Understanding Biblical Genres: Concluding Thoughts

Today’s post brings the series on understanding biblical genres to a close. In the vein of ending it well, there are three major takeaways that I’d like to discuss today.

1. First, the Bible is not a book, but a library. (Fun fact, our word ‘Bible’ comes from the Greek, ta biblia, ‘the books’ – plural.) It’s a collection of books from different times and places, written by different authors, and in different genres. Just as you wouldn’t walk into your local library and expect the same type of experience from, say, a field guide to local wildlife, a popcorn thriller, and a literary classic, likewise we need to approach our Bibles with that same awareness and expectation of difference. Now it definitely is the case that this particular library is curated around a specific theme, namely the relationship between the Hebrew people and their descendants and their God until the time of the First Jewish-Roman War. But that common theme, and the overarching historical narrative within it, in no way eliminates the diversity within the Scriptures.

2. The second major theme in this series has been that literary genres are not just about form and style, but are also about intention. It’s not just that they look and behave differently — though this is important — but also that they are doing different things. A few examples we’ve seen in this series are:

  • Myths: Big stories that shape a community’s identity and basic understanding of the world
  • Legends: Smaller stories reinforcing shared identity, behaviours, and values, often by discussing their origins
  • Law: Commandments and precepts (for Christians, authoritative inasmuch as they foreshadow the teaching of Jesus)
  • History: Stories of the past told in such a way as to make a point
  • Prophecy: Oracles reframing current events through the lens of the community’s relationship with God in order to change behaviour
  • Apocalyptic: Oracles understanding current events through the lens of a final battle between Good and Evil in order to promote perseverance in times of persecution and oppression
  • Proverbs: Pithy, memorable expressions that outline general truths about the world
  • Folk Tales: Didactic stories that teach morals and desired behaviours
  • Gospel: Proclamations of the Good News of God’s salvation in and through Jesus
  • Epistle: Personal letters addressing particular community needs and problems.

Because these genres aren’t trying to do the same thing, we need to recognize what it is they are and are not doing: Epistles and Apocalyptic aren’t doing the work of Gospels; Proverbs are not Laws; and so on.

3. This leads us to the third major theme: Because different genres — and the books written in them — are trying to do different things, we would do well to allow for a diversity in how we understand their authority. This is not a shocking suggestion, but is rather the way things worked through much of Christian history and for all of Judaism to this day. It has only really been in the past few hundred years, and only within certain strands of Christianity, that the idea of Scripture has been flattened, forcing everything to be authoritative in exactly the same way. In ancient Judaism, it was the Torah (what Christians call the Pentateuch) that was at the centre of community life and identity. Most, though not all, Jews also accepted the Prophets as Scripture too, but in a more peripheral way than the Law. And again, still more peripheral were the Writings, a catch-all of miscellaneous documents (folk tales, apocalyptic visions, government documents, etc.) that, while not having near the centrality of the Torah or even Prophets, were still understood to be important for community life. In the centuries since Judaism and Christianity parted ways, the broad understanding of canon has continued within Judaism, with the Talmud, and even some mystical texts, effectively functioning as Holy Scripture. In the same way, ancient Christianity understood the Gospels to be at the centre of the Scriptures, with the Old Testament writings being authoritative as witnesses to that future revelation of God in Jesus, and the Epistles and John’s Apocalypse understood to be canonical apostolic messages interpreting the Gospel into practical terms for community life. Unfortunately this has been lost in a lot of Protestant Christianity, which has largely removed this contextual aspect of the Scriptures, to our detriment. Again, this is not to say that the Epistles or Pentateuch are ‘less’ authoritative than the Gospels, but rather authoritative differently.

I hope you’ve found this series interesting and helpful. Again, the point of all of this is not in any way to lessen our faith in the Scriptures, but to help us understand them better, and as they really are.

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