Archive for April, 2017

Thinking differently about genre in the Bible: Part Two

Posted: April 26, 2017 by leighannegreenwood in Uncategorized

In my last post, I suggested myth as an alternative way of understanding the genre of the Bible. Here I want to finish our look at genre with another approach which suggests a different set of categories.


Old Testament scholar Water Brueggeman (whose book ‘The Bible Makes Sense’ we used at our weekend away last year) talks about the Bible containing primal, expanded and derivative narratives.

The primal narrative is “that most simple, elemental and nonnegotiable story line that lies at the heart of biblical faith”. Gerhard von Rad says that for Israel, this was the exodus from Egypt, as expressed in Deuteronomy 26:5-9, Deuteronomy 6:20-24 and Joshua 24:1-13. According to CH Dodd, it was for the early church the death and resurrection of Jesus, as recalled in 1 Corinthians 1:23, 1 Corinthians 3:1 and 1 Corinthians 15:3-8. In both cases, the primal narrative is the recitals of a saving act of God and a declaration of faith.

The expanded narrative is “a more elaborate and complete presentation of the same theme found in the kernel” which is “confessional not reportorial in character”. In the Old Testament, Exodus 1-15 is a fuller presentation of the Israelites’ delivery from slavery. And in the New Testament, the gospel narratives expand the life and death of Jesus. These stories come to be seen through the lens of the central theme and so proclaim the same faith even if read separately.

The derivative narrative is the subsequent history of the community which testifies to the power of the basic narrative and supplements it with tradition. In the Hebrew scriptures, this is the story of Israel after Moses and Joshua. In the Christian tradition, this is the story of the early church. It contains the literature of institutionalisation, mature theological reflection, and the instruction and vocation of the community.

In short, and doing very little justice to Brueggeman, the primal narrative is the story that changed everything, the expanded narrative is everything that led to it, and the derivative narrative is everything that came from it.

So how does all of this effect the way we read the Bible? Well, I like Brueggeman’s model because it prioritises purpose and allows for different genres within each category, allowing for more nuanced readings of texts which can make use of the genre markers we looked at before without getting fixated on them. I also like the fact that Brueggeman applies the model to each testament, so that we see how both Israel and the church used the same pattern in response to the revelation of God, because this breaks down some of the barriers between us and the Hebrew scriptures.

But there’s also something else I think this can teach us, which is perhaps best demonstrated by way of a brief activity.

Think for a moment about your own primal, expanded and derivative narratives. What is the central story in your relationship with God? What brought you to that place? How has it impacted on your life since?

Now think about why you chose those stories and how you choose to tell them. Do you include every detail? Do you apply any filters? Do you add any commentary?

Thinking about how we tell our stories may help us to  may offer some insight into how the Bible was written. Because the truth is that we all interpret and shape our experiences, especially when we have a primal narrative that makes sense of everything around it.

An example by way of explanation. Part of my derivative narrative is my experience of leaving university. I prayed about whether or not it was right for me to go, and the words “you don’t have to be here” came to me really clearly. And yet when I told that story afterwards, I said that God had told me to leave. I always knew what God had said, but I interpreted those words as meaning I should go, because I needed to feel that I had definitely done the right thing, and so that was how I told it. It was some years before I felt confident enough in my decision to acknowledge that what God had really done was give me a choice. I didn’t intentionally lie, but my experience was filtered through my conviction that God was interested and active in my life (which was rooted in the experience of healing that forms my primal narrative) and my belief that God had a fixed plan for my life (which came from the theological understanding gathered during the Christian upbringing that forms part of my expanded narrative).

I don’t imagine that the people who wrote the Bible set out to write these distinctive strands of narrative – they are a filter we’ve placed on the text – but I do suspect that they interpreted and shaped their experiences and inherited stories in just the same way as I have done. I think that answers a lot of questions we have about the Bible, and I hope it also reminds us that our story is an ongoing part of the story that began “in the beginning”.


Thinking differently about genre in the Bible: Part One.

Posted: April 26, 2017 by leighannegreenwood in Uncategorized

Last month, we started thinking about the different types of literature we find in the Bible. You can catch up on what we learned in a series of blog posts starting here. Last Sunday, we spent some time thinking about a couple of alternative approaches. Read on if you want to find out more.

