The Human Angle
Lecture Notes for Topic 1.1-
Religion 492
Last revised: 1/27/04
Contained below is a manuscript summarizing the class lecture(s) covering the above specified range of topics from the List of Topics for Religion 492.  Quite often hyperlinks (underlined) to sources of information etc. will be inserted in the text of the lecture. Test questions for all quizzes and exams will be derived in their entirety or in part from these lectures; see Exams in the course syllabus for details. To display the Greek text contained in this page download and install the free BSTGreek True Type fonts from Bible Study Tools.
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Written Texts
Historical Aspects
Literary Aspects

1.1 Written Texts as an Object of Study

        Every written text possesses both historical and literary aspects, whether composed today or two thousand years ago. Any interpretative approach that can be considered legitimate must respect these aspects and seek to devise methods that take both into account. In the history of biblical interpretation, appreciation of this nature of written texts did not emerge seriously until the Enlightenment and the Protestant Reformation. Gradually, over the past four hundred years biblical scholars have come to recognize that they could profit immeasurably by learning from their colleagues working in the fields of history and literature. In western Christianity this appreciation has blossomed in the last half of the twentieth century.
        Every student of the Bible must then become sensitive to these aspects of the biblical text. To be sure, interpretative skills in utilizing the insights of historical and literary methods will vary greatly from the beginner to the seasoned scholar. But, the essential method of interpretation remains the same at what ever skill level the Bible student is working. The objective here is to introduce the beginner to these aspects so that he/she can begin learning how to incorporate them into a program of reading and studying the scripture.
        These aspects can be charted as follows:

Historical Aspects: Literary Aspects:
1. External Aspects 1. External Aspects
2. Internal Aspects 2 Internal Aspects

1.1.1 Historical Aspects
Assigned Readings for This Topic:

Gerald Bray, Biblical Interpretation: Past and Present, pp. 321-325.

Gerald W. Schlabach, "A Sense of History: Some Components," Internet Modern History Sourcebook at

Resource Materials to also be studied:

