The Use Of Genre In Bible Interpretation -- By: Richard W. Engle

Journal: Journal of Ministry and Theology
Volume: JMAT 04:1 (Spring 2000)
Article: The Use Of Genre In Bible Interpretation
Author: Richard W. Engle

The Use Of Genre In
Bible Interpretation

Richard W. Engle

Professor Of Old Testament Literature,
Language, And Exegesis
Baptist Bible Seminary, Clarks Summit, Pennsylvania


One might find two randomly placed scraps of paper, covered with words on one side. One of the scraps begins, “Once upon a time …” while the text on the other begins “dearly beloved, we are gathered together… .” Many people in our society, upon reading or hearing these beginning words, would recognize two different kinds, or genres, of writing. Presumably the two texts arose in two different settings (or situations in life). The two texts serve different purposes. Analyzing these texts and articulating their settings, their functions, and their various parts is roughly equivalent to genre analysis. What are the setting, purpose, and constituent parts of the full text of those matters which are introduced by these “formulas”? To answer these questions relative to any text is to engage in aspects of genre analysis.

The following pages seek to encourage the reader to apply the steps of genre analysis as part of his procedure in the study of the Holy Scriptures. First, the paper considers some definitions related to genre analysis. Second, the essay surveys some relationships between genre analysis and historical critical methodologies in biblical studies. The third section provides comments on procedures, complexities, and values of genre analysis. Fourth, the paper offers brief observations about selected genres in the Old Testament. The fifth and sixth sections suggest, respectively, possible pitfalls and positive aspects of genre analysis as a procedure in Bible study.


Genre is a French word which means “kind, sort, style.”1 Gattung is a German word which approximates the French Genre, roughly translatable as “form” or “type.” “In German, Gattung denotes a group of things which have … distinguishing characteristics in common.”2 Gattung has been used to designate longer literary units, for example, Gospel, Epistle, Apocalypse. English often translates Gattung as Genre. The German word form is sometimes used to designate smaller literary units often thought to have arisen in “oral traditions.”

Form criticism, translated from Formgeschichte (lit. “history of Form”) gained impetus in biblical studies from Hermann Gunkel. His implementation of form criticism (i.e. critical studies of the Bible so as to dis...

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