Note: This is the third in my series on Biblical Hermeneutics. Please read the first one before reading this one.
I’ve written about how Christians must interpret the Bible as a divine book. One should also remember that it is a human book. The writers, inspired as they were, were human beings. As such, they would communicate in ways that are normal for them. This will include genres, vocabulary, point of view, and spiritual insight.
The first and most obvious piece of written communication is genre. Different genres have different ways of expressing the thoughts of the writer. In the modern world, one would hardly expect a college term paper in economics to be constructed the same as a love poem, even if they were written by the same person.
The Bible is no different in this regard. There are many genres within both testaments and they should be handled with this thought in mind.
The Hebrews divided their Scriptures into three sections: The Law (Torah), The Prophets (Nebhi’im), and the Writings (Kethubim). When written in Hebrew, they form the acronym Tanak. Most English readers will be familiar with a different breakdown. Pentateuch, History, Poetry, Major Prophets, and Minor Prophets. Scholars typically divide them into two groups: books that are primarily prose and books that are primarily poetry. They then subdivide the two groups into genres.
Major Genres of the Old Testament
· Historical Narrative-Books like Genesis, Exodus, and 1 and 2 Samuel present their teachings as the way events happened. It should be remembered that these are sacred history. The parts that get recorded are important to the story of redemption with less regard for the outside world. For example, the reign of King Omri is covered in a handful of verses. On the other hand, King Ahab has several chapters devoted to his reign.
· Legal-Leviticus and Deuteronomy state the way that God’s people are to act.
· Poetry-Psalms and the Song of Solomon teach their lessons through sweeping emotional passages. There are several different kinds of poetry, a topic to be examined in detail later.
· Wisdom Literature-Ecclesiastes, Job, and Proverbs do three things. 1) Show mainly in quick couplets how the godly person lives (Proverbs), 2) shows the consequences of departing from God (Ecclesiastes), or 3) demonstrates the reward from God for standing with him in the face of adversity (Job).
· Prophecy-the works of those called specifically to confront and teach in their days. Five books make up the Major Prophets while 12 make up the Minor Prophets. The difference in major and minor has nothing to do with importance but only of length.
· Apocalyptic-Parts of Daniel, Zechariah, and Isaiah use imagery to tell what God is doing or planning to do in the future. Most of these books are symbolic and must be interpreted with that in mind.
As you can imagine, a legal statement will be different from a narrative. It is easy to see the difference in form between “Thou shalt have no other gods before me” and the story of Jacob burying his wife’s stolen idols. Both teach the same lesson in the end, but the way of getting there is very different.
Major Genres of the New Testament
· Gospel-these 4 books are sacred history. They are neither simple biography nor history. Each author selected events from the life and ministry of Jesus to preserve His teachings and His ministry. Only 2 tell of His miraculous birth, only 1 tells of His family fleeing to Egypt, only 1 tells of His visit to the Temple at age 12. But all detail the final week of His ministry and all tell of His resurrection.
· History-the book of Acts is also sacred history. It tells the story of the Apostles and how the early Church started in Jerusalem and turned the world upside down. It focuses mainly on the ministries of Peter and Paul. The most important part to remember for the interpreter is that these are the events God chose to have recorded. The book makes the theological statements God wanted to make.
· Letters-Most books of the New Testament, 21 to be precise, are in this category. They must be read in light of what they were addressed to do. Personal letters to friends, such as Titus, are different from letters written to address problems in the church (Corinthians) or the theological essay that is Hebrews.
· Apocalypse-The final division has only one book-the Revelation to John (though brief snatches can be found in the other books). Like the Old Testament genre, this is highly symbolic and contains much strange imagery. It would be folly to read it the same way one reads a letter or Gospel.
You may note that poetry is not on the list for New Testament genres. There is very little poetry in the New Testament and all of it is embedded in larger genres.
As you can imagine, these genres often overlap and few books contain only one genre. Gospels are a form of history. The Gospel of Matthew has a section called “The Little Apocalypse” though the book as a whole is clearly a Gospel. Likewise, Luke contains many parables in his Gospel. Once subgenres are included, the list can become unwieldly very quickly.
What this means is that the interpreter must first and foremost approach each book depending on its major genre. Then each passage must be examined for its subgenre. Any other way simply will not do. Those who attempt to read legal material the same way they read poetry may arrive at the correct interpretation only by the grace of God.
The modern student of Scripture must at all times remember that the Old Testament dates back from 1,500 BC to 400 BC. However, the Book of Genesis contains records that are even older, dating back to the creation of the cosmos. The times were very different then. Most jobs were agricultural and most farming was subsistence. Life was rural, not urban.
The enemies of the people, those who hounded them and attacked them, are unfamiliar to us. Their leaders have names we find funny at best or difficult to pronounce and remember at worst. Throw in their geography, weights, measures, and different customs, and the size of the gap should humble the reader.
The New Testament is better in this sense. The first and last books here were written within decades of each other not centuries. The predominantly Greco-Roman culture portrayed is one that we are somewhat familiar with. However, even so, the daily customs of then are not the same as we might expect them to be.
Moreover, the student of the Old Testament must not assume that knowledge there will suffice for the New Testament. During the time between the Testaments, the land changed drastically. The Sanhedrin did not exist in the time of Malachi, but in the New Testament, they presided over Judea. The role of the High Priest had shifted from religious power to much more political power.
I say this not to discourage you from Bible study. I say this to encourage you in doing the right kind of Bible study. It is better to spend the time beforehand and interpret correctly than it is to jump in and misinterpret.
The Bible was first written in three languages: Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. The vast majority of the Old Testament comes to us in Hebrew. There are about 200 verses in Aramaic, most of them in Daniel and Ezra. The New Testament was written in Greek* with Matthew being written in Mishnaic Hebrew.**
**There are Greek words that make better sense when translated back into Hebrew. Also, the church fathers who spoke on the matter explicitly name Matthew as being first in Hebrew and then translated. This includes Papius, Origen, Iraneus, the church historian Eusebius, and the scholar and translator Jerome. It should be noted that no early writer states that Matthew was written in Greek. The unanimous testimony should not be ignored.
Regarding the languages themselves, to deal with the Bible properly, the student must first try to think like a Hebrew. It is a language that emphasizes action. It does not focus on theological statements. To put it another way, the Hebrew language prefers description over prescription. Instead of talking about election, they show how God has repeatedly rescued the people in spite of their sins.
The Greek of the New Testament also is not the classical Greek of Homer or the playwrights. It is the Greek used by the common people and had changed significantly over the centuries. These things must be taken into account by the student.
Most students of the Bible will not have the time or inclination to learn even one of the languages. That is fine. Many modern translations are fine works and will get the reader where he or she needs to go. What the reader needs to be aware of is that these different translations exist because even knowing the languages does not make the translators agree. If it did, there would only be one translation for each recipient language.
Keeping in mind the differences between English and Hebrew and Aramaic and between English and Greek will help the reader interpret. Where this knowledge and modern translations still leave gaps can be bridged with a good commentary or two.