For generations readers have recognized and commented upon various literary features of the Bible. Whether one holds the Gospel of Luke as the most beautiful book ever written, cherishes suspense and imagery in the stories of OT heroes, or declares Paul's description of love (1Co 13) to be most sublime, one has engaged to some degree in literary criticism. It is but a small step from such appreciation to a more systematic exploration of the literary character of biblical texts with an eye not only toward great enjoyment in reading, but toward greater understanding as well.
Most literary phenomena appear more frequently in some genres, less frequently in others. Archaic English verb forms, for example, will be found more often in prayers, homilies, and traditional ceremonies than in doctors' prescriptions, weather bulletins, and political commentaries. Various literary features in the Bible, then, are usefully organized and treated according to the genres in which they most typically appear.
Of course the genres themselves deserve careful treatment in any discussion of literary matters. Simply put, a literary genre is defined as a group of texts with several features in common with each other. It is a sensitivity to genre that prompts a bookstore manager to devote separate sections of the store to science fiction, romance, and mystery. But the “several features” held in common by the texts within a genre can be identified more specifically. In generic analysis, texts are grouped together that show some commonality in form, social setting, and intention.Cf. with “structure, function, and attitude” according to Charles H. Talbert, What is a Gospel?: The Genre of the Canonical Gospels (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1977), 6.
The importance of addressing the literary genre of biblical texts arises from the fact that God's truth has come to expression in the language and literature of particular human societies. The Scripture is, therefore, both linguistically and historically conditioned, requiring that interpretation be carried out within these parameters. On the one hand, the linguistic character of the Bible requires that we read its texts in the light of the societal constraints and expectations brought into play simply by the use of language. Languages are, after all, not the private possessions of individuals, but consist of complex social agreements shared by many persons about how their language ought to work. Were these conventions to be dissolved, individuals would become linguistically isolated and communication would be impossible. On the other hand, the historical nature of the Bible and the languages it employs requires that we read texts in the light of their placement in the evolution and devolution of human languages and their conventions. As anyone who compares Shakespearean English with modern English may suspect, languages, like people, horses, and trees develop, mature, grow old, and die.
The particular conventions that make communication in any language possible include not only vocabulary and syntax but also genre. As soon as readers or listeners encounter discourse, they begin classifying, whether consciously or unconsciously, that discourse according to genres known to them. In our own language and culture such initial formulas as “Once upon a time,” “Ladies and gentlemen,” “Dearly beloved,” and “Whereas. . . Be it resolved” generate powerful expectations in our minds about what forms and structures will follow, what typical social setting is assumed, and what sorts of intention might lie behind the discourse. Such expectations are a major constituent meaning, allowing us to make sense of what we encounter. When our generic expectations regarding form, function, or setting are not fulfilled, we may be embarrassed, amused, or confused. For example, a declamation of praise offered at the birthday celebration of an octogenarian may too nearly approach the genre of a “eulogy for the deceased” to please the family. Or a suitor, hoping to improve his chances through humor, may use the parliamentary formula “Whereas. . . , be it resolved. . .” to propose marriage to his companion. How often have friendships been damaged when the hearer has categorized a remark wrongly as “serious statement” rather than as “joke”! Far from being a pointless exercise, then, generic classification bears a heavy load in the task of accurate interpretation, since genre conveys meaning just as certainly as do words and syntax.
For generations biblical scholars have sought to identify and classify biblical literature according to its type, or genre. In so doing, they stand in some continuity with the interests of ancient literary theorists such as Aristotle, who considered Lyric, Epic, and Drama as the fundamental categories into which all literature could be grouped. Even in typical university curricula today, these same categories are often expressed as poetry, novels, and drama, with such subgroupings or overlappings as tragedy, comedy, satire, biography, and essay.M. H. Abrams, A Glossary of Literary Terms, 5th ed. (Fort Worth: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1988), 72-74. But as generic theory has been pursued with greater rigor, and the biblical genres have been subjected to closer analysis in the last century, generic analysis has developed into a technical discipline. Several of its more important conclusions, assumptions, and weaknesses are described in greater detail below.Cf. Gene M. Tucker, Form Criticism of the Old Testament, Guides to Biblical Scholarship (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1971), 1-9.
