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In What Ways Is the Bible a Religious Text?

Though the Bible is often read as a religious text, its contents reflect ethnic, geographical, and political concerns, not just theological ones.

Torah scroll
Torah scroll

The question of how the Bible is a religious text is a difficult one, as the answers depend on our time frame: do we mean the period of the Bible’s origins or its later uses? In the Christian tradition, the Bible has historically functioned, and continues to function, as religious literature. But when we distinguish the New Testament from the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible, and look at the Hebrew Bible in its Israelite or Jewish context, things get a lot trickier.

First we must ask, what is religion? It is relatively easy to define the related term theology, which is the systematic study of concepts of the divine and their implications. Yet almost anything could qualify in one way or another as religion. For students of religion, everything is fair game, from the NFL Super Bowl in American public life to the extended mourning conducted by elephants after the death of one of their herd’s members. Religion can refer to activities that deal not just with the divine but also with death, our most sacred life events, and the collective rituals of our communities and societies.

Conventionally, we demarcate spheres of our lives that are religious from those that are secular. Yet most societies of the ancient world did not demarcate religious and nonreligious spheres of life; the two spheres were one and the same. Our modern division between “church and state” would have made little sense to the authors of the Bible. Hence we must be very careful when we apply the term religious to ancient settings

However, we can certainly identify various aspects of life in ancient Israel, and throughout ancient western Asia, that relate specifically to temples, priests, and prophets, as well as rituals and sacred feasts and boundaries between the holy and the profane.

As for the Hebrew Bible, much of it has to do with the divine. Yet at what level is this a collection of religious writings?

Many of the Psalms address Israel’s deity in prayers of petition or thanksgiving. They may have been performed during holy festivals and at regular temple services. The book of Lamentations contains numerous passages in which the lamenter turns directly to the deity. Although prophetic literature contains similar laments, more often its authors bring a message to Israel from their god. The Pentateuch is in many ways similar to prophetic literature, with Moses communicating the divine word to Israel. This word appears in various forms: discourses, teachings, sermons, and laws, with the laws often treating such matters as sacrifice, ritual, priestly conduct, and the sanctuary.

Yet, although many of the Hebrew Bible’s texts relate to “holy” matters, a significant proportion address concerns of a more general nature. Long stretches of narrative have little if anything to do with what one would conventionally define as religious. Certainly these narratives may provoke the reader to contemplate questions of a moral character. But so do many other kinds of literature that no one would ever think of as religious. In many cases, the biblical authors are more interested in questions of a political nature—land distribution, treatment of marginal persons, national origins, structures of authority, or collective life.

Together, the biblical texts may be best understood as a general educational curriculum meant to consolidate disparate communities into a single people with a common history, laws, territory, deity, temple, heroes, future, and above all, a common text. This purpose accounts for the combination in one book of diverse historical accounts, laws, wisdom sayings, prophetic collections, and songs. Though, beginning in the late the Second Temple period, many biblical texts would have been used in temple services and recited during holidays, biblical writings were read most vigorously in private homes, houses of study, and synagogues.

The question of the Bible’s religious character requires that we consider the impact of a major historical event in the life of the Jewish people: the destruction of the second temple, which resulted in the Jews’ loss of sovereignty and the growth of the Diaspora (after 70 C.E.). This cataclysmic upheaval demanded from Jews new strategies for interpreting biblical texts, since so many of these texts concern matters of collective political life in the promised land.   

One of the most fascinating developments in the Second Temple period (beginning in the fifth century B.C.E.) is the central place the Torah came to occupy in religious life, competing with and eventually replacing the altar. (This function is depicted for example in Neh 8. Some refer to this development as the textualization of religion.

For Christian readers, the differences between their world and that of the biblical writers were even more radical. Originating in the Greco-Roman world, the early church shared the global, transnational orientation that characterizes this age. The communities for whom the gospels and apostolic letters were composed were groups defined by their theological beliefs and by the social practices that followed from these beliefs. For this reason, the New Testament writings qualify in a certain sense as religious texts, if by religious we mean communities that formed primarily around theological rather than ethnic, geographical, or political identity.

The Hebrew Bible served as the basis of all subsequent Christian scripture. Yet, because much of the received Jewish canon treats matters of a more general political, territorial, and ethnic character, Christian readers had to develop interpretational techniques with which to excavate deeper, enduring spiritual meanings that were appropriate to the nonethnic, nonterritorial, nonpolitical nature of the churches. Guiding this enterprise was a shift in understanding the Bible, accenting the Bible’s theological and spiritual character. The Hebrew Bible came to be conceived by many as an exclusively “religious” text with little value for “secular” life. As a consequence, the Hebrew Bible’s diverse genres and cohesive social purpose are often disregarded.

This transformation has undoubtedly contributed to the Bible’s historical impact. Yet it has a downside as well: nonreligious readers often come to the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament with the assumption that this is a religious text addressing only spiritual or theological matters. The effect is that—in contrast to, say, classical Greco-Roman myths of divine beings—the Bible’s diverse contents (such as its profound political thought) are now widely disregarded.


  • Jacob L. Wright

    Jacob L. Wright is associate professor of Hebrew Bible at Emory University.  He  taught for several years at the University of Heidelberg and is the author of a number of articles on Ezra-Nehemiah as well as Rebuilding Identity: The Nehemiah Memoir and Its Earliest Readers, which won a 2008 Templeton prize, the largest prize for first books in religion. He delivered the prestigious 2010-11 lecture in Milieux biblique at the Collège de France in Paris, and was awarded a 2011-12 National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship.