Genre: How we understand what we read in the Bible

Genre: How we understand what we read in the Bible

BibleTo classify or to categorize is an innate human function. Cultural anthropologists and sociologist describe human behavior essentially as ordering, arranging, mapping, and classifying. As humans what we do and why we do what we do is, at its core, making sense of our world, our experiences, and ourselves. The new things we learn, the new experiences we have, we compare with those things we have learned and experienced in the past. Simply put, we learn by analogy. As humans, we have a sense of order and classification. Our culture gives us a set of glasses through which to make sense of the world. We learn to group things that are related and similar. We learn to map the world, setting everything in its place and making a place for everything. With that said what could we say about the literary term “genre.” What is genre? What is the benefit of being aware of genres when we approach the study of Scripture? In this brief but important article, we will discuss genre and how knowing the genres we find in the Bible will help us to better understand Scripture.

What is genre? “Genre” comes from an Old French word meaning “kind, sort, style” (in Latin, genus). In biblical studies, scholars use the German word Gattung. Gattung is used for larger literary genres. Small literary genres are called Formen (Form). However, both terms are essentially identical.[1] Simply put, genre is a kind of literature such as a novel, tragedy, biography, romance, history, essay, or letter.[2] Such genres share important distinguishable features and characteristics. When we speak of a genre of a document or text we are referring to its classification as a specific kind of literature. The task and discipline of categorizing literature is called Genre Criticism. Identifying ancient genres is not a new discipline. It can be traced back to Plato and Aristotle. It has been a concern of biblical scholars since the days of Herman Gunkel, Martin Dibelius, and Rudolph Bultmann.[3]

How do genre’s work? Jeannine Brown’s definition of genre sheds light on where genres come from, what they are made of, and what purpose they serve. She writes, “Genre is socially defined constellation of typified formal and thematic features in a group of literary works, which authors use in individualized ways to accomplish specific communicative purposes.”[4] Genres arise out of human activity and need. As humans we arrange, prioritize, and associate formal and thematic features in any piece of literature, which we label with a genre designation. We know a letter by the literary conventions and patterns particular to letter writing such as the letter opening, the letter body, and the letter closing. Genres are social constructs and social actions embedded in socio-rhetorical contexts. Genres are social actions that function in the act of communication to accomplish specific purposes.[5] The writer selects an appropriate genre for the given situation in order to communicate a message to his or her reader, which may entail a change of attitude and/or behavior. Genres “prompt a reading strategy” on the part of the reader. Each genre carries with it a set of principles for reading and the desired response the author intends of his reader. When we recognize a genre, we also have certain expectations about the content, style, and structure of the document.[6] Consider our reaction when we hear the words, “once upon a time.” We expect to hear a story and we know how to interpret it. The misidentification of genre can lead to confusion and complete misunderstanding. When we read a document, we apply an external genre from the outside onto the text. As we read, our expectations are defined as the possible genres are narrowed down. Eventually we figure out the intended genre and begin to use the correct rules for understanding the text.[7] This is how we must approach and understand the texts and documents of the Bible.

There are many genres in Scripture (e.g., narrative, poetry, wisdom, apocalyptic, epistle). In studying the Bible, we must determine the genre of the biblical text and book before interpretation can begin.[8] The ancient genres of the Bible are the key to understanding the biblical text. Most of the genres we encounter in the Bible are mixed, that is, they are not simply one genre throughout. Rather, they contain subgenres. For example, the book of Revelation is composed of the genres of apocalyptic literature, prophecy, and epistle. The Gospels are not simply ancient biographies. The mixing of genres poses a challenge, but the methods and tools of biblical criticism can help us (e.g., form criticism, redaction criticism, literary criticism).

In future articles, we will demonstrate how genre criticism helps us to read the biblical text. There is a reading strategy associated with genre in Scripture. The more we become familiar with these genres, their features, and expectations we will become better interpreters of Scripture.

[1] Richard Soulen. Handbook of Biblical Criticism (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1981), 75–76.

[2] Margaret Davies. “Genre.” A Dictionary of Biblical Interpretation. Edited by R. J. Coggins and J. L. Houlden (Philadelphia: SCM Press, 1990), 256–258.

[3] Jeannine Brown. “Genre Criticism.” Words and the Word: Explorations in Biblical Interpretation and Literary Theory (Illinois: IVP Academic, 2008), 111–150.

[4] Ibid, 122.

[5] Ibid, 126–8.

[6] Margaret Davies, 256–258.

[7] Grant Osborne. The Hermeneutical Spiral: A Comprehensive Introduction to Biblical Interpretation (Illinois: IVP Academic, 2006), 181–2.

[8] Ibid, 452.