Literary Genre and Hermeneutics of the Apocalypse -- By: Robert L. Thomas
MSJ 2:1 (Spring 91) p. 79
Literary Genre and Hermeneutics of the Apocalypse1
Professor of New Testament
The Master’s Seminary
A relatively new field of specialized NT study is a careful examination of the literary genre or style of different books. Revelation has often been classified as a kind of literature called “apocalyptic,” but the category of “prophetic” is probably a better classification for the book. The book calls itself a prophecy. If the genre were primarily apocalyptic, this might constitute a basis for interpreting the book in a non-literal way. The preterist, tradition-historical, continuous-historical, and idealist approaches to the book have at times spiritualized the book in accord with the assumption that its apocalyptic style makes it different from other books. If the book is basically prophetic, however, only a literal interpretation will suffice. The symbols of the book lend themselves to literal interpretation, with allowances for normal figures of speech.
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Analysis of literary genre has emerged as a relatively new tool for NT study at the end of the twentieth century.2 Its possible effect on hermeneutics, particularly in interpreting the Apocalypse, justifies an in-depth investigation of relevant issues.
Style of the Apocalypse
This methodology divides the NT books into groups based on comparisons with extra-biblical literature from the periods immediately before, during, and after the composition of the NT. Literary features such as structure, style, content, and function are included in these
MSJ 2:1 (Spring 91) p. 80
comparisons.3 Blomberg identifies the categories of general style to which the Apocalypse has been compared as prophecy, apocalyptic, and epistle.4 To these may be added edict, to which Aune has recently likened the messages of Revelation 2–3, 5 and drama, for which Blevins has argued.6
No consensus exists as to a precise definition of genre,7 so discussions attempting to classify portions of the NT, including Revelation, are at best vague. A few general observations regarding proposed answers to the question of “which genre?” are in order, however. The epistolary element is clearly present at certain point...
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