Examining Literary Issues
Identifying the Literary Genre and Subgenre
So far you have chosen a topic and researched the introductory information
for your exegesis. The next step is to learn about the literary background
of your passage. This step is very important because literary issues
shape the meaning of the passage. The genre, subgenre, and organizational structure
of the passage give hints to the overall direction and pattern that
the passage is following. For example, Paul's letters generally follow (but not with perfect consistency) a pattern. The genre, subgenre and structure of the passage will help you understand this pattern, enabling you to understand what Paul originally intended to say to his audience.
The term "genre" in biblical criticism often refers to the German
word "gattung", which is used to mark a group of works for having "important
or distinguishing characteristics in common" (1). The genre "involves the form, style, and subject matter which sustains and dictates a complete literary work" (2).Genre is important because it impacts the way we interpret the text. Michael Gorman, a biblical scholar, provides a great modern day illustration. If you picked up a newspaper, you would notice that the front page news, the comics and the editorials are all different types of literature and must be interpreted in a way that fits each type. You would not want a world news report to exaggerate something. However some exaggerations are expected in advertisement. Similarly, people do not read the Sunday comics in the same way they read obituaries. In the same way, you need to understand the type of literature (or genre) of the book in which you find your passage (3). You cannot interpret a passage from a Gospel in the same way as an Epistle. The following are some basic genres that might fit the book in which you find your passage: (4)
|Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy
Deuteronomistic History Books
|Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1 & 2 Samuel, 1 & 2 Kings
Postexilic History Books
|1 & 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther
Books of Wisdom
|Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes
Books of Poetry
|Psalms, Song of Songs, Lamentations
|Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah,
Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi
Old Testament Apocalyptic Literature
|Matthew, Mark, Luke, John
|Romans, 1 & 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians,
Colossians, 1 & 2 Thessalonians, Philemon
|1 & 2 Timothy, Titus
Hebrews and the General Epistles
|Hebrews, James, 1 & 2 Peter, 1, 2, & 3 John, Jude
New Testament Apocalyptic Literature
CAUTION: Some authors might include different books in these categories or use different categories altogether.
The organization that a
scholar uses is partially based on the Christian tradition the author
follows (e.g. Catholic and Orthodox Christians include books
in the apocrypha). Another factor influencing how a scholar divides
the scriptures is the research work that he or she has done. The table
above follows the choices agreed upon by several Biblical scholars from the
Church of the Nazarene .
Genre and subgenre are very similar to each other, but while the genre refers to categories that affect the entire work, subgenres refer to literary types that do not affect the entire work. In the case of your exegesis, the subgenres still affect your passage (5). Like the genre, the subgenre is important to understand because passages which have unlike literary forms should be approached differently. For instance, you would not approach Hebrew poetry from Lamentations in the same way that you would approach an apocalyptic vision found in Daniel or Revelation. To approach them in the same way would lead to wrong conclusions about the author's meaning. Here are a few possible subgenres or literary forms you might encounter:
Sources for Genre and Subgenre
|Law or legal terms
Now that we've gotten an idea of what the genre and subgenre are, let's look at where you can find some of this information.
Commentaries: These typically focus on the subgenre
of the passage. This information is often found in the verse-by-verse section of the commentary.
Note: Certain commentaries like Word Biblical Commentary especially focus on this sort of information.
- Introductions to Biblical Books: These types of books often look at the
Bible from a general perspective. They typically describe
basic categories of Biblical books.
3. Identifying the Literary Context
The literary context refers to the framework surrounding your passage. Literary context involves understanding where in the progression of the book the passage is located (from beginning to end). Here's an analogy: think of your book as a large timeline with each passage being a different event on the timeline. Suppose one of the events on this timeline was the Roman sacking of Jerusalem in 70 AD. You could easily study and read a wealth of information about that particular event, but your understanding of the event would increase if you also paid attention to the context of the fall of Jerusalem. What events led to the Roman assault on Jerusalem? How did the sacking of Jerusalem affect the Jews in future events? Answers to these questions form the context that shapes your understanding of this one historical event.
Broad Literary Context
The broad literary context refers to the overal framework that the passage fits in. This would be like looking at our one event in relation to the rest of history. How far have we traveled in history? How does our one event important to the whole of history? The broad literary context also tends to see how your passage fits in with the overall themes of the book presented throughout the passage. Someone looking at the broad literary context for the passage that tells the story of Christ's birth in the gospel of Luke would need to pay attention to the themes Luke presents about Christ and how this birth impacts and participates with the rest of Luke's account of Christ's life.