And for those of you who were there on Sunday evening, the quotes I gave you came from this article. Even if you weren’t there, I think it’s worth a read.


When we first talked about genre, we acknowledged that there are some issues with the historicity of the Bible. It’s difficult to get away from the fact the Bible contains inconsistencies and inaccuracies, and while attempts have been made to reconcile them all, these involve some really contorted readings. It can be troubling to realise that Biblical literalism cannot be maintained without an exhausting degree of mental gymnastics, but I believe there are ways of understanding the Bible that don’t require us to turn a blind eye to its fallibility or reject it out of hand.

First up, I want to propose that the Bible might be better understood as myth. Before you spit your tea out or throw something at the screen, that doesn’t mean that I think it is pure fantasy. It means I believe that the Bible reveals deep and universal truths and finds its meaning in something more significant than simple historical accuracy. Neither does it mean that we must put the Bible on the same pegging as other mythologies. CS Lewis believed that Christianity was unique in being the true myth, and while I would follow Tolkien in suggesting that there is some truth in all myth, I would certainly declare that the Christian myth is uniquely truthful because it contains a unique truth in the person and life of Jesus.

If the biblical stories are intended to tell great truths, then maybe we can begin to understand the inconsistencies and the inaccuracies we find in them. The Israelites at the very least elaborated on their activities in Jericho because they believed God was building them into a great nation and that was the story they needed to tell, and the gospel writers place Jesus’ death on different days because they understood its relationship to the Passover to be a significant part of the story but understood that relationship differently.

Reading the Bible as myth helps us to understand these apparent errors as narrative techniques, and points us past them to the reason behind them. You may remember that I have used those examples before, as a way of talking about the way we approach history, but for me using the category of myth is more helpful and more positive, as it means recognising the Bible for what it is not apologising for what it is not.

It may also offer a sort of answer to a question that was raised in our first session on genre, about how we transition from a seemingly poetic account of creation to an apparently historical account of Israel, both of which we find in Genesis. Where does the poetry end and the history begin? It seems impossible to know, as the text itself doesn’t tell us, but if we see the entire narrative of Genesis as being aimed at establishing the nature of the relationship between God and the world, then perhaps it’s okay for us to answer the question by suggesting that those distinctions don’t really matter.

The idea that the Bible is not a straightforward textbook is not a new one. In fact, biblical inerrancy is a relatively late concept which came about as a kind of hardening of the religious position in response to the Enlightenment. But it can still be a difficult concept for us to get our heads around. The broadly evangelical church I grew up in had got as far as seeing the six days of creation as six ages, but I think there was a reluctance to extend that approach beyond the first few chapters of the Bible, because it felt like a slippery slope towards dividing the Bible into true and false.

However, the point of this approach isn’t to say this bit is fact and this bit is metaphor and this bit is just made up, and then to make a judgement value on that basis, although sometimes that will be important. The point is to suggest that the Bible is the story of the relationship between God and God’s people, as told by those people in the way that best captured the beauty and the mystery of their experience, and that its real meaning lies in what it says about the nature of God and the world and what it means to live in it.

I understand that the word ‘myth’ comes with a whole load of baggage that means some people may find it unhelpful as a way of talking about the Bible, but I hope the ideas behind it may still prove interesting and valuable. I’m still not sure it’s precisely the right word for what I want to say about the Bible, but I’ve used it here because it comes close and it’s provocative enough to challenge us and get us thinking.

What I’m really trying to suggest is that if we can set all other questions aside for a moment and read the Bible as a story, and let it fascinate and engage us as all good stories should, we might find ourselves moved and transformed, and perhaps even invigorated to get back to the nitty gritty of biblical scholarship.


We also looked at another alternative approach, but I’ll save that for another blog. And in case you’re wondering, the picture is because when I typed ‘myth’ and ‘bible’ into Google images, a variant on this was the first thing that come up and it amused me. That’s a good enough reason, right?




