Before starting at the beginning

This post is in the series Rite Reading.

This blog series now moves on to the longest section, as much intended for repeated reference as reading immediately. Nonetheless, I hope each post will be interesting enough to read in its own right as it is blogged. Since I am going (with one or two extras here and there) to blog my way through the books of the Bible in their canonical order, you might expect that to begin at the beginning would mean starting with Genesis. However, I want to take a couple of steps back, and begin with another word starting with the same three letters: genre.

At this point, though, I need to enter a caveat. I blog these posts on books of the bible not as an expert, but as a fellow reader. I venture to claim a degree of knowledge, and a reasonable depth of study for much of (but not all) the New Testament books. But when it comes to the Old Testament I have no particular expertise. I’m simply another reader sharing something of what I read. My reading always begins by asking what sort of book I’m reading.

When a story begins “Once upon a time …” we automatically deduce some things about the story, including the idea that it is not history or fact we’re dealing with. George Lucas played on the idea when he began his Star Wars trilogy “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away …” to tell the viewers something about the film that would follow. On the other hand, if we pick up a book and it begins something like this, we know we are reading history: “Life changed irrevocably for the people of the British Isles in 1066 AD, when William the Bastard turned into William the Conqueror. His defeat of Harold at Senlac Hill, a few miles inland from Hastings, became the defining fact about both William and the creation of late mediaeval England.”

Photo of Senlac Hill – via Wikimedia Commons by Simon Carey / CC BY-SA 2.0

We have different responses, because we are reading different sorts of writing. None of us, I venture, sat watching the beginning of Star Wars, and thought to ourselves, “I wonder which galaxy this happened in”. But if you’d picked up my fictional text on the Norman Conquest, you might, for example, want to look at an historical map and see exactly where Senlac Hill was, and that would be quite an appropriate response.

This difference between types of writing is what we mean by the term genre, and the writings that make up the bible fall into several different genres. Some are obvious at first glance, like law, history, letter or poetry. Others may take a little while to understand, as they come to us from a time and culture with some very different conventions to our own. Genre, however, makes a good place to begin our understanding of the bible, and how we might approach reading it.

In this section of the project, I will cover the contents of the bible in sections that group them according to their genre. In each section, I will first explore something about the group or genre as a whole, and then include a little about the books within it, paying most attention to the books that are used most frequently in the lectionary. I shall include deuterocanonical or apocryphal books alongside the undisputed Old Testament books,1 with their appropriate genres of historical, wisdom and prophetic books (and in the traditional Greek bible order). The chapter headings will make clear their disputed and deuterocanonical status.

When we come to the New Testament, because the gospels are the dominant organising books of the lectionary, I shall give more time and space to them than to the other books of the bible. I note that in the Catholic tradition, the gospel – mainly read at Mass – is read by an ordained person: the deacon (if there is one) or a priest. Those who are in this tradition will need to read those blog posts as a guide to listening to the gospel rather than reading it. Those from other traditions are often used to lay people reading the gospels as they do the other biblical books, so they will be unsurprised to find the gospels covered more extensively in a reader’s guide.


Notes

  1. See this post for an explanation of the Old Testament contents, and how we got them. The term “deuterocanonical books” is explained in note 6 of that post (and in the glossary).

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