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The first step of interpretation should be determination of genre.  At least, that’s what I teach my students.  Many just dive into familiar verses and passages and begin interpreting.  I think that’s a huge mistake.

In our church Sunday Schools, many have taught along the line of genres in terms of “authors.”  For example, some would call certain sections of the Bible “prophetic literature.”  In some cases, some would look at how a book is used in church services.  For example, some would call the Gospel books “gospels” and so on.  This taxonomy dates all the way back to old Judeo-Christian traditions.

The problem with author-based genre categorization is that we aren’t describing what the authors have written but who the author is or how the literature is used later.  None of it is descriptive of the form of the biblical text itself.  I suggest that there should be a different way of categorization: literary categorization.

I think it is probably equally valid to describe biblical literature in terms of form because sometimes we can’t tell who the author is due to the many layers of editing (e.g. OT) or because the later usage in church is not always the true indicator of the original setting of the authorship.  I suggest that we describe the genre based on form: poetry, letters, discourse, etc.  By examining the form, we can often read closely the message within the text.  Add that to the historical background of authorship (or editing), then we would probably come up with quite an accurate picture of the biblical message.

What is the reward for interpreting texts based on genre?  Although many in basic hermeneutics want to  have a singular method (e.g. word studies, passage division, historical background etc.) to interpret all texts.  All texts are not created equal.  For narrative, we have to be quite sensitive to the plot, location, occasion, characterization, and prioritization of characters.  If we just interpret such texts by merely diagraming them into syntactical units and turn them into propositional main clauses, we may not have a satisfactory answer.  The same goes for letters.  In reading letters, it is important to diagram the units of thoughts and then look at the whole book context before putting the historical context back into interpretation.  These are just examples of differences in methods.  Many students ask me what the best commentaries for this and that biblical book are.  I prefer to answer them by pointing them to method books. Such books give us the skills to fish for ourselves.

 

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