        One very foundational presupposition needing to be examined is the definition of history.
        From a contemporary perspective the Meriam-Webster online dictionary gives as the first definition: "a chronological record of significant events (as affecting a nation or institution) often including an explanation of their causes." This understanding views history as a depiction of events, which unfold with the passing of time. Thus determining an exact sequence of chronology is important. The establishment of an accurate chronology using legitimate, scientifically based procedures to evaluate the source materials is crucial. The inability to achieve this because of inadequate and/or unreliable sources of information cripples the historian in the goal of writing a history. Another important aspect of this definition: the determination of significant events. The contemporary historian, of necessity, will have to use interpretative judgment in sorting out what is significant and what isn't. Inevitably differences of opinion will surface among historians at this point. A third part of this definition in the parenthesis "(as affecting a nation or institution)" highlights the perspective of history being primarily focused on larger groups of people. History is not primarily the story of an individual; such falls into the literary category of biography, and even then relates only persons viewed as unusually significant to a larger group of people. The final part of the definition, "often including an explanation of their causes," reflects the Enlightenment influence that human events take place in a cause/effect interconnection, and that making sense of a sequence of events -- at the heart of much of modern historical methodology -- can only be accomplished by detecting this causal connection between events. For many modern historians, the basic value and worth of doing history at all is found here. A final observation: implicit in this definition of history is the view that legitimate history is the story of human activity exclusively. Outside divine activity lies beyond the boundaries of legitimate history. Thus religion can only become a part of history as it shapes the actions and attitudes of the humans whose activities become the stuff of history. A theological value judgment about deity and religion is fundamentally wrong and inappropriate as a part of history. History is the story of people; mythology is the story of gods.
        This modern view of history bears virtually no resemblance to the view of history in the ancient world. Several differences are present. First, e.g., in the Greek speaking world there were no historians like in our world. The online Meriam-Webster dictionary points to this in its etymological treatment of the word 'history': "Latin historia, from Greek, inquiry, history, from hist Or, ist Or knowing, learned; akin to Greek eidenai to know."  The ancient Greek terms relating to history point to the fact that history was a subdivision of philosophy. The Greek noun usually translated as 'history', iJstoriva (historia), comes from the Greek verb iJstorevw (historeo) meaning to 'inquire into or about a thing,' with the derivative meaning of giving an account of what one has learned. The basic meanings of the noun iJstoriva itself are 'inquiry,' 'knowledge,' written account of what one has learned.' The meaning 'history' is a very secondary use of the word. A compound verb form iJstoriografevw (historiographeo) means to 'write history.' The personal noun iJstoriovgrafo" (historiographos) means a writer of history in the sense of a chronicler, distinct from the term suggrafeuv" (sungrapheus) which means a writer of contemporary history somewhat like a modern newspaper reporter. The ancient view simply emphasized an inquiry into the past, or the present.
        Why? In general this inquiry was made as a source of insight for the development of a distinct way of viewing life and reality, that is, the development of a filosofiva (philosophia) that provided a basis for living and coping day to day. This philosophy became the mental filter through which daily life experiences would be interpreted; the wise person was the one who could most successfully comprehend daily experience and determine how to best use it for personal advancement. His philosophy played a vital role in correct and beneficial comprehension of these experiences.
        Thus history was merely a tool of philosophy. One very large implication flowed from this. The ancient world had no interest in determining a 'factual history.' Not much concern to distinguish between actual occurrence and legends and myths existed in ancient inquiries into the past. In fact, little need to make such distinctions was present simply because integrating insights from the past into a philosophy for living in the present created no pressure to distinguish between fact and fiction. The past was of value only as it helped one cope with the present; whether or not something actually happened was immaterial to its value for the present. Often legendary material provided greater insight and thus was readily incorporated into the historical account.
        Second, ancient views of history were not confined to a 'horizontal plane' of mere human experience. Ancient history included the activities of the gods as an essential ingredient of history. What we would call 'theological value statements' and thus exclude for legitimate history writing the ancient world considered entirely appropriate and important for a history to be insightful and thus helpful. The intersection of the supernatural and the natural worlds was viewed as a basic ingredient of human experience, and thus a historical assessment of this would be entirely appropriate.
        In light of these very different views of history inevitable tension will surface when treating the historical aspects of an ancient written text. Modern views of history are the Bible student's starting point simply because this is the world we live in and that shapes our ways of thinking. Yet, consideration of the ancient view is also critical so as to not bend us out of shape when methodologies based on modern definitions draw blanks and cannot reach satisfactory levels of certainty. This difference in viewing history will lead to gaps in our understanding. And the gaps should not fester into skepticism and doubt thus undermining what can be learned with confidence. Honest inquiry will lead to some gaps that we must learn to live with. The External History of the Text:
        The external history of the text simply refers to the history of the composition of the text, that is, the historical aspects of bringing the text into existence. These are the typical reporter type questions: Who wrote the text? When was it written? To whom was it written? Where was it written? Why was it written? These issues emerge out of the historical critical method and are the heart of the formal discipline termed New Testament Introduction.
        Methodologically, the most legitimate way of approaching this issue is to develop two distinct author profiles:
        One from the external sources. Outside of the letters of Paul most of the documents of the NT are anonymous, strictly speaking,  in the sense that nothing inside the document itself names the author. For example, none of the four canonical gospels identifies its author by name. The title of each gospel appearing at the beginning of English translations simply paraphrases a Greek title that was added to the copied manuscripts as much as a century after the composition of the document for identification purposes. These titles reflect the dominant early church tradition regarding whom they believed to be responsible for the documents' existence. Once this tradition is identified, it needs to be examined from all the available sources inside and outside the New Testament to learn as much as possible about the individual associated with the document, e.g., Mark in association with the second gospel. Sometimes the NT will provide some insight. The easiest way to find this information is to use an online Bible concordance such as Also important for the external sources based profile is to check the early church traditions. The church fathers are important sources of such information, in particular Origen and Eusebius.
        The other from inside the text document itself. Here the Bible student does a detailed study of the contents of the entire document in which the passage is located. The procedures of literary criticism, in particular narrative criticism in the gospels and Acts, provide the foundational methods for doing the analysis. Such things as the Greek vocabulary and style of writing found in the document tell much about the composer of the document. For example, the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts reflect some of the highest literary skills in using the Greek language that can be found in the entire Greek New Testament. This means that the author of these two documents possessed above average skill and training in the Greek language. In addition, particular writing traits emerge for such careful study of the document under consideration. For example, Luke-Acts reflects an unusually great sensitivity to expressing ideas in Greek exactly the same way one finds in the LXX, the Greek translation of the OT. This strongly suggests that the author of Luke-Acts was quite familiar with this Greek translation of the Old Testament to the extent that he expressed himself using its distinctive patterns that would not have been considered natural in regular expression of the same ideas in 'secular' Greek. In addition to the author's use of the Greek language in composing a document, his purpose and literary strategy in setting forth his ideas need to be examined. For examining the literary strategy, the methods of rhetorical criticism provide helpful insight. For those documents that internally name the supposed author, this must be taken into consideration, but not naively accepted. Most of the NT Apocrypha documents do contain named authors but very few scholars would seriously accept these claims, and with good reason.
        For the beginning Bible student with minimal skills for using these literary methods, basic help can be gleaned from New Testament introductions, study Bibles, Bible dictionaries and Bible encyclopedias. Some of these sources are available online, but often represent very inferior tools that are quite outdated. A couple of web based New Testament gateways are major sources of finding these kinds of tools: Resource Pages for Biblical Studies and Mark Goodacre's New Testament Gateway.
        Once the two author profiles are developed, they need to be compared to each other. Are they compatible? Do serious tensions exist between them? The greater the compatibility, the more reliable are the early church traditions regarding the composition of the document. But when serious tensions exist between these two profiles, careful scholarship would place less credibility on the early church traditions. One needs to remember: the canonicity of the document isn't at stake here; rather the determination of the human source of the document. Historical exegesis needs to know as much about the origin of the document as can be honestly determined from careful research. This means that theological bias and preconceptions need to be set aside and an honest use of the best available methods for examining these issues should be followed. Anything less that this can't qualify as legitimate scholarship! When was the text written?
        The general time frame of the composition of the document is usually quite helpful for interpreting individual passages inside the document. Of course, the importance varies from document to document inside the New Testament, as well as from passage to passage within a document. For the four canonical gospels in particular redactional criticism provides essential insight into this determination. The assessment of the believing communities as the initially targeted readership helps to explain the distinctive approach often found in an individual gospel document. The insights of form criticism also are valuable in laying a foundation for understanding the time frame of the composition of a document. With the letters in the New Testament, determining a time frame for them becomes important with a few rare exceptions such as James. Thus considerable effort should be spent developing a reconstruction of the life and ministry of Paul as a background to interpreting his writings. An historical background to the general letters that includes assessments of the time of writing is important but typically not as important as with Paul.
        The level of importance for the time of writing issue will vary from one passage to another inside a document. When the issues within a passage deal with a specific event in the life of the author such as Paul, knowing when the author wrote about this becomes important, and sometimes crucial for understanding exactly what he is talking about. Several passages within Matthew's gospel become much clearer with the realization of when this material was written after a process of decades long oral transmission.
       Again, the tools for determining these issues include the historical critical commentaries, Bible dictionaries and encyclopedias, NT introductions and study Bibles. Where was the text written?
        Identifying where a document was written is important in varying degrees, depending upon the nature of the document. Usually determining the location of the composition of the document is closely linked to the issue of whom the document was written to. For example, a common redactional critical conclusion regarding the place of composition for the Gospel of Matthew builds off the statement of Ignatius the bishop of Antioch in Syria ca 110-115 C.E. and sees the gospel composed in this region during the 70s of the first Christian century. Identification of place sometimes plays a significant role in the interpretative process. Paul's letter to the Galatian churches is a case in point. Identifying Corinth as the location of the composition of this letter either toward the end of the second missionary journey or during the third missionary journey necessitates his statement in Gal 1:6 as "so quickly you are turning from the one who called you" as meaning "so quickly after I visited you...", whereas the identification of the location as Antioch at the close of the first missionary journey leads this statement to be understood as "so quickly after your conversion...." Yet for some documents in the New Testament this identification is not so important for the interpretation of its contents. Most of the general letters in the NT would be examples of this. By whom was the text written?
        This issue is usually labeled 'authorship' concerns.