A night like no other

Posted: April 13, 2017 by leighannegreenwood in Uncategorized

It’s Maundy Thursday evening, and as usual it finds me in reflective mood. Holy Week began on Palm Sunday, but the passion narrative starts here, with Jesus sharing a final meal with his disciples before heading out into the darkness, knowing that he walks towards those who will capture and kill him. To draw on the language of the Passover meal, this night is different from all other nights, and I feel that difference somewhere deep within.

I get a lot of guilt at Easter, and it has nothing to do with eating too much chocolate. It’s not even entirely to do with the stark reminder that Jesus suffered unimaginable pain because the world I am so much a part of had gone so horribly wrong. It comes instead from a sense that I am doing Easter wrong.

The earth shattering significance of the cross and the tomb weighs so heavily on me that I feel I should be marking every minute of it, and from Thursday to Sunday I feel guilty for every moment not spent in prayer and contemplation.

It’s almost as if the cosmic event is being reenacted somewhere, and I feel an echo of the confusion and grief of the disciples, and suddenly the normal things of my everyday feel grossly inappropriate. How can I go to the park while my lord hangs on the cross, or pop to the shops as he lays in the tomb?

And yet at the same time, I know how the story ends, and so I find myself dipping in and out without actually living it. I think that’s why I found the Easter episodes of Rev so affecting, because for three days I didn’t know if the resurrection would come. (If you don’t know what I’m talking about, do try and watch the end of the third series of Rev.)

The whole world should stop and mourn for what it has become and what its creator has done to redeem it. That’s what happened on that first Good Friday, when the earth shook and the sky went dark. I must confess to an immense disappointment each year when the hours of the cross end and that doesn’t happen, and more than once I have had to fight back the urge to stand in the middle of the high street and scream out ‘don’t you know what just happened?’

Perhaps it’s just that my upbringing in a more liturgical and sacramental tradition has left an indelible mark on me, and I need words and actions to mark the time. Or perhaps I need to find a way of doing Easter better, a way that answers rather than stifles the deep cry of my heart. Or perhaps this sense of being disturbed is exactly what I need on this night like no other, and I must surrender to it and see where it takes me.

What kind of book is it anyway? Part Four.

Posted: April 9, 2017 by leighannegreenwood in Uncategorized

So far we’ve had an overview of biblical genres, and we’ve started looking at those genres in more detail here and here. We’re almost at the end, so settle down as we look at the gospels and the letters.



The gospels are a unique literary genre, with crossover from both history and prophecy, as they are part biography and part collection of teachings. Manuscript evidence suggests that the material that forms the gospels was passed down orally for a number of decades before it was written down. This may seem a flawed system to us, but in a culture that was predominately oral, the collective memory was far more reliable than we would ever imagine, and compared with other ancient historical documents, the gospels were written pretty close to the time of the events they record. At any rate, there must be a reason God chose to hand on his most important message in this way. He could have chosen to send Jesus to twentieth century Britain and have the crucifixion live tweeted, but he didn’t, and I’m not sure Instagram would have given us a better record than the gospels anyway.

The image at the top of this section says ‘the gospel’, but that is something of a misnomer. We don’t have a gospel, we have four gospels. It’s a blessing really, but we often treat it as a curse, as it means four rich pictures of Jesus, but also four attempts at interpretation. The disagreements that spring from this pluralism can be troubling, but no two articles or textbooks record the same event in the same way, and it is often the commonality rather than the discord that is most striking.

The differences that do exist come from different perspectives and different emerging theologies and ecclesiologies. The synoptics and the fourth gospel disagree over whether Jesus was killed on the day of Passover (when the paschal lamb was eaten) or the day before Passover (when the paschal lamb was killed). They all understood that there was an important relationship between the Old Testament story of redemption and the events of Good Friday, and they wanted to write it into the narrative, but they understood that relationship slightly differently and shaped the story accordingly. It doesn’t detract from the power or the truth of the story, but encourages us to think about what it means. That is why it is important that we avoid harmonising the gospels, and instead see them as whole and distinct narratives, with each author having their own insights to offer.



The letters compiled in the New Testament were the means by which the diasporic church was held together. They were vital for communicating about belief and practice, and so they are loaded with theology, but their contextual nature means it is often in the form of practical advice, and while we do find credal statements, we do not have a complete and systematic doctrinal treatise.

