If you take a hermeneutics course at your local Bible College or Seminary, or pick up a (modern) book on Biblical hermeneutics, it is likely that the topic of genre would take center stage in the material. This is clearly an important topic in modern studies in Biblical hermeneutics. (It also seems to be a very recent point of emphasis. I suspect this is because a poor grasp of genre has led to all sorts of silly objections to the contents of Biblical texts.)

I've been wondering, though... how is genre determined? Take, for example, Genesis 1. Some would say it is clearly Historical Narrative. For a while, others contended that it was Poetry. (From what I understand, that stance has now all but been abandoned by scholars.) More recently many scholars have begun contending that it is a sort of "Creation Myth." From what I gather, the common defense of the Narrative perspective is "you can tell by simply reading it" and the defense of the Creation Myth perspective is "it has things in common with other Creation Myths."

Likewise, the Gospels are "History" to one scholar, "Biographical Eyewitness Accounts" to another, and "Theological Discourse" to another still. And then scholars are divided as to what sort of "History" they are, etc. The Psalms are simply "Poetry" to one scholar, while others may add "Wisdom", "Narrative", and/or "Prophecy" (to all of them!)

Is this simply a matter of determining what genre you think it is? ...or finding something that you think is "similar" in ANE culture? Or are there more concrete, technical criteria by which scholars of differing bias may be able to find consensus?

  • 5
    This should be one of the most important questions on the site. – Frank Luke Dec 17 '13 at 19:21
  • I don't think scholars have abandoned the idea that Genesis 1 was poetry of a sort, though they have nuanced it a bit. Walter Brueggemann categorizes it as "poetic narrative" (both poetic and narrative in form), and Tim Keller calls it "elevated prose." Others say things like, "It is poetry but also more than poetry." (That post also notes one way that genre is identified -- by characteristic verb forms and patterns of speech.) – metal Dec 17 '13 at 21:26
  • +1. However, the "Philosophy" genre, (and even "Metaphysics"), encapsulate many other genres, (fantasy, fable, history, etc) - but it always remains "Philosophy". Regardless, Genesis begins with Humanity's pursuit of "knowing what is just" or "what is wise" and every narrative following is consistent in that philosophical theme. Discussions of what is "just" always end up in legalities, (though "wisdom" does not). My objection to this question is: there is an assumption that trying to interpret these texts in view of any other genre is actually valid. This might merit its own question. – elika kohen Jun 30 '17 at 18:04

Identification of genre is both simple and profoundly difficult.1 "Genre", by way of definition, is the technical name given to a "literary category". (Note that "genre can be used of other creative productions, but we're interested in texts in BH.SE.)

This answer has three main sections:

  • first, on locating a given text within some genre
  • second, on identifying the possible genres themselves
  • third, on the benefits of the exercise

1. Criteria for identifying a text's genre

We start with some simple principles.

  • Genre identification is an essentially generic exercise. It is inherently about common features shared between a number of exemplars. Without this, by definition you don't have a "genre". A single example of some unique literary creation does not require the language of "genre" - the counterpart, and what we have in this case, is something that is "sui generis".
  • This means that for any genre to be identified, there needs to be enough of a "corpus" for a set of common features to be reliably observed and identified.
  • This further implies that, at base, "genre identification" is simply the task of:
    • having a set of descriptors, or features, shared by a sufficiently large corpus;
    • for any given literary product, matching these features sufficiently to include that creation in the larger literary category.

And that's it. (The word "sufficiently" in both those points, however, demonstrates that there is an element of a judgment to be made at both steps: how much is required to have a "sufficiently" clear set of features, and a "sufficiently" large corpus?)


One quick example to demonstrate the point so far. Got a poem that is 14-lines long, scans in iambic pentameter, and has a rhyme scheme of a-b-a-b, c-d-c-d, e-f-e-f, g-g? Then you have a "Shakespearean" sonnet. The basic procedure, then, is combining:

  1. a particular piece of literature, A; with
  2. a set of distinctive features, F, that links together a corpus of texts, C; to
  3. make a match (or not) between F of A and the F of C.

That's the basic answer to the question. There is obviously more to it than that. The main difficulty for biblical interpretation is the case of partial match between features. What if A has F-1 of the F of C?

To pick up the earlier example, what if we had a 12-line poem, that matched the "sonnet" up to the final g-g couplet? Is it still appropriate to label it a "sonnet"?

