Hermeneutics 101 – Literary Context
I. Literary Genre in the Bible
A. What is Literary Genre? “Genre, a French word from the Latin genus, means a literary type. “Literary genre” refers to the category or the kind of writing characterized by a particular form(s) and/or content” (Zuck, p. 126).
B. Why is Genre important? Distinguishing the various genres (kinds of literature) in Scripture helps us to interpret the Bible more accurately. “It helps give a sense of the overall thrust of the Bible book, so that verses and paragraphs can be seen in light of the whole. This helps prevent the problem of taking verses out of context” (Zuck, p. 126).
C. Chicago Statement on Biblical Hermeneutics: “We affirm that Scripture communicates God’s truth to us verbally through a wide variety of literary forms” (Article X). “We affirm that awareness of literary categories, formal and stylistic, of the various parts of Scripture is essential for proper exegesis and hence we value genre criticism as one of the many disciplines of Biblical study” (Article XIII).
A. Epistles (exposition) The epistle is the dominant literary genre of the New Testament in terms of space. It is a mixed form that combines literary and expository features. The usual New Testament epistle consists of five main parts: 1) an opening or salutation; 2) thanksgiving (prayer for spiritual welfare and/or remembrance of recipients); 3) body of letter; 4) moral exhortations; and 5) closing with final greetings and benediction (Leland Ryken, How to Read the Bible as Literature, p. 155).
1. Ex. Romans “The book of Romans is a tightly reasoned explanation of the gospel. Paul argues like a lawyer presenting a case before a court” (Hendricks, Living By the Book, p. 210).
2. Other examples Paul’s other letters— Hebrews, James, 1 and 2 Peter, the epistles of John, and Jude.
3. Advantage of epistolary or expositional literature “Their meaning lies close to the surface. . . . And their purposes are easy to grasp; they practically outline themselves. Yet they also make for exciting in-depth analysis because their truths are inexhaustible” (Hendricks, p. 210).
4. Key to understanding “The key to understanding a work of exposition is to pay attention to its structure and the terms it employs” (Hendricks, p. 211).
B. Narrative “A narrative is of course a story, but a biblical narrative is a story told for the purpose of conveying a message through people and their problems and situations. Biblical narratives are selective and illustrative. The biblical narratives are not intended to be full biographies giving every detail of individuals’ lives; the writers carefully selected the material they included (obviously doing so under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit) to accomplish certain purposes” (Zuck, p. 128).
1. Examples Much of Genesis—Ezra, Acts
2. Most predominant literary category “The Bible contains more of the type of literature called ‘narrative’ than it does of any other literary type. For example, over 40 percent of the Old Testament is narrative. Since the Old Testament itself constitutes three-quarters of the bulk of the Bible, it is not surprising that the single most common type of literature in the entire Bible is narrative” (Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, p. 78).
3. Purpose of narratives The purpose of biblical narratives is to show God at work in His creation and among His people. Narratives help us understand and appreciate God for who He is and what He does. Narratives also reveal much about human beings in their relations to God.
4. Keys to understanding narratives
a. Find the plot and movement of the story. “This could be physical, as in the case of the Israelites moving across the Sinai peninsula in Exodus; it could be spiritual, as in the case of Samson in Judges. . . it could be relational, as in Ruth, or political, as in 1 and 2 Kings. The question is, what development is there in the story? What is different at the end of the book, and why?” (Hendricks, p. 211).
b. Study the characters. Who are the characters in the narrative? What roles do they play? How are they presented? How do the characters relate to each other? What progress or regress do they make? Do they fail or succeed? Why?
5. Principles for interpreting narrative parts of the Bible (adapted from Fee and Stuart, pp. 83-84).
a. Experiences found in narratives are not to be taken in a normative way unless other Scripture explicitly says so. “Our assumption, shared by many others, is that unless Scripture explicitly tells us we must do something, what is only narrated or described does not function in a normative way—unless it can be demonstrated on other grounds that the author intended it to function in this way” (Fee and Stuart, p. 106).
b. Narratives usually do not directly teach doctrine.
c. Narratives usually illustrate a doctrine or doctrines taught propositionally elsewhere.
d. Narratives record what happened—not necessarily what should have happened or what ought to happen every time. Not every narrative has an identifiable moral of the story.
e. What people do in narratives is not necessarily a good example for us. The fact that God allowed polygamy in the cases of Abraham, David and Solomon does not mean that such action is acceptable before God. Godly men, at times, did wrong and sinful things.
f. All narratives are selective and incomplete. The only details that are recorded are those that the Spirit of God inspired the human author to write (cf. John 21:25).
g. Narratives are not written to answer all of our theological questions. They have particular, limited purposes, leaving other issues to be dealt with elsewhere.
h. Narratives my teach either explicitly (by clearly stating something) or implicitly (by clearly implying something without actually stating it).
i. God is the hero of all biblical narratives.