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“Literary” Forms

Literary Forms

Rule 2.In many texts we have to discern the teaching by analysing the literary form the scriptural author is using..

“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 XlI, Divino Afflante,Spiritu, Denz 2294 (3829-3830).

“Those who search out the intention of the sacred writers must, among other things, have regard for “literary forms”. For truth is proposed and expressed in a variety of ways, depending on whether a text is history of one kind or another, or whether its form is that of prophecy, poetry or some other type of speech. The interpreter must investigate what meaning the sacred writer intended to express and actually expressed in particular circumstances, as he used contemporary literary forms in accordance with the situation of his own time and culture.”

Divine Revelation, nos. 11-12; Vatican Council II, ed. A.FLANNERY, Dominican Publications, Dublin 1975, pp. 756-757.

What are “literary forms”?

You might open a daily paper and 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, a leader, an advertisement and a comic strip. Having recognized them as such, you know what value to attribute to them.

Literary forms are the categories in 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: “The Glasgow express left London yesterday at 8.30 p.m.”. 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.

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 “hymnbook’ makes sense to us.

In short we might define a literary form as a category of speaking or writing which (c) arose in a particular situation in life, which (a) has its own peculiar contents and which (b) employs a distinctive vocabulary and style.

“Literary forms” in the Old Testament

As long as we are dealing with our own literary forms, there is little need for 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 a man who moves out of his 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 Plato were to have stepped into our country, he would have needed to adapt himself consciously to our literary forms. He might 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 Sacred Scripture 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 straightaway 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. Immediately he evaluated them aright, as we characterize religious hymns, soldiers’ songs, marches, or top-hits in dance music! Lacking direct experience of Jewish life and Jewish mentality, we have gradually to learn these various Psalms.

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, satyrical 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 obtained 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 parts 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 reports 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.

“Literary forms” in the New Testament

Let us take an example from the Gospels that has been frequently quoted to justify oppression.

Suppose one of you has a slave who returns from the fields after ploughing or minding the sheep, will he say to him: ‘Sit down now and have your meal’?
Will he not more likely say: ‘Get my supper ready. Tidy up and serve me while I eat and drink. You yourself can have your meal afterwards’?
Will he be grateful to his slave for doing what he was told?

In the same way, when you have done all you have been told to do, say: ‘We are only slaves. We have done no more than our duty’.

Luke 17,7-10; see also Matthew 10,24-25; 13,27-28; 18,25; etc.

This text was used by Church authorities and theologians to prove that slavery is willed by God. Jesus himself, they said, accepted slavery. Jesus gives examples from slavery which show that he took the subordination of slaves for granted. What is more, Jesus admired the service of submissive and humble slaves. Therefore, it is something beautiful that is not contrary to God’s will.

Theologians kept repeating these kinds of arguments until late in the nineteenth century. It brought them to a firm conclusion: ‘It is certainly a matter of faith that slavery in which a man serves his master as a slave, is altogether lawful. This can be proved from Holy Scripture.’1

From a standard work: LEANDER, Questiones Morales Theologicae, Lyons 1692; Volume 8, De Quarto Decalogi Precepto, Tract.IV, Disp. I, Q.3.

Even the Holy Office in Rome which was supposed to guard the purity of Catholic doctrine, still declared on 20 June 1866: ‘Slavery itself, considered as such in its essential nature, is not at all contrary to the natural and divine law, and there can be several just titles of slavery and these are referred to by approved theologians and commentators of the sacred canons.... It is not contrary to the natural and divine law for a slave to be sold, bought, exchanged or given’.

J.F.MAXWELL, ‘The Development of Catholic Doctrine Concerning Slavery’, World Jurist 11 (1969-70) pp.306-307.

What is the fallacy in the argument taken from the Gospel?

The mistake is to assume that when Jesus uses examples from real life, he approves of what he describes. Sure, we can learn something from the example, and this is the message. But as to the example itself, he simply takes it as a common occurrence, as a fact we observe in society.

Jesus says the Son of Man will come as a thief in the night ( Matthew 24,42-44.).

Does he thereby recommend stealing?

Jesus praises the dishonest manager (Luke 16,1-13).

Does he condone cheating in business?

Jesus compares God to a crooked judge who is hard on the poor (Luke 18,1-8).

Does he teach God is corrupt?

Jesus describes a king who punishes a shabbily dressed guest (Matthew 22,11-14).

Is this a lesson in good manners?

The Good Samaritan poured wine and oil on the man’s wounds (Luke 10,34).

Should doctors follow this practice?

In text after text we see Jesus giving many descriptions, often detailed and always taken from real life. It does not take a lot of intelligence to see that they are no more than illustrations. The same applies to the examples Jesus takes from slavery.

In this case, Jesus’ attitude is also clear from what he says in other texts. For, while he describes the ordinary master as someone who expects to be served by his slave, this is not what he expects a Christian to do.

This is what Jesus says we should be like:

“Who wants to be the greatest among you, must be your servant.
Who wants to be the first, must be your slave.

The Son of Man also came, not be served, but to serve.”

Matthew 20,26-28

“If I, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet, you too should wash each other’s feet.
For, I tell you, no servant is greater than his master.”

John 13,14-16. Washing his master’s feet was a legal sign by which a slave expressed his subservient position; J.D.M.DERRETT, ‘Domine, tu mihi lavas pedes?’, Bibbia e Oriente 21 (1979) pp. 13-42. See also Luke 3,16.

Yes, we can learn the value of service from a hard working and humble slave. This is Jesus' intention as we can see from the literary form of example that he uses. But it is clear that Jesus does not condone the way masters treated their slaves, or that he recommended slavery itself as an acceptable Christian practice. According to the perceptions of his time, he simply took slavery for granted.

The literary form we are here considering is that of the ‘parable’ and the ‘comparison’. When Jesus employs parables and comparisons, we should distinguish the story itself, with its images and illustrations, from the point of the story, that is: what Jesus wants to teach. In the creation accounts we made a similar distinction between the form of presentation and the teaching conveyed through that presentation. Again, we can formulate this as a general principle.

The meaning of any biblical statement can only be determined by a consideration of the literary form. The questions: “Did it really happen?” or “What does he want to say?” cannot be solved by a general statement such as: “The Bible cannot contain falsehood!” or “See what the words mean in the dictionary !” God spoke through human authors. He spoke in their language. He framed his message in their mentality. He 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 rule of the “literal” sense is closely related to the other rules:

John Wijngaards

Wijngaards Institute for Catholic ResearchThis website is maintained by the Wijngaards Institute for Catholic Research.

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