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oral, the collective memory was far more reliable than we would ever imagine, and compared with other ancient historical documents, the gospels were written pretty close to the time of the events they record.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.