Different types of literature can be categorised by their form, style or content. This is known as genre. The meaning of the text is embedded within the genre. There is a debate as to whether genre is only a means of classification that describes what literary works have in common, or if it also provides rules for interpreting a text. The Bible contains literature from a number of genres. After providing a description of genre, I will assess its role in biblical interpretation using a pericope from Mark’s Gospel to demonstrate how genre impacts reading and meaning. I will conclude with describing the effect that genre has on teaching from this text.
Wellek and Warren define genre as ‘a grouping of literary works based, theoretically, upon both outer form (specific meter or structure) and also upon inner form (attitude, tone, purpose —more crudely, subject and audience).’ Attempts to categorise and describe genre date back to the classical Greek world of Plato and Aristotle. Plato identified two genres, drama and epic, and argued that they were only descriptive. However, Aristotle viewed genre as mimesis, or imitation, and named three types, comedy, tragedy and epic. He believed each should be interpreted accordingly. The Platonic position dominated for many centuries until the neoclassical period when Aristotle’s view was popularised. Prescriptive rules were developed during this time and the debate between descriptive and prescriptive has continued to the present.
The New Criticism of the 1940s introduced literary theory into biblical interpretation and hermeneutics. Up until that time the hermeneutical task focused on the author and the author’s historical and cultural background in order to find meaning from the text. The text-centred approach of literary theory brought the role of genre analysis to biblical interpretation. If the Bible is viewed as literature, then it is possible to use a literary methodology to find meaning in the text. It is arguable that the nature of the Bible as sacred scripture means the literary approach is not a valid one. If God is the author, and the Bible is his divine revelation, then do the assumptions of literary theory hold true? Tate believes that they do and argues that although the Bible was inspired by God, it was written down by human writers, in human language, within their Hebrew and Hellenistic cultures.
When the Bible is regarded as a literary work it then becomes necessary to identify the genre of each book or passage. Biblical genres include historical narratives, prophecy, poetry, psalms, wisdom literature, apocalypse, epistle and gospel. There are also sub-genres, e.g. parables, used within different passages. Occasionally more than one genre is used within one book; an example being the use of apocalypse within the Gospels. Understanding the genre of the Bible text enables the reader to apply the rules of that genre to the passage. Osborne calls this a ‘valuable link between the text and the reader.’ A misidentification of genre would mean that the text could be misread. For example, Bishop Spong has claimed that the birth narratives of the Gospels were midrash, that is a ‘fanciful story’ not intended to be taken literally, rather than the historical narrative which is the position of most biblical interpreters. Spong maintains that the Gospel writers intended their work to be read metaphorically. This view leads to a quite different interpretation of these passages. However Spong does not identify the genre based on the text, but rather on his theory. To identify the genre correctly requires looking at the outer form and inner form of the text, as suggested by Wellek and Warren. Then comparing the characteristics of the work with those of similar works from the same period.
The text that I will use in this assessment of genre is Mark 11:12-21. It is a narrative account of the incident in the temple following Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. The text forms an inclusio, a literary device whereby a frame is placed either side of a central text. Here the temple incident is framed with an account of Jesus cursing an unfruitful fig tree. The structure is as follows:
A. Jesus curses fig tree—vv. 12-14
B. Incident in Temple—vv. 15-19
A’. Fig tree has withered—vv.20-21
In this passage the fig tree is symbolic of the Jewish temple system. The Jerusalem temple should have been ‘a house of prayer for all the nations’ (Isa 56:7), but instead had become ‘a den of robbers’ (Jer 7:11). Jesus observes that, in the same way that the fig tree is barren, the temple system has also not been fruitful and therefore he pronounces judgement on it (cf. Jer 8:13). The temple, the central symbol of first-century Judaism, had become an idol and was not fulfilling its purpose. Jesus’ action in the temple has sometimes been called ‘the cleansing of the temple.’ It has also been called an ‘acted parable of destruction.’ In driving out (ἐκβάλλειν, cf.1:34, 39; 3:15, 22–23) the sellers and money changers, Jesus is not cleansing the temple, rather he is acting out its future destruction and thereby predicting an end to the temple system. Later in the Gospel Jesus speaks plainly about the temple’s demise (Mk 13:1-2). The temple was destroyed by the Romans in A.D. 70.
In this next section I will use the passage from Mark to highlight several features of genre and assess how genre may be used to comprehend meaning.
