Genre and Meaning

I want to ask you to think along with me today on meaning and scripture. I want to say that explicitly at the beginning because the opening example will seem to be about something else entirely, especially, coming as it does in the middle of the 2016 Republican convention in Cleveland.

Here is a text I would like for you to consider.

All men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights. Therefore, Workers of the World, unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains. [1]

Now I would like for you to deny all your instincts and a good deal of your education and read this as a single sentiment from a single source. It can be done that way if you try. Here is my try at it.

  • The fundamental inequality of peoples is at the heart of this sentiment and it continues by urging workers to unite, presumably to achieve that equality.
  • Since these rights are inalienable, there is no question of any legitimate taking of them, so, again, the uniting of the workers would be for the purpose of reacquiring rights that should not have been taken away.
  • Since “workers” are being asked to unite, it is presumably the people who hire the workers who are the culprits.

In that paragraph of hypothetical construction, I have tried to illustrate that the ideasgenre 4 suggested in the first part can be logically extended to the second part. All that  passage is nonsense, of course, but I would like for you to stop and consider just why it is nonsense. It is not the words. They work fine. It is not the ideas. They can be made to work. It is the sources. What I am going to call the genres.

What if, instead of cobbling together that quotation, I had said, “I would like you to consider as allied texts this piece from the Declaration of Independence and this rhetorical climax from the Communist Manifesto.

Paul’s argument

So with that as an introduction, I would like to introduce the announced topic: meaning and scripture. Let’s start with part of a speech by the apostle Paul, as Luke has recreated it.

We tell you the good news: What God promised our fathers he has fulfilled for us, their children, by raising up Jesus. [2] As it is written in the second Psalm: You are my Son; today I have become your Father (Acts 13:32-33).

Here is the argument Paul makes, according to Luke. God has kept the promise He made to the Israelite forebears. This was done in the resurrection of Jesus. It is at that point—“today, I have become your Father”—that Jesus becomes the messiah.

There is a single source (Psalm 2) with a single meaning: Jesus becomes the messiah at and by means of his resurrection from the dead. The notion of just what “messiah” means is not a difficulty here because it comes at the end of Jesus’s ministry and no one knows what the Messiah, now in heaven, is going to do next.

The synoptic argument

But Matthew, Mark, and Luke treat this question differently. They introduce a distinctive voice of God, they put it at the beginning of the ministry, and they add a second source to the proclamation and the second source is not royal at all. It is the mixed sources I want to call to your attention and that is the reason I gave you that little political detour at the beginning.

So here are the synoptic texts as they appear in the New Revised Standard Version.

  • Mark says, (1:11) “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
  • Matthew has (3:17) “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
  • Luke has (3:22) “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.

When I asked you to deny all your natural instincts and read that composite political passage, I knew I was asking a lot because I knew you would recognize the sources—and as I see it, the sources ARE the message. It is the genres, not the meaning of each clause that shapes the meaning.


The first part of this text comes from Psalm 2, just as Paul’s did. The second part (highlighted) comes from one of the songs of the suffering servant in Isaiah 42:1, “Here is my servant whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom my soul delights.” That doesn’t sound so bad, does it?

So first, note that the gospel writers put this event at the beginning of Jesus’s ministry. Paul puts his at the end. That means that the writers of these gospels want to make the claim at the beginning of Jesus’s public ministry that Jesus is king AND suffering servant. That was novel, of course, and offensive.

genre 2Messiah and king and son of God all had triumphant overtones. Jesus just can’t be, according to the Jewish understanding at the time (and today) the triumphant messiah and the suffering servant. One or the other; not both.

But this is a genre question, not a text question. There are three other servant songs in Isaiah (Chapter 49, verse 1 and following, Chapter 50, verse 4 and following and Chapter 52, verse 13—53, verse 12. There is quite a bit in these songs that is not kingly.

  • For instance, “he was so inhumanly disfigured that he no longer looked like a man.”
  • Or “He had no form or charm to attract us, no beauty to win our hearts.”
  • Or, “Ill-treated and afflicted, he never opened his mouth, like a lamb led to the slaughter house.”

Those are all from the songs of the suffering servant and none of them fit with the kingly emphasis of Psalm 2.

How to understand this passage and why it is so hard to do

So here it is. Mark and the other writers have a point they want to make. It is that Jesus was claimed by God at his baptism and identified as the Son of God (the messiah) and as the Suffering Servant. Both. When they joined the genres, the point that is made by joining them is that at this point, right at the beginning of his ministry, Jesus has redefined what “messiah” means.

What does it mean? It now means “the promised One of Israel who will suffer and die.”

How is that meaning established? By joining a psalm that means “coronation” with a song that belongs in the genre of “suffering servant songs.”