        One very big caution needs to be observed here. The Meriam-Webster online dictionary defines author as "one that originates or creates." This idea usually suggests nowadays the picture of a writer setting at a computer typing out the text of a literary work. One person is producing the work from thinking up the ideas to creating the written product that is submitted to someone else for publication. The online Encyclopedia Britannica article adds these insights: "one who is the source of some form of intellectual or creative work; especially, one who composes a book, article, poem, play, or other literary work intended for publication. Usually a distinction is made between an author and others (such as a compiler, an editor, or a translator) who assemble, organize, or manipulate literary materials. Sometimes, however, the title of author is given to one who compiles material (as for publication) in such a way that the finished compilation can be regarded as a relatively original work. The word is ultimately from the Latin auctor, 'authorizer, responsible agent, originator, or maker.'”
        In this contemporary U.S. perspective, then plagiarizing becomes "transitive senses : to steal and pass off (the ideas or words of another) as one's own; use (another's production) without crediting the source intransitive senses : to commit literary theft; present as new and original an idea or product derived from an existing source" (online Meriam-Webster dictionary under 'plagiarizing') Thus, identifying the true author is very important because copyright issues are at stake. Also, royalty payments from publishers are involved. The author transfers 'ownership' of his/her ideas in written expression to the publisher who then makes money from selling the published expression. For someone else to take these ideas and sell them is not only morally wrong, but is illegal since it represents theft.
        This way of looking at the issue of authorship is a modern western viewpoint created by the printing press and publishing companies needing to generate income for survival. None of these things existed in the ancient world.  No printing press, no publishing companies, no royalties to authors, no legal tradition defining ownership of 'intellectual property' etc.
        Consequently, the issue of authorship takes on different definitional boundaries in the ancient world. Two aspects of this bear emphasizing for our purposes here. (1) The composition of documents in the ancient world was a far more complicated process than in our world. Most documents, outside of personal letters that tended to be equivalent to about one half page on modern paper (i.e., download into a file document 3 John which is longer than the norm for that time) took weeks and months to compose because of the primitive writing tools available. The task of doing the actual writing was normally turned over to a professional scribe called an amanuensis who had specialized training in taking down oral dictation and then later composing a full document from dictated notes. Paul's letters were composed this way; Tertius is identified in Rom. 16:22 as the one who wrote Romans and Silas is so identified as having written 1 Peter in 1 Pet. 5:12. Thus the term 'author' becomes muddled somewhat in this ancient way of composing documents. (2) Writing under another's name in that world was considered a way to complement the well known person. Pseudonymity was not a bad action in that world. No theft of ideas was involved; no publisher was around to take legal action. And so on. Considerable indication exists that the schools of disciples or the 'communities' associated with a Paul or a John felt a divine mandate to produce materials in the name of their leader as a way to continue his teaching that addressed subsequent needs in the community. While our world views such negatively, the ancient world had the opposite attitude.
        In light of these distinctions between our world and the ancient world, the issue of authorship should be appropriately addressed within the framework of ancient perspectives. To impose modern definitions exclusively on to this issue with documents in the New Testament is to not play fair with those documents as well as to create some impossible-to-answer questions that were of no interest to the ancient world. We have to learn to live with some uncertainty here. Find out as much as can be legitimately determined with confidence and resist the impulse to overstate the data. To whom was the text written?
        This question has different levels of importance as well. For the canonical gospels identifying the communities the gospels were initially speaking to -- by using Redactional Critical procedures -- is very important to detailed understanding of the individual passages.
        This insight plays a critical role in helping to explain the distinctive presentation of an event in Jesus' life by a given gospel writer when that same event is described in one or two other gospels, e.g., the temptation of Jesus. Apart from research, one is at a loss to explain why Matthew sequences the three examples of temptation differently from Luke. The Jewish messianic emphasis of Matthew guided this sequence, while Luke's temple emphasis in his gospel guided his sequence. Neither was particularly concerned with chronology, rather their theological intent guided the pattern of presentation.
        With the 'real' letters in the Pauline section of the New Testament, this determination of addressees of each letter is very essential to interpreting the passages inside the letters. Reading his letters have often been characterized as like listening to one side of a phone conversation. So much understanding of the party on the 'other end of the phone line' is assumed by the writer that the more one knows about that other party the more sense one can make out of the letter. The importance of this ranges from the most difficult of Paul's letters, 2 Corinthians, to the least significant reader identity letter in Romans. Yet, in each letter in the Pauline corpus the more we can know about the initial readers the better we can understand the contents of the letters.
        With the so-called General Epistles (also called the catholic letters) reader identity tends to be of lesser importance. This is in part because some of these documents are not true letters, namely Hebrews and James. They merely contain segments of ancient letters but basically are in the genre of ancient Jewish homily. Thus these two documents are addressed very broadly to Jewish Christians without specific geographical location. The letters of John have similar broadly defined recipients without geographical identity, as do Jude and 2 Peter. 1 Peter identifies the recipients as located in the northern coastal region along the southern edge of the Black Sea, but still in very broad categories. In spite of these limitations identifying all that is possible about the situation of the initial readers of these letters still plays a helpful role in the interpretative process.
        A foundational tool for this is again the Historical Critical methodology. The formal discipline of New Testament Introduction has concentrated on these issues since the late 1700s in western Christian scholarship. The discoveries of archaeologists and others have helped to vastly expand our knowledge of how the ancient world lived and functioned. This growing reservoir of historical understanding can only enhance the work of the serious Bible student in a quest to understand the New Testament in terms of the world into which it was born and within which it functioned at the beginning. The Internal History of the Text
