Sacred Scripture is Not a Genre

“Well, the Bible has that too,” is a common response people have when you try and discuss the question of weird passages in the Quran. It is a pretty solid way to shut down the conversation. This is not because it is necessarily a good point of contention, but because it reveals a wide chasm of understanding that must be bridged before the conversation can be resumed. It reveals a lack of knowledge of the individual nature of religious documents and an assumption that “Sacred Scripture” is a genre in which you can find the same general similarity of content, form, style, and intent.

Genre a category of artistic, musical, or literary composition characterized by a particular style, form, or content.

“genre,” Merriam-Webster.com. Merriam-Webster, 2019. Web. 13 September 2019.

Sacred scripture is an incredibly diverse category. If I was to submit a definition for “scripture,” it would be “any writings set apart and given authority by a group of people to determine their culture.” The nature of the writings can have a lot of variety, and furthermore there is even more variety in how its adherents set about interpreting and implementing it. I wish I could tell you something about all the Sacred Scriptures out there, but my experience as of writing this is only with the Bible, two-thirds of the Quran, and a smidge of Book of Mormon. But material in the Christian Bible alone is diverse enough to examine the variety I’m describing. So let’s take a look at the Bible: what genres does it contain? What materials does it use? What attitudes do its adherents hold about those materials? And why does this matter when comparing religious documents?

What You Might Know

If I sounded harsh or condescending in my introduction by accusing people of being ignorant, let me temper that now by saying it’s probably not their fault. Most Western communities are by general strokes “post-Christian.” Though Judaism always hung around as an underdog, Christianity was the power monopoly that set assumptions about religion in the western consciousness. Though our culture is by and large less defined by Christianity than it used to be, we still live with a sort of aftertaste of Christian culture and thought. So if the lazy default understanding of scripture is that it’s a genre with consistent style, purpose, and materials, then we must acknowledge that Christians are probably responsible for setting those expectations.

Some of these expectations were side effects of historical limits. How our Bible looks and sounds is very subject to the limits of technology and language of the time. The Bible is very big, particularly when compared to other literature up until recent history, and thus was a challenge to reproduce. How do you copy that much material affordably? Well, you cram that content into the book as densely as possible, leading to a distinctive visual layout of the text.

Then, given how much content there is to analyze and discuss, how do you communicate to other intellectuals and readers which words you are examining? Well, you create a division and numbering system that provides coordinates to specific content. The result of these two factors is that the Bible gets visually homogenized and mentally registers as a reference book akin to dictionaries, encyclopedias, or law books. Verses start looking like free-standing entries to cite. The content stops looking like artistic literature, and stops getting treated as such.

Like seeing this.
And this.
And this.
But not this.

Then there also is the issue of translation. Biblical content gets homogenized by accident of it being a translated book, not one read in its original languages. Whatever vocabulary or style variation there is throughout the Bible gets muted through the translation process. English-speaking countries are also culturally burdened with a long history of there being one predominant translation: the King James Version (KJV). Royal support and financing meant that this translation benefited from quality workmanship and mass distribution. Even as English protestantism diversified, even as the English language changed, the artistic merits and overwhelming availability of the KJV meant it was reliably the English-speakers definition of “The Bible.” And so the Bible also became associated with an archaic style of speaking.

So through these things we start seeing an illusion of genre appearing. The form of the Bible is perceived through its visual presentation, which looks like a reference book. The content is presented with coordinates in little sound bytes, and thus looks like freestanding entries of law books or encyclopedias. The style is archaic and a little flourishy. All these things feel like the elements of genre, and you can see this assumed genre of “sacred scripture” in the way that Western and particularly English-speaking cultures approached other scriptures. Hundreds of years after the English language stopped using “thee” and “thou”, the Quran, Vedas, Mormon Scriptures, and Bahai scriptures were presented to the English public in the stylistic archaisms of the KJV. Rather than regard these scriptures as works of literature with their own intents and conventions, they were stereotyped colorblindly by their role as someone’s sacred scripture, and thus received treatments to conform them to the illusion of genre as established by the [KJV] Bible. (Note, I’m also suspicious that they all get numbered verses, but can’t find any information on how and when this happened to know which were numbered upon interaction with Western expectations.)

So our cultural impression of Scripture-as-Genre is already primed by our long exposure to the Bible generally and the KJV specifically. Christians also promote the Bible in ways that reveal a more aspirational view of its content and purpose rather than fact-based. “Give me the Bible, Holy, Blessed, Shining…” goes the hymn, and many other hymns, while praising the book for its didactic and uplifting value. Growing up I was once taught the Bible was our Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth. Cute, huh? These views selectively gloss the Bible and sum it up as one book: self-sufficient, unconditional, instructive, and encouraging. It drastically reduces and homogenizes the diversity of the Bible’s content, and creates a defacto sense of what scripture is trying to accomplish and how it goes about it that is not established by the text itself.

