My previous posts on the third chapter of Vatican II’s Dei Verbum (see here, here, and here) focused on the extent to which the Bible may contain historically-inaccurate statements. That was a largely theoretical discussion; as much as it vexes people who crave a “false certitude” that everything in the Bible is factually true,[1] debates about historical minutiae make almost no practical difference for the Church. What is important is how to interpret the Bible, a topic Dei Verbum also addresses. Paragraph 12 says that the Bible must be interpreted in both its literary and its historical contexts. In this post I will explain what kinds of literary genres are found in the Bible and why they matter.[2]

The Bible is not one type of document. Rather, it is a library made up of many different kinds of documents, written by many different people across a millennium. As such, to be interpreted rightly, each book must be understood for what it is, according to its own literary genre (or genres): “To draw out the sacred writers’ intention, one must look at, among other things, literary genres” (DV 12).[3]

This may sound obvious, but it is an important and relatively-recent idea in the history of biblical interpretation. In ancient and medieval interpretation—and among many wielders of the Bible even today—Bible verses are typically quoted without context, and in a more or less “flat” way. At the risk of over-simplifying, we can say that the Bible was treated by both Jews and Christians as a repository of sayings that could be extracted, debated, and marshalled as evidence whenever and however necessary. For the most part, any verse was as good as another, regardless of where it came from or what kind of text it was. The original context of the saying made little difference; what mattered was how the interpreter used a passage it in their own theological argument. Context was only brought in when one needed to refute someone else’s argument. For example, during the iconoclast controversy, St. John Damascene refuted the iconoclast proof-text, “You shall not make for yourself an idol or a likeness of anything” (Exod 20:4 NABRE), by arguing that that commandment was specific to the ancient Israelites and not a universal moral norm. Insofar as God became human in the Incarnation, it was entirely fitting to depict and revere his likeness.

In harmony with modern biblical studies, DV 12 suggests that literary context (genre) should always be considered when interpreting Scripture. I will offer a recent example of how important this is.

In the Catholic Church, a lot of attention has been given to the death penalty recently because of Pope Francis’s condemnation of it (e.g., Fratelli Tutti 263-70). Against this, traditionalists (never slack in passing up an opportunity to attack him) proof-texted Genesis 9:6: “Anyone who sheds the blood of a human being, by a human being shall that one’s blood be shed.” Absent any context, this passage seems to be an explicit endorsement of capital punishment. But there is a reason it is so quotable, and understanding that reason gives the lie to the pro-death penalty misinterpretation.

Genesis 9:6 is a poetic verse of three lines found in the middle of the post-flood narrative about how Noah and his descendants will now be permitted to eat meat. The Israelite ritual prohibition against eating blood is added as a caveat, and then it is said that God shall demand a reckoning for any human blood that is shed. The poetic verse of Gen 9:6 certainly predates the broader narrative, one of numerous instances in the Old Testament of older poetic material being inserted into prose narratives. This was probably a known aphorism (proverb), which conveys the universal truth that those who practice violence usually fall prey to violence themselves. The same lesson can be learned in the legend of Samson in Judges 13-16.

Jesus quotes an almost identical aphorism, when he urges Peter to renounce violence, even in self-defense: “Put your sword back into its sheath, for all who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Matt 26:52). This is consistent with his teaching against violence in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5:38-48), and a chilling reminder that the temptation to protect itself by violence has been with the Church since the beginning. Because Jesus explicitly says “put your sword back into its sheath,” probably no one has ever mistaken this proverb as an endorsement of retributive violence, as they have with Gen 9:6. On the contrary, it is easily understood that it calls Christians to non-violence, and with a warning.

Gen 9:6, once correctly understood as an aphorism of this sort, is revealed to be an argument against the death penalty, not for it. Precisely because human beings are made in the image of God, they ought not to be killed (cf. John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae 39, 53). Far from feeling encouraged, the executioner should tremble! But when quoted out of context, it is easily mistaken for a divine commandment, as though it said “Thou shalt execute the one who sheds blood.” The key difference is genre: aphorism vs. command.

