Ancient Period, ?-A.D. 476



The ancient period stretches from the beginnings of civilization thousands of years ago to the fall of the Roman Empire in A.D. 476. Among the many civilizations that produced literature during this period were the Hebrews, Greeks, and Romans. Although the many differences among these and other cultures make it difficult to identify a dominant philosophy or literary style of this period, we can see a few general patterns. For example, many ancient works--including the Hebrew Bible, the Greek Odyssey, and the Roman Aeneid--feature larger-than-life protagonists in epic struggles.

The Book of Genesis is the first book of the Hebrew Bible, a collection of writings sacred to both Jews and Christians. Known as the Old Testament to Christians, the Hebrew Bible consists of about 40 books written in the Hebrew language thousands of years ago and tells the story of early Jewish people, including Abraham, Jacob, Rachel, Moses, David, and Job, emphasizing their covenant with God. Centuries after the composition of the Hebrew Bible, the work of Jesus, himself a Jew, led to the development of a new religion, Christianity. After Jesus's death, a number of writers composed several new books, which came to be known as the New Testament. This collection, written primarily in Greek, focuses on the life, death, and teachings of Jesus, as well as the early days of Christianity. Thus, the Christian Bible consists of both the Old Testament and the New Testament.

While the Bible is of obvious religious value to millions of Jews and Christians, it also is perhaps the most important work of literature produced by Western civilization. It has shaped the outlooks and thus the works of many great writers, and it shows up in the form of allusions in their works. Furthermore, it is a great work of literature in its own right, packed with interesting characters, complex themes, and stylistic flourishes.

Study Questions and Exercises

  1. Look up the word "genesis" in a hardback college dictionary, such as The American Heritage College Dictionary. In your own words, explain how the word is pronounced, what it means, and how it came into the English language. How does understanding this word help you to understand the Book of Genesis? What examples of genesis do you see in the book? Use this same procedure to make sense of other unfamiliar words, such as "firmament" and "cubit." 
  2. Look up "motif" in A Handbook to Literature and record its definition in your own words. Identify some motifs in the Book of Genesis. What is the significance of each? Try to connect some of these motifs to those found in other works of literature, such as the New Testament. 
  3. Is the Book of Genesis a narrative or a collection of narratives? Defend your answer. 
  4. A source of controversy among those who have read the Bible is the question of whether it is to be taken "literally." What is the difference between literal and figurative language? Analyze two or three passages from the Book of Genesis and argue that they should be read literally or figuratively. 
  5. Analyze some of the book's characters, such as Abraham, Jacob, even God. What are their motivations? 
  6. In his book Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, literary scholar Erich Auerbach describes various methods that writers use to make their work realistic. What characteristics of the Book of Genesis give it the feel of reality? How is it different from other stories you have read? 
  7. Originally written in Hebrew, the Old Testament has undergone numerous translations, first into Greek and Latin, and later into English, as well as many other languages. Using the bibliography below, find two English translations of the Old Testament and compare the language in a passage from each. For example, you might compare the versions of the story of Esau's granting of his birthright to Jacob (25:29-34) in the King James Bible and the Good News Bible. What differences do you see? How would you characterize these differences? What effect to they have? 
  8. Analyze some stylistic features in the Book of Genesis. For example, you might look at the use of repetition in the story of Abraham and Isaac (22:1-13). 
  9. One the most striking aspects of the Bible is the abundance of parallel accounts. In some cases, these are accounts of the same event; in others, they are accounts of different events with very similar features. Analyze one of these pairs or groups of parallel accounts. Why do you think they appear in the Bible? Do they serve a purpose? 
  10. Identify one or two themes in the Book of Genesis. How are these themes developed? 
  11. Try to put aside anything you already know about Jesus and analyze him as a character in the Book of Matthew. Describe his personality and explain how Matthew creates an impression of this personality. How close is the character of Jesus in the Book of Matthew to the impression you had of Jesus before you read this portion of the Bible? 
  12. Analyze the Pharisees as characters. What motivates them? 
  13. What are parables? Why do you think Jesus uses them when he talks to his disciples? 
  14. Compare the style of the Book of Matthew to that of the Book of Genesis. For example, consider elements such as description, dialogue, and plot. 


  • Alter, Robert. The World of Biblical Literature. New York: Basic Books, 1992. 
  • Audio Bible. 
  • Biblical Studies Foundation. 
  • Bible Study Tools. 
  • Bloom, Harold, ed. The Bible (Modern Critical Views). New York: Chelsea House, 1987. 
  • Gabel, John B., and Charles B. Wheeler. The Bible As Literature: An Introduction. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986. 
  • Good News Bible: The Bible in Today's English Version. Nashville: T. Nelson, 1983. BS 195 .T63 
  • Gottcent, John H. The Bible: A Literary Study. Boston: Twayne, 1986. 
  • Holy Bible. Authorized Version (King James Bible). 
  • New American Bible. New York: Benzinger, 1975. BS 192.3 .A1 
  • New English Translation (The NET Bible).