Whether you are Christian or not, osmosis from Christian culture likely affects what you expect of all sacred scriptures. When someone else complains about the Quran having violent and unpleasant passages, you equivocate them to violent and unpleasant Biblical ones. The failed assumption is that both scriptures are trying to do the same thing through the same materials. After all, aren’t all Sacred Scriptures just archaic reference books of instructions, attitudes, codes, and didactic tales?

Bibliotheca

So to clear up the impression that Scripture is a genre, and since that expectation derives in some part from superficial exposure to the Bible within and without Christianity, let’s deconstruct this myth using the Bible.

The Bible is not one book except in packaging. It’s an anthology of writings, and should be more appropriately named the “Bibliotheca” or “Library.” Not only is the Bible an anthology, it is built of other anthologies. There’s the Hebrew anthology, “the Tanakh,” and a Greek anthology, “The New Testament.” The New Testament only has six books proper, and the remaining writings within are letters. The Tanakh consists of three anthologies: the five-book Torah (“Law”), the eight-book Nevi’im (“Prophets”), the eleven-book Ketuvim (“Writings”). Some of the books within those anthologies are likewise anthologies, whether of poetry, folklore, history, sermons, or more sermon anthologies.

Now any of the units within those anthologies has the potential to hold its own rules of style, intent, and theme. Let’s just do some case studies, and have mercy upon me for working within the limits of tiny blurbs.

Genesis is a book of compiled folklore. Some of its stories are abstruse while others are narratively developed. Though it is in the “Law” anthology, it actually contains no law and very few moral commentaries. The stories within are primarily informative, rarely instructional. Genesis’ main point of existence is world-building and establishing the fundamental Hebrew identity.

Leviticus is a book of laws. Many of these laws are related to the now-defunct priesthood and temple cult. Other laws relate to ritual and sexual purity. A few historical narratives related to the initial implementation of these laws are included.

Joshua is a historical drama establishing Hebrew ownership of Canaan. It relates how the Hebrews went from a migrant population to a settled one, which was done through means of last-man-standing/genocidal warfare against the various city-states in Canaan. The last chunk of the book essentially writes out the land deeds to the various tribes.

Chronicles, usually split as a two-parter, is a book reaffirming the Israelites’ history and identity as they return from their exile. It’s a little less drama and a little more “History of the Southern Kingdom of Israel 101” for a generation of people who were born abroad after the kingdom had fallen. Presumably since this book was written for Southern Kingdom exiles, the history of the Northern Kingdom of Israel is not included.

Esther is a secular drama about a woman who finds herself in the most surprising circumstances able to save her people from genocide.

Proverbs is a sayings collection. Some are long form, but most are short and pithy. It’s like a Wit and Wisdom of Abraham Lincoln, where any particular example sounds catchy (maybe moreso in the original Hebrew) or has some element of truth in it but might not be universally true in all situations.

Song of Songs is an erotic sensuous love poem about a woman and her fiance lusting pining after each other. That’s it.

Ezekiel is an apocalyptic book, meaning that it uses wild imagery and allegory to make cryptic commentary on the past, present, and future condition of God’s people. It places the Jewish exile in a greater narrative of the downfall of human evil, urging people to persevere righteously until God ends the cycle of evil and refreshes the world.

Hosea is a scatty collection of a prophet’s sermons criticizing his country’s cultural departure from its monotheistic origins. It is pretty threatening and predicts the Northern Kingdom’s violent destruction, but also predicts its people’s peaceful return to a wooing God.

Jonah is a satire on those who want God to hate the same people as them. The story portrays such zealots as being actually less religiously suitable than sailors, pagans, and cows.

Habakkuk is a prophet’s reflective struggle with the Problem of Evil. He has foreseen that God will use Babylon to violently punish Judea, and questions why a righteous God would work through such evil. The ending portion is a psalm (poetry set to musical accompaniment) in which the prophet declares faithfulness to God even when afflicted by suffering.

The Gospel of Matthew is a biography of Jesus’ life written by a Jew for a Jewish audience. It puts effort into portraying Jesus’ ministry as a continuation or fulfillment of the legacy promised to Jews in their scriptures.

“First Letter to the Corinthians” is a letter by Paul to the Christian community started in Corinth. This budding church is having difficulty figuring out its new identity. Paul’s letter is part chastisement, part instruction, part encouragement, part ramble.

