by Amy Ekeh
When we pick up the Bible and begin to read, understanding what we read is a common challenge. As modern readers of ancient literature, we can expect to run into some difficulties! But understanding the Bible becomes much easier when we identify the genre — the type of literature — we are reading. Just as a library has many types of books (mysteries, histories, poetry, humor, travel, and so on), so does the Bible. Knowing what we are reading helps us understand it. Here are some main types of biblical writing.
This one can really get people riled up! Modern readers interpret the word myth to mean “false” or “make-believe.” Those are not words we like to associate with Scripture, nor should we. Myth as a genre is a type of writing that seeks to explain the origins or the meanings of things. Biblical myths are not so much “make-believe” as they are stories of profound spiritual truth.
The creation accounts in Genesis 1—3 are good examples. In calling these stories “myths,” we are simply saying that they are not to be read literally (for example, we do not have to believe that God literally created the universe in seven days), but are to be read for their spiritual truth (i.e., God is the creator of all things). The fact that there are two creation accounts placed back-to-back in the first chapters of Genesis with some conflicting information (for example, in the first account, God creates humans last; in the second account, he creates them first) provides further clarity for us that the writers and assemblers of the ancient Scriptures were looking for spiritual, not historical, accuracy.
The Bible is full of beautiful poetry. Some of it is dropped into books in the form of songs or hymns, while some whole books of the Bible (such as the Book of Psalms or the Song of Songs) are poetry. Being mindful of the genre we are reading can help us get into the spirit of the text. For example, when we are reading the Psalms, it is important to remember that we are reading poetry of the human heart offered as prayers. We are not reading doctrine or a “how-to” guide.
When the psalmist writes, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” (Psalm 22:2), we do not have to conclude that God ever abandons people. When the psalmist cries out in regard to his enemy, “Blessed the one who seizes your children and smashes them against the rock” (Psalm 137:9), we need not be horrified. As poems, the Psalms express emotion, struggle, joy, and love. They are cries of the human heart — whether in agony or ecstasy — offered to God.
While the Bible certainly contains a great deal of history, it is best called “biblical history.” While modern history values precision, chronology, and information, biblical history primarily values meaning and ideals. It tells a historical story, but with a purpose that is far deeper than chronology and facts. Rather than simply answering the question “What happened?” biblical history wants to answer the question “What does it mean?” The Acts of the Apostles, which tells the story of the early Church, is an excellent example of a biblical history
A Gospel is a particular type of writing that proclaims the good news about the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. As in a biblical history, its primary purpose is theological. Each author gathered, selected, and arranged various stories, sayings, and traditions about Jesus for his particular audience in order to highlight various aspects of the life of Christ. The purpose of a Gospel is not primarily to inform (as in a modern biography), but to elicit faith. It is a proclamation about a living person. It calls forth a response from the reader or hearer.
5. APOCALYPTIC LITERATURE
This final genre is especially challenging. Apocalyptic literature is a genre that originated in the Jewish community around the second century B.C. and flourished within Judaism and Christianity until around the second century A.D. The apocalyptic worldview emerged out of persecution (first of Jews, then of Christians). Apocalyptic literature comforts a persecuted community by encouraging its members to patiently endure and remain faithful to God in times of trial.
In a great cosmic battle at the end of time, God will triumph over all evil and oppression. Apocalyptic literature is highly symbolic and not intended to be read as a literal prediction of the future. Although apocalyptic literature often utilizes strange and even frightening imagery, its primary message is one of encouragement and hope for God’s faithful ones. The Book of Revelation is a prime example of apocalyptic literature in the Bible.