Allusions of Biblical Proportions


Anisha Zaman, Editor-in-Chief

Imagine you’re taking a biology test. Flipping through the pages, you recognize concepts like photosynthesis, genetics, and evolution. You feel confident about your knowledge on the topics and breeze through the exam, until you stumble upon a question with foreign words. It’s asking you about ions, electrons, and elements. It’s all chemistry, a class you’ve never taken. 

If we’re being real, this scenario would never actually happen. At least not in a biology course with fixed material. Now, if we traveled across the hall to English class, it’s a different story. I have yet to take a single English class with precisely the same content as another. There are the regulars; relearning how to answer prompts with assertion, evidence, and commentary, vocabulary quizzes, and rhetorical and literary devices, but it’s never identical. The flexibility of English curriculums allow for lots of freedom in terms of what is covered. 

When I’m writing essays, scanning the given text, and searching for devices that support the thesis I’ve just written, a go-to of mine happens to be allusions. Pop culture, historical, literary, you name it. They’re a quick find, and can be easily explained. Another commonly used type of allusion are biblical allusions; references to Christianity and its holy book. 

Recently, in my literature class, I was assigned an excerpt to read, analyze, and answer questions about. The first question sectioned off a paragraph, asking me to identify which literary device was not employed in the text. Not finding any allusions in the section, I circled that answer choice and made my way through the rest of the assignment. As we graded the worksheet, you can imagine my bewilderment as I got the first question wrong. What allusion was there? 

Most of the class was just as confused as I was, until our teacher informed us it was referencing a biblical tale. The majority of my peers didn’t understand the reference, even those who have read the Bible. Fortunately, the questions weren’t for a grade, but if they had been, as somebody who has never read the Bible before, why should I be held accountable for something that I never learned? 

Lisa Snyder, English teacher at CHS, expressed that the presence of biblical allusions in literature have been prevalent since she began teaching over 20 years ago. 

“In older literature, it was there because it was such an integral part of society when those pieces were written. Everybody knew those allusions,” Snyder said. 

It’s impossible to avoid religion in aged literature. People’s lives revolved around their beliefs, and it’s understandable how they would translate those themes into art. In order to effectively study and analyze old literature, you need to approach every aspect of the content, including biblical allusions. Every word adds to the meaning of the work.  

“I think you would lose a lot of the richness of the old literature that had those allusions because you wouldn’t get the tie-ins that they were intended to have,” Snyder commented. 

Indeed, it’s important to acknowledge every allusion employed in older text, but what good does it do if readers can’t recognize them? Of course, there are the basic references that everybody understands, like Adam and Eve, but there’s a lot more to the Bible than just that. 

“People get angels and demons, but… if we get into stories like Daniel in the Lions’ Den, that’s a pretty common one, but if they haven’t read, they wouldn’t know it,” Snyder said. 

There’s also a gray area with other religious books. As somebody who has read and studied the Quran, there are a substantial amount of similarities, but they still aren’t twins. Often times while writing, I can’t differentiate between the two and accidentally elaborate on biblical references with stories from the Quran, which is a problem within itself. We need a clear-cut distinction for what we need to know for English class and what we don’t. 

“We do need to make sure students are aware of the most common biblical allusions that show up… you would miss what the author is trying to say if you didn’t know them,” Snyder added.

I hypothesized a solution would be to implement a Bible unit, or just simply make sure there’s direct-teaching involved, so that students know exactly what they’re looking for and can interpret it the way the author intended for it to be.

“Students need to know it, but if it’s gonna be on a test, it probably should be something they’ve been introduced to before or at least been given the resources to do the work themselves,” Snyder said. 

Honoring biblical allusions are important, as they inevitably add color and texture to old and new literature alike. The multiple-choice question I encountered that prompted this discussion wasn’t for a grade, but if it was, I shouldn’t be accountable for getting it wrong. You shouldn’t get points deducted for stumbling if you’re going in blind.