“Jude” is a short letter to an unspecific church community by a guy named Jude. It is largely a polemic against some heterodox influencers in the Christian community. The letter contains no practical information on the topic, but depicts the tension as a continuation of the struggle between good and evil. It drops reference to a lot of lore, some of which is not considered scripture. Concludes with a positive mission statement for believers to direct themselves towards.

Broader Descriptions

Okay, so while all these books might have distinct genre niches and intentions, one can still look at each set of anthologies and ask, “for what purpose were these books tied together?” Just as we might combine a bunch of short stories and literature to paint a picture of British civilian life during WWII, so also these anthologies might be using disparate materials to paint their own picture. I’m going to look at the separate intent of the two overarching anthologies: the Tanakh and the New Testament. To be clear on the point, I am speaking in my capacity as life-long Christian and arm-chair Biblical scholar. I don’t have rigorous education and wide exposure to theories on the Bible’s construction. These opinions are just that, my opinions, and are in estimation worth two cents. That being said…

The Tanakh anthology preserves a memory of Hebrew culture and identity. It establishes essential Jewishness as being a member of a family that struggles with God. A common assumption about scripture is that it exists to instruct you, but the Tanakh is by that view surprisingly stingy with instructions. We don’t know the history of how or why the anthologies within the Tanakh were amassed, but I see the Tanakh prioritizing narratives and preserving cultural material over giving specific instructions on law. Regard for Law and its values is very, very high in the various Tanakh books –whole psalms are dedicated to praising the Law– but instances of specific law decrees being referenced or applied are far more seldom. The letter of the preserved law codes doesn’t tend to play into the narratives or poetry of the Tanakh nearly as much as relationship issues or general lawlessness. The sermons of the prophets apply narrative therapy to the story of the Israelites, yet they don’t really specify pragmatic instructional details of how to proceed forward. Much of the specific law is obsolete without a temple and priesthood, many of the instructions are carried out only within their narrative and are never called upon again, and much of the Tanakh’s preserved content is simply irrelevant to the religious life of the individual (things like genealogies, census numbers, and inventories). These things retain significance and inform how Jews live out their Jewish-ness, but lack direct applicability outside of the historical world they are contextualized in. Instead, these memories of a lost past best serve to hold a group of people together and give them identity, purpose, and hope. Through the selections of books within the Torah, Nevi’im, and Ketuvim, we read of the rise, accomplishments, fall, and hope of Hebrew national autonomy. The covenant with Moses’s people is recorded retrospectively and declared broken but not severed, and hope is declared to the people who live on in the spirit of that covenant.

The New Testament anthology preserves the core narrative of its community’s foundation and early teachings. The New Testament is written by people who were familiar with the content and promises of the Tanakh (most of its authors were Jewish) and assumes some knowledge the Tanakh’s material to contextualize its claims. There are only six books with narrative in the New Testament: the four biographies of Jesus, The Acts of the Apostles, and Revelation (yes, it’s a narrative, just working within the conventions of the apocalyptic literary genre). These six books constitute a little over half of the New Testament, and it is important to notice that four are about Jesus, one provides short narratives about the earliest Christians, and one is a cryptic meta-tale of good vs. evil. That is not a very wide array of stories, and excepting Revelation they are all foundation stories that track the beginning of a movement. There really isn’t an overarching plot arc to the New Testament’s narratives except onward and upward (persecution is explicitly embraced as an sign of upward progression). The other twenty-one writings are instructional letters that were formative to the early churches. Oftentimes these letters do not provide context for the teachings they contain because the original recipients were living in that context. The lack of narrative around these letters frames them to modern readers as very forward directed, not reliant upon nor restricted to the conditions of their time.

There is quite a bit of contrast between the Tanakh and the New Testament. For one thing, the Tanakh is much more internally diverse in its content by every measure: intent, themes, characters, writers, time period, style, etc. The New Testament is more internally similar with its contents having come from a narrow timeframe, and multiple of its writings having come from the same authors. The Tanakh preserves the culture of a civilization that rose, fell, and must figure out how to endure. The New Testament preserves the inception of a culture whose only view of itself is optimistic progression. The Tanakh couches its instructional material within the extensive context of its narratives. This means that many instructions are dependent upon their narratives and contexts to have meaning and cannot be applied elsewhere. This leaves Jews with a wide variety of conclusions to draw about how to be Jewish. By contrast, most of the New Testament’s instructional material does not include explanations of the context they are interacting with, rendering those commands more seemingly timeless and yet also more nebulous to apply. This leaves Christians with a wide variety of conclusions to draw about how to be Christian.