Or we can draw an example from biblical literature. The genre of "communal lament" in the Psalms is fairly well established and recognized. As conveniently listed in the Wikipedia article, the F of the C which is "communal lament" is:

  1. The Address
  2. The Lament Proper
  3. National Confession of Trust
  4. The Petition Proper and Motivation
  5. Vow of Praise

(In this case, sequence of F is not important, only the presence of the features of F.) What if Psalm P has three of these features, or maybe four? Can it still be classed as a member of this genre? Or is it excluded? Or, does it matter, rather, which individual feature is missing? If Psalm P is missing #5, the Vow of Praise, that might be reasonable and creative variation (see below on this concept), and it is still helpful to think of this as a "communal lament". But, what if #2, the "Lament proper" is missing? Would that exclude Psalm P from the corpus of "communal laments"? Or would it make it simply a "broken" member? Or...?

2. What Genres? Ancient or modern?

A further complication arises in discerning which "literary categories" (i.e., genres) are available to use for this classification.

It needs to be noted by way of preliminary observation, that "genre" implies some specificity of both form and content, especially the former. Simply sharing common subject matter is not enough to identify a genre. This is a common complaint when "royal psalms" are spoken of as a "genre". Simply sharing an interest in some aspect of royal life (as in, e.g., Pss 2, 72, 134, etc.) without some formal literary shape or distinctives ... simply means we have a set of poems that have a royal dimension. Similarly, my sense is that the simple distinction of "poetry" and "prose" is not a genre distinction, but works at a much "higher" level of classification (whereas genre is interested in types of poetry, or prose texts).

With that qualification in mind, where then do the genres (= literary categories) come from? There seem to be two possible sources:

  • genres known and used in antiquity; and
  • genres identified and applied by modern scholarship.

The example of "communal lament" given above is an example of the latter. The question might be asked, however, is it appropriate to impose "modern" categories on an ancient literature?

Or, should we rather restrict ourselves to literary categories that we can confidently expect the ancient writers to have used? One good example here comes in Ezekiel 27:2:

וְאַתָּ֣ה בֶן־אָדָ֔ם שָׂ֥א עַל־צֹ֖ר קִינָֽה׃
[Tanakh] Now you, O mortal, intone a dirge over Tyre.

Here, qinah ("dirge" in the Tanakh translation) can be identified as "genre", self-consciously used in antiquity. The problem here is that until the time of Aristotle, such deliberate labelling is not a feature of this literature.

I have stated the choice starkly here to sharpen the issue. However, those who work on this material would say that modern scholars are discerning tacit but real ancient "categories". An example here is the work of Gregory Sterling, Historiography and Self-Definition: Josephos, Luke-Acts, and Apologetic Historiography (E.J. Brill, 1992), a bold and illuminating study which claimed to have uncovered a new genre in Greco-Roman antiquity, that of "apologetic historiography", and further, that this is the genre to which both Josephus's Jewish Antiquities, and Luke's Gospel and the book of Acts belong. Was Sterling right? One said yes, another said no, and yet another said maybe!

Sterling's case is instructive on two (or more!) levels: (1) it demonstrates that there is no clear method or process by which a genre may be identified -- it simply takes a compilation of the evidence and careful discernment; and (2) "genre" is (to some extent) in the eye of the beholder. It is not a free-for-all, however. There still needs to be some distinctive feature set which is shared across a number of discrete texts.

In sum, the question of how to categorize a given text (i.e., what is its "genre"?) is complicated by the question of what literary categories are available for "assignment".

3. The Benefits of genre recognition

Why should BH.SE be interested in "genre" anyway? The basic reason is that awareness and appropriate application of "genre" to the texts of the Bible makes for "competent" readings. (This helpful concept is developed by John Barton, Reading the Old Testament: Method in Biblical Study (2nd ed; Westminster/John Knox Press, 1996), p. 11.) Barton offers this example (among others). Suppose you read:

The sun shall be turned into darkness, and the moon into blood ...

If we were unaware of "genre", we might expect that line to continue:

... and on Tuesday there will be hail showers in the morning, clearing by the afternoon.

Well, that's obviously a weather report. But that's not the kind of information (factual information about the weather) that this text gives. In fact, Joel 2:31 [MT 3:4] continues:

... before the great and terrible day of the LORD comes.

