This is the second instalment in a series of uncertain duration: I’m making this up as I go along, folks! The first part can be found here.
In the first post in this series, we introduced the idea that, far from being a single book, the Bible is a library of books of various types. We also began to explore the notion of truth and divine inspiration, particularly in light of some apparent inconsistencies and contradictions found in scripture. Briefly, we drew two conclusions: (i) to say that the Bible is divinely inspired cannot mean that it is in all cases literally accurate; and (ii) the kind of truth the Bible is intended to convey is not in all cases literal truth.
As promised, we’ll now go on to take a brief look at some other types of texts found in the Bible and the kinds of truths they are intended to convey.
There’s no “official” classification of literary genres in the Bible; if you do a Google search for “genres in the Bible”, you’ll come up with a whole range of proposed classifications. Wikipedia offers quite a thorough categorisation.
But let’s try to keep things simple. I’m going to pick five of the main types of literature found in the Bible, together with some thoughts on what kinds of truth they are intended to convey and, by implication, how we should read them. There are more than five genres in the Bible, but I’m limiting myself to five for the sake of space. Also bear in mind that these are just my informed thoughts; this is is not meant to be an exhaustive or authoritative analysis. Finally, I apologise if I’m teaching you to suck eggs; a basic appreciation of genre is vital to any attempt to understand the Bible, so it’s worth spending some time to lay foundations.
Five key Biblical genres and how we should approach them
Description and examples: narrative is in many ways the most straightforward genre, where the writer is simply recounting events. Examples in the Old Testament include 1 and 2 Kings, 1 and 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah and a number of other books (often referred to as the historical books). The most obvious NT example is Acts. (You might include Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, but these are often placed in a category of their own – namely “gospels”. I would argue that these are really just a subset of the narrative genre.)
Truth conveyed: actual events as they happened, or as the author perceived or understood them to have happened.
Reader’s approach: because narrative is intended to recount actual events, it’s generally safe to read it literally. When the book of Acts says “Peter went up to Jerusalem”, there’s no need to look for any metaphorical or allegorical meaning; it means the dude went to Jerusalem, okay? The key to understanding what we can learn from narrative often lies in asking the good old “six open questions”: who, what, where, why, when and how?
Description and examples: like secular poetry, poetry in the Bible uses all kinds of imagery and symbolism, and is usually much more about emotion than it is about logic or “facts”. The most obvious examples in the Bible are the Psalms and Song of Songs.
Truth conveyed: poetry can be used to convey all kinds of truth. However, it usually focuses on emotion and relationship rather than on objective fact.
Reader’s approach: obviously, it’s no good reading the Psalms looking for a literal description of events or places. Look instead for models of how we can respond appropriately to God’s love, power, glory, might, etc., and how we can appropriately express the whole range of human emotion experience to God. (Incidentally, it’s often been said that the Psalms are God’s prayer book. Anyone with staid ideas about what is acceptable in prayer would do well to read the Psalms as a lesson in authenticity and honesty before God.)
Description and examples: the prophetic books of the Old Testament are well known: from the major prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah through to Daniel to the minor prophets from Hosea through to Malachi. The NT does contain prophecy, but it’s included inside other books: mainly the gospels (where Jesus prophecies on various occasions), the Epistles in various places, and Revelation.
Truth conveyed: it is often assumed that prophecy is exclusively about predicting future events. While this is often the case, prophecy is mainly about forthtelling rather than foretelling: God uses the prophet to directly communicate something of His heart and will to His people, which may or may not include a depiction of future events.
Reader’s approach: one of the mistakes most frequently made when reading biblical prophecy is to assume that it was written mainly for today’s reader. It’s vital to interpret prophecy first and foremost in light of its primary audience: the original readers or hearers for whom it was given/written. Beyond that, there is the question of fulfilment. Much biblical prophecy has clearly already been fulfilled in history; other prophecy may not yet have been fulfilled; there is also scope to consider that some prophecy may have had an immediate fulfilment in history but be waiting for its ultimate fulfilment.
Prophecy makes heavy use of symbolism and metaphor. Because of this, opinions on its interpretation vary widely, and it’s easy to get into all kinds of arguments and tangles. Remember, first and foremost, why God speaks through prophets: not to wow people with predictions of the future, but to communicate His heart, draw people to repentance and save the lost.
Description and examples: this refers to letters written to either individuals or groups, and accounts for the bulk of the NT writings.
Truth conveyed: the NT epistles cover a huge amount of ground; basically, the subject matter is as different as the range of individuals and groups to whom the letters are written.
Reader’s approach: context is vital to understanding epistles. The book of Romans is a letter from Paul to the church in Rome. As such, to have a chance at understanding it properly, you need to know something about the recipients (Roman Christians, probably a mixture of Jews and Gentiles, living literally under the nose of the greatest power the world had ever known) and about the writer (Paul, the great missionary apostle, writing from a prison cell). Once again, to assume that the author of an epistle written two thousand years ago somehow had twenty-first century westerners in mind is to be sorely mistaken. The key to understanding epistles, then, is to try to identify and draw out principles that apply irrespective of historical norms and culture-specific phenomena.
Description and examples: apocalyptic literature is similar to prophecy, in that it is a revelation of truth from God’s heart. What is particular about apocalyptic is that it usually pertains to large-scale, not to say cataclysmic, events that change the course of world history. The most notable examples are, of course, the books of Revelation and Daniel, though apocalyptic passages are found elsewhere in both the Old and New Testaments (for example, Jesus’ famous “Olivet Discourse” found in Matthew 24, Mark 13 and Luke 21).
Truth conveyed: as indicated above, apocalyptic usually speaks of major events in the history of God’s people and the world. Because of this, it’s important to remember that it presents a “big picture” view of what is going on or will come to pass.
Reader’s approach: the reader’s goal, then, should be to gain a big picture understanding, not to obsess about the details. When reading apocalyptic, it’s vital to understand that it’s chock-full of imagery, much of which also harks back to Old Testament pictures and events. This is probably the biblical genre that requires the most care, and where a simple, surface reading is the most likely to be way off base. (Which is why it’s such a shame that so many people have tried to apply just such a reading to end-times books like Revelation.)
As I said above, there are other genres in the Bible (examples being wisdom literature and discourse). But the genres identified above probably account for at least 75% of the text of the Bible.
Bear in mind also that these genres often overlap and intersect. For example, the gospels are mainly narrative, but also contain prophetic and apocalyptic passages, which should be read with their specific genre in mind. Some OT books contain epistles (e.g. Nehemiah). When reading a portion of text, always ask yourself what its genre is, and how you should therefore adjust your reading of it.
Finally, if there’s one overarching piece of advice I’d like to give, it’s this: when you read the Bible, please don’t go assuming that the writer went into some kind of trance and simply “channelled” God and wrote something addressed directly to little old you here in 2013. Heeding this advice would probably remove a good two thirds of all of the fundamental mistakes that are made in biblical interpretation. Please think about who wrote it, for which audience, in which historical context, and with what goal in mind.
I’m not sure yet where exactly the next post in this series will take us. Watch this space.