Letters are occasional documents written at a particular time to a particular group for a particular reason, and so context is everything when it comes to reading them. Every text has a wider context that it can be set in, but while most texts at least give us the narrow context of the events they relate to, the letters are missing even that, as the writer takes for granted that the recipients know the situation and we only have one side of the conversation. It’s a little bit like Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, as we have the answers but not the questions.

The letters are divided into those written by Paul and those written by others, and presented in order of length within each division. That’s important to remember, because understanding develops over time, but we are reading it out of order.

All of this means we must read the letters with great care, not assuming that every word is meant for us, not least because the original writers probably never expected us to read them, but looking first for what they teach us about God, and then weighing the instructions carefully to decide if they are still relevant and helpful. They are a fascinating and edifying insight into how the early Christians expressed their faith, and the fact that they were kept suggests they were deemed to be important, but they make no claim to be an eternal handbook for the church, and we do them and us a disservice if we read them as such.


Well that’s a little bit on each of the genres recognised by a standard classification of the biblical texts. Over the coming weeks, we’ll be trying some of this stuff out by getting hands on with some texts, and we’ll be looking at some alternative approaches to the whole idea of genre, so watch out for more to come.

Before I sign off, I want to leave you with this. Following the discussion at our meeting two weeks ago, one group spoke about reading the prophets with open hands, that is a willingness to hear and accept what God may say to us through those ancient words. I love that, because it speaks of an eagerness that prepares us to receive from God, rather than an expectation that drives us to find our own meaning,

So may we approach the Bible with open hearts and open hands, and may God pour out blessings through scriptures written in faith and love.

What kind of book is it anyway? Part Three.

Posted: April 9, 2017 by leighannegreenwood in Uncategorized

In the last post, we looked at the biblical genre of law. In this one, we’re going to look at history, poetry and wisdom, and prophecy and apocalypse. If that sounds like a lot to get through, don’t worry. These genres are no less significant or demanding, but we’ll be addressing them in smaller bursts.



By word count alone, narrative easily makes up the most significant chunk of the Bible, and the historical writings account for the largest part of that, with most of the rest being filled out by the gospels. This reminds us that scripture is primarily a lived language, a dialogue between God and creation, rooted in intimacy and experience, and the stories are trying to capture that.

We expect history to be objective and factual, yet when we say that it is written by the victors, we acknowledge that it is subject to bias and interpretation. Sometimes this might be due to wilful manipulation (or even creation) of the facts, and sometimes it might be due to a limited perspective, but either way it is rooted in a natural inclination to tell stories of the past in such a way that they have meaning in the present. Ancient Near Eastern history was less concerned with fact and objectivity, and more interested with creating narratives that shaped societies and legacies that defined kingdoms, so we should not be surprised if bias and interpretation are even more pronounced than modern history.

This means that when we are dealing with biblical narratives, we will be confronted with issues regarding historical inaccuracy, but that doesn’t meant that we must reject them. When I studied history at school, we learned about the difference between reliability and usefulness, and that’s an important lesson here. A text may not be entirely accurate, but that doesn’t mean it can’t tell us anything. For example, archaeologists have found evidence of a great fire at some point in Jericho’s history, but no indication that it ever had a great wall that was brought down, with or without trumpets. That doesn’t mean that the Israelites never won a victory there, but it does suggest that they added a few details for dramatic effect and to emphasise what was most important about that encounter, and that in itself tells us how they understood their activity and place in the world.

The stories we have inherited may have been crafted and embellished, but it seems clear that we are meant to read them as being rooted in history, and by paying attention to the way that history is told, we can learn far more than the bare facts. That means that modern archaeology and contemporary accounts can be valuable resources rather than opponents, and it also means we can benefit from drawing on literary techniques such as plot, setting, character, dialogue and rhetorical devices.

It has been suggested that the Bible contains a hierarchy of narrative, with the grand metanarrative of God’s relationship with his creation encompassing the more particular redemptive action of salvation history and the whole thing being expressed through individual stories. It’s important to remember that these narratives are not in themselves doctrines, although they do contain both explicit and implicit teaching. So for example, not every example in the Bible is a good one, which means we can’t read every character or action as a model of godly behaviour, but must instead look for what we can learn from them.

In reading biblical history, we must avoid allegorising (assuming that every story has a hidden message), decontextualising (forgetting the social and geographical world in which a story occurred), selectivity (ignoring the stories we don’t like), moralising (turning every story into a teaching point), personalising (making stories about us), misappropriation (making stories aboput other things they were not originally about), false combination (slamming two stories together in order to make a point that was never intended), redefinition (changing the meaning of elements of a story in order to change the story). That doesn’t mean that God won’t use scripture to speak in ways the original authors never imagined, or that we won’t find aspects we can relate to, but it does mean we must avoid any tendency to force new meanings.

Acts deserves a special mention before we move on, as Christians tend to read it as a precedent or a paradigm in way they do not always read the Old Testament. Everything that has been said above still applies, but we must be especially careful to remember that not everything is normative, and to concentrate on principles and repeatable practices.



The books that come under the heading Poetry and Wisdom are difficult to lump together because they are so different to one another, which is perhaps why they are known in the Jewish tradition simply as the Writings. They can also be difficult to handle because they are so unlike anything else in the Bible, but they were considered significant enough to be included, so they are worth a shot.

The Psalms served a vital purpose within the life of Israel, as they framed and gave voice to the people’s worship, and they continue to play that role today. They include laments, thanksgivings, praise, salvation-history, celebration and wisdom, although these forms are often combined to highlight the importance of balanced prayer. It is important to recall that they are words about and to God not from God, and as musical and poetic works they are intended to evoke emotion rather than thought, so we must guard against translating them directly into doctrine. And as beautiful as they are, they frequently contain expressions anger and hatred, modelling honest discourse with God, if not healthy attitudes.

Other texts in this category are also emotive in content, and they are meant to be evocative and memorable more than theologically accurate. Many of them need to be read as whole pieces as they develop a line of thought, and the advice of Proverbs must sit alongside Job’s reminder that right actions do not always mean success. It’s also interesting to consider that this literature probably represents the collected wisdom of many generations, and is an accumulation of shared knowledge about God and society and human nature.

Perhaps the best way to approach this set of texts is to remember that the poetry is primarily a response to God, and that wisdom is about making godly choices, and allow them to prompt our own response and inform our own choices.



It is easy for us to overlook the prophets, but more individual books are designated as prophecy than as any other genre. The prophets are divided into major and minor purely on the basis of length, and other prophets are mentioned in Bible, but they were known more by their actions than their words. The prophetic books are divided into pre-exile, exile and post-exile, which immediately raises the significance of context for understanding their message.

We often associate prophecy with predicting the future, but that was only a small part of it, and often the events prophesied are in the immenent rather than distant future. The main role of the prophets was to enforce the covenant, calling the people to remember all that God had done for them and required them to do in response, and reminding them of the need to balance orthodoxy (right belief) and orthopraxy (right action). We live within a new covenant but we follow the same God, and so there is much that we can take from the prophets, perhaps bet summed up in the command to ‘act justly, love mercy, walk humbly with your God’ (Micah 6:8).

Although the essential message of the prophets was the same, it was spoken afresh into each context, and each prophet had his own idioms, so that together they form a kaleidoscopic voice of God. Styles of prophecy include covenant lawsuit, promise, woe and enactment, and the prophesies use lots of poetic and rhetorical devices such as parallelism, where images are placed alongside one another for contrast or comparison.

It is interesting that prophecy was used creatively by both Jesus and Paul. For example, when Jesus reads from Isaiah 61 in Luke 4, he stops short of the line about the day of vengeance, suggesting that he had not come to fulfil that aspect of the prophecy.

Apocalypse translates as revelation, and it is a distinct form of prophecy that comes out of a time of oppression and both looks to the future saving activity of God and speaks truth about the way things are. It is based on vision rather than speech and is communicated in the form of dreams, with heavy use of symbolic numbers and fantastical language. It is important to pay attention to the background of the imagery, and it is perhaps best to read the visions like parables.


It think that is more than enough to be going on with for now. In our next post, we’ll complete our run through the standard biblical genres by looking at the gospels and the letters.

What kind of book is it anyway? Part Two.

