Tag Archives: Genre

Walt Russell explains how to read the Bible effectively

Bible study that hits the spot
Bible study that hits the spot

Dr. Walt Russell’s book on the subject of interpreting the Bible is called “Playing With Fire: How the Bible Ignites Change in Your Soul“. I like that book, but I found four articles that summarize the main points of the book so people can understand how to read the Bible at a high livel.

Here is part one which talks about how postmodern relativism is at odds with discovering the original intent of an author.

Excerpt:

Twenty-four year-old “Janet” (not her real name) was angry at my emphasis on seeking to discover authors’ intentions when we read their texts. She was an evangelical Christian and a second grade teacher in a public school. She prided herself in helping her 20 students learn to love literature. She would read them a story as they gathered around her, and then ask each child, “What does the story mean to you?” She prodded them to come up with their own unique meanings. With such strong encouragement, the class of 20 would eventually have 20 different meanings for the one story. Janet sensed that I was a naysayer about such “love of literature.” Pouring a little emotional gasoline on the fire, I said, “Janet, you’re certainly doing your part to insure that these 7 year-olds will never recover from a radically relativistic view of meaning!” Now I had her full attention.

Here is part two which talks about the importance of knowing the genre of a text before you try to interpret it.

Excerpt:

“INDIANS SLAY TIGERS!” — the newspaper headline virtually screams out at you. The thought of something being slain is repulsive. You’re gripped by a mental image of southern India’s Bengal tiger. You imagine its beautiful face, its stripes and piercing eyes. Then your image is shattered by the sudden blast of a high-powered rifle. You see the exquisite creature writhe in pain, fall gracelessly in its tracks and die. Having read no further than the headline, you feel sick, as if you’ve witnessed something tragic.

But should you feel this way? The slaughter of an endangered species — especially one as magnificent as the Bengal tiger — is horrifying, no doubt. But suppose you failed to notice that the headline “INDIANS SLAY TIGERS!” appeared in the sports page of the morning paper. Clearly enough, it now refers to different Indians, different Tigers and a different manner of slaying than you originally thought. And is it really that tragic that the Cleveland Indians badly beat the Detroit Tigers in a major league baseball game last night? Not unless you’re a long-suffering Detroit Tigers’ baseball fan. But how do you now know that the headline is about baseball and not tiger-slaying in India? You look at the words “INDIANS SLAY TIGERS” and you know exactly what each word means. When you combine these words, how can they not mean exactly what you first thought they did — that Indians slay tigers? Answer: because their meanings are communicated (as the meanings of all words are) through genres!

Here is part three which talks about the importance of reading the context of a verse before you try to interpret it.

Excerpt:

“Never Read a Bible Verse!” That’s the title of a little booklet my friend and Christian radio personality, Gregory Koukl, has written to help people read the Bible well. What great advice. “That’s right, never read a Bible verse. Instead, always read a paragraph — at least.” But the current is flowing the other way in our popular sound-bite culture. Not to be left out (or left behind!), the Church has its own version of sound-bite culture: verse-bite culture. In verse-bite culture we take a sentence or sentence-fragment from a biblical paragraph, memorize it out of context, write it on a little card, put it on a billboard, a plaque, a rock, etc. Somehow we think that just because this little chunk of Scripture has a verse number in front of it, it was meant to be a free-standing unit of thought. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Apart from the fact that chapter and verse divisions weren’t added to the New Testament text until 1560 — long after the New Testament’s inspired authorship — there is a more important reason for never reading just a Bible verse, and instead reading at least the paragraph that contains it.

Here is part four which talks about the importance of applying the words of the Bible to your life.

One verse that is often misinterpreted is missing from the articles, but present in the STR lecture. It’s Philippians 1:6 that says “6 being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus”. Russell says in the lecture that this promise is specifically intended for the church in Philippi, to whom Paul is writing, not necessarily to all Christians. He is giving them a promise just after directly referring to their good work in supporting him in his ministry. Some verses are just not meant for us, and the context reveals it.

What is the criterion of embarrassment, and what are some examples of it?

