The writing in the Bible comes in many flavors, and grappling with the question of genre is one of the tasks involved in an adult-level understanding of the text. For a start, we need to adjust our reading strategies and expectations as we approach each kind of writing. This is true in ordinary life as well: you wouldn’t read a poem in the same way that you’d read a newspaper account or a letter from a friend. You’d approach each of these genres differently, in order to extract the writer’s meaning.
It’s the same deal with, say, the Psalms, the Gospels (and other historical narratives), and the New Testament epistles. Here’s a helpful comparative example:
I read in a Psalm that “Our God is a Rock.” What must I do with these words in order to grasp what the writer intended to communicate? Well, I’d have to consider the attributes of a “rock” – and probably not its geological attributes, either, but essential ones like firmness, strength, and protection; and then I’d have to apply these characteristics to the Person of God. There’s figurative language going on here, and it demands of me a certain sort of decoding strategy.
Okay, then I read in a Gospel account that “the stone was rolled away from the tomb.” What shall I do to understand these words? Nothing more than take their plain sense! It was a historical stone with geological attributes and great weight, and this mattered a lot to the women who were approaching with the hope of caring for Jesus’ corpse. It’s important that it wasn’t a metaphorical stone.
So finally I read in Peter’s first letter that “you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house.” Once again I need to take steps to decode a figurative comparison, this time an analogy linking the building of stones into a temple and the building of people into a church. But a further consideration arises from the genre of this text: it’s a letter, so I need to try to figure out what the writer meant by the pronoun “you.” Was he speaking to all of humanity? To Jews? To Christians long ago, or Christians in every age? Again, the genre demands that I take certain strategic steps before I can carry off an interpretation.
So this isn’t just a peripheral thing, identifying the genre of what we’re reading. It has implications for our understanding and interpretation, to begin with. Another genre issue that doesn’t get talked about in our churches much, but which will be relevant to anyone who rubs shoulders with people outside Christian circles, is the question of whether a narrative account is historical or imaginative. What’s our basis for making the call that something really happened, and was reported truly?
We can easily identify that the story of the Prodigal Son is imaginative – Jesus invented this parable to use as an illustration; he wasn’t reporting an actual event. But what about when a Gospel writer tells the story of Jesus walking on water? Or feeding the 5,000? Or raising Lazarus, or rising from the dead himself? Plenty of people deny that these things actually happened in history, and they would happily label these narratives as imaginative stories made up later by the church to promote their hero Jesus.
There are better and worse ways to make those judgment calls about narrative genres. Worse ways would include going with a knee-jerk reaction based on feeling or experience (“That could never happen in real life! I’ve never seen it happen, so of course it didn’t!”), or relying on the opinion of experts without investigating the experts’ worldview (might they have an agenda that controls their reading?). Another worse way is to say, “Well, I am a Christian, so I believe these narratives MUST be historical.” There’s a certain pious logic there – you’re expressing a submission to the authority of God’s Word when you say something like this – but it won’t communicate past the edges of Christian evangelical circles.
We can be smart about this; after all, Jesus challenges his disciples to be shrewd in the way they conduct themselves in the world. There are better ways to talk about making those judgment calls about genre, to give a reason for our belief that biblical narrative that presents itself as historical is communicating truly. This might include observing clues in the text that demonstrate the writer’s purpose for how his words should be read, or perhaps noting evidence that eyewitness testimony is involved; and it might involve offering a historical basis for our trust of the writer or the speaker.
The piece that I always go back to when defending my conclusions about historical narratives is the historically attested resurrection, which validates Jesus’ authority to teach that OT figures really existed and did what the Bible says they did. I can take him at his word in this, because his words about himself were proven trustworthy. Turn the question of genre into a question about Jesus’ resurrection, then, and you may discover that more is gained than just a defense of a historical narrative.