To evaluate what the authors of Scripture want to affirm one has to take full account of the literary forms employed.
Literary forms are ‘chunks of language’, frame works, within which we package human speech. Recognising the particular ‘frame’ is essential for getting the message right.
“Frequently the literal sense is not so obvious in the words and writings of ancient oriental authors as it is with the writers of today. For what they intended to signify by their writings is not determined only by the laws of grammar and philology nor merely by the context. It is absolutely necessary for the interpreter to go back in spirit to those remote centuries of the East and make proper use of the aids afforded by history, archaeology, ethnology and other sciences, in order to discover what literary forms the writers intended to use and did, de facto, employ.”
Pius XII in Divino Afflante Spiritu
What are ‘literary forms’?
Let us examine an every example. Suppose you open a daily paper such as the Guardian . . .
- You may find this headline on the front page: “Prince of Wales has tooth extracted”.
- Somewhere more central in the paper an article bears the caption: “A nation’s battle against tooth decay.”
- Down the page a smiling girl displays a dazzling row of teeth, saying; “Denty White toothpaste guarantees health and beauty”!
- The strip story shows Tarzan biting himself out of a net without breaking a single tooth.
Now reflect for a minute on your judgement on each of these statements. Without the least effort you have taken the Prince of Wales, treatment to be a fact. The article on tooth decay gave you matter for thought, even though you may have disagreed with some opinions expressed by the author. You did not for one minute believe the claim for Denty White toothpaste, and you certainly did not worry much about the fate of Tarzan’s teeth.
Reflect again: how did you so quickly evaluate each of these statements ? The answer is simple : automatically you had classified them under different categories: as a news item, an editorial, an advertisement and a comic strip. Having recognized them as such, you know what value to attribute to them.
Literary forms are the categories – the frames of meaning – within which we speak or write.
Contrary to what we might think superficially, the meaning of our words is not determined only by the dictionary. Consider the statement:
“On Monday the Glasgow Express left Paddington Station at 8.30 pm.”
A vocabulary and an encylopedia will establish significations for each of the words. But we cannot as yet evaluate the true bearing of the statement unless we know in which category of writing, in which ‘literary form’, it occurs.
- If it is mentioned in an official railway report we know it to be exact.
- If the statement is made in a personal letter we realize that the correspondent may have been a few minutes out, to say the least.
- If, however, the sentence is found in a detective novel, we simply regard it as fiction!
How do we know which literary form a statement belongs to?
We distinguish literary forms in the same way as we instantly distinguish someone’s profession: by her uniform, by the tools she uses, by the kind of work she does, by the surroundings where we find her.
Entering a bookshop we find an enormous variety of literary forms among the books. Again without any conscious effort, we recognize prayerbooks, grammars, technical manuals, anthologies of poetry, philosophical treatises, handbooks for school, collected essays, and many kinds of light reading! On what principle do we distinguish them so easily ?
If we give some thought to the matter, we will find that we generally classify them on the strength of three characteristics :
a. Because of their contents
A handbook on cooking, a railway guide and a book of poetry do not leave us long in doubt as to what category they belong to! One glance at the contents and we know!
b. Because of their style
Comparing a prayerbook and a detective story novel, there is — apart from the contents — a marked difference in the style of the book. We instinctively recognize what kind of writing we are dealing with by the words used and by the style.
c. Because of their ‘setting-in-life!’
Each literary form arose in a particular situation in life. Since we know our school system, the typical school manual immediately strikes us as something familiar. Since we ourselves sing in Church, a “hymn book” makes sense to us.
In short we might define a literary form as a category of speaking or writing which (a) has its own kind of contents, which (b) employs a distinctive vocabulary and style, and which (c) is found in a particular situation in life.
Unfamiliar literary forms
As long as we are dealing with our own literary forms, there is little need for such detailed analysis. We distinguish and select the various literary forms without even adverting to them, as little as we pay attention to the complicated mechanism of breathing. Breathing poses no problem as long as we have plenty of air. But for submarines and spacecraft that move out of the globe’s belt of air, supplying the lungs with sufficient oxygen becomes a major issue that requires much research and constant vigilance.
Much the same applies to people who move out of their surroundings into the intellectual world of others. Literary forms all of a sudden take on the greatest importance: from now on study and constant vigilance are required.
If the Greek philosopher Plato were to have stepped into our country, he would have needed to adapt himself consciously to our literary forms. He would have needed a tutor to read the daily paper: “Don’t take this advertisement too seriously,'”; “This story was merely put in for entertainment.'”; “Such letters to the Editor contain opinions of private people”; etc . After some time he would, no doubt, learn to distinguish our literary forms by studying the contents, vocabulary, style and situation-in-life of what is written or said.
When approaching the Bible we should remember that we enter a world far removed from ours. Take, for instance, the psalms.
To us they appear all as one category. The Jew recognized straight away a dozen different literary forms in them: hymns of praise, pilgrim songs, supplications of individuals or of the whole people, ballads for instruction, prayers of thanksgiving and so on. He could evaluate them immediately, just we recognize religious hymns, soldiers’ songs, marches, or popular hits from pop culture. Because we lack direct experience of Jewish life and Jewish mentality, we have to learn to distinguish these kinds of psalms gradually.
