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The Importance of Literary Genre

Yesterday I wrote about the importance of teaching and preaching on the doctrine of creation and also the “how” of creation in our churches. It’s important for us to understand what we believe about this. My personal view is that theology and Bible study tells us about God’s relationship to us and the natural sciences tell us about what is and how it came to be in terms of natural processes. But whether you agree with me on this or not, I suggest that now is not the time to be silent and hope the argument will go away.

The key element I mentioned in that post is literary genre, and I did so because it is a critical starting point in Biblical interpretation. One can read the Bible as literature and even treat one type of literature as another when doing so. As an example, one could read Job either as history or as literature. In terms of spiritual application, there would be only a small amount of difference. But if one is looking for propositional truths, it is important to understand first what the intention of the author was in whatever passage you’re studying.

The gospels make a good illustration for this point. Many debates about historicity simply shoot past one another because each speaker is making different assumptions about what type of literature the gospels represent, and what one can expect from that. At one extreme, the gospels are seen as pretty much pure theology, with any possible historical facts one may glean as incidental. At the other extreme one can view the gospels as pure history, describing the life of Jesus accurately, with theology being derived from the events and not the written presentation. I happen to think gospels are their own literary genre, with a number of variants when one includes non-canonical gospels, and that the historical value is considerable, though not the primary focus. But if one reads the gospels as histories, one might expect information that is not present, such as careful chronology. The various attempts to reconcile the chronology and create a life of Jesus from the four gospels demonstrate the difficulty.

As modern readers, we are used to having the major literary genres identified for us. When I want a science fiction novel, I go buy a book that is identified as such. I don’t have to read it to identify it. The title page or the jacket blurbs generally tell me what I need to know. In ancient times there are no such blurbs. In many cases, I believe we could easily identify modern types of fiction if they were presented to us. We would probably have some difficulty with historical fiction or with fictionalized biography, for example, but generally we’d get a pretty good idea. Why? Because we have read quite a number of examples of each genre.

And this brings up the common problem in determining the genre of Biblical documents. If we don’t specifically try to shift our viewpoint, we will likely try to force Biblical documents into modern categories, and do so by looking at their characteristics in comparison to what we read most. This will not result in an accurate picture. I experienced this personally in starting to study Biblical languages. As I moved further and further into ancient literature I found that there were other categories and styles than I was used to in my reading. The Bible felt more at home in that environment than when I tried to read it from a modern point of view.

So one obvious way to learn to recognize Biblical genres is to read a variety of ancient literature. That will expand your viewpoint and give you more points of comparison to more types of literature. I would suggest this process to anyone who is interested in understanding the Bible better. You are going to need to read a variety of things. For protestants, adding the apocrypha to your reading will help a great deal. There are other collections of ancient literature, however, that are also very helpful in getting perspective.

Let’s just consider one indicator that we commonly use in recognizing genre. Let’s call it the “wicked witch” indicator. By this I mean that we recognize a story as some literary form other than narrative history or a true/true-to-life story because things just don’t work the way the story says they do. If I start a story, “Once upon the time there was a wicked witch who lived in a broken down shack far out in the woods . . .” you will not be under any illusions that I am telling a modern, true-to-life story. (Apologies to any witches who read this. I’m willing to bet you don’t live in broken down shacks far out in the woods.)

Now consider the following from the Bible: “The trees went out to anoint a king over themselves . . .” — Judges 9:8

We know immediately that we are not going to read narrative history. Why? Trees do not behave that way. What follows is known as the parable of the trees.

Now one more example, this time from the apocrypha: “It was the twelfth year of the reign of Nebuchadnezzar, who ruled over the Assyrians in the great city of Nineveh. In those days Arphaxad ruled over the Medes in Ecbatana.” — Judith 1:1 (NRSV)

I suspect this one is nearly as easy to identify as the parable of the trees. Why? Because even based solely on the Biblical text, surely available to the author of Judith, we know that:

  • Nebuchadnezzar did not rule over the Assyrians
  • Nebuchadnezzar (first or second) did not rule in Nineveh
  • Arphaxad comes from Biblical genealogies, not from the Median kings

So here we have historical data that is clearly created using available names and countries. All of these are real, but they’re combined in impossible ways. It’s very likely, based on this, that the author of Judith had no intention of his book being taken as actual history. His readers with no more than the various historical books of Hebrew scripture, could have seen what he is doing.

Notice that we have twice identified a piece of literature as not being historical because in some sense things just don’t work in the way described.

To be continued . . .

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  1. Thanks for your kind words and the link. I have had that one on my list for several days, but I’m still running behind. Hopefully I’ll get to it tomorrow.

  2. Thanks for this.

    Of course starting a story “Once upon a time” is enough to identify it as not intended to be historical, with no need to mention a wicked witch. And most languages have similar pointers to fairy tale or equivalent genres – which are sometimes also in the verb tenses used. It is important for Bible translators to be aware of these pointers, because if they are not, translations of historical books of the Bible may end up being misunderstood as fairy tales. By contrast, the genealogy at the beginning of Matthew is sometimes understood as a strong indication that what follows is intended to be a factual narrative about real people. This kind of study is known as discourse analysis.

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