Books That Reimagine Bible Stories

"I cannot speak for the others, but He always made me feel cherished. When He was speaking with me I felt as if I were the only person in the world to Him."

My first thought when I read those lines was: Sounds like Bill Clinton. At least, that's what any number of people have told me about meeting Clinton. But the quotation isn't actually about him. It's about Him: Jesus. The speaker is the apostle John, and the dialogue comes from "John's Story," a 2006 novelistic re-telling of the Book of John by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins. In 2007, they came out with "Mark's Story." Suspense is building over the title of their 2008 release.

One thing's for sure: They aren't doing it for the money. LaHaye and Jenkins sold scores of millions -- yes, SCORES of millions -- of their earlier novels, the "Left Behind" series about the Rapture, Armageddon, the Antichrist and the Second Coming. They are devout evangelical Christians who believe that every word in the Bible is true. But you can pick up numerous tidbits from "John's Story" that you won't find in the Bible.

Turns out, for example, that Peter was a good cook! Also, the wine at Cana was superb ("aged not only to the perfect season, but also to the perfect day, yea the perfect hour.") On page 71 there's a previously unrecorded miracle (Jesus slaps a biting insect on his neck, then resurrects it). The novel ends with the same warning that concludes the Book of Revelation: "If anyone adds to these things, God will add to him the plagues that are written in this book; and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part from the Book of Life, from the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book."

Whoa, this is risky business, rewriting Scripture! It got me thinking about previous literary re-imaginings and embellishments of Bible stories. And, I have to say, I think there was a decline in the quality of the genre in the 20th century, along with a rise in its popularity. Fancy that.

Here's my list, and I'm sure you'll let me know what I'm missing. Leave the fate of my eternal soul out of it.

1. Joseph and His Brothers (1933-1944) by Thomas Mann. Four sublime volumes by the Nobel Prize winner, a great work of literature and learned Bible commentary, even if Mann did base Joseph's rescue of the Egyptian people from starvation on FDR's New Deal.

2. J.B. (1958) by Archibald MacLeish. The poet and librarian of Congress won a Pulitzer for this play, a re-telling of the Book of Job with some debt to Jean-Paul Sartre, too.

3. Song of Solomon (1977) by Nobel Prize-winner Toni Morrison. OK, this isn't exactly a retelling, more a string of biblical themes and allusions, complete with a character memorably named "First Corinthians."
It was an early Oprah Book Club pick and a bestseller.

4. The Red Tent (1997) by Anita Diamant. A feminist retelling of the rape and avenging of Dinah, whose own voice is conspicuously missing from Genesis 34. Socko popular fiction, millions sold.

5. The Left Behind series and The Jesus Chronicles (1995-present). 65 million copies sold and counting, though I suspect that The Jesus Chronicles (retelling the four gospels) won't enrapture nearly as many readers as the apocalyptic books did.

-- Alan Cooperman

By Christian Pelusi |  January 24, 2008; 8:04 AM ET Alan Cooperman
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I loved J.B. and Song of Solomon.

However, even though I didn't like this so much, you are missing The Last Temptation of Christ. Although would you consider that a retelling, since the most controversial part of the book and ensuing movie was the temptation that the Bible never outlined?

Posted by: KLeewrite | January 24, 2008 11:19 AM

Thanks for the ideas. Joseph and His Brothers is on my shelf, waiting to be read. And I had forgotten all about J.B. I read it in high school and loved it. Another biblical re-telling: Steinbeck's East of Eden.

Posted by: Bill B. | January 24, 2008 2:55 PM

Lamb, by Christopher Moore. Its subtitle is something to the effect of, "The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal," and it has humor and imagination in filling in the years missing from the canon. It's a terrific book.

Posted by: Mel | January 24, 2008 4:55 PM

I loved The Red Tent! How about John Steinbeck's East of Eden, which alludes to the Bible story of Cain and Abel?

Posted by: Sharon | January 25, 2008 1:45 PM

I'd add Ron Hansen's Atticus, a retelling of the Prodigal Son. It was a finalist for the National Book Award in fiction.

Posted by: Karen | January 27, 2008 6:25 PM

As a Christian, I know the Bible to be neither humanly-inspired literature nor humanly-devised myth. It is divinely inspired, which is why down to the subtlest points it reveals truth. We know, for example, that God wants us to confess our sins. So if we think back to Adam and Eve, we see where they went wrong. Even after they sinned, they didn't confess to God, but instead tried to shift the blame. Any work of fiction, then, that bases itself on God's Word should remain true to the messages in His Word, or readers should be advised not to regard it as truthful.

Posted by: Erika | January 27, 2008 9:15 PM

Dan Jacobson's The Rape of Tamar should be high on the list.

Posted by: Ackroyd | January 28, 2008 5:22 PM

Are you looking specifically for re-tellings in the original setting, or can they be moved? For example, there's a retelling of the Hosea/Tamar story, with the names changed, set in the California Gold Rush, in which a farmer believes that he is told by God to marry and cherish a "soiled dove" from one of the bordellos set up to serve the mining camps. Does that fit into your parameters?

Posted by: Virginia | February 5, 2008 7:55 AM

You are also leaving out Orson Scott Card's wonderful Women of Genesis series (currently including Sarah, Rebekah, and Rachel and Leah).

Posted by: Charlie | February 6, 2008 8:14 AM

You've got to include Joseph Heller's brilliant, hilarious, and moving novel about King David, "God Knows."

Posted by: Sam | February 12, 2008 11:31 PM

I really loved The Red Tent, and I was actually in a production of J.B. in college. This is really not a new concept. I remember some books I read back in my teens: The Robe, and Frank G. Slaughter's The Song of Ruth, and especially Taylor Caldwell's book about Luke, called Dear and Glorious Physician.

Posted by: Jilly | March 15, 2008 1:49 PM

Frederick Buechner's "Son Of Laughter" was overlooked too- a fine re-telling of the story of Jacob, the conniver who stole his blessing, and yet he remains one of the three fathers of the Judeo-Christian faith(s): "Abraham, Isaac and Jacob". HIGHLY recommend for its character development and lyrical language.

Posted by: karen | March 19, 2008 6:51 PM

As a christian i do really believe in the Bible coz it is a message from the Lord. Writen by a human but annointed by the Holy Spirit. The story of the world was writen in the bible already from the book of Genesis "the biginning" to revelation " the end" of the world. Today we are now in the book of revelation. as a Christian the great author of all story is the Lord almight the creator of heaven and the earth.

Posted by: jj | April 4, 2008 12:39 PM

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