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:
- a particular piece of literature,
- a set of distinctive features,
F, that links together a corpus of texts,
- make a match (or not) between
A and the
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
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:
- The Address
- The Lament Proper
- National Confession of Trust
- The Petition Proper and Motivation
- 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.
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:
- Robert Alter & Frank Kermode (eds), The Literary Guide to the Bible (Harvard University Press, 1987). Excellent reference work, and the product of collaboration between Jewish, Catholic, and Protestant scholars, and covering both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament.
- David Aune, The New Testament in Its Literary Environment (Westminster, 1987). Good orientation to genre relating the New Testament to the Greco-Roman literary milieu.
- John Barton, Reading the Old Testament: Method in Biblical Study (2nd ed; Westminster/John Knox Press, 1996). Linked above: very clearly written and accessible, and more wide-ranging than simply "genre".
- Gregory Sterling, Historiography and Self-Definition: Josephos, Luke-Acts, and Apologetic Historiography (E.J. Brill, 1992). Linked above; Google Books seems to have a fairly full preview. Heavy stuff, but well worth digging into if "genre" is a particular interest.