What about the Old Testament?
The Old Testament is full of literary forms that are unfamiliar to us.
- Take, for instance, the psalms. To us they appear all as one category. The Jews recognized straight away a dozen different literary forms in them:hymns of praise, pilgrim songs, supplications of individuals or of the whole people, ballads for instruction, prayers of thanksgiving and so on. They could evaluate them immediately, just we recognize religious hymns, soldiers’ songs, marches, or popular hits from pop culture. Because we lack direct experience of Jewish life and Jewish mentality, we have to learn to distinguish these kinds of psalms gradually.
- The prophetic books also contain innumerable examples of literary forms that we need to get used to. The paranetic sermon aims at driving home certain central truths about loyalty to Jahweh. Covenantal threats, prophetic promises, satirical songs of mourning are other categories that are phrased in highly technical language, and that would escape our notice. The prophetic oracles require, indeed, much knowledge of the actual situations in life that occurred in Israel: such as jurisprudence, ceremonies at court, market scenes, feasts, parties, covenantal renewals, rituals at burial and business contracts. Only with such knowledge can we fathom the literary forms and with them, the true message of the prophets.
- It should not be thought that the historical books of the Old Testament are less complicated in this regard ! The contrary must be asserted. Historical narration in the Old Testament is presented in many different literary forms. Our present-day difficulties regarding historicity are precisely due to our failure to recognize and accentuate these forms. Invariably we are inclined to put biblical narratives under categories known to us: eyewitness reports, historical treatises, biographies and so on. This constitutes a fatal blunder and has led many to no end of misunderstanding ! It should, consequently, be realized that the literary forms of scriptural narration are foreign to us and that they have to be learned. An exhaustive analysis of such literary forms cannot be given by us in this short explanation of the principle, but some examples may be noted here.
- Jewish narrators often explain how a place or a person received its name. In such aetiologies it is not the accuracy of the facts but the explanation of the name that matters.
- Like other nations the Jews knew their hero sagas such as are natural to peoples in a certain stage of sociological growth.
- Prophetic legends of the type that grew up round Moses, Elijah and Elisha, magnify miracles to bring home more forcefully God’s direct action through these persons.
- Accurate annalistic records are not lacking in the books of the kings.
- Theologised narration consisted in projecting a theoretical construction into a narrative account: compare the six-day creation story of Genesis 1!
- After the exile Jewish preachers had recourse to fictitious stories called midrash to illustrate points of inspired teaching. This gave rise to books such as Jonah, Tobit, Judith, Esther and parts of Daniel.
- Each of these literary forms has to be studied and to be evaluated according to its own features. But there is one general, all-embracing literary form which underlies most of them: the history of salvation.
Case study: the parable of the lost sheep
In the Gospel of Luke we read the following parable:
The tax collectors and sinners were all seeking Jesus’ company to hear what he had to say, and the Pharisees and the scribes complained. “This man”, they said, “welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
So Jesus spoke this parable to them: ‘What man among you with a hundred sheep, losing one, would not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the missiong one till he found it? And when he found it, would he not joyfully take it on his shoulders and then, when he got home, call together his friends and neighbours? “Rejoice with me”, he would say “I have found my sheep that was lost”.
In the same way, I tell you, there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one repentant sinner than over ninety-nine virtuous people who have no need of repentance.’
In Matthew 18,12-14 we find the same parable but with a different lesson. How is that possible?
To understand this fully we need to study the literary form of the parable in some depth. To begin with, see this video:
© Wijngaards Institute. Illustrations in the video clip by Jackie Clackson.
Exercise: the teaching on family relatonships
In the New Testament letters we find instructions on how to relate to members of one’s family. For instance:
“Wives, be subject to your husbands, as is proper in the Lord.
Husbands, love your wives. Do not treat them harshly . . .
Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; not only when you are under their supervision, as if you only had to please human beings, but with sincerity, out of respect for the Master. Whatever your job is, put your whole heart into it, as a service to the Lord and not for human beings. For you know that the Lord will repay you by making you his heirs. It is Christ the Lord that you are serving . . . .
Masters, treat your slaves justly and fairly. Realise that you too have a Master in heaven”. Colossians 3,18 – 4,1
Try to work out for yourself the answers to the following questions:
- Does this text enshrine the unchanging roles of different members within the family? Why or why not?
- Does the biblical author here lay down permanent rules about the family obligations of wives, husbands, slaves, masters, and so on? Why or why not?
- What can we learn from this passage?
The meaning of any biblical statement can only be determined by a consideration of the literary form employed. God spoke through human authors. God spoke in their language. God framed his message in their mentality. God wanted to assert nothing more or less than what his human instruments wanted to assert. And what they wanted to assert can be defined with certainty only after a careful study of the literary forms they employed. The same dictionary is used by the novelist and the historian. But who would give the same interpretation to their works ?
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