        Whereas the external history of the text probes issues related to the composition of the text, the internal history explores references to occurrences and movements through time and space that are found within the passage itself. Particularly in narrative type passages the depiction of an event builds on identifying when and where kinds of aspects in order to describe clearly what took place. Very helpful is to spend time studying the geography, culture, and history of the first century world, especially that of Palestine. Some awareness of the basics is essential to Bible interpretation.
        Numerous tools exist that can provide very good insight; one especially helpful volume is Backgrounds of Early Christianity by Everett Ferguson. The formal discipline called New Testament Backgrounds or NT History emphasizes study in these areas. All of this is an outgrowth of the emergence of Historical Criticism as an interpretative method. Identifying time and place markers inside the text
        As a contribution to the historical methodology and also to the narrative critical methodology the identification of the locations of and the movements through time and space inside a scripture passage need to be identified. This identification becomes more important typically for narrative passages than for didactic passages, but often plays an important role in both. The historical critical concerns focus on learning when and where this event took place.
        In the temptation of Jesus narrative, for example, all three gospel accounts indicate that Jesus was led by the Holy Spirit into the "wilderness." Where is that located? A study of Bible dictionaries and commentaries will provide the answer, so that the Bible reader has some sense of where this event took place geographically. Walter Harrelson under "Desert" in the Mercer Dictionary of the Bible says that the word Desert in the Bible means " a wilderness area, rather than pure desert, characterized by wild animals, little vegetation, few areas suitable for agriculture, and in general a dearth of water. The area south of Judah, called the NEGEB, and the wilderness of the SINAI peninsula re the chief regions called desert in the Bible. In addition, the Rift Valley below the DEAD SEA, the `ârãbâ, is designated desert or wilderness in several biblical texts." Thus we gain a better understanding of where this temptation experience occurred. From narrative critical concerns we next raise the issue of what the 'desert' may suggest. D.A. Carson in the Expositor's Bible provides insight here: "The 'desert' (cf. on 3:1) is not only the place associated with demonic activity (Isa 13:21; 24:14; Matt 12:43; Rev 18:2; Trench, pp. 7-8) but, in a context abounding with references to Deuteronomy 6-8, the place where Israel experienced her greatest early testings." Thus, identifying the background to the word 'wilderness' begins to help make this passage much more meaningful.
        Also important are the references to time found inside your passage. In this same temptation narrative, Mark indicates that Jesus was being tempted 40 days, while Matthew adds that he fasted 40 days and 40 nights. In his comments on Matthew's version of this event, D.A. Carson notes that the "forty days and nights reflected Israel's forty-year wandering (Deut 8:2). Both Israel's and Jesus' hunger taught a lesson (Deut 8:3); both spent time in the desert preparatory to their respective tasks" (Exp Bible, 112).
        These time and place indications found inside the scripture passage can play a vitally important role in helping make sense out of what happened during the episode. Identifying social customs inside the text
        Often the content of a scripture passage will touch on various types of social interaction, such as relationships within a family, relations between the wealthy and the poor etc. Because our North American culture typically defines these relationships very differently than first century Judaism and/or Greco-Roman culture, the Bible student needs to gain a clear understanding of the parameters of appropriate and inappropriate social interaction in the first Christian century. Otherwise, he/she runs the risk of falsely reading modern U.S. cultural norms back into the New Testament and thus make the mistake of incorrectly interpreting the scripture passage.
        The methodology that provides insights into this aspect of the scripture text is called Social Scientific Exegesis. Earlier labels for this methodology included Sociological Exegesis. Sometimes the label Social Scientific Criticism will be used. Whatever the label, the procedure adapts the modern methodology of sociological analysis to the reading of ancient texts.
        Family relations are a case in point, illustrating the importance of using the insights from this method for more accurate exegesis of scripture passages. In U.S. culture the American family is typically perceived as composed of a husband and a wife possibly with children. This creates two basic sets of relationships: (1) between the husband and the wife, and (2) between the parents and the children. In the average situation, the husband and wife are reasonably close to the same age. They have both voluntarily chosen to marry because they fell in love with one another. Marriage is perceived as the uniting to two individuals in order to create a new and distinct family separate from the families of both the husband and wife. In the ancient family, however, the sets of relationships were more extensive and different. First, and very important, the male held absolute authority in the household. The patriarchal tradition of the dominant rule of the male in the ancient Jewish religious heritage gave the Jewish male full control of the rest of the family members. In the Roman culture this control went further; the ancient tradition of patria potestas extended the Roman man's power to have life and death authority over every family member as long as he lived. Thus there were three sets of relationships: (1) the wife to her husband; (2) the children to their father; and (3) the slaves to their master. The adult male occupied all three roles as husband, father, and master. Marriage was arranged with the couple having little or no say in the selection of their spouse. The fathers or legal guardians made this decision. Typically the woman was married off in her early teens after having reached puberty, while the Jewish male wasn't considered an adult, that is, eligible to marry, until after his thirtieth birthday. Roman culture followed a somewhat similar pattern, although the Roman male might be considered marriageable in his late twenties. Marriage was first and foremost the building of connecting links between two clans or families. This made children absolutely essential since this meant the 'mixing of the blood' of the two families and thus bound them together. The children born into the family were under the absolute control of the father. The aristocratic Roman and sometimes also the Jewish family included any slaves as an essential part of the family. In both Jewish and Roman traditions the obligations in these three sets flowed from the wife/children/slaves to the male head of the family. These obligations were extensive and absolute. The male head of the family had few if any obligations to the members of the family. One must read the New Testament Haustafeln (domestic code) passages against this cultural backdrop, if a correct understanding of these scripture passages in their historical setting is to be gained. Only then can the truly revolutionary nature of the NT positions leveling the plane between husband and wife, as well as the imposition of mammoth responsibilities on the male head of the household, be understood.

