Understanding genre

When we come to look at a Biblical text, it can appear to present problems to the critical reader that do not actually exist. Therefore, it is helpful to determine the primary genre of each work. For some works it is obvious, beginning with eye-witness historical accounts and moving on to stories only remembered orally (Judges). Some books also include more reflective history written down at a later date, as well as prophecy, theology through stories, psalms for worship, wisdom literature and the celebration of married life (Song of Songs).

Single texts

Some works in the Bible are a single text, with no pressing reason to consider that the majority of the work was not written entirely by a single author, or with a single author being dominant. For each of these, it relatively easy to identify the genre. Books that fall into this category are:

  • Old Testament: Leviticus, Deuteronomy, Nehemiah, Esther, Job, Song of Songs, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel, Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Zechariah, Malachi.
  • New Testament: Mark, John, Acts, all the works attributed to Paul, Hebrews, James, 1 Peter, 1, 2, and 3 John, Jude, Revelation.

Leviticus and Deuteronomy can be easily placed as reflective works, written after the destruction of the Kingdom of Judah by the Babylonians. Leviticus can be understood as a codification of the rules of temple worship. These had to be written down in order to preserve the living traditions, in the hope that the temple worship would be eventually restored. Deuteronomy is reflective work, designed to provide rules for reconstituting the nation state, while drawing on the experiences of the last 600 years. Both of these works were attributed to Moses, as a literary device.

Composite texts

Works that can be considered to be composite works, being the product of an editor who has assembled his material from a range of available sources, are:

  • Genesis, Exodus, Numbers, Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings, 1 and 2 Chronicles, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes.

Of these works, the first four can be considered to be particularly difficult to identify in regard to genre, since they are mixed. Genesis includes the family history of Jacob’s family, being the story of the foundation of Israel, some of it written down by Jacob’s grandchildren, and other parts being written down much later from stories retold within the tribes of Israel. This work also includes some deep early theology, conveyed in stories that were first developed in Egypt, some of which were written down while the Israelites were in Egypt, and some were written down 200 years later. Similarly, Exodus, Numbers and Joshua contain some eye-witness historical material, and some written down 200 years later, and all finally codified in the period of the Exile; the book of Judges was fully written down in the time of David’s kingdom.

Some works can be considered to be primarily the product of a single author, but with significant additions being made later by another single author:

  • Old Testament: Ezra, Isaiah, Daniel
  • New Testament: Matthew, Luke, 2 Peter.

Of the New Testament works, Matthew and Luke are clearly composites, with an original text (as written by Matthew and Luke) being supplemented by extracts taken directly from Mark. Also a good case can be made that 2 Peter 2:3b-22 is a second-century addition (just as Mark 16:9-20 is now considered to be later addition and so noted in modern translations).

Pseudo-graphical texts

Of the New Testament works, only two can be considered to be definitively pseudo-graphical: 1 Timothy and Titus. The genre of these two works is polemic; they are not genuine letters written to actual people. These works were written after Paul’s death, with the apparent purpose of setting in stone the leadership framework that Paul had put in place in the churches that he had established. Both reflect a leadership structure that is quite plausibly one that Paul set up, with only the head of a household being eligible to share in the formal leadership of a church community. However, it is hard to consider that the theology of 1 Timothy is Paul’s (a woman is saved by child-bearing). To this we can add the effort made in both letters to limit the role of women, which seems to cut across the pattern found in Acts and in many of Paul’s other letters.