Literary figures

  • God 
  • Adam 
  • Eve 
  • Cain 
  • Abel 
  • Noah 
  • Abraham (Abram) 
  • Isaac 
  • Rebekah 
  • Esau 
  • Jacob (Israel) 
  • Rachel 
  • Joseph (in Old Testament) 
  • Mary 
  • Jesus 
  • Herod 
  • John the Baptist 
  • disciples 


  • Eden 
  • Tower of Babel 
  • Sodom 
  • Gomorrah 
  • Judah 
  • Egypt 
  • Jerusalem 
  • Pharisees 


  • The Fall 
  • The Great Flood 
  • Sermon on the Mount 
  • The Crucifixion 
  • Publication of King James Bible (1611) 


  • antagonist 
  • character 
  • codex 
  • didactic 
  • figurative language 
  • literal language 
  • manuscript 
  • mimesis 
  • motif 
  • motivation 
  • narrative 
  • papyrus 
  • parable 
  • protagonist 
  • scribe 
  • setting 
  • style 
  • theme 

Overview of Online Discussion of the Book of Genesis and the Book of Matthew

Your essays on the Book of Genesis and Book of Matthew amount to an illuminating and interesting out-of-class discussion of these two important works of literature.  Let's begin--where else?--at the beginning with Jacob's, Julia's, and Melanie's excellent analyses of the word "genesis."  I'm glad that you all picked up on the multiple beginnings in the book--though I would stop short of saying that the Book of Genesis tells of the "spread of Christianity," as you say, Melanie.  The birth and spread of Christianity--a religion revolving around the teaching of Jesus Christ--did not come until the first century A.D.  In its story of many origins, the Book of Genesis resembles many literary works from other cultures.  If any of you have read the creation stories of various Native American tribes, for example, you may have noticed that they, too, attempt to explain how this world and its creatures came to be.  These stories--if you read them as stories rather than as literal documentary accounts--say a lot about the people who tell them.  For example, one of my colleagues, who is an expert on Native American literature, recently pointed out to me that some Native American creation stories depict humans emerging from the earth.  In the second account of humans' creation in the Book of Genesis, on the other hand, God creates Adam separately--though he does use "dust" from the earth.  We might surmise then that some Native American cultures see a closer connection between humans and nature than do the cultures that produced or redacted the Book of Genesis.

Ben and Starlet address a structural aspect of the Book of Genesis in their essays on whether it is a narrative or a collection of narratives.  Actually, Starlet, I think you are addressing a slightly different question: "Is the Bible a narrative or a collection of narratives?"  Both pieces of literature--the individual Book of Genesis and the entire Bible, of which Genesis is the first part--present a similar problem.  On the one hand, they appear as single units and, in some cases, have characters or themes that provide a sense of unity.  Furthermore, as Ben points out, the writers of the Book of Genesis frequently use the conjunction "and," which also provides a sense of continuity.  On the other hand, both books really comprise several discrete stories.  The Book of Genesis, for example, tells the stories of the earth's creation, of Adam and Eve's original sin, of the Great Flood, of Joseph's life in Egypt, and several others.  The entire Bible contains many other stories, including those of Moses, Job, Jonah, David, and other characters.

In their essays, Susan, Andy, and Stephanie provide excellent introductions to the question of whether to interpret the Bible literally or figuratively.  As Susan's and Stephanie's definitions show, the two ways of reading are quite different.  As we think about this question of how to interpret the Bible, we should examine the motivation and consequence of each approach.  On the one hand, we might be motivated to read the Bible literally if we prefer to think of it as an instruction book--that is, a guide to how we should lead our lives.  Since figurative language requires leaps of imagination, it can be imprecise and ambiguous, leaving us wondering what exactly we are supposed to do.  For this reason, you may not see much figurative language--that is, metaphors, similes, personification, and so on--in your computer instruction manuals.  As Vonti shows in her essay, some material in the Bible does seem to invite literal interpretation.  On the other hand, if we think of the Bible as a piece of literature--"the greatest story ever told," as my daughter's video on Noah's ark puts it--then we tolerate, even expect figurative language in it.  Indeed, if we agree with Andy that parts of it are meant to be allegorical, then we must read it figuratively because allegory by definition requires using things to stand for other things.  While it can be imprecise, figurative language also can bring a subject to life.  By relating things we may not understand to things that we know quite well, figures of speech such as similes and metaphors place the mysterious into our realm of understanding.  Thus, when Jacob says that his son Dan "shall be a serpent by the way" (Gen. 49:17), we understand that Dan may act like a serpent and not that he literally will grow fangs and scales.  I doubt that even the most literal interpreter of the Bible would argue that we must take this passage literally.  In fact, because figurative language often can demystify a subject for us, it sometimes does play an effective role in giving instructions.  Consider the terms we use for various components of the Internet: "chat rooms," "bulletin boards," "frames," and so on.  Even if you think of the Bible as an instruction manual, then, you may want to leave some room for figurative language.  The tricky part, though, is determining which portions to interpret literally and which parts to read figuratively.  Making those decisions is part of the difficult task of interpreting the Bible.

