We started our journey into the heart of Bible by thinking about how it came to be. We discovered that it was written by many people in many places over many years, and so it perhaps should not surprise us to realise that it contains many types of writing.
Think back to your GSCE (or O Level) English, and you may remember talking about genre, which is all about the style and purpose of a text. A poem is trying to do something very different to a newspaper article, so we need to come at it with a different set of expectations, and it uses language very differently, so we need a different set of tools in order to interpret it.
Genre helps shape the way we approach and understand what we are reading, and so if we want half a chance at getting to grips with the Bible, we need to know what kinds of literature we are dealing with.
A standard categorisation of the Bible by genre looks something like this:
It’s nice and neat and easy to remember, but there are a number of complications and variations:
- Genesis is classed as law, but it doesn’t contain any laws. There are some important instructions – “don’t eat the fruit”, “go forth and multiply”, “build a big boat” to name a few – but nothing codified. In fact the laws don’t appear until the latter part of Exodus. Everything up until then is narrative, and there are more tales to come once we get to the laws. Essentially, one of the most striking features of biblical law is the fact that it is set within the story of a people, making it quite a task to untangle history and law.
- Poetry and wisdom are sometimes split up, so that the Psalms are classed as poetry and the others in this category are identified as wisdom, but that ignores the wisdom in the psalms and the extensive use of poetry in the other books. And to confuse things even further, Lamentations gets bundled up with the prophets but really sits better with poetry and wisdom.
- Daniel is sometimes separated from the rest of the prophets and designated as apocalypse. Revelation is also apocalypse, although to make things trickier, it is written in the form of a letter.
- Speaking of letters, there is much scholarly debate over Paul’s letters, with some academics holding that a number of them (Ephesians, Colossians, 2 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus) were not written by Paul but by a follower or imitator. And whoever wrote the letters, they contain snatches of poetry and storytelling and instruction and end times stuff, putting them at the centre of a venn diagram of biblical genres.
And that’s before we even get to the issues with the genres themselves, or at least with our understanding of them:
- The purpose and character of historical writing has changed over time. We’ll say a little more about that later, but using the word history to describes chunks of the Bible sets up certain expectations that aren’t necessarily going to be met. Using the term ‘narratives’ may sidestep some of those problems, although it may create new ones of its own.
- Prophecy and apocalypse are no longer categories we are familiar with, or at least not in the form they took in the cultures the Bible grew out of. People still share words from God, but we tend to treat those messages as intensely personal and they rarely reach an entire nation, and there are still some who devote time and energy to thinking about the end times, but they are generally dismissed as a little bit crazy.
- The gospels are a genre all of their own, combining biography and teaching in a way that has little if any parallel. That makes it tricky for us to know what to expect from them, and it doesn’t help that each of the gospel writers had their own distinctive approach.
- It is interesting to remember that there is no separate genre of theology, because in one respect it is all theology, but that can lead us to the mistaken assumption that every word carries equal doctrinal weight. If the Bible is anything it is words about God – except Song of Songs which makes it into the Bible without mentioning God once – but some books are more systematic or philosophical in their approach than others.
All of this is to say that the way we designate and define genre is problematic, and so we must avoid a tendency to approach a text with very fixed ideas about it. We also need to remember that genre can only give us the broad strokes of a text anyway, and so we have to consider more specific details such as context and authorship if we want to start filling in the details.
But having said all of that, all the genres listed on the graphic above are in the Bible, even if they are woven together in a slightly more complicated arrangement and have a few more nuances to them, so in our next post we will look at each of them in turn.