Daniel is no joke: can modern genre theory escape the pull of subjectivism?

Biblical scholars have begun to cautiously embrace the insights of modern genre theory. No longer seen as rigid taxonomies or strict norms, genres are understood as relatively stable social conventions that are as much about what readers do to texts as about what writers had in mind when they wrote them.

Yet this powerful theoretical framework raises the specter of subjectivism. For example, recent applications to the Old Testament have reimagined traditional genres like ‘Wisdom Literature’ as no more than subjective and arbitrary connections that readers make between texts. Seeing genres as readerly-responses sits uneasily with evangelicals, who are in the habit of reading the Bible as authoritative. Can the Bible still be Scripture for us if we can choose its genre by readerly fiat?

This paper argues that an understanding of genre as social convention in fact pulls against the solipsistic trajectory of reader-response theories. As social conventions, genres are subject to the same hermeneutical structures that encourage coordination between language users at the level of grammar and syntax. Like all conventions, they arise within repeated strategic interactions between authors and readers, and are stabilized by shared payoffs and the goal of communication. To illustrate how this works, I take as my example Daniel 1–6. Like many difficult texts of the Old Testament, these court tales are sometimes read using the genre of satire. Modern genre theory suggests how we might go about evaluating such a claim (and why my general rule for the Old Testament is: ‘it’s probably not satire’).

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