How to Read the Bible: The Importance of Genre

Come, Follow Me - For Individuals and Families

At the risk of losing your interest right from the beginning… yes, genre. But stick with me because understanding genre will really help you as you make your way through the Bible.

And since were on the topic of genre, I’m including pictures of ancient libraries. The three largest ancient collections (that we know of) were held at the Library of Alexandria in Egypt, the Library of Pergamon in Turkey, and the Celsus Library of Ephesus in Turkey. Large libraries in antiquity were more of a symbol or display of power and status rather than a place of learning for the masses. Their contents were often confiscated or acquired during war.

Side note: Did you know Christopher Columbus’s son tried to assemble one of the world’s largest libraries? And the book containing the catalog of his whole library was just discovered in Copenhagen three weeks ago??! So cool. Read about it here.

LEARN

So let’s talk genre. Why, you say? Imagine that a group of people, 1000 years from now, discover and read the Harry Potter books. Since they just dug it out of the ground and have no idea what they are reading, they decide the Harry Potter books must be a historical non-fiction collection. Can you imagine what their reaction would be while reading?! They might be confused and a little troubled, at the very least! Maybe after these people continue digging, they can find cars, cell phones, or buildings that date to our era that help them understand the kind of people we were. I wonder what they would think if they uncovered a bunch of LDS church buildings, each with a basketball court in the middle. Would they think we worship basketball?! I guess that wouldn’t be wrong in some cases… 😉

Back to the point… As a reader of the Bible, you are picking up a collection of books that are thousands of years old. (That blows my mind every time I think about it!) Remember that we don’t know all the details of ancient Israel. Understanding the Bible is like putting together a giant puzzle with thousands of pieces. In this puzzle, we add all the pieces of knowledge from archaeology, ancient texts, ancient languages, surrounding empires, etc., and scholars and theologians try to make their best educated decisions as they go.

Do you remember the scene in National Treasure where Nicholas Cage’s character has the glasses with the different lenses on them? As he changes the lenses different things appear on the paper. Without realizing it, you are reading the Bible through a hypothetical set of glasses just like this. The multiple lenses on your glasses include your personal viewpoints, life experiences, perspectives, culture, expectations, and understanding of God. You impose all those things onto what you are reading which can make the Bible confusing to modern readers. As you study and better understand the ancient history, languages, styles of writing, archaeology, etc., surrounding the Bible, you will be able to remove your modern lenses and try to replace them with the lenses of ancient peoples and authors. Just like in National Treasure, different things will begin to appear on the paper for you and your understanding will increase. Again, this is hypothetical, but hopefully you catch my drift.


“The Great Library of Alexandria” by O. Von Corven

THE BIBLE IS A COLLECTION OF BOOKS

It is important to understand that the Bible is a collection of different books written by different authors. It may be easier to look at the Bible as an ancient library, or a collection of sixty-six ancient books. After all, the word Bible comes from the Greek word biblia, meaning “books.” These books were written separately during a span of over a thousand years.

The authors of the Bible each had differing views, perspectives, governments, and cultural experiences from their particular day and age. This is why I don’t get too worked up when the Bible contradicts itself. Again, the Bible was written during a period of over a thousand years. Imagine what life was like 200 years ago from today, or 500 years ago. It was a very different world than what it is today. This was true for the ancient world as well. So just remember as you go: different authors, different time periods, different editors, and different books.

This shouldn’t be an unfamiliar concept to LDS readers of the Bible. The Book of Mormon has many different books, many different authors (many of which identify themselves), spans many hundreds of years, and Mormon goes through the collection of books and serves as redactor (or editor).

GENRE

Modern day libraries separate books by genres such as fiction, non-fiction, biographies, children’s literature, etc., both for organization and to help the reader know what they are reading. The authors also give me clues as to what genre I am reading. If I pick up a book that starts with the words “Once upon a time,” it is a clear clue from the author and I can prepare myself to read a fairy tale. If I read something that starts with the words “Four score and seven years ago,” the education in my country has taught me that I am about to read a speech.

Similarly, the Bible is a collection containing multiple genres. These genres include ancient legal codes, poems, chiasmus, songs, prayers, writings, parables, conquest narratives, etc. Many of the Biblical authors use cultural references that wouldn’t be firsthand knowledge to us, but we can learn. The authors also leave clues about the genre to the reader as well. You have a responsibility to determine, as best you can, the genre of what you are reading and the Bible will suddenly become much less confusing.

DIG DEEPER

TRUTH CAN BE TAUGHT IN FICTION

Here’s where we often get tripped up: If “we believe the Bible to be the word of God as long as it is translated correctly” (Articles of Faith) then shouldn’t the Bible be 1,000% historically accurate? And filled with facts? Shouldn’t we be able to read every story literally?

LDS scholar Ben Spackman explains it this way go his classes: “I start off by saying, ‘Are Jesus’s parables true?’ And it’s pretty unanimous that people say, ‘Yes.’ I say, ‘Okay, when Jesus talks about the man who went down to Jericho and got robbed and the Good Samaritan came by, is he describing a historical event that actually happened?’ Most people will say, ‘No.’ ‘So Jesus, when he tells parables, he’s telling us stories that didn’t happen.’ ‘Well, yeah.’ ‘Okay, but we still say they’re true.’ ‘Well yeah.’ What we have with parable is a genre where its truth is not dependent upon its historical value.”

Modern day parents teach their kids truths and important lessons through fictional books all the time. We love books that have a moral to the story. Parents still read their kids Aesop’s Fables who, by the way, was Greek and estimated to have written in the 6th century BCE, the same era where some of the Biblical writings come forth.

Bible scholar Sheldon Greaves says the first time we have evidence of the Bible being read in a literal interpretation isn’t until the 1500’s AD. But don’t fret… Of course there is historicity in the Bible that we can take at face value. Of course plenty of the characters were literal people. But don’t lose your faith over a story you thought was historically accurate only to find it was a parable. You just mixed up the genre, no worries. The fun part comes when the story has a cooler meaning than you originally thought.

The Bible is sometimes colloquially referred to as “God’s Best Seller,” except God Himself didn’t sit down and write it. He inspired mortals to write it and inspired mortals to edit it. The scriptures are the word of God told through the writing of mortals. As such, the ancient scriptures, including the Book of Mormon, are considered so precious to the human family that they have been painstakingly preserved and brought forth out of obscurity for our benefit. They are such a treasure.

THINK

Bible scholar David Bokovoy says, “…Rather than a manual that perfectly defines God, religion, and morality, the Old Testament should be used as a springboard lifting its readers to further levels of enlightenment as we consider the various ways different groups of Israelite authors understood divinity.”

Here’s the question: WHY DO YOU CARE about how a group of ancient people understood divinity thousands of years ago??

2 Nephi 29:4 says, “…they shall have a Bible; and it shall proceed forth from the Jews, mine ancient covenant people” (emphasis added).

Through the ages, God has made covenants with His children…
In the Bible we read of men and women in the Old World who were identified as children of the covenant. What covenant? “The covenant which God made with [their] fathers, saying unto Abraham, And in thy seed shall all the kindreds of the earth be blessed.”…In the Book of Mormon we read of people in the New World who were also identified as children of the covenant…To the Prophet Joseph Smith, the Master declared: “Abraham received promises concerning his seed, and of the fruit of his loins—from whose loins ye are…This promise is yours also, because ye are of Abraham.”

With this renewal, we have received, as did they of old, the holy priesthood and the everlasting gospel…Ours is the responsibility to help fulfill the Abrahamic covenant. Ours is the seed foreordained and prepared to bless all people of the world…After some 4,000 years of anticipation and preparation, this is the appointed day when the gospel is to be taken to the kindreds of the earth. This is the time of the promised gathering of Israel. And we get to participate! Isn’t that exciting? 

Covenants, Russel M. Nelson

As you read the following paragraph, choose from the three options below which group you think I am describing:

  • Ancient Israelites
  • Nephites
  • Latter-day Saints

This people were gathered and sent to a promised land. Prophets were called. The priesthood was given. The gospel was continually revealed as the people learned and transformed. Temples were built. Covenants were made. They were asked to prepare the world for the coming of Christ.

Which is the correct answer? Tricked ya… the answer is ALL OF THEM! From an LDS perspective, we have all been assigned the same job. Why wouldn’t we do all that we can to learn from the successes and failures recorded in the Bible and Book of Mormon?! Can you see how it is no wonder why the scriptures have been preserved for the latter-day? We have so much work to do. It is incredible that we have these ancient scriptures and peoples to learn from.


Façade of the Celsus Library in modern-day Selçuk, Turkey. Completed c. 117 CE.