Does Genre Determine Meaning? -- By: Thomas A. Howe
CAJ 6:1 (Spring 2007) p. 1
Does Genre Determine Meaning?
Thomas A. Howe is Professor of Bible and Biblical Languages at Southern Evangelical Seminary in Charlotte, NC.
From the beginnings of the development of the critical methodology, as it was being applied to the study of the Bible, understanding the Bible as literature has become more important and more central to hermeneutics. As Jeffrey Weima remarks, “The past few decades have witnessed a paradigm shift taking place in biblical studies. The old perspective that viewed Scripture as primarily a historical or theological document has been replaced by a new conviction that the Bible is literature and as such ought to be interpreted from a literary perspective.”1 It is notoriously difficult to identify what constitutes literature. After a lengthy consideration of several attempts at developing a definition of “literature,” one theorist concluded,
A piece of writing may start off life as history or philosophy and then come to be ranked as literature; or it may start off as literature and then come to be valued for its archaeological significance. Some texts are born literary, some achieve
CAJ 6:1 (Spring 2007) p. 2
literariness, and some have literariness thrust upon them.. .. In this sense, one can think of literature less as some inherent quality or set of qualities displayed by certain kinds of writing all the way from Beowulf to Virginia Woolf, than as a number of ways in which people relate themselves to writing.. .. Literature, in the sense of a set of works of assured and unalterable value, distinguished by certain shared inherent properties, does not exist.2
As difficult as it may be to define literature, there is one thing upon which all theorists agree and that is that literature comes in various shapes and kinds. Not all that is identified as literature is of the same character. The different kinds of literature are identified as genres. The term ‘genre’ comes to us through the French originally from Latin and means “kind” or “class.” Margaret Davies defines genre as “a kind of literature or literary species; for example, tragedy, comedy, novel, biography, romance, history, essay or letter. Each genre makes use of a particular style in its treatment of specific subjects and motifs within a structure whose unity gives meaning to its part.”3 Definitions like the one given by Davies are fairly common in the literature.
Questions of genre have become standard practice in most contemporary commentaries. For exam...
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