A. Genre is a text-centred approach to meaning
As previously mentioned, biblical interpretation had been largely author-centred; entering into the world behind the text in order to find the author’s intention. Genre analysis is a text-centred approach and focuses within the text. Osborne proposes that genre ‘classifies a literary work, is part of the process of coming to understanding (epistemology), and develops a literary world into which one enters (ontology).’ The Gospels can be classed as narrative because they tell a story. They share similarities with biography and historiography, however they are primarily the story of Jesus. In this pericope the narrative is arranged to highlight Jesus’ key teaching on the temple by use of the inclusio about the fig tree. Mark uses literary devices to enable the reader to find meaning in the text.
It could be argued that a literary-centred approach ignores authorial intent and another strand of biblical interpretation – the reader-centred approach – that is the world in front of the text. What the reader brings to the text, in terms of experience, culture, gender, etc. can mean that he or she will interpret a text differently to another reader. To counter this argument, Tate proposes an integrated approach which draws together author, text and reader and finds meaning in the interplay between the three. Readers cannot fully understand the text unless they have an understanding of genre.
B. There is sometimes a mix of genres in the same text
Whilst it is true that the work as a whole may be classified as one particular genre, it may also contain elements of other genres or sub-genres. Mark contains apocalyptic writing within the narrative (Mk 13). In the pericope, the temple incident is an enacted parable as is the triumphal entry into Jerusalem in the preceding passage. Mark records many of Jesus’ parables in words or deeds. Parables are used by Jesus to hide meaning from the crowds (Mk 4:10-12); part of the so-called Messianic secret. Jesus usually revealed the explanation to his disciples later in private.
Some scholars argue that the intermixing of genres casts doubt upon the validity of genre as an interpretative device because it ‘makes it impossible to identify genres with sufficient clarity to make them useful as hermeneutical tools.’ However, Osborne disagrees stating, ‘the very fact that we can identify apocalyptic or poetic portions within other genres demonstrates the viability of the approach.’ It is essential to look at the Gospel as a literary whole. The temple incident and fig tree are only part of the story that Mark was telling. They are to be understood within the context of the whole Gospel, and not as a series of disconnected stories.
C. Meaning is genre dependent
The genre provides the rules by which a passage is understood, or as Osborne states, ‘the hermeneutical principles by which one understands it.’ Fee and Stuart note that the Gospel writers adapted the stories that they related in order to fit their purpose. So this passage in Mark is written for its symbolic theological significance, whereas in the parallel passage in Matthew the lesson on faith is key (Matt 21:18-22). Mark also utilizes a literary device called intercalation in his Gospel, the sandwiching of one story within another, in order to invite the reader to seek out the significance. Tate outlines how Mark has employed three overlapping and embedded intercalations in chapter 11:
11:12-14 Fig tree
11:15-19 The temple incident
11:20-25 Fig tree
11:15-19 Jesus enters temple
11:20-25 Fig tree
11:27-33 Jesus enters temple
11:1-11 Jesus enters Jerusalem and temple
11:12-25 First intercalation above
11:27-34 Jesus enters Jerusalem and temple
This structure in the narrative invites the reader to look for the relationship between the fig tree and the temple. This then points to the possible meaning. Mullan writes, ‘Genre provides more than conventions for a writer; it also gives a framework for a reader’s expectations.’
However, there is still a possible problem due to the distance between writer and reader. Osborne states, ‘The modern reader needs help in understanding how [the] ancient genres functioned.’ Biblical interpretation based on genre is therefore dependent on the correct identification of genre (cf. Spong).
D. Genre recovers the authorial intent
It is the author who determines in which genre the work is written. Mark provides clues to the reader by the arrangement of the text, the literary devices he employs and the genre of the Gospel. Assuming the correct genre has been identified by the reader, it is possible to enter into a conversation with the story. Cheung writes, ‘Identification of genre helps to locate both the intention of the author and the expectation of the reader/audience.’ In the pericope, Mark draws the reader’s attention to Jesus’ actions in the temple by means of the inclusio with the fig tree. Seen in the wider context of the Gospel it becomes apparent that Jesus is predicting that the temple system will be replaced.
Against this proposition is the argument that there is no guarantee that the author successfully transferred authorial intention to the written page. This is a potential problem and should be borne in mind when interpreting a text.
How genre impacts teaching from this text
Correct genre identification is essential when teaching from a text. The passage from Mark could be interpreted as a polemic against corruption in church leadership or hierarchy. Evans writes, ‘The fig tree, in full leaf but devoid of fruit, symbolizes the temple, while the temple, busy with religious activities but devoid of spiritual fruit, stands in danger of judgment.’ The text is not an indictment against Judaism, rather it is critical of the nation’s leaders. This is consistent with the message of the Old Testament prophets. The pericope has also been interpreted as an objection to churches having bookshops within their buildings. However, this is not the meaning implied by the genre.
The title of the section in some Bible translations is not always helpful because it imposes a cleansing interpretation onto the text. The temple was an important symbol in Judaism and there is always the danger that a symbol can become an idol. When people place their hopes and aspirations on the symbol rather than on God, the one to whom the symbol should point. The same is true if we put our hopes and aspirations onto our own version of Jesus, rather than the real Jesus. Mark goes on to show that this is what the disciples and crowds later did. If Jesus is predicting the demise of the temple system, then has he also suggested what will replace it? What does this mean for Israel and Judaism? Will there be a new temple, or is Jesus going to bring in something new? The story that Mark tells, in the way that he tells it, with the characters, events and settings requires a response from the reader. The reader is expected to be changed by the story.
Genre is an important tool in the hermeneutic task. Correct identification of genre within a text-centred approach to biblical interpretation helps to discover the meaning of the text. The meaning of the text is dependent on the genre. The text to be interpreted will contain clues in the form of literary devices, style, content and form that point the interpreter towards discovering the genre of the work. Genre can help recover authorial intent, and is a help to the reader. Some biblical texts will include more than one genre or sub-genre, and so the work should be viewed as a whole by the interpreter. Genre awareness is also essential when teaching from a biblical text.
Cheung, Luke Leuk. The Genre, Composition and Hermeneutics of the Epistle of James. Milton Keynes: Paternoster Press, 2003.
Evans, Craig A. Mark 8:27–16:20, vol. 34B, Word Biblical Commentary. Dallas, TX: Word, Incorporated, 2001.
Fee, Gordon D., and Douglas Stuart. How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1982.
Mullan, John. How Novels Work. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.
Osborne, Grant R. “Genre.” Pages 252-253 in Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible. Edited by Kevin J. Vanhoozer. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2005.
—. The Hermeneutical Spiral: A comprehensive introduction to Biblical interpretation. Downers Grove, IL: Inter Varsity Press, 1991.
Powell, Mark Allan. “Authorial Intent and Historical Reporting: Putting Spong’s Literalization Thesis to the Test.” Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus 1, no. 2(2003): 225-249.
Tate, W. Randolph. Biblical Interpretation: An Integrated Approach. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2011.
Thiselton, Anthony C. Hermeneutics: An Introduction. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2009.
Wellek, René, and Austin Warren. Theory of Literature. New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co, 1949.
Wright, N. T. Jesus and the Victory of God. London: SPCK, 1996.
Wright, Tom. Who Was Jesus? London: SPCK, 1992.
 Grant R. Osborne, “Genre,” in Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible (ed. Kevin J. Vanhoozer; Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2005), 252.
 René Wellek and Austin Warren, Theory of Literature (New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co, 1949), 241.
 Osborne, “Genre,” 252.
 Ibid., 252.
 Anthony C. Thiselton, Hermeneutics: An Introduction (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2009), 24.
 W. Randolph Tate, Biblical Interpretation: An Integrated Approach (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2011), 2.
 Tate, Biblical Interpretation, 89.
 Ibid., 185.
 Grant R. Osborne, The Hermeneutical Spiral: A comprehensive introduction to Biblical interpretation (Downers Grove, IL: Inter Varsity Press, 1991), 150.
 Tom Wright, Who Was Jesus? (London: SPCK, 1992), 65.
 Mark Allan Powell, “Authorial Intent and Historical Reporting: Putting Spong’s Literalization Thesis to the Test,” Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus 1 (2003), 226.
 Ibid., 234.
 Osborne, The Hermeneutical Spiral,150.
 N. T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God (London: SPCK, 1996), 417.
 Ibid., 413.
 Osborne, “Genre,” 252.
 Tate, Biblical Interpretation, 138.
 Tate, Biblical Interpretation, 139.
 Ibid., 5-6.
 Ibid., 185.
 Osborne, The Hermeneutical Spiral, 9.
 Ibid., 9.
 Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1982), 110.
 Osborne, The Hermeneutical Spiral, 8.
 Fee and Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, 115.
 Tate, Biblical Interpretation, 251.
 Ibid., 252.
 John Mullan, How Novels Work (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 107.
 Osborne, The Hermeneutical Spiral, 150.
 Luke Leuk Cheung, The Genre, Composition and Hermeneutics of the Epistle of James (Milton Keynes: Paternoster Press, 2003), 5.
 Tate, Biblical Interpretation, 3.
 Craig A. Evans, Mark 8:27–16:20, vol. 34B, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas, TX: Word, Incorporated, 2001), 154.
 Ibid., 182.