “P” by scholars is such that he didn’t feel free to eliminate what seem, at least on the surface, to be discrepancies between the two accounts, or difficulties within each account.6 What Alter writes here seems to reflect the pressure of today’s moral concerns.

We do not find in the Bible the mimetic techniques of Joyce or Proust, techniques which in a vulgarized form are now common in the novel at every level of art. In the narratives in which the subject matter is to us novelistic, an effect of great complexity, with strong emotional resonance, is achieved with means that seem to us very frugal. This is true of the stories of Joseph and his brethren, Joseph and Potiphar’s wife, Joseph the interpreter of dreams. And it is true of the story of David, the youngest son of Jesse, keeping his flocks away from the world, his heroism in the battle with the Philistines, his ambiguous son-father relation, as it were, with Saul (Frye acutely calls Saul the only tragic hero in the Bible, surprising because the whole character of the Bible is that of divine comedy), his capture of the kingdom, the adultery with Bathsheba and the compassing of the death of Uriah, the death of the fruit of the adulterous relation between David and Bathsheba, the rape of Tamar, the career of Absalom and his death, the growing weariness of David, the haggling over the succession (Nathan the prophet and Bathsheba whispering over the bed of the failing king), the death of the king with Solomon already on the throne.

Alter shows what the basic features of narrative technique are. There is the initial statement (e.g., Ruth 1:1-5) which sets out the location of the story, or where it starts out from, the names of the characters, and their relationships (this is an enduring feature of narrative technique—Robinson Crusoe begins this way, as do all Jane Austen’s novels except Pride and Prejudice, which begins with an apothegm). The main burden of the writer’s task rests upon the account of what is done by the characters and by what they say to each other. Accounts of just how things are done make no attempt at detail (when, very occasionally, we are given such a detail as how Jacob disguised his hands the effect is powerfully felt), actions are named rather than described, and self-revelation is given over to a direct speech that is not egoistic or expressive in the ways familiar to us. Alter is able to show in detail how with such frugal means emotional tensions are depicted, complexity of motivation suggested, pathos achieved.

There are some particular ways in which the basic techniques are enriched; of these the leading one is the use of the Leitwort, the leading word which, with other forms of repetition, enables the Biblical writers to impose a thematic unity on what we might suspect ought to have been a jerky, inconsequential narrative but nevertheless isn’t so. For example, the Hebrew form of the verb “to see” and its related forms are shown to be thematically important in I Samuel, chapter 16. Naturally, a full response to the Leitwort is possible only to the reader of Hebrew. Martin Buber, whose account of the Leitwort phenomenon is in Alter’s view definitive, and Franz Rosenzweig are commended for catching the Leitwort with some success in their German translation.

What underlies all the technical devices, and gives them their bite, is, in Alter’s view, the conception of what it is to be human that is common to the Biblical writers. Man is free, self-determined, and this imposes on the writer a certain reticence, even ignorance. Curiously, it is this that gives a note of modernity to the Bible, as compared to other writings of antiquity (this is one of Auerbach’s great topics in Mimesis).

…the underlying biblical conception of character as often unpredictable, in some ways impenetrable, constantly emerging from and slipping back into a penumbra of ambiguity, in fact has greater affinity with dominant modern notions than do the habits of conceiving character typical of the Greek epics. The monotheistic revolution in consciousness profoundly altered the ways in which man as well as God was imagined, and the effects of that revolution probably still determine certain aspects of our conceptual world more than we suspect.

It is almost a cant phrase to say of a work that it is “seminal” and its use as commendation is sometimes mere puffery. But the works of Frye and Alter do seem to have within them much to be developed. Of course, this is to say that the Bible itself is seminal. In saying so, one can scarcely be thought to be going in for mere puffery.

This Issue

April 15, 1982