Sherlock Holmes and John Watson are going to take a look at the data
Sherlock Holmes and John Watson are going to take a look at the data

The criterion of embarrassment is just one of the historical criteria used to select the parts of a piece of ancient literature that is likely to be historical. Other things in the source may have happened, but we can’t know them as history. If significant parts of a text are historical, it is possible to accept it as historical until there are specific reasons to say that some part of it is NOT historical.

Here is William Lane Craig’s list of criteria for a saying or event to be historical:

  1. Historical congruence: S fits in with known historical facts concerning the context in which S is said to have occurred.
  2. Independent, early attestation: S appears in multiple sources which are near to the time at which S is alleged to have occurred and which depend neither upon each other nor a common source.
  3. Embarrassment: S is awkward or counter-productive for the persons who serve as the source of information for S.
  4. Dissimilarity: S is unlike antecedent Jewish thought-forms and/or unlike subsequent Christian thought-forms.
  5. Semitisms: traces in the narrative of Aramaic or Hebrew linguistic forms.
  6. Coherence: S is consistent with already established facts about Jesus.

The criteria is the same for liberal historians and conservative historians, although some historians weight one criteria more than others when trying to evaluate the historicity of different New Testament parts.

Here’s Christian apologist Dr. Frank Turek explaining what the criterion is, and some examples:

Franks’s a great speaker, you should watch that.

What’s amazing is that even liberal historians will give you facts that are embarrassing to the authors as “historical”.

Anyway, here are 8 examples of parts of the New Testament that exhibit the criterion of embarrassment, thanks to theologian C. Michael Patton.

  1. Jesus’ Baptism
  2. Jesus’ Family Did Not Believe
  3. John the Baptist’s Doubt
  4. The Disciples Doubted After the Resurrection
  5. Jesus Does not Know the Time of His Coming
  6. Women are the First to Witness the Resurrection
  7. Jesus Cursed a Fig Tree
  8. Death and Resurrection of Christ

I think 6 and 8 are the ones I want you to take away with you when you finish this post.

Here they are:

Women are the First to Witness the Resurrection

This is one that is often brought up. Craig Keener puts it well enough: “The witness of women at the tomb is very likely historical, precisely because it was so offensive to the larger culture — not the sort of testimony one would invent. Not all testimony was regarded as being of equal merit; the trustworthiness of witnesses was considered essential. Yet most of Jesus’ Jewish contemporaries held much less esteem for the testimony of women than for that of men; this suspicion reflects a broader Mediterranean limited trust of women’s speech and testimony also enshrined in Roman law.” (Keener, The Historical Jesus, 331)

And:

Death and Resurrection of Christ

This easily escapes our notice since the basic story of Christ is so well known. However, both the death and resurrection of Christ are, from the standpoint of the culture of the day, embarrassing and damaging. Concerning the death of Christ on a cross, Paul sees this problem: “But we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (1 Cor. 1:23). The word used for “stumbling block” is skandalon. Louw-Nida defines this as “that which causes offense and thus arouses opposition.” Why? Because the Jews would never have thought their Messiah would have been hung on a tree. “Cursed is one who hangs on a tree” (Gal. 3:13; Deut 21:23). The Greeks thought of the resurrection as foolishness as they were dualist, essentially believing that the material world was evil and the spiritual world good. They would have scoffed at the idea that Christ returned to physical form. This is why later Greeks attempted to adapt the Christ story, doing away with the physical resurrection. Marcion is the most famous promoter of this view (see Docitism).

Now, when you are talking about the New Testament to your non-believing friends, you definitely want to draw attention to passages that are embarrassing to the authors. It will help you to be more convincing when you explain the New Testament like a historian.

By the way, you can read an entire post I did on all the criteria that historians use to evaluate ancient historical documents.

Michael Licona on ancient biography and harmonizing Bible contradictions

Lets take a closer look at a puzzle
Lets take a closer look at a puzzle

Brian Auten posted the latest lecture by Dr. Michael Licona at Apologetics 315. Brian’s site has the MP3 file (48 minutes, 44.5 Mb). I can make a smaller version for anyone who wants it.