Immediate Literary Context
The most important part of the literary context are the texts that immediately surround your passage. These passages provide the most information relevant to your passage's meaning and importance. In our timeline analogy, the immediate context could tell why the Romans assaulted Jerusalem. The immediate context could also tell you how Jerusalem's fall impacted the Jewish/Christian relationships that the New Testament writers had to address . The same could be true in an exegetical study. For instance, if someone were writing
an exegesis on the beatitudes in Matthew, it would be very important
to recognize that the beatitudes opens the Sermon on the Mount and specifically fits the context of Jesus discussing what it means to be a disciple (7).
Sources for Finding the Literary Context
- Bible Commentaries: Commentaries sometimes provide connections from your passage to previous or future passages. The New Interpreter's Bible is an excellent source for finding information on the literary context.
- Bible: Sometimes your own personal reading of the surrounding Scripture passages can be the best way to find the literary context. See if your passage follows similar themes as its neighboring passages. If you are exegeting a narrative passage, watch for changes in setting or characters.
4. Identifying the Major Emphases or Themes
It is important to find what themes or emphases the author is trying
to convey. These motifs often shape the author's intended meaning.
For instance, Matthew strongly emphasizes how Jesus fulfilled the
Mosaic Law and was Israel's true Messiah. Therefore, the writer of
Matthew quotes many Old Testament passages to show how Jesus fulfilled
prophecies. The writer also uses the genealogy of Jesus to show the
connection to King David's line - the line from which the Jews believe
the Messiah would come (8).
There are several resources that you can use to find the major themes
or emphases of the book that also connect to your passage:
Commentaries: Sometimes commentaries include connections from your particular
passage to a greater theme stressed by the author.
Dictionaries: Some Bible dictionaries (such as Anchor
Bible Dicitonary) have subsections dedicated to major literary
- Introductions to Biblical Books: These typically identify the most prominent
themes in each book of the Bible.
5. Identifying Parallel Biblical Passages
Next, you need to identify some passages that have similar thoughts
or patterns to compare with your passage. By doing this, you will
be able to identify some foundational biblical truths as well as to
clarify positions that the author takes. For instance, the Paul continually
writes that the greatest gift of the Holy Spirit is love. If you are
writing an exegesis on one of these passages, it would be very important
to see what Paul writes in other letters to other people about the
gift of love. Each new context brings new light to what Paul is saying.
In other situations, parallel Biblical passages will show where there
appears to be conflicting thoughts around the same basic thought or
story. You must address some of these issues a little bit when writing
your exegesis (although "contradictions" should not become
the primary focus of the paper). An example of this is the Lord's
Prayer. The context and the content of the Lord's Prayer is slightly
different depending if you are reading Matthew or Luke. You would
need to find out why these authors wrote different things? Was this
There are lots of different types of sources that you can use to find
parallel Biblical passages. Here are a few of them:
Commentaries: Most commentaries point out Scriptured with
similar stories, ideas, or other parallels in the verse-by-verse
Concordances provide lists of Scripture that use the same English
word in that translation. Note: This does not necessarily mean
that the Scriptures are discussing the same things-- even though
the same English word is used. If you use a concordance, make
sure you read the other Scripture in its context CAREFULLY!
- Gospel Synopsis:
If you are working with a gospel, then you will want to use a
Gospel synopsis. These books allow you to easily compare similarities
and differences between parallel Gospel passages.
Works Cited For This Page
- Soulen, Richard N. and R. Kendall Soulen. Handbook of
Biblical Criticism. 3rd ed. Louisville: Westminster John
Knox Press. 2001.
- Larry Murphy
- Michael Gorman
- Discovering the Bible. Ed. Alex Varughese. Kansas
City: Beacon Hill Press, 2006.
- Larry Murphy
- List based on Discovering the Bible. Ed. Alex Varughese. Kansas
City: Beacon Hill Press, 2006. and Guidelines for Biblical Exegesis. Larry Murphy. Bourbonnais: Olivet Nazarene University, 2007.
- Boring, Eugene M. "The Gospel Of Matthew." New Interpreter's
Bible. vol 8. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995.
- Harris, Stephen L. The New Testament. Boston: McGraw-Hill,
Last updated June 21, 2007