Whatever "genre" we assign this passage in Joel, we can be confident that "weather report" isn't it.

A related benefit (or perhaps complication) is that it provides help for thinking about the "partial match" scenario, mentioned above. Analysis of genre might show a particular example to be unusual in some way, as in the case of a "missing feature", or perhaps a "distorted" feature. A good example here is the case of the "participial hymn". This brings together a specific linguistic feature (the prominent use of participles to construct the poem) with a typical kind of content, praise of the LORD's creating and governing work in the natural world. A good example is Ps 147:7-11 where the instruction to "sing praise" is followed by a set of participles describing God's actions to establish the natural order (the Tanakh translation is the only one I know that deliberately mimics this linguistic feature):

who covers the heavens with clouds,
[who] provides rain for the earth,
[who] makes mountains put forth grass;
who gives the beasts their food, ....

But when we see Job using this same "genre" (fairly readily identifiable because of its distinctive linguistic feature), it is to invert the typical use to which it is put, e.g. Job 9:5-10:

...who moves mountains without their knowing it,
Who overturns them in His anger;
Who shakes the earth from its place,...
Who commands the sun not to shine;
Who seals up the stars; ...

Clearly, to know that Job is turning praise upside down in this "anti-hymn" adds a sharpness to our appreciation and understanding of the biblical text.


  1. This answer will never be more than rudimentary. Here are some suggestions for further reading, most of which should be available in good university or seminary libraries:

| improve this answer | |
  • 1
    Great stuff. For some reason this post makes me think of the duck billed platypus for (hopefully) obvious reasons :) – Jack Douglas Jan 31 '14 at 12:45

A MEDICAL ANALOGY In medicine, doctors through the past few centuries have often noticed that some patients come in with the same or similar symptoms as each other. For instance, many patients will come in complaining of a one-sided throbbing headache which is exacerbated by light, noise, and exercise, which often occurs about once a month (sometimes more, sometimes less) and lasts between three hours and a couple of days. This they have decided to call "migraine". However, a similar condition exists: a headache which is two-sided in a "belt" around the forehead, which is less debilitating and less painful with a deep persistent pain, which is not exacerbated by light, sound, and exercise, which is associated with stressful situations and tense neck muscles, and which are often persistent and last for weeks to months - this doctors call a "tension headache".

THE APPLICATION OF THE ANALOGY People who study literature, let's call then "nerds" (for lack of a better word), have long realized that pieces of literature have qualities that can be classified into one or more groups. For instance, if a piece of literature is short, uses words that rhyme, starts a new line in the middle of sentences, has rhythm, and uses a lot of figurative language, most nerds would recognize that piece of literature as classified together with the type of literature called "poetry". This is because by studying literature, nerds have discovered that many pieces of literature have the same or generally the same characteristics and therefore form a distinct group ("poetry"), which has distinct recognizable characteristics. A piece of literature does not need to possess all the qualities that generally characterize "poetry", just most of them. A piece of literature that does not rhyme but still has the other qualities of "poetry" would still be classified as "poetry". Similarly, if a person has all the symptoms of a migraine except the light-sensitivity, it would still be classified as "migraine".

DIFFICULTIES IN DETERMINING GENRE Sometimes it is difficult to classify a piece of literature. Take Shakespeare's Henry VIII. It bears some of the characteristics of poetry, some of a historical work, and some of a play. Thus it might be difficult to classify. Some nerds solve this by classifying the play as having more than one genre. Others try to cram it into an existing genre, even though it might fit into other genres as well. Still other want to create a new genre - let's call it "historically fictitious drama with poetic tendencies" (to exaggerate somewhat).

DIFFICULTIES IN DETERMINING NEW TESTAMENT GENRES** Another difficulty comes in classifying literature from 2000 years ago. First off, we don't have nearly as much literature from that time, and it is therefore often difficult to determine what "genres" existed at that time. For instance, take the example of the gospel of Mark - is it intended to be a biography of Jesus? Is it intended to be a work of history? Is it intended to be a religious/exhortational document? Or perhaps a political statement? The difficulty lies in that it possesses elements of each of these known genres, and it is impossible to convincingly argue for any single of these classifications (though many have tried). Some have left it open, saying that it cannot be classified. Others have tried to cram it into one of the known genres. Some have tried to create a new genre for Mark, most often the genre of "gospel", as defined by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John (or, according to some, just Matthew, Mark, and Luke).