1.1.2 Literary Aspects
Assigned Readings for This Topic:

Gerald Bray, Biblical Interpretation: Past and Present, pp. 482-486

Resource Materials to also be studied:

        Not only is an ancient text such as scripture produced in a specific historical setting, but ancient writings including scripture contain literary qualities that are an additional essential part of the interpretative process. The online Meriam-Webster dictionary defines 'literature' as "writings in prose or verse; especially : writings having excellence of form or expression and expressing ideas of permanent or universal interest."  The documents of the New Testament fall within the boundaries of this definition and can thus be considered as literature.
        Literary analysis of a written text involves the examination of several characteristics of writing in an effort to more clearly understand how the writer's thoughts are put together in order to create a larger presentation of ideas. Two categories of the aspects of this analysis exist: (1) those that lie outside the passage itself, i.e., the external aspects, and (2) those that are found inside the passage, i.e., the internal aspects. Although these labels aren't commonly used, they do serve as helpful groupings for a study of  the literary qualities. The External Literary Aspects of the Text
        By external is meant literary qualities that lie outside the content of the passage itself, but that the passage depends on for expression of ideas. The most important of these is typically labeled 'literary setting' or 'literary context.' This simply refers to exploring the issue of how the ideas found inside the passage contribute to the larger expression of ideas found in the entire document. That is, how does this passage fit, given its location at a specific place inside the larger document? Also important: the determination of the literary context not only helps the Bible student see how his/her passage contributes to the flow of ideas in the entire biblical document, but just as importantly, this determination helps establish boundaries of legitimate meaning in the translation/interpretation process for the ideas contained inside the passage itself.
        The negative tones associated with Bible 'proof-texting' are derived from a failure to realize this very important part of biblical interpretation. When a verse of scripture is lifted out of its context, brand new meaning not legitimately found in the context is frequently attributed to the words of the scripture verse. By stitching together a number of verses so lifted out of their original context, one can make the Bible 'say' absolutely anything he/she wants it to say. Obviously such methods are false and produce false understanding of the teachings of scripture. Identifying the literary context of the text within the larger document
        What is the literary context of a passage? When one has detected the building blocks of written material, that is the pericopes, which individually constitute an identifiable scripture passage (for example, the temptation of Jesus in Mark 1:12-13), the next question is why does this passage fall where it does in the total content of the scripture document? If the document is mostly made up of narratives, then the location of an individual narrative may have to do with chronology. That is, it took place historically at that point in the central character's life. Such is the case with the Mark 1:12-13. In the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) the temptation of Jesus is one of the events that took place at the beginning of public ministry by Jesus. Naturally, the gospel writer would place this passage in the part of his story of Jesus describing those preparatory events that launched Jesus' public ministry. But not all the episodes in the gospels fall in such a pattern. This becomes clear from comparing the descriptions of the same event in two or three of these gospels. When Jesus was rejected in his home town of Nazareth is an illustration. In Luke 4:16-30 it is placed at the beginning of the ministry in Galilee, whereas Matthew 13:53-58 and Mark 6:1-6 place it at the end of the time that Jesus spent in Galilee. Quite clearly the concern of the gospel writers is not chronological. One or the other (or perhaps both) are more interested in the point of this rejection by people who knew Jesus. The idea of people rejecting Jesus contributes to what each gospel writer is trying to get across about the beginning or the end of the ministry in Galilee proper. Thus, as D.A. Carson notes regarding Matthew's account, "placing this periocope immediately after the discourse on parables extends the hostility and rejection of the scribes and Pharisees even to Jesus' hometown (cf. Mark 6:1-6)" (Matthew, 335). Often the gospel writers are much more interested in making thematic points by their sequential placement of episodes. Understanding this helps the Bible student to better grasp the point of a passage.
        How can I determine the literary context of a passage? This involves the use of several tools: NT introductions, Bible dictionaries and commentaries. First, find outlines of the entire scripture document in which your passage is found. Then locate where in that outline your passage shows up. By looking at the outline headings you should be able to draw some tentative conclusions about the context. Next, the commentaries on your passage should address the issue of literary context, although not all do a good job of it. The Word Biblical Commentary series tends to be one of the better commentaries at this point.
        Since Redaction Criticism and Rhetorical Criticism can touch on this issue of literary context, one should seek out the commentaries that especially emphasize these methods in their comments on the scripture text. The Internal Literary Aspects of the Text
        The literary issues arising from within the scripture passage deal with at least two significant issues: (1) the determination of a literary form, sometimes called genre, and (2) the determination of the flow of ideas contained inside the passage.  Identifying the broad genre of the text
        In regard to literary patterns found within a scripture passage genre can be detected at different levels. Here we will treat the broad issue of genre that relates to the entire scripture book in which your passage is found. In subsequent chapters dealing the the four broad categories of genre below, we will address the sub-genre issues that arise under each broad category.
        Once again the online Meriam-Webster dictionary defines genre as "a category of artistic, musical, or literary composition characterized by a particular style, form, or content."  To get something of an idea of the wide diversity of patterns in modern literature go the web site containing genre categories for most modern literary composition. More precise are the comments of Ralph Wood in the Mercer Dictionary of the Bible: "Genre is a French term used to designate literary kinds or types; e.g., tragedy, comedy, epic, history, parable, letter, fiction, poetry, gospel, oracle, apocalypse. From the Renaissance through the eighteenth century, the genres were thought to be fixed and timeless categories which describe all literary works regardless of their author or subject matter, their era, or place of composition. The genres were also ranked in a hierarchy, from epic and tragedy at the top, to lyric and comedy at the bottom. But with the rise of such new forms as the novel and the long descriptive poem, and especially as the Romantics perfected the lyric, the old notion of genre-ranking fell into disuse. Genre is now regarded as a useful interpretive device rather than a criterion for determining the worth of a work" (Genre, Concept of, 323).
       Ralph Wood, in this same article, makes the valid observations that: (1) "One needs to understand what formal or technical characteristics the text possesses, what literary conventions it observes." (2) "Genre categories are especially useful when interpreting biblical texts that are essentially narrative in type." (3) "Determining the genre of a text also enables the reader to compare it with similar literary types both within and outside scripture." (4) "To understand the genre of a biblical text, therefore, is to recognize its own suppositions, to enter a life-world other than our own, and thus perhaps to be transformed by the new spiritual order it creates" (Wood, 323-324). Gospel
        One very important point needs to be made at the outset: the word 'gospel' has two different meanings, reflecting the pattern of early Christian use of the Greek word for gospel, euangelion (eujaggevlion). Inside the New Testament documents themselves the word euangelion exclusively refers to the gospel as a system of belief. In subsequent Christian writings the second meaning of euangelion emerges and refers to the written documents such as the Gospel of Mark that describe the life and teachings of Christ. Our study of genre here is concerned only with this second meaning of the word euangelion.
        A very interesting question is posed in the New Oxford Study Bible regarding the gospel genre: What type of literature would a second-century librarian in Alexandria Egypt have assigned a gospel if a manuscript copy had been presented to a library? (NOSB, NT, viii) Would it have been assigned to the ancient laudatory (or encomium) biography? Examples of this type of ancient biography include Xenophon's Agesilaus, Isocrates' Evagoras, Tacitus' Agricola, and Lucian's Life of Demonax. These works attempted to praise the greatness and merit of the person who is the subject of the writing. Or, would it have been assigned to the broader genre category of ancient biography? Perhaps it might have been assigned to the sub-category of biography called aretalogy, which means the "relation of wonderful deeds of a god or hero" (Dictionary of Difficult Words). Could some combination of these genres account for the literary form called 'gospel'?
