Hurtado on Genre

Larry Hurtado:

In practical terms “genre” refers to the features of a writing that set up certain expectations in readers and that dispose them to treat a given writing in a particular way. Thus, for example, we know to suspend disbelief in reading stories in the modern genre of science fiction, whereas we should demand to know the experimental demonstration behind the results of a scientific paper. We know we are to react differently to the report of a violent murder in the newspaper than to the account of such a crime in a murder mystery novel. The practical question about the Gospels is whether they exhibit features from the wider literary practice of the time that appear to have been intended to dispose readers to respond to these writings in particular ways, or at least would have had such an effect upon readers.

Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity, 279-80.


8 thoughts on “Hurtado on Genre

  1. Nick: When you pick up one of Hurtado’s books, don’t your expectations exist prior to looking for features that dispose you to think about the book in a particular way?

  2. Vinny: I see, it seems contrived to you because you’ve misunderstood it. That makes sense now. What you’ve just asked is exactly his point. We know to react a certain way to a certain type of writing because our prior knowledge of that type of writing’s features sets up certain expectations. I thought his examples made that quite clear.

    But now take your question back a level and ask if you expect anything the first time you read something. You might, but without having read the work your expectations might be completely off. For example, you might know that Ben Witherington, III is a NT scholar who writes broadly in the fields of NT studies and NT theology. You then pick up his The Lazarus Effect fully expecting a work of NT scholarship concerning the figure of Lazarus from either the Gospel of Luke, the Gospel of John, or perhaps both. But as you read you then start to notice that it doesn’t bear the features of a piece of NT scholarship, but rather the features of a novel. You’re able to discern this because you’ve read other pieces of scholarship and other novels from different authors. So now your initial expectations have been shown to be inadequate and you have to read the book through different lenses.

  3. Since I have not read Hurtado’s entire essay, I will have to accept your interpretation although it looks to me like he is saying something more than that in that quote.

    In any case, I am still doubtful that the notion of genre actually plays that big a role. It is true that I am going to think differently about a sci-fi fantasy novel than I do about a theological treatise, but it seems to me there are many cases in which the concept isn’t particularly useful while reading a book because I can only make the genre determination by consulting information outside the book.

    For example, novels are often written to sound like memoirs. Sometimes novels are falsely represented as memoirs like A Million Little Pieces. One of my favorite books, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, contained elements of a novel, a memoir, and a treatise on philosophy. Sometimes a work of propaganda is written to look like an objective historical account. Sometimes history is written to read like a novel. Without some independent knowledge of the subject matter, it may be very difficult to make a determination of the genre.

  4. Vinny: But you’re only able to distinguish between memoirs, propaganda, philosophical treatises, etc. because of features in the writings themselves, right? Once we get back to the source there has to be something about it that distinguishes it from something else.

  5. Sometimes genres are distinguishable base on features of the writing itself, but I don’t think that’s always true. Sometimes propaganda masquerades as history. Sometimes I know enough about the topic that I can tell while I am reading the book that the author is ignoring information that undercuts his theory and only telling part of the story, but the book may still read like an unbiased historical account. There may be nothing in the book that reveals the author’s intent.

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