DIFFICULTIES IN DETERMINING OLD TESTAMENT GENRE The endeavor to determine gender is even more difficult in the Old Testament, because we have even less literature from that time - especially in Hebrew and related languages. Is Jeremiah a biography, a history, apocalyptic literature, or prophecy? Is the Song of Solomon an allegory, erotic literature, or an unrelated series of wedding poems? We simply don't know, because we don't have enough evidence of what characterized the genres of that time.

Yet another difficulty, which applies more to the Old than the New Testament, is that there are hot debates over when books were written. Was Daniel written ca. 150 BC, or ca. 500 BC? Did Moses write the Pentateuch 1500 BC, or was it redacted/composed by religious groups ca. 600-400 BC? When it was written is important, because different genres existed at different times - if the evidence we have indicates that "erotic literature" did not come to be until the 6th century BC, the Song of Solomon cannot be erotic literature if composed 900 BC by Solomon - though it might be if it was composed 400 BC and attributed to Solomon.

Other difficulties, such as authorship (which I've briefly mentioned) and redaction theories (perhaps someone redacted together two different types of literature?) are also significant.

CONCLUSION (if I can call it that) In short, the question of how to classify literature is very complicated, and, in my unlearned opinion, much fewer people should be dogmatic about the genres of literature that was written millennia ago, especially when there isn't enough evidence to even define the genres of that time.

| improve this answer | |


The words of Jesus in Luke 24, suggest that Jesus concurred with the terms the Jews in His day had for the Tanakh's genres.

  • The Law (also "Moses"), or Chumash or Torah in Hebrew

  • The Psalms (also "Writings"), or Kesuvim in Hebrew

  • The Prophets, "major" and "minor"; Neviim in Hebrew

Had Jesus somehow disagreed with the common division of Tanakh, would not He have used a different classificatory scheme and encouraged His followers to do the same? One important aspect of genres, then, is a classificatory scheme which segregates (in the case of Tanakh) the 24 books into three major sections, yes, but also according to the kind of content in each division. This is not to say there is no crossover in content between one genre and another, however, but for didactic purposes, a three-fold division is an easily remembered and simply a good place to start. (Now is not a good time to answer such questions as "Why is Daniel not among the Prophets, since his book is replete with prophecies?")

For millennia, scholars and teachers have loved coming up with lists. Lists are good. Lists break complicated subjects down into bite-sized morsels. Lists organize. Lists describe reality. In the final analysis, however, lists comprise

-deflections, and
-distortions of--for want of a better word--reality.

Any description of any aspect of reality is incomplete, and just a little shy of "the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth" (as witnesses declare when being sworn in, in a court of law). While Jesus did not dispute or teach something other than the three-fold division of the Tanakh, He certainly used the words "Scripture" or "Scriptures" much more frequently, thus indicating the unity, or oneness, of the Tanakh, and not its diversity.

Lists comprising the typical genres of literature (e.g., history; poetry; wisdom; the lyrics to hymns and songs; correspondence; law, ethics, and morality; genealogy; myth; homily and hortatory content; proverbs; philosophy; speeches; apocalyptic; meta categories such as language, literature, rhetoric, and communication; and more) are not hermetically sealed off from one another; there is considerable overlap among and between them. How, for example, can a work of fiction not be based in part on that which is not a fiction? How can even the most scrupulously researched biography contain not one element of fiction, and not necessarily a "tall tale," but simply an embellishment that is added for style's sake or to prevent the work from becoming tedious yet not overly tendentious?

Organizing texts according to their commonalities, which is at the heart of inventing genres in the first place, is good, but so also is a balanced approach which recognizes that life is messy and that neat little categories will not always cooperate by being tractable and single minded.

In approaching any given "book" of the Bible in a monolithic way, then, we need to tread lightly, for a number of reasons:

  1. While the Bible comprises any number of clearly defined genres, there is bound to be spillover from one genre to another in each and every book, of which there are 66 (though obviously, the numbering will vary, depending on our presuppositions and method of listing them!). Even the book of Psalms, for example, contains a significant amount of history and backstory, and in interpreting many of the Psalms, knowing the "facts" which inform any given psalm can prove invaluable. Moreover, if we are not steeped in the cultural context of any given Psalm, we cannot possibly grasp the full significance of its meaning. Simply knowing what the word Zion meant in context, for example, requires a little scholarly digging to determine what the term meant when it was first used by a biblical writer.

