Reading The Bible As Literature: An Introduction. Jeanie C. Crain. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2010. 213 pp.

In Reading The Bible As Literature: An Introduction by Jeanie C. Crain, chapter four discusses “the major genres (the types and categories) into which literary works are grouped according to form, technique/style, or subject matter/content.” After readers know and recognize the genres they have expectations and they contribute to how the reader interprets the text. More than half of the Old Testament and at least half of the New Testament are made up of prose and narrative. The many definitions relating to genre often overlap and are interconnected, especially in the Bible. “The Bible has been regarded as a model for literary genres, its overriding form being that of an anthology made up of diverse genres,” Crain notes. The most familiar genres that the majority of readers will likely notice are prose, poetry, and drama. In both the Old and New Testament, one can also find evidence of historical facts as well as theological ideas and necessary morals for believers to live by.

“Genre means ‘type’, ‘sort’, or ‘kind’ and designates the literary form into which works are classified according to what they have in common”, as Crain states. Analyzing genre focuses on four main elements. They are the structure, genre, setting, and intent. The structure is made up of the plot, or the story and progression of events. This includes conflict, suspense, and conclusion. Chronology and themes are important elements of the plot as well. The genre relates to the category of the text “such as narrative, prophecy, poetry/psalmody, wisdom, law, proverb, satire, parable, and drama,” Crain defines. The setting involves the history of the text, as well as the time, location, and everything that takes place in a story and can also affect the characters. Finally, the intent consists of the form criticism, or what purpose the genre serves in the segment. The narrator of a story is the person, animal, or being who is telling the reader what is happening. The point of view is the perspective from which a story is told. It can be first person, using words such as I, we, and us. Or, it can be told from the third person point of view and use words such as he, she, it, and they. In first person, the narrator is a part of the story and they are likely telling about something they actually did or experienced. In the third person, the narrator is referring to something another person or thing is doing. Narrative stories must be careful to correctly depict the plot, characterization, point of view, narrative voice, and closure.

Made up stories that are not true are considered fiction. However, it is not necessarily completely false either. Fiction is often times relatively true human stories and experiences which are told while needing to use some imagination. Narrative stories in the Bible often use repetition of themes, words, motifs, and scenes to provide unity and better comprehension. They also use omission frequently, which removes some information which is likely unnecessary to the story. Dialogue is also common which is used to show the different characters’ points of view. Irony is also used in the Biblical stories. Drama is similar to fiction in that it presents a series of connected events and struggles of the characters. All these use speech and dialogue to portray the characters’ thoughts, motives, and feelings. According to the author “special devices of repetition such as allusion, ambiguity, puns and paradoxes, irony, imagery, comparisons, personification, apostrophe, animism, symbol, and allegory” are additional aspects of Biblical genres.

All genres stem from classical times which as a majority are lyric, or poetry; drama, which relates to a performance element; and epic, or a poetic narrative. Prose, poetry, and drama are often different among varying cultures and various time periods. They help create the story through rearranging these elements and creating an imagery that helps formulate a reality for the reader. However, there are also criticisms of genre. There are many inconsistencies and much confusion with genres. They could be viewed as either constructions or objectively. Furthermore, “is the taxonomy finite or infinite? Culture bound or transcultural? Descriptive or proscriptive?” the author interrogates. Some think that genre will be determined by the individual with their own personal views and the genre types cannot be clearly defined as they intersect and overlap in too many ways.

There are arguments that the Bible is one book as a whole and on the other side that it is made of many shorter books. The source theory helps relate the Bible to one combined text. There is evidence of this “arising out of repeated accounts of actions or stories, different names for God, variations in political assumptions, diction, and style, incompatible or inconsistent statements, and different viewpoints on religious matters.” Nearly all Biblical literature has been derived from oral history which was passed down repeatedly, which contributes to the different arguments. “Documentary Hypothesis usually presents them as composed by a series of editors out of four literary traditions,” Crain notes. Most Biblical scholars today make a claim to the Two Source Hypothesis. This argues that Mark was first and that Matthew and Luke referred to Mark as well as the Quelle, or “Q”, and some other materials.

Narratives can be of stories with structured plots, linking episodes, episodes in the New Testament which are linked to the Old Testament, and can be seen in parts of Genesis. As Crain states, “an episode consists of phases and steps grouped into a complete story, and results in some form of problem/action.” The episodes link and are overarching into different episodes, creating interlocking and weaving stories throughout the Bible. Sometimes this creates confusion as to where one story ends and another begins and different readers will have different opinions. “Episodes can be arranged thematically, chronologically, as parallel stories, or as stories in a cluster,” as the author reveals. An example would be the two similar and yet different stories which are told for the account of the creation of the world.

Stories with a structured plot will often have a protagonist, or a main character, an exposition which provides the setting, a resolution that resolves the conflict, and dialogue between the characters to display better what is happening. An omniscient narrator can reveal something to the reader that some characters do not know. Type-scenes have “a conventionally predetermined set of motifs or plots,” meaning two stories in different passages have similar plots.  An example of an episode in the New Testament that is linked to the Old Testament mentioned by Crain are the stories of Elisha and Elijah in Mark that are also mentioned in various passages in 1 Kings, Exodus, and 1 Samuel.

The genre of Genesis in particular can be compared to that of ancient, pre-scientific historiography which is a type of literature which is aimed at provoking in the reader a sense of identity and citizenship, prompting them to feel a part of an honorable city or race. Myth and legend, as well as historical fact, are also elements that can be detected in Genesis. It also presents sagens, or folktales and novelettes which have a plot and character development. The Documentary Hypothesis “views these tales as originally independent but eventually built into larger complexes by (a) skillful editor(s),” as Crain states. This could be a version of linking episodes to create clarity, coherence, and prominence within the whole of the book.

There are traditionally five elements to a story. They are the exposition, complication, crisis, falling action, and finally the resolution. The Bible takes many of these individual stories, however, and links them to create a large, overarching plot. In order for the reader to detect this, they must make note of the multiple layers of text that interconnect throughout the Bible. This consists of “words, sentences, paragraphs, stories, and narrators and characters speaking, then to increasingly larger sections and, ultimately, to books,” as Crain notes.

Having to relate all of these elements together can be problematic for the reader. There are so many pieces of the puzzle to put together in order to best understand the Bible as a whole. I think that most common readers of the Bible would not be able to make most of the connections in order to completely understand all of the elements. Crain suggests “that the literature as it exists must be understood not only in relation to itself, but in relation to the whole.” This is especially true with linking episodes. Having prior knowledge of a story that relates to a current story being read can help the reader to better understand the current passage. One “characteristic of biblical writing is its density of allusion and its remarkableness for activating one text with another,” to quote Crain. Therefore, it definitely seems that one can always continue to keep learning from the Bible, both in a religious context and a literary context.