1. Hamlet by William Shakespeare, 1602
Regardless of Shakespeare’s religious beliefs or his intent when including biblical allusions in his work (which have been endlessly debated), the fact remains that his plays contain over 1200 biblical references. One example from Hamlet is when Claudius refers to his own murderous actions by saying: “O my offence is rank; it smells to heaven; it hath the primal eldest curse upon’t – a brother’s murder!” This is a reference to the story in Genesis 4 in which Cain kills his brother Abel. Uncle Claudius is also called “the serpent who now wears the crown,” a reference to the serpent in the Garden of Eden. When the gravedigger unearths the skull and throws it to the ground, Hamlet remarks that the skull has been treated as if it was Cain’s jawbone, the first murderer. In scene 5 when Hamlet accepts that God will ultimately decide his fate, he states, “Not a whit, we defy augury. There is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow.” Compare this to Matthew 10:29 in which Jesus says that not one sparrow will fall outside of God’s care. Ultimately, the playwright deftly raises questions rather than giving answers regarding themes such as forgiveness, mercy, and grace.
2. Oliver Twist or The Parish Boys Progress by Charles Dickens, 1839 –
The second title of this book associates it with a famous Christian allegory, A Pilgrim’s Progress. The theme is a struggle between the forces of good and evil in which God’s providence is shown to be all powerful in the end. Phrases are borrowed from the Bible and several parables are used ironically. For instance, Oliver is described as a “millstone around the parochial throat,” a phrase taken from the biblical “millstone around his neck” in Matthew 18:6. In the Bible, this verse follows a verse where Jesus says that whoever welcomes a child welcomes Him, which is the opposite of the way the Beadle treats Oliver. The Beadle who treats Oliver horribly wears a button of the Good Samaritan. The book parallels the Parable of the Good Samaritan, with Oliver like the innocent man who is beaten and left in a ditch to die, Fagan and Nancy like those who pass by without helping, Sikes like the robber, and Mr. Brownlow like the Samaritan who saves the victim’s life. Many references to prayer and the Bible can be found throughout the novel. Though Oliver is often hungry, alone and in a prison of poverty, most people in the novel fail to come to his aid. Dickens explained his own motivation behind all of his writings as wanting to “express the veneration for the life and lessons of our Savior…” He also wrote a book specifically for his own children that was a retelling of the Gospel.
3. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky, 1866 –
This book is sometimes considered to parallel the gospel of John. There are many biblical references including Sonya reading to Raskolnikov the story of Lazarus being raised from the dead. Ultimately Raskolnikov finds forgiveness and is reborn spiritually, even though he is a murderer. Redemption occurs when the judge himself pays the price for the sinner.
4. Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, 1939
Parts of this story reflect the exodus of the Hebrew people in the Bible, with California as the promised land. There are twelve members of the family, like the twelve tribes of Israel. Another Biblical allusion can be seen when Noah Joad watches the others climb into the truck two by two like in Noah’s Ark. Jim Casey (whose initials are JC) is often seen as a Christ figure. Steinbeck’s mother read Bible stories to him beginning when he was age 3. Although as a man, he was not considered religious, he used Biblical imagery in many of his books such as East of Eden.
5. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis, 1950
In this book, the white witch entices Edmund with the idea of someday making him a prince. After Edmund succumbs and eats the turkish delight, he must die because of the deep magic. But, still deeper magic allows Aslan the Lion to choose to die in his place. After Aslan is slain, an earthquake splits the rock on which he died. When two girls (Lucy and Susan) come to mourn for him, they find that he has been resurrected. Aslan breathes new life into all of his followers, death has been conquered and a new world is created. Likewise, in the Bible, Adam disobeyed and ate the fruit, so humans must die. Jesus chooses to die in our place and is crucified. Thereafter, an earthquake splits rocks. Christ is resurrected and the Holy Spirit comes upon his followers. C.S. Lewis explained in a letter to 5th graders that when he wrote the book what he was doing was describing what he thought would happen if there was a land like Narnia and the son of God became a lion there.
6. Lord of the Flies by William Golding, 1954 –
- This book about boys stranded on an island was based in part on a novel by Ballantyne called The Coral Island. However one of the major differences is that in Lord of the Flies, the evil comes from within the boys rather than from outside them. Even the title of this book is translated as “Beelzebub” in Hebrew, which is a name for the devil. Simon is a Christ figure who is pure and compassionate towards the other boys. Like Jesus, he spends time alone in the wilderness and eventually is tempted by the beast. Then when he tells the other boys the truth, he is taunted and ultimately murdered. Though innocent of wrongdoing, he is brutally killed. According to Golding’s daughter, the editor of the original manuscript changed the book so that Simon became less of a religious figure than originally intended. The original title of the book was “Strangers from Within.”
7. Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien, 1955 –
Tolkien did not like allegories, so he avoided creating one. Instead, Lord of the Rings reflects his Christian worldview. He once explained that it was “a fundamentally religious and Catholic work, unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision.” The creation of the world of middle earth and the one God, Eru, are described in his book Silmarillion, but in the Lord of the Rings, Tolkien avoids making specific mention of them. Yet, Providence is at work throughout the trilogy. Gandalf tells Frodo that he is meant to have the Ring and not by the one who made the ring. It is a fairy tale of good versus evil, in which the evil is seen as a perversion of the good and the fight involves pride versus humility. Although Tolkien has created a new world, the truth is the same as if it were in our own.
8. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by JK Rowling, 2007 –
The series is about resurrection and life after death. In the last book of the series, Harry visits his parents’ gravestones which bear two quotes, one from I Corinthians 26 and the other from Matthew 6:19, “where your treasure is, there will your heart be also”. In an interview, Rowling said that these two quotes sum up the whole series. Harry finally conquers death and resurrects the dead spirits of loved ones.
9. Divergent by Veronica Roth, 2011 –
Many people have seen in the factions (erudite, amity, dauntless, abegnation and candor) virtues that are espoused in scripture (knowledge, peacefulness, bravery, selflessness and honesty), but these might be virtues from any values system. However, in Tris’ world it is the erudite who tried to grab power just like the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil that Eve ate in the Garden of Eden in her attempt to be like God. In an interview, Veronica Roth gave a beautiful summary of the book’s message in which she explains that the factions in divergent are moralistic, urging people to act a certain way in order to justify themselves in the world. She explains that the power of her faith lies in the love and acceptance of God in spite of all of our failed attempts to be perfect on our own. Other biblical images appear in the book, such as the abegnation ritual of washing other people’s feet just as Jesus washed his disciples’ feet.
10. Tales of Tzoladia by R.A. Denny, 2017
Perhaps the reason so many books contain biblical allusions is that the books of the Bible deal with the struggles man has faced since the beginning of time. In The Emperor’s Harvest, a turning point for Amanki occurs when he is angry with Adon for the death of his mother and he dives into the Lanaduk River where he wrestles with Adon. This is similar to Jacob wrestling with the Angel of the Lord in Genesis 32. Later, a hungry Moshoi is tempted to break the precious jug for food, forgetting Rhabdom’s advice that man does not live by bread alone. In another scene, Elder Lepton advises Brina, “If you do what is right, you will be accepted by the Great Creator. But if you do not do what is right, evil inclination is crouching at your door like a lion on the prowl.” These verses reflect the warning to Cain in Genesis 4:7. Their importance becomes more evident in The Emperor’s Trap, the second book of The Tzoladian Tales. Themes in the series include good against evil, humility versus hubris, and despair versus hope.
Have you discovered other books with Biblical allusions? Please comment below.