  2. The Bible is sui generis in its having a unified theme, or common thread. Many books can lay claim to having a uniform theme, of course, but the grand and overarching theme of the Bible is redemption, and that theme was developed over the course of centuries by numerous authors, many of whom never even met each other. Line upon line and precept upon precept, that redemption story unfolded, as if by some master plan, and with an evenhanded approach which no other book has ever matched, let alone surpassed.

  3. In some sense, then, the Bible (and the books and genres it embraces) is supra-generic, and any list or scheme designed to pigeonhole it are bound to fail. That is not to say there is no value in genericizing; it is to say that doing so can cramp the Bible's style if in our reading of it we carelessly gloss over its unifying theme and subsequently miss the forest for its many trees (sorry for the cliché).

All this to say: genres have always been both flexible and resilient, and yet at the same time often resistant to being pigeonholed. Does that mean approaching the Bible as a body of literature composed of numerous, yet flexible, genres, is without merit or value? Of course not.

When reading the Psalms, for example, insight in and appreciation for the unique characteristics and nuances of Hebrew poetry and song go a long way in interpreting that particular genre. When reading Genesis, typically genericized as both history and law, or history and covenant, we need to discern a context that, yes, includes historical elements, but more importantly, perhaps, includes an appreciation for the author's (or authors') purpose in telescoping history for the benefit of two million or more people who were about to inherit what was promised them by covenant through their forebears. I'm speaking, of course, of Moses and the children of Israel who were led out of slavery and into freedom by the hand of God.

And so it goes. Is the Bible great literature? Yes. Is it more than literature? Most assuredly. Its oft repeated claim, however, to be the living Word of the living God makes it sui generis indeed. And while other books have come along since the canon of Scripture was closed, claiming to be special revelations of God to humankind through a human and/or angelic intermediary, none has the stamp of authority and the ring of truth of the Bible.

An appreciation for and a hermeneutically responsible approach to genres have always been the hallmarks of sound interpretation, but genres alone are merely tools--albeit important ones--for aiding us in plumbing the depths of the very mind of God, who some say has revealed Himself in time and space not only through the written word but also through the Word (John 1:1), of whom the book of Hebrews says,

God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and many ways, in these last days has spoken to us in His Son, who He appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the world. And He is the radiance of His glory and the exact representation of His nature, and upholds all things by the word of His power. When He had made purification of sins [editorial comment: here is the redemption theme I alluded to, above], He sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high . . . (1:1-3).

In conclusion, genres are determined by the inherent desire and ability of virtually every literate person since the dawn of humanity, first, to speak in symbolic language; second, to record that language in organized fashion; and third, to segregate texts according to such characteristics as

  • common subject matter
  • style
  • purpose
  • structure, and/or
  • a combination of one or more of the above (which comprise only some, not all, characteristics one might want to identify)

In a larger sense, however, genres are about the desire within us all to answer the "big questions" of humankind:

  • Who am I, why am I the way I am, and do I have value? (philosophy, metaphysics, religion, psychology)
  • Where did I come from? (history, geography, genealogy, kinship, sociology, migrations)
  • Why am I here, and what does it all mean? (philosophy, epistemology)
  • What is my purpose in living, how should I live, and what is right and what is wrong? (ethics, morality, law)
  • Where do I go when I die? (religion)
| improve this answer | |
  • 3
    In what sense is this an answer the question? – Bruce Alderman Dec 19 '13 at 21:04
  • @BruceAlderman: Well, it's at least a decent starting point in answering the question in that the Son of God recognized at least three genres in the Tanakh. Shouldn't Jesus' classificatory scheme (which is really what genres are all about, isn't it?) count for something? – rhetorician Jan 16 '14 at 17:46
  • 1
    I like how you draw attention to these fundamental genres. While your "answer" shows these genres as affirmed by Jesus, it does not show how they came to be in the first place. In my opinion, these three genres self explain how they came to be. Might I suggest that you keep the question as your primary focus, and Scripture as your secondary. First, demonstrate how these three likely emerged, examining books that fall into these categories. Then, cite the earliest sources you can find where these were referred to as such and why. Demonstrate how they were later upheld/confirmed and why. – user2027 Jan 24 '14 at 12:54

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.