Here is the video and my point-form summary.

The topic:

  • Contradictions do not affect the minimum facts case for the resurrection, although they are troubling
  • Most people respond to alleged contradictions by trying to harmonize them
  • Most verses that appear contradictory can be harmonized successfully
  • Some verses cannot be harmonized successfully without really damaging the texts
  • Christians should not gloss over these few real contradictions nor pretend that they don’t exist
  • How should we respond to the verses that cannot easily be harmonized?

Genre considerations:

  • The genre of the gospels is “ancient biography”
  • Ancient biography is not the same genre as modern biography
Insignificant differences

1. Contradictions vs. Differences:

  • In ancient biography, if a source mentions one person’s name, it does not mean that other people were not present
  • Example: one woman versus two women at the tomb, an account may only mention one woman when there are two
  • That is a difference, not a contradiction

2. Time compression:

  • in ancient biography, writers are allowed to leave out events in order to compress time
  • Some gospels omit details (guy version) and other gospels give more details (girl version)
  • For example, the cursing of the fig tree in Mark and Matthew

3. Narrative flow:

  • the ancient biographer’s style was to link together events into a narrative, even if they are slightly out of order
  • This means that the ordering matters less to ancient biographers than forming a coherent narrative
  • For example, the prediction by Jesus that Peter would deny him

Significant differences:

1. Biography allows for portrait painting

  • When people paint portraits, they sometimes use illustrations or imagery to convey the person’s character
  • For example, Shakespeare adds things to his history of Julius Caesar to make it more dramatic
  • For example, the genealogies in Matthew, the portrait of Jesus in the garden in John

2. Even if there are contradictions in an account it doesn’t mean that the basic facts are undermined

  • For example, even if we don’t know for sure if one thief or two thieves cursed Jesus, no one doubts that he was crucified
  • The basic details of the story are not affected by apparent contradictions

Then there is a period of Questions and Answers.

Michael Licona on ancient biography and harmonizing Bible contradictions

Brian Auten posted the latest lecture by Dr. Michael Licona at Apologetics 315. Brian’s site has the MP3 file (48 minutes, 44.5 Mb). I can make a smaller version for anyone who wants it.

Here is the video and my point-form summary.

The topic:

  • Contradictions do not affect the minimum facts case for the resurrection, although they are troubling
  • Most people respond to alleged contradictions by trying to harmonize them
  • Most verses that appear contradictory can be harmonized successfully
  • Some verses cannot be harmonized successfully without really damaging the texts
  • Christians should not gloss over these few real contradictions nor pretend that they don’t exist
  • How should we respond to the verses that cannot easily be harmonized?

Genre considerations:

  • The genre of the gospels is “ancient biography”
  • Ancient biography is not the same genre as modern biography
Insignificant differences

1. Contradictions vs. Differences:

  • In ancient biography, if a source mentions one person’s name, it does not mean that other people were not present
  • Example: one woman versus two women at the tomb, an account may only mention one woman when there are two
  • That is a difference, not a contradiction

2. Time compression:

  • in ancient biography, writers are allowed to leave out events in order to compress time
  • Some gospels omit details (guy version) and other gospels give more details (girl version)
  • For example, the cursing of the fig tree in Mark and Matthew

3. Narrative flow:

  • the ancient biographer’s style was to link together events into a narrative, even if they are slightly out of order
  • This means that the ordering matters less to ancient biographers than forming a coherent narrative
  • For example, the prediction by Jesus that Peter would deny him

Significant differences:

1. Biography allows for portrait painting

  • When people paint portraits, they sometimes use illustrations or imagery to convey the person’s character
  • For example, Shakespeare adds things to his history of Julius Caesar to make it more dramatic
  • For example, the genealogies in Matthew, the portrait of Jesus in the garden in John

2. Even if there are contradictions in an account it doesn’t mean that the basic facts are undermined

  • For example, even if we don’t know for sure if one thief or two thieves cursed Jesus, no one doubts that he was crucified
  • The basic details of the story are not affected by apparent contradictions

Then there is a period of Questions and Answers.

