Getting lost in the stacks (Bible study #5)

One of the easiest missteps people make when sitting down to study the Bible is mistaking the Bible for a book. I know it looks like a book — it has folios stitched together and a cover enclosing the whole bound volume. But whatever its resemblance to a book, it is not one. It is many. The word “Bible” began its career as the Greek phrase ta Biblia which means “the books.” Therefore, the Bible — all visual cues to the contrary — is, in point of fact, a library.

Here’s what I mean. What we call the Bible is a collection of all sorts of writing: transcribed oral tradition, history, prophecy, poetry, gospel, correspondence, sermon, song, vision, law code, genealogy, novella, advice column, propaganda, shopping list, architectural schematic. And these are just the ones I could come up with off the top of my head. The history of how the particular collections of what I will from now on rather lamely refer to as “texts” came together to form our modern day “Bible” is beyond the scope of this post. Suffice to say that from history down to shopping list, each text somehow relates an encounter between God and God’s people. God’s people found the particular encounters that make up the texts revelatory and important, and they, in many a Spirit-filled decision, collected those texts together into the library that has become the Bible.

So, what’s all this have to do with studying the Bible? After picking your pericope, figuring out what type (or genre) of writing the passage comes from can help you begin to unpack it. You’d expect to find dialogue in a Gospel because the genre of Gospel is narrative.* You’d expect to find poetry in the collection of psalms because psalms were originally liturgical song. (Indeed, attached to many psalms are directions for the accompanying instrumentation.) But what if you found poetry in the Gospel. What would that tell you? Perhaps, the writer is reaching back to an earlier tradition and putting that liturgical song on the lips of a character. Check out Mary’s song in Luke 1, influenced clearly by Hannah’s song in 1 Samuel. Check out Jesus’ words from the cross in Matthew and Mark, which come from Psalm 22.

Being sensitive to the various genera found in the biblical library gives us the opportunity to compare the myriad ways biblical writers explored their encounters with the living God. One writer finds God in the proportions of architecture, another in correspondence with the churches he has founded, another in the list of the generations of God’s family going all the way back to Abraham and before. Putting these different experiences in conversation with each other shows us the wonderful range of expressions of the life of faith.

So delve into the library of the Bible. Get lost in the stacks of the Hebrew Scriptures. Run your fingers along the volumes of Paul’s letters. Find one of those rolling stepping stools and reach the dusty top shelf of Revelation. Be aware of the different kinds of writing in the Bible, the various encounters of the people of God. And remember that you, yourself, are part of the greater story still being written, still being added to those last, unfilled shelves.


* Actually, as far as scholars can tell the form of “Gospel” as narrative is unique to Christian literature. Other ancient texts call themselves “gospel” but they tend to be something closer to news reports about various glorious victories for the Roman Empire. The fact that Mark calls Jesus’ message “Gospel” could be an ironic coopting of Roman phraseology — a literary “nah-nah-na-nah-nah,” if you will.

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