Posted: April 2, 2017 by leighannegreenwood in Uncategorized

In Part One we thought about why genre matters, how it is defined in the Bible, and why the definitions we often come up with can be a little tricky. It will be really important to bear all of that in mind as we go into this post, not least that last point, as it will hopefully guard against any tendency to see what follows as hard and fast rules.

As nice as it would be to be able to construct a ‘Five Things You Need To Know About The History Books’ and ‘Follow These Four Easy To Steps To Understand The Gospels’ kind of an approach, the biblical texts are far too rich and textured for that to work. What I offer you instead is a rough guide to some of the features you may expect to find in each of the genres we identified in the previous post, but still remember that not every text will play by the rules, and that genres will sometimes overlap or sit side by side.

I suspect that law will take the longest to deal with, as Christians have struggled from the very beginning to work out their relationship to it, so I will start by dealing with that on its own.



Let’s start with the obvious. Laws set down what behaviour is and isn’t acceptable. They shape society but they are also shaped by society, as they are rooted in basic shared assumptions about how the world works.

However, the law codes in the Torah do not just tell the people how to behave, but form the terms of the covenantal relationship between God and Israel. It has often been assumed that the people of Israel saw the law as a means of obtaining grace, but a number of theologians now believe that we have got the relationship backwards, and that they actually understood it as a response to grace. That would help explain why the law codes are given such a long narrative prologue, with the stories of creation and the patriarchs and the exodus setting the context and providing the impetus for the life of faith that the law demands obedience to.

It also reminds us to keep in mind that the covenant was found on a promise to establish a nation, meaning that the laws are intended to encourage the growth and survival of the people, and set them apart from other nations. We perhaps need to ask, in the light of the gospels, whether the new covenant changes the purpose and nature of the law.

There are three types of law – civil (to do with the governance of the nation), ceremonial (to do with ritual worship and cleanliness) and moral (to do with right attitudes and behaviours towards God and people) – although they often overlap and it’s not always clear which laws belong where. This gets tricky if we take the view that the civil and ceremonial laws were intended only for the people of Israel and were superseded by Christ, but the moral laws are eternal and still apply for us. Unfortunately we can’t just get our pencil cases out and strike through some sections and highlight others.

It has been suggested that the laws are paradigmatic, setting a standard by example. This suggests that when Deuteronomy 24:19-22 instructs the people to leave behind any grain, olives and grapes they do not harvest at the first pass for the foreigner, the orphan and the widow to reap, that doesn’t mean that the people should only be generous with these crops but can be greedy with everything else. The point is rather to establish a wider principle about providing for the vulnerable. Reading the law like this is significant because standards last longer than examples. Deuteronomy 24:19-22 is a principle we could stand to restate now, even if we don’t have vineyards in our back gardens.

The Bible states that the laws were given to Moses by God, but we know that they have been much elaborated and interpreted over the course of many generations, so that contemporary Orthodox Jews have Sabbath laws concerning the use of electricity, and this raises the possibility that similar elaboration and interpretation happened between the giving of the law and the recording of it.

Old Testament laws often look regressive from our standpoint, but if we can put ourselves into the culture they rose out of, they begin to look remarkably progressive. We can’t ignore that the laws allow for slavery, but we must also recognise that they provide ways for slaves to regain their freedom. And the command that a rapist must marry his victim seems barbaric, but underlying it is a powerful statement that women cannot be used and then discarded. The law looks a little shady on a number of counts, but it represents a big step in the right direction when compared with law codes from contemporary civilisations. The idea that the law is not perfect is problematic if we are trying to read the Bible as infallible, but if we see the scriptures as (one of) the means by which God teaches his people, we can allow for some progression in its moral codes.

Perhaps the laws that cause most confusion for us are the food laws. Why did God feel the need to outlaw boiling a goat in its mother’s milk? And why did he have to make the bacon double cheeseburger forbidden on not one but two counts? Well it seems that the law prohibits those foods which – in the climate and conditions in with the Israelites were living – were most likely to cause allergies or were inefficient to raise or were associated with sacrifice in other religions. In that light, they start to make a little more sense, and we can read in them a reminder that God acts and speaks for our good.


Now you can go have a long lie down in a darkened room and prepare for history and poetry…