Michael J. Gilmour dedicates his book, Tangled up in the Bible: Bob Dylan & Scripture, “To Bob Dylan, my favorite theologian.” Gilmour, a professor of English and biblical literature at Providence University College in Manitoba, Canada, is probably speaking tongue-in-cheek. But there’s no disputing that biblical allusions have pervaded Dylan’s lyrics.

Gilmour notes that “[Dylan’s] musical influences included gospel, and much of the American and folk and blues music that proved to be so formative was infused with biblical imagery as well.”1 In his early songs Dylan frequently made reference to Jesus and to themes from both the New Testament and Hebrew Scriptures. That doesn’t necessarily say anything about his religious persuasions, as he drew his imagery from many literary sources.

But we do know that after he released Slow Train Coming in 1979, Dylan declared publicly that he was a follower of Jesus. It is no great stretch to conclude that the lyrics of his gospel songs matched his personal beliefs.

Dylan also said in a 1995 interview:

If you’re talking just on a scriptural type of thing, there’s no way I could write anything that would be scripturally incorrect. I mean, I’m not going to put forth ideas that aren’t scripturally true. I might reverse them, or make them come out a different way, but I’m not going to say anything that’s just totally wrong, that there’s not a law for.2

Writer Ronnie Keohane, a Jewish believer in Jesus, notes that after 1979, in live performances of “Masters of War,” Dylan omitted the verse that includes this line: “Even Jesus would never forgive what you do.” Keohane explains, “Dylan knows it is not biblically correct, because all sins that a man can commit are possible for God to forgive.”3

Many of Dylan’s songs on his gospel albums contain apocalyptic references, such as these from “Are You Ready” on his Saved (1980) album:

Are you ready for the judgment?
Are you ready for that terrible swift sword?
Are you ready for Armageddon?
Are you ready for the day of the Lord?

But even in later songs we find that theme, as in “Things Have Changed,” (2000) where Dylan sings, “If the Bible is right, the world will explode.”

We also find indications of a personal relationship with God in Dylan’s lyrics, such as in “‘Til I Fell in Love with You’ from Time Out of Mind (1997), where he sings, “But I know God is my shield and he won’t lead me astray.”

In 2009, Dylan brought back to his live performances the 1980 song from his Saved album, “Gonna Change My Way of Thinking.” The lyrics to the original song were quite direct:

Jesus said, “Be ready,
For you know not the hour in which I come.”
He said, “He who is not for Me is against Me,”
Just so you know where He’s coming from.

He does not sing that verse in his more recent version, but he does add this one:

Every day you got to pray for guidance?
Every day you got to give yourself a chance
Storms on the ocean, storms out on the mountain, too
Storms on the ocean, storms out on the mountain, too
Oh Lord, you know I have no friend like you

In 2003 Dylan reintroduced “Saving Grace” from the Saved album to his audiences. He last performed it in 2012. It is clearly about Jesus and includes this verse:

Well, the death of life, then come the resurrection
Wherever I am welcome is where I’ll be
I put all my confidence in Him, my sole protection
Is the saving grace that’s over me

As recently as 2011, he was still performing “Gotta Serve Somebody,” perhaps his most direct statement on one’s responsibility before God:

You’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed
You’re gonna have to serve somebody
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody

In 2013 at a live performance in Bridgeport, Connecticut, Dylan performed for his first time the traditional gospel blues song, “Let Your Light Shine on Me.” Although he traded off with two guest vocalists in singing the verses, Dylan chose to sing the most directly evangelical verse, one that clearly refers to Jesus:

My Lord, he’s done just what he said
Let Your light from the lighthouse shine on me
Heal the sick and raise the dead
Let Your light from the lighthouse shine on me

Does Dylan’s music contain spiritual themes—yes!  Is Dylan a Jewish follower of Jesus?  That answer is not as clear. But because he is Dylan, the speculation will continue . . .


END NOTES

  1. Michael J. Gilmour, Tangled Up in the Bible: Bob Dylan & Scripture (New York: Continuum, 2004), p. 12.
  2. Bill Flanagan, Written in My Soul: Conversations with Rock’s Great Songwriters (Rosetta Books, LLC, eBook), print book c. 1987.
  3. Scott M. Marshall, Restless Pilgrim: The Spiritual Journey of Bob Dylan (Lake Mary, FL: Relevant Books, 2002), p. 180.