Walt Russell explains how to read the Bible effectively

Dr. Walt Russell’s book on the subject of interpreting the Bible is called “Playing With Fire: How the Bible Ignites Change in Your Soul“. I like that book, but I found four articles that summarize the main points of the book so people can understand how to read the Bible at a high livel.

Here is part one which talks about how postmodern relativism is at odds with discovering the original intent of an author.

Excerpt:

Twenty-four year-old “Janet” (not her real name) was angry at my emphasis on seeking to discover authors’ intentions when we read their texts. She was an evangelical Christian and a second grade teacher in a public school. She prided herself in helping her 20 students learn to love literature. She would read them a story as they gathered around her, and then ask each child, “What does the story mean to you?” She prodded them to come up with their own unique meanings. With such strong encouragement, the class of 20 would eventually have 20 different meanings for the one story. Janet sensed that I was a naysayer about such “love of literature.” Pouring a little emotional gasoline on the fire, I said, “Janet, you’re certainly doing your part to insure that these 7 year-olds will never recover from a radically relativistic view of meaning!” Now I had her full attention.

Here is part two which talks about the importance of knowing the genre of a text before you try to interpret it.

Excerpt:

“INDIANS SLAY TIGERS!” — the newspaper headline virtually screams out at you. The thought of something being slain is repulsive. You’re gripped by a mental image of southern India’s Bengal tiger. You imagine its beautiful face, its stripes and piercing eyes. Then your image is shattered by the sudden blast of a high-powered rifle. You see the exquisite creature writhe in pain, fall gracelessly in its tracks and die. Having read no further than the headline, you feel sick, as if you’ve witnessed something tragic.

But should you feel this way? The slaughter of an endangered species — especially one as magnificent as the Bengal tiger — is horrifying, no doubt. But suppose you failed to notice that the headline “INDIANS SLAY TIGERS!” appeared in the sports page of the morning paper. Clearly enough, it now refers to different Indians, different Tigers and a different manner of slaying than you originally thought. And is it really that tragic that the Cleveland Indians badly beat the Detroit Tigers in a major league baseball game last night? Not unless you’re a long-suffering Detroit Tigers’ baseball fan. But how do you now know that the headline is about baseball and not tiger-slaying in India? You look at the words “INDIANS SLAY TIGERS” and you know exactly what each word means. When you combine these words, how can they not mean exactly what you first thought they did — that Indians slay tigers? Answer: because their meanings are communicated (as the meanings of all words are) through genres!

Here is part three which talks about the importance of reading the context of a verse before you try to interpret it.

Excerpt:

“Never Read a Bible Verse!” That’s the title of a little booklet my friend and Christian radio personality, Gregory Koukl, has written to help people read the Bible well. What great advice. “That’s right, never read a Bible verse. Instead, always read a paragraph — at least.” But the current is flowing the other way in our popular sound-bite culture. Not to be left out (or left behind!), the Church has its own version of sound-bite culture: verse-bite culture. In verse-bite culture we take a sentence or sentence-fragment from a biblical paragraph, memorize it out of context, write it on a little card, put it on a billboard, a plaque, a rock, etc. Somehow we think that just because this little chunk of Scripture has a verse number in front of it, it was meant to be a free-standing unit of thought. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Apart from the fact that chapter and verse divisions weren’t added to the New Testament text until 1560 — long after the New Testament’s inspired authorship — there is a more important reason for never reading just a Bible verse, and instead reading at least the paragraph that contains it.

Here is part four which talks about the importance of applying the words of the Bible to your life.

One verse that is often misinterpreted is missing from the articles, but present in the STR lecture. It’s Philippians 1:6 that says “6 being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus”. Russell says in the lecture that this promise is specifically intended for the church in Philippi, to whom Paul is writing, not necessarily to all Christians. He is giving them a promise just after directly referring to their good work in supporting him in his ministry. Some verses are just not meant for us, and the context reveals it.