        Any single one of these genres or any combination of them do not provide a satisfactory answer to the origin of the gospel genre. Some similarities of certain traits in these forms of ancient biography can be detected in the gospel genre, but substantial characteristics exit in the gospels in a repetitive manner that are not found in these ancient biographical genera. The orally transmitted sources of materials used in composing the canonical gospels, the literary relationship among the first three gospels, the so-called synoptic gospels, and other aspects strongly suggest that this literary form in the New Testament represents an essentially new genre created by early Christianity as the most appropriate vehicle for telling the story of Jesus Christ to its world.
        But this view is not universally held by New Testament scholars. As Charles Talbert notes, "since the late 1970s there has been a growing consensus that the canonical Gospels are types of ancient Mediterranean biography, participants in the same large grouping as Philo's Life of Moses and Philostratus's Life of Apollonius of Tyana. If so, then the canonical Gospels can no longer be regarded as literarily unique. Participation in the ancient biographical genre does not, however, undermine the uniqueness of the canonical Gospels' content any more than the participation of Gen 1 in the genre of ancient Near Eastern creation myth detracts from its uniquely Hebraic witness to the Creator" (Genre, Gospel). See Freed, 56, for a helpful summary of these two viewpoints.
        In the NOSB article these important points are validly made regarding the uniqueness of the gospel genre: "The canonical gospels are not romances or folk-tales; they purport to retell actual events. They are not biographies; they concentrate on the public career of Jesus with little or no attention given to his environment, training, and development of character. They are not simply memoirs of a teacher, philosopher, or wise man; the ministry of Jesus embraced not merely word and example but actions. And as regards this action, the gospels do not give a neutral account of what happened; rather they tell of the work of God in the career of Jesus, and they present their story as an offer of salvation for all who will believe. In short, the gospels represent a genre all their own because they present the tradition of Jesus from the viewpoint of faith in him as redeemer. Hence it was the intention of the four evangelists that their gospels be understood not only as narrative, but at the same time and especially as proclamation" (NOSB, NT, viii-ix).
        Also important to remember is that the NT Apocryphal gospels are classified under this genre as well, although they are not a part of the New Testament canon. In terms of literary patterns, they exhibit a much wider array of forms both as a document itself, and through the use of sub-genre. As is described in the Encyclopedia Britannica: "A few papyrus fragments come from gospels not known by name (e.g., Egerton Papyrus 2, Oxyrhynchus Papyrus 840, Strasbourg Papyrus 5–6). There are also the Gospel produced in the 2nd century by Marcion (a “semi-Gnostic” heretic from Asia Minor), who removed what he regarded as interpolations from the Gospel According to Luke; the lost Gnostic Gospel of Perfection; and the Gospel of Truth, published in 1956 and perhaps identical with the book that Irenaeus (c. 185), bishop of Lyon, said was used by the followers of Valentinus, a mid-2nd-century Gnostic teacher. The Gospel of Truth is a mystical–homiletical treatise that is Jewish–Christian and, possibly, Gnostic in origin. In addition, there were gospels ascribed to the Twelve (Apostles) and to individual apostles, including the Protoevangelium of James, with legends about the birth and infancy of Jesus; the lost Gnostic Gospel of Judas (Iscariot); the Gospel of Peter, with a legendary account of the resurrection; the Gospel of Philip, a Valentinian Gnostic treatise; the Gospel of Thomas, published in 1959 and containing “the secret sayings of Jesus” (Greek fragments in Oxyrhynchus papyri 1, 654, and 655); and an “infancy gospel” also ascribed to Thomas. Beyond these lie gospels ascribed to famous women, namely Eve and Mary (Magdalene), or named after the groups that used them: Ebionites (a Jewish Christian sect), Egyptians,  Hebrews, and Nazarenes (an Ebionite sect)."
        Thus in identifying a passage as part of the gospel genre, the Bible student realizes that:  (1) The passage intends to interpret the actions and words of Jesus positively from the theological stance of belief in Him as the divine Savior of all humanity. (2) The passage is not strictly speaking a scientifically based history or biographical portion of the earthly ministry of Jesus, although elements of history and biography are present. (3) The passage contributes to the larger purposes of the gospel writer in painting a religious portrait of Jesus with the distinctive tones understood by the writer himself. Correct interpretation of the passage, then, depends in part on being able to see this full portrait and how the passage fits into this picture. Here the work of Redaction Critical scholars has made invaluable contribution; commentaries specializing in this methodology can provide helpful insight and thus should be consulted. Also the study of the double and triple tradition parallels to the passage are basic to realizing the distinctive tones emphasized by individual gospel writers. History
        The single document in the New Testament generally grouped under this genre is the Acts of the Apostles, although passages throughout the remainder of the New Testament contain historical oriented materials. For an introduction to ancient views of history see the above section 1.1.1. In general the book of Acts follows very closely ancient patterns of history writing, especially in the use of the basic 'building blocks' for presenting a 'philosophia' through history. The two most dominant 'building block' material found in Acts are narratives and speeches. The narrative passages divide into two categories: episodic and summary narratives. Within the various episodes described in Acts, two identifiable sub-genre emerge: miracle narratives and commissioning narratives. In the speeches category, two distinct types of speeches are found: missionary and defense speeches. With the use of these materials the story of Christianity in its first three decades is effectively told.
        When evaluated by the standards for writing history during the first Christian century as set forth by Dionysius of Halicarnassus in his On Literary Composition and especially his On Thycydides, the writer of Acts stands out as an accomplished history writer in the ancient world. The period from AD 30 to 61 is covered, and the two pivotal early leaders of Christianity (Peter during the Jewish Christian phase in chapters 1-12 and Paul during the Gentile mission phase in chapters 13-28) are the focus of the presentation that traces the beginnings of the movement from Jerusalem, the religious center of the world for ancient Judaism, to Rome, the political and military center of the ancient world. This literary genre was later imitated in subsequent Christian writings; see NT Apocryphal Acts section for details.
        When the Bible student has identified the passage in Acts as belonging to the history genre, several implications of this become apparent: (1) The writer of Acts is not writing history within the framework of modern definitions of history. Thus his use of sources will be different; the building blocks for telling his story will be different; his purpose will not be the same as a modern historian's purpose. (2) The passage represents a portion of the story designed to undergird the writer's philosophia. What point is Luke trying to make in telling the story of Christianity in its first three decades? Again, commentaries using Redactional Critical methods will be important to consult, since these will be more concerned to fit the passage into the larger theological purpose of the entire document. Advanced reading of summaries of Acts in Bible dictionaries, encyclopedias, and introductions will help the Bible student better grasp how the passage contributes to the 'big' picture. As the details of the passage are examined, the Bible student should be sensitive to their connection to the writer's theological aims.  Letter
        The bulk of the documents in the New Testament fall into this genre category, although a few documents make very limited use of the letter form. The 13 letters of Paul comprise the largest segment, and consistently adhere to the ancient letter format. The 7 documents of the General Epistles are the second segment. Hebrews is tucked in between the pauline corpus and the general epistle section, reflecting ancient uncertainty over what to do with it. In contemporary discussions it is generally listed with the general epistles for the sake of convenience. The order of listing in both sections has nothing to do with time of writing. Instead, the sequence of listing is based solely on the length of the document with the longest first in the list and the shortest being last in the list. This is true for both the pauline corpus and the general epistle section. The single exception to this sequence is where more than one letter is written to the same group or individual, or by the same writer. In these cases, the length of the first letter determines the location of all the letters grouped together; notice 1 and 2 Corinthians below as an illustration of this.

