Literary Genre in the Bible, Part 1

A definition of the Bible, is “The Word of God, in words of men, recorded for us and for our salvation.”  We are going to turn our attention to “in words of men”.  Yes, Scripture is the inspired Word of God.  However, this does not mean that the writers sat with a telephone clamped to their ear hastily taking down God’s dictation.

We know that originally the stories of scripture were passed on from one generation to the next (oral transmission).  Parents and grandparents told the stories that had been handed down from generation to generation for hundreds of years.  It was only around the time of Solomon +/- 1000 BC that the people started to record what had been passed on over the years.  The authors were aware that they had a significant heritage which and if not put on paper could very easily be lost for all time.  There were many writers.  The Hebrew Scriptures, or Old Testament as we call it, was written over a period of 1000 years.  The New Testament was written approximately between the years 50AD and 100AD.
“In words of men”.

In its original form the Old Testament was written in ancient Hebrew.  The New Testament was written in Greek.  In both cases we do not have the original documents.  Those have been lost.  We therefore have to be satisfied with copies of the ‘final text’ and translations.

The writers wrote in the style of their time.  They used the vocabulary of their culture.  They expressed their thoughts a in way that was familiar to their audience.  We find a parallel to this process in our modern newspapers.  Each time we open the newspaper we are confronted with a wide variety of literary styles.  On the front page we may find an account of a political incident. This will be coloured by the political sympathies of the reporter.  A page or two later we find the women’s page.

There you find a recipe.  Further into the paper you find the leading article; a scientific discussion; advertisements; comic strips and sports articles.  Each of these is its own specific style, each of these is a literary genre.  As we read we automatically adjust our mode of understanding.  This headline appeared in a South Africa newspaper, “Sharks eat Cheetahs”.  You can well imagine what a distorted understanding of the article you would get if you read it as an article on animal behaviour.  The report was about a rugby match and the Cheetahs took a hammering.

The Bible also contains a wide variety of literary genre.  If one reads any part of the Bible without taking into account the literary form (genre) then the outcome will inevitably be “Sharks eating Cheetahs”,  however that takes place!!??
Here are some of the genre which we find in the Bible.  Each one of these must be read with an understanding particular to it; Myth, Gospel, Parable, Allegory, Riddle, Infancy Narrative, Legend, Apocalyptic writing.

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Here is a taste of literary form (genre).
There are many riddles to be found in the Gospel of Mark.  Four appear together at

Mk 4: 21 – 25.  Take a moment to read this in your Bible.  It will make what follows much easier to understand.

Did Mark think these four riddles were important?  He did.  Take a moment to see how he brings out the importance of his message, by using the riddles.   Look at how they are arranged.

Two riddles, then,
23Let anyone with ears to hear listen!”
24And he said to them, “ Pay attention to what you hear;
followed, by two more riddles.
Here is the fourth riddle in this group.
25 “For to those who have, more will be given; and from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.”
Read, as it appears here, it really looks most unfair.

I cannot imagine Jesus suggesting anything so unjust.  Now, we know, that we must read it as a riddle and not as a factual statement.

Mark seems to be telling us that the more we listen to Jesus’ Word, the more we will become attuned to hear it.  On the other hand, every time we fail to listen, it becomes harder the next time even to hear it.

There is a constant danger that we take for granted that we are hearing, when in fact we are not even listening.

Jesus is warning us to keep on listening and to keep on taking notice of what we hear.  If we fail to do this we will learn, to our dismay, that we are no longer living as Jesus’ disciples, obeying ‘every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord’.  (Dt 8: 3;  Mt 4:4)

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In the months to come we will explore some of the other literary forms found in the scriptures.