First, though the Bible now stands as a written document, much of its material initially arose as speech. This is due not only to the largely oral nature of ancient societies, but also the preference of certain discourse genres for spoken communication. Prophetic warnings and encouragements, for example, were likely reduced to writing only after their initial oral delivery before a live audience (cf. Jos 36:4, 32). It is more appropriate, then, to have in mind the great variety of nonliterary social and religious settings (Sitze im Leben) in ancient society as the womb that gave birth to many genres, than to have in mind as the source the individual genius of the professional scribe. In any case, a genre has been adequately described when the setting in which it first arose has been identified.
Second, genres, as certainly as languages and societies, change and develop over time. At its inception, a genre might be compact and concise. But as its use increases and the uses to which it is put are broadened, the same genre may become complex and overloaded until it fades away entirely or is transformed into something qualitatively different. Or a single genre may be merged with several other genres to form a hybrid, or mixed genre. In theory, at least, it should be possible to construct a relative dating of texts sharing the same genre by plotting the evolution of their generic forms. Such a project is complicated, however, by several of the following points.
Third, generic definition must admit a degree of fluidity. Not only do mixed genres muddy the waters of analysis, but speakers and writers are constantly adapting genres to address more effectively the immediate needs of their particular situations.James Muilenburg, “Form Criticism and Beyond,” JBL 88 (March 1969): 1-18. The differences between two texts of the same genre, then, may flow less from the larger evolution of the genre than from the specific historical contexts in which they were formed. The peculiar creativity of one prophet may not affect later prophets employing the same genre. It follows that not all texts “fit” into single generic categories, and that generic evolution can be plotted only with great reserve.See Tremper Longman III, Literary Approaches to Biblical Interpretation, vol. 3 of Foundations of Contemporary Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1987), 78-80.
Fourth, some genres are susceptible of more precise structural description than others. As will be noted below, Psalms identified as Thanksgiving Psalms contain distinct and predictable components, whereas Royal Psalms share little more than a royal theme. Such unevenness in generic definition and description is especially obvious when texts are grouped together, for example, solely according to their content or to their supposed lack of historicity. In such cases generic definitions are doubtful, and conclusions founded upon them should be viewed with suspicion.
Fifth, genres may vary in size, from a few words or phrases to huge complexes of material that span a group of biblical books. A letter, for example, may be as brief as 2 John or as extensive as Romans. Additionally, genres may be a host to or hosted by other genres. The short letter from the apostles and elders at Jerusalem (Ac 15:23-29) is hosted within the ancient historiography of Luke-Acts, while a Pauline letter typically hosts within it other genres: e.g., hymn (Phil 2:6-11), allegory (Gal 4:21-31), code of household ethics (Col 3:18-4:1). Therefore, the distinction sometimes made between literary forms (smaller, hosted units) and literary genres (larger, hosting units), while useful at times, admits many exceptions.
Sixth, though literary theory typically defines a genre as a group of texts sharing certain characteristics, a number of texts seem to be unique, the single example of a type of literature. Whether such a text is the only survivor among many members of its class, or the only text of that sort ever produced, one can immediately detect the inappropriateness of speaking “typically” about any one of its features. But inasmuch as one can describe its structure, purpose, and setting, we consider it appropriate to include such texts in this discussion of biblical literature.
Seventh, whatever the history of a genre, whether it arose in oral or written mode, and whether it arose in the royal court, the temple, the family, or the market place, the biblical materials now stand within finished literary compositions that supply (or imply) distinctive literary and historical contexts. However deeply the interpreter may probe the layers of redaction or the evolution of genres, the task of interpreting Scripture requires attention, finally, to the shape and function of any given biblical text as a finished literary component within a finished literary whole.
Generic analysis, then, presents itself as a necessary endeavor though fraught with complexity and ambiguity. The brief survey below will set forth only the more important biblical genres along with prominent literary characteristics noteworthy for each. More comprehensive treatments of biblical genres and their literary features can be located in the resources cited in the following discussion.