Becky's, Katherine's, and Crystal's essays on the term "parable" are relevant to this discussion.  They effectively define this term and suggest that it can help people to understand a concept.  Note, however, that Jesus actually gives a different reason for using parables.  When the disciples ask him why he speaks in parables, he says: "'Because knowledge of the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven has been granted to you, but to them it has not been granted. To anyone who has, more will be given and he will grow rich; from anyone who has not, even what he has will be taken away. This is why I speak to them in parables, because "they look but do not see and hear but do not listen or understand"'" (Matt. 13: 11-13).  In other words, as Crystal explains, Jesus does not explain things in clear, literal terms for the masses because they have not been granted the right to know the mysteries of heaven; instead of explaining things, as he does for the disciples, he speaks in code.

Several of you wrote some useful essays on the characters in the Book of Genesis and Book of Matthew.  You will learn a lot from reading one another's profiles of God, Abraham, Jacob, the Pharisees, and others.  Eileen did an especially nice job of summarizing the lives of Noah and Isaac, even referring to specific passages that describe key incidents in their lives.  Sherby even went outside the Book of Genesis to draw her profile of Satan.  Allow me to make just a few additional observations.  First, we should note how very little the writers of the Book of Genesis actually tell us about these men and women.  Except for a few references to a woman's beauty, we find hardly any information about physical traits.  We also rarely get a glimpse of a character's thoughts.  Thus, we learn that Cain was "wroth" and that "his countenance fell" (Gen. 4:5) after God neglects his offering, but we never learn exactly what he thought.  There is no "internal monologue" of the type we will see in Iago's and Othello's soliloquies in Shakespeare's play _Othello_, which we will read later this semester.  As a result, we have to fill in the blanks often when we are interpreting the characters in the Book of Genesis, as indeed Theo and Misty do well in their analyses of Noah, Cain, and Abel.  While it may leave us feeling frustrated or even disoriented, this withholding of information has advantages.  For one, it in some ways makes reading the Book of Genesis more like living our ordinary lives, where we rarely have the luxury of entering a person's mind and reading his or her motivation.  Also, the lack of details makes the Book of Genesis somewhat mysterious.  Like someone wandering through a dark forest illuminated by starlight, we must make our way despite having only glimpses of our surroundings.  Nevertheless, if we make the effort, we will discover that, as Deane insightfully notes in her essay on the book's realism, the characters are very life-like, especially in their emotions.  One exception to the pattern of sparse character description is the characterization of God.  As Jennifer shows in her excellent essay on God's character, we actually learn a fair amount about God's personality from the several descriptions of his words, thoughts, and deeds.  By the way, I agree with Jennifer that God comes across as harsh in the Book of Genesis--certainly harsher than the loving God that I think some modern Christians are accustomed to conceiving.  Along these same lines, I think Jesus comes across as somewhat tough in the Book of Matthew, where he frequently warns and scolds people, sometimes referring to them as "ye of little faith" (6:30, 8:26, 14:31, 16:8).

Another observation I want to make is that the characters in the Book of Genesis are human; that is, they are not larger-than-life characters who always do the right thing.  As MJ points out, Jacob comes across as envious and self-serving.  Joseph's brothers fail even to show brotherly love for him.  Adam and Eve break the one rule God gives them.  A lesson that we can draw from their depictions, I think, is that humans make mistakes.  Indeed, even leading figures such as these people have serious flaws in their personalities.  We see this theme of flawed human nature again in the Book of Matthew, in which Jesus's trusted friend Peter denies him three times.  Finally, I want to respond to Monica's assessment of the Pharisees.  I agree that we are supposed to see these individuals as negative characters, but I have to wonder how much of our response to them is really a response to the text and how much is a response to our own intuitive feelings about Jesus and his role in the New Testament.  In other words, I wonder whether we tend to see the Pharisees in a negative light only because we know that Jesus is the protagonist and assume that any opposition to him must be the antagonist.
Finally, Nancy provided an insightful analysis of the various translations of the Bible.  While most of the material that we are studying this semester was written in English, works such as the Book of Genesis, the Book of Matthew, and _Inferno_ have been translated from their original languages into English.  We should always bear in mind that such translations can make significant differences in how we interpret a work, as Nancy's essay effectively demonstrates.

Written by Mark Canada, Professor of English, University of North Carolina at Pembroke

© Mark and Lisa Canada, 2000
Last modified: 1/25/00