Does that seem like a stretch? I confess that it does seem like a stretch to me, but I am confident that it did not seem like a stretch to Mark. And remember that it did not seem like a stretch to you to look at the little clip (famous, but small) from the Declaration of Independence and see that it was attached to another little clip from the Communist Manifesto and to say, immediately, “That’s ridiculous! Those two texts don’t belong together!

I think that is the reaction Mark, followed by Matthew and Luke, had in mind. And I think they wanted to say, “No, it is not ridiculous. But it is new. God is doing a new thing.” And I think they counted on the sources to carry the meaning with their readers just as I counted on you to do the same thing.

Really, my only concern is this. How can a modern Christian pick up a Bible and read that text—just the words—and get the meaning the author intends if it is true that the meaning comes from combining the genres?  It seems like a hard job, but I don’t see another way to get there.

[1] I admit that I cheated a little to add the “therefore.”Actually, I just borrowed it from the last paragraph. Some sense of the relationship of the two expressions was needed and I thought this did the least damage to the idea.
[2] Note, however, the difference between “raising up Jesus” and “raising up Gideon.” Gideon was one of the judges of Israel who was living a quiet life in spite of the occupation of his land by the Midianites. God “raised him up” to lead a military insurgency and to drive the Midianites out. That is not what “raised up Jesus” means, but it is what it was expected to mean. The messiah was to do for the nation what Gideon did for his little area..

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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2 Responses to Genre and Meaning

  1. Bonnie Klein says:

    Dear Dale,

    Two phrases from your post have been echoing in my mind since you published it–“it seems like a stretch” and “it seems like a hard job”–and I would like to respond here.

    That meaning is established by juxtaposing well-known quotations, or by placing one in the context of another actually seems quite normal to me, rather than a stretch. In fact, I’d say it’s a common way meaning is made.

    Look at the shifts in word meanings, especially slang, as each new generation takes established words and uses them to mean something “way different,” even opposite! In the ’70s, “bad” came to mean some form of “good,” or in the case of Shaft, something to be reckoned with: “he’s a bad mutha…(shut your mouth).”

    Not to belabor the point, but my three nephews in Virginia Beach, all in their late teens and early twenties and all metal band musicians, use “sick” in the same way, calling a concert or performance “sick” when they want to offer high praise. It’s taking some getting used to, but it’s the same practice as using “bad” for “good,” and isn’t it the same practice the Gospel writers used, placing the Suffering Servant reference in the context of the kingship of the Messiah?

    I have heard the idea preached ever since I can remember that the Jews were not expecting the kind of Messiah that Jesus was, but rather a warrior-leader. That idea would have to be changed if Jesus were to be seen as Israel’s messiah, deliverer, savior, as God revealed him to the disciples. It’s exciting to me to see how the Gospel writers did it.

    Which leads me to the next phrase. I think we can know, can learn, many of the important tenets and difficult concepts (like a savior who is not forceful, but loving; not a military leader, but a servant) from the pulpit. I’m not saying attending services takes the place of Bible reading, but our priests and pastors are the learned ones, like the scribes and Pharisees in Jesus’ time, who convey to us the content and meaning of our sacred scriptures.

    In your post (and in the scholars I read), I am told that the Jews would have known particular passages quoted by Jesus or by the apostles or Gospel writers. I don’t know much about how they knew them, or whether all of them knew them. Surely they didn’t all study the Law and the Prophets. They didn’t all read, so how did “they” come to know passages well enough to recognize them, altered and out of context as the Synoptics used them in the example? It was from the rabbis and scribes, yes? Through oral tradition.

    Perhaps Christians know passages from the New Testament in a similar way: “In the beginning was the Word…,” “I am the way…,” “Into your hands I commend my spirit,” and so on. But I don’t think we know the Old Testament so well, and so I think you’re right that the force of many passages is lost when we can’t hear them as the early Christians, who were still Jews, heard them. Perhaps it wouldn’t be too much to say the “truth” of them is lost.

    It may be a lot to expect Christians to know the Old Testament as well as the Jews, but maybe not. Christian education seems to focus so much on the New Testament; why couldn’t the focus be on the two Testaments together, as we are reading them now?

  2. hessd says:

    This is superb, Bonnie. Of the two or three ragged edges my argument leaves, you may have found all of them. I wouldn’t go so far as to say the “truth” is lost, but I would say it is a dead truth; a ho-hum truth. It is not “sick” as your nephews would have it. There is no way, I am sure, that this awareness is going to be brought to the church members of today if it is not brought from the pulpit. And even if the scholarship is offered elsewhere, the “why it matters” is going to have to come from the pulpit.

    Thanks for a stimulating look at a persisting problem.

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