The Bible contains many literary genres besides aphorisms and commands. One may also find within the pages of Holy Writ oracles, genealogies, case law (e.g., Exodus 21-23), histories, legends, myths (e.g., Gen 6:1-4), psalms, poems, prayers, erotic poetry (the Song of Songs), satire (the Book of Esther), parables (e.g., the Book of Jonah), letters, theological treatises (e.g., the Book of Hebrews), apocalypses, dreams, visions, and allegories (e.g., Judges 9:7-15), among others. Many of these genres function very differently from one another and cannot be interchanged without getting into hermeneutical mischief.

Imagine, for example, that you received a letter from a friend but mistook it for a newspaper article. Or say you were reading Aesop’s Fables, but thought you were reading a history book. What would happen if you tried to read a series of Tweets as a set of commandments? Or what if you tried to read a genealogy as an allegory or parable? In all these cases, although the results might be hilarious, they would not offer much insight into the true meanings of the words on the page. When interpreting the Bible, if we wish to ascertain what the human authors’ “intention” may have been—in other words, what their words literally mean—we have to read them using the rules of the literary form in which they were written.[4]

Let’s look at another example, because this is important. Say we are reading the Book of Jonah. Most scripture scholars agree that this book is a parable about a bigoted prophet, who cannot imagine that God’s mercy could extend to wicked pagans like the Assyrians (they destroyed the kingdom of Israel!). Merely because it uses past tense verbs, most readers assume it is a history, telling the deeds of the historical prophet Jonah, who served under King Jeroboam II in eighth-century Judah (see 2 Kings 14:26). Operating on this mistaken assumption, they may get side-tracked by apparently impossible details, like the prophet being swallowed by a giant fish. The historicizing reader may then begin an investigation into the sizes of ichthyic esophagi, the location and size of ancient Nineveh, who was king at the time, and other historical questions might. All of this, however, would be to miss the point entirely, since the Book of Jonah is a parable. This fact is made plain by the literal appearance of God at the end of the story, who reveals the lesson in Aesop-like fashion: God is concerned about the people of the world, whether they are believers or pagans—and even animals (Jonah 4:11). All can repent and be saved (cf. Acts 10:34). Jonah’s reaction to this theophany—or any kind of resolution to the story that would be necessary in a history—is entirely omitted as beside the point. The lesson has been given; the tale is finished. Interestingly, the VeggieTales movie Jonah captures this interpretative detail well, when it tells the audience: “The question isn’t what Jonah learned, but what you learned!”

These examples show how important genre is when reading the Bible, and thousands more could be given. The proper understanding of the importance of literary genres is the lifeblood of the modern study of the Bible, and rightly so. In my next post, I will examine why the historical context also matters.


[1] See the Pontifical Biblical Commission, The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church, the section called “Fundamentalist Interpretation.”

[2] My next post will discuss the importance of historical context.

[3] As always, I offer my own translation of the Latin: “Ad hagiographorum intentionem eruendam inter alia etiam genera litteraria respicienda sunt.”

[4] The “literal” sense of a text, properly understood, is the sense it properly conveys. The “literal” meaning of an allegory, for example, is not the external symbols (e.g., a tortoise and hare), but the meaning they convey (e.g., patience and haste). Because this terminology can be confusing – especially given fundamentalist insistence on what they often wrongly take to be the “literal” meaning of passages like Genesis 1 – I sometimes substitute the word “literarily.” We don’t necessarily want the literal meaning of a passage (again, the tortoise), but its literary meaning. In other words, what does a passage mean when interpreted in its proper literary context? (This is a bit of linguistic trick intended to convey the point; the word “literal” is still correct.)

Image: By Gaspard Dughet – Royal Collection, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=92099235

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Dr. Rasmussen is a Professorial Lecturer in the Department of Theology at Georgetown University. He has a Ph.D. in Theology and Religious Studies from The Catholic University of America, specializing in historical theology and early Christianity. His research focuses on St. Basil, Origen, and the interface between theology and science in their writings. His current research focuses on Basil and the human body, physiology, and medicine.
He blogs at https://chrysologus.blogspot.com/
Understanding the Bible in Its Literary Context
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