Pauline Corpus General Epistles
1 Corinthians
2 Corinthians
1 Thessalonians
2 Thessalonians
1 Timothy
2 Timothy



1 Peter
2 Peter
1 John
2 John
3 John

        The letters of Paul more closely follow ancient patterns of letter writing, than do the general epistles typically, although 2 and 3 John would be exceptions to this. Two of these documents are Jewish homilies -- Hebrews and James -- and make a very limited use of ancient letter forms, so that one can question whether they should be called letters. The pattern included the following:

The first section (Praescriptio) indicated who the letter was from (Superscriptio), to whom the letter was written (Adscriptio) and a word of greeting (Salutatio). Technically this section was the 'pre-writing' and not an integral part of the letter. Paul expresses the greatest creativity of the letter writers in the New Testament by adding expansion elements in the first two sections (Praescriptio and Proem) beyond the standard elements. These expansion elements typically signal anticipated topics of detailed discussion in the body of the letter. Thus the modern reader does well by identifying these elements and noting their content. The second section (Proem) is a prayer wish from the sender to the recipients of the letter. In the pauline corpus, the first segment of Thanksgiving is always found, and the second segment, a prayer of intercession for the recipients, is frequently found. The content and its arrangement in the body of the letter differs significantly according to the matters being addressed and the nature of the letter. Each writer has his own individual style and approach to treating the matters that necessitated the writing of the letter to begin with. The Conclusio is the most fluid section of ancient letters and could contain a combination of any number of elements. These included: Greetings, Sender Verification, Doxologies, Benediction. For an illustration of the diversity of elements compare the Conclusia in Paul's letters.
        In a world where communication was difficult and oral communication was overwhelmingly the means of interaction, the letter played a very significant role. The composition of the letter was normally by means of the sender dictating the contents in outline fashion to a scribe called an amanuensis who did the actual writing of the letter. Tertius is identified in Rom. 16:22 as the one who wrote Romans and Silas (=Greek for the Latin Silvanus) is so identified as having written 1 Peter in 1 Pet. 5:12. These documents once in final, approved form would then be entrusted to an associate who carried the letter to its designation and orally read the contents to the recipients giving verification of the contents as reflecting the views of the sender. As such, they expressed the authoritative presence of the sender to the recipients, and gave clarification of his views on specified topics. These documents were treasured and copies of them quickly made in order to distribute the sender's views to a broader audience. In fact, the collection of Paul's letters into a single group distributed together was the first part of the New Testament to come into being. This genre became the most imitated form in later Christianity; see the NT Apocryphal Letters section for examples.
        When the passage is identified as belonging to the letter genre, several implications become relevant: (1) The passage is a part of a document produced because a specific historical occasion brought it into being. What was that occasion? How does the passage illuminate the details of that occasion? The identification of this occasion often is crucial to correct interpretation, and especially correct application, of the passage. What was the problem in Thessalonia that caused some members to fear that believers who died would somehow miss out on the second coming of Christ? Paul addresses this problem in 1 Thess. 4:13-18. The more background understanding possible, the more sense one can make of this issue. In application, the Bible student must ask whether the same problem exists among the group he or she is preaching this passage to in our day. The most direct application of the passage occurs only when a parallel situation to the ancient occasion exists today. Otherwise, the current relevance of the passage is diminished and applications with less direct connection must be carefully -- and prayerfully -- sought. This leaves no room whatsoever for dogmatic assertion about the 'meaning' of the passage for today's world. (2) In which section of the letter is the passage found? For example the word 'servant' takes on significantly different meaning if it is in the Superscriptio of a letter, as opposed to the body of the letter. Paul frequently uses the term 'servant' in the titular section of the Superscriptio as a title of authority, in direct contrast to its etymological and historical meaning of slave, the most powerless segment of ancient society. As a title (Paul, servant of Jesus Christ...) in the Superscriptio the term hearkens back to the OT prophets' self-designation of 'servants of the Lord', which stood as foundational to their claim to speak in behalf of God. For Paul, this title was critical to his right to insistence that the readers of the letter do the things he demanded they do in the body of the letter. The Bible student must carefully assess where the passage occurs in the letter.  Apocalypse
        This last genre is only found in the Book of Revelation in the New Testament extending to cover the majority of the contents of a document. Within the synoptic gospels a section typically labeled the Little Apocalypse is found in Mark 13 with parallels in Matthew 24 and Luke 21. These three passages contain similar literary forms to most of the book of Revelation. The nature of this material is to 'uncover' (the literal meaning of the biblical term ajpokavliyi" [apokalypsis]) the supernatural working of God in overcoming the forces of evil on a cosmic level. "Apocalyptic revelations are of two kinds: (1) symbolic visions (e.g., Daniel 7-11; Revelation) and (2) otherworldly journeys (parts of 1 Enoch; 2 Enoch; 3 Baruch). In both kinds, there is a heavenly mediator (usually an angel, but sometimes Christ in the Christian apocalypses) who explains what the visionary sees. The otherworldly journeys have a stronger interest in cosmological matters than the visions do. All the apocalypses in the Bible and Apocrypha include symbolic visions. The symbolism is colorful. Gentile nations and institutions are represented as wild beasts, sometimes of composite make-up; for example, a leopard, with feet like a bear's, and a mouth like a lion's mouth (Rev. 13.2). There is also sometimes an interest in numerology, whether in terms of cryptic reference to a person (as the number of the beast; 666, in Rev 13.18) or the duration of persecutions (a time, times, and half a time = three-and-a-half years) in Daniel (7.2-5) and Revelation (12.14)" (NOSB, 362NT). Additionally, this genre makes use of dualism and eschatology, e.g., this present evil age and the age of the Messiah yet to come. Thus, a major theme is concerning God's action in the future to bring about the ultimate triumph of righteousness over evil. A frequently used literary device is that of secret books that are to contain the visions of the person privileged to "see" all the events that are going to take place. He is to write down his visions, but the books are to be hidden until the end-time when they will be disclosed to the wise who can understand them.
        This genre emerged in Jewish writings at least 250 years before the Christian era. Portions of the OT prophets contain apocalyptic sections; for example, Daniel 7-12; Isaiah 24-27; Ezekiel 38-39; Joel 2; Zechariah 9-14. In the OT Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha the apocalyptic books include 2 Esdras 3-14, 1 Enoch, 2 Enoch, Jubilees, and the Apocalypses of Abraham, of Baruch, and of Elijah. In later Christian writings, apocalypses include those attributed to Peter and Paul, as well as the Shepherd of Hermas (see NT Apocryphal Apocalypse section for more details on these).
        The book of Revelation contains genre elements other than apocalypse; namely, the letter genre dominates chapters two and three. Also, how are the various apocalyptic segments woven together? As the NOSB3 (page 421) well summarizes: "Although the structure of the book of Revelation is widely debated among scholars, there is general agreement that it involves a series of parallel, interconnected, and yet ever progressions sections. It begins with a prologue (1.1-3), an epistolary salutation (1.4-8) and an inaugural vision (1.9-20), which are followed by messages to each of the seven churches (2.1-3.22). Next (4.1-5.14) we find a vision of God enthroned and of Jesus depicted as a Lamb, who receives the seven sealed scrolls from the hand of God. a series of sevenfold visions commences at 6.1, beginning with the opening of each of the seven seals (6.1-8.5), followed by the sounding of each of seven trumpets (8.6-11.19). The sounding of the seventh trumpet is followed by the vision of the woman, the child, and the dragon (12.1-17), the vision of the two beasts (13.1-18), and a threefold vision of the victory and vindication of the faithful (14.1-20). These are followed by a final sevenfold series, the outpouring of the bowls of divine wrath (16.1-21), 17.1-18.24 presents the vision of the fall of Babylon, followed by the great doxology of 19.1-10 that also looks forward to the eschatological victory (19.11-21), the defeat of Satan (20.1-10), the last judgment (20.11-15), and the vision of the new Jerusalem (21.1-22.5). The book closes with an epilogue (22.6-21)."
        When the passage is identified as apocalyptic genre, several implications become important: (1) How could this passage have given encouragement and comfort to its initial readers within this cosmic framework? This genre typically arose during times of persecution and intense hardship, and was intended to provide reassurance of God's help and support of those who remained faithful to him during their struggles. Any interpretative stance that ignores the basics of historical methodology is suspect from the outset! (2) What late first century situation particