Bible Study Basic: Genre in Scripture

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“The nature of the material under investigation determines the rules by which you interpret it.”

It’s been 10 years since I sat in his class but I can still hear Dr. McKenzie hammering that sentence down, down, down into our skulls. In today’s Bible Study Basic post I’ll be explaining the concept of genre (in a rather simplistic way).

You read a love letter differently than you read a textbook, differently than you read a newspaper. That’s because they are each written in a different genre. The love letter is bound to contain flowery symbolic language aimed at tugging your heart strings, but you’d hate to read a textbook full of symbolism. In the same way you’d never profess your love in textbook form with discussion questions at the end of each chapter. Those differences are (basically) the differences of genre and though the discussion on genre can get pretty deep, I don’t have to explain the basics. You instinctively learn the difference between a love letter and a newspaper.

When you come to study the Bible you are coming to a book filled with different genre. A few examples include:

  • Historical Narrative: Joshua
  • Gospel (Theological Biography): Matthew
  • Prophetic: Isaiah
  • Apocalyptic: Revelation

Each of these forms must be read differently in order to understand their meaning. Dr. McKenzie taught us that the text itself (the material under investigation) will help you interpret it (determines the rules by which you interpret it.) What does that mean? It means that you should read with an eye towards genre. As you read a book of the Bible you are also teaching yourself (or the text is teaching you) how that book should be read. Reading the Psalter repeatedly over time will make you a better interpreter of the genre of Biblical wisdom literature. As you read the Gospel of John over and over you’ll develop a keener sense of the rules of interpreting a gospel.

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