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The Oxford Handbook of Biblical Studies Provides a comprehensive survey of Biblical scholarship in a variety of disciplines.

Genre as the Key to Interpretation

A proper understanding of genre is central to the interpretation of any text—or indeed, any communication. Communication theory looks at the three main aspects of transmitter, communication, and receiver, or encoder, message, and decoder. In written works, this becomes author or producer(s), text, and audience or reader(s). Immediately the importance of discerning the kind of communication becomes clear. If the sender is transmitting Morse code, but the receiver can only understand semaphore, there will be problems in communication! Both parties must use the same code or language, and so correct interpretation depends on a correct identification of the kind of communication or genre. One does not listen to a fairy-story in the same way as to a news broadcast; each has its own conventions, expectations, and rules.

Thus genre is a key convention guiding both the composition and the interpretation of writings. Genre forms a ‘contract’, or agreement, often unspoken or unwritten, or even unconscious, between an author and a reader, by which the author writes according to a set of expectations and conventions, and we agree to interpret the work using the same conventions, providing an initial idea of what we might expect. Genre is identified through a wide range of ‘generic features’, which may be signalled in advance through a notice or preface; however, they are also embedded within the work's formal and structural composition (often called ‘external features’) and its content, style, mood, and character (‘internal features’). When taken all together, such generic features communicate the ‘family resemblance’ of a group of works and thus enable us to identify the genre of a given text and interpret it accordingly.

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