People’s Role

Speaking of Jews and Christians, let’s lastly consider the last critical element of any scripture: its adherents. Because at the end of the day, it is not the technical properties or genre of any written work that make it a scripture, but rather that a set of adherents have seized upon that writing as central to their identification of ultimate truth. How they think the writing does this, in what ways they depend on it, or what kinds of truth they are trying to identify varies as much as people themselves. Not all texts are didactic, and not all people read them in order to be taught the how-tos of ritual and morality. Some texts seem to exist just to explore or tell a story, and some people just want their texts to take them through that experience and inspire them from there. Scriptures are literature that a group of people have given an authoritative role to inform their identity and view of the world. The literature by its own text can be from any genre, for any purpose, serving any message.

How much authority people lay upon their scriptures and how much reverence they hold for them varies a lot too. Christians say the Bible contains words inspired by God, Muslims say the Quran contains the hand-picked words of God, Sikhs treat the Guru Granth as a living ruler. Generally, Protestant Christians claim a sola scriptura, “scripture only,” allocation of authority to inform their religion. Hierarchical Christians like the Catholics, Orthodox, and Episcopals divide that authority with the accumulated history and wisdom of their institutions. I read in Muslim websites and forums a lot of sola scriptura rhetoric, but in practice they divide that authority with the written and living traditions of their religious leaders (except for a budding community of what are effectively Muslim protestants). And of course, every religious individual ultimately decides their own relationship and attitudes to their scripture. That’s why for any of my statements on Biblical books or intentions above, you need to remember the big invisible footnote that these are merely my attitudes and opinions, and are certain to be contrary or even offensive to someone else’s beliefs on the topic.

Let me again turn to the Bible to demonstrate how it is the attitudes of the people and not the contents of the writings that make those writings sacred scripture. Not all the books within it are about God or religion. At face value, neither Esther nor Song of Songs touch upon God, ritual, or morality. Indeed, they are exceedingly secular. Once taken as a religious document, however, Esther becomes a story about how God orchestrates secular history to provide for His people. Songs becomes a much needed counterbalance to a duty-heavy attitude towards covenants. That a marriage covenant can be motivated by mutual passion and longing makes a nice commentary for the motivations of entering into a covenant with God. These books are not about religion, but become scripture when people incorporate the values the books promote into the values of their religion.

Now, I know among my fellow Christians that recognizing the human role in determining scripture is not always popular. Many Christians would define scripture as a writing with the unconditional property of having been sourced from God. To which I say yes, but even still humans are ultimately responsible for identifying these occurrences and promoting them. Recognizing a dependence on humans does make many Christians very uncomfortable. It ties back into that aspirational view of the Bible, particularly the desire to find it self-sufficient and unconditional. When people take this aspirational view to the Bible, I find it is out of a well-intended desire remove authority from human hands. Humans are flawed, and people want the freedom of submitting to timeless ideals that can be trusted because they are untouched by humans. (Though cynically, yes, often it is done so that people can deny their own involvement in interpreting those scriptures to reinforce their personal worldview.) It’s that same sentiment promoted in the American dream: that we are ruled by an impartial system of laws and not the grubby politics of men. So the desire to see scripture stand independent of human involvement is part of a desire for freedom and simplicity. Nevertheless, history shows that humans were very involved in the selection, transmission, and promotion of biblical books. And if Esther teaches us anything, isn’t it that God provides for his people through even the secular occurrences of history?

Sooooo…..

Why do we care about this then? Well, all this is to break down that not all literature categorized as “scripture” is trying to do the same thing or is being taken in the same way by its adherents. It is okay to compare two scriptures to each other but it must be done in the same way you would compare any other two works of literature. Lots of media contains violence, but in order to talk about that violence you must first determine whether it is being used to entertain, titillate, horrify, or instruct its audience. Determine how consumers are primed to react through the cues and language of the media. Then ask what message or purpose that violence is serving. If you cannot find a similarity in the intent of the content being examined, then it becomes inappropriate to evaluate them as equivalent.

So when comparing anything in the Quran and the Bible there must first be a lot of groundwork laid. What is the anatomy of these books? What kind of immediate and broad contexts serve to interpret the material? What genre elements of style, theme, or purpose shape how audiences understand the content? What messages are the various items of content serving? In what ways do adherents read into or draw out information from the text? And once these questions are explored, then through that material you can start comparing and contrasting the content in these books. But ripping text from these contexts to posit that the Bible featuring a humanly sentient snake and the Quran featuring a humanly sentient hoopoe indicates both books have equivalent views of animal sentience would be a false equivocation. These are really interesting discussions to get into –very worth having!– and I’d love to write out my thoughts on them some time.

Once I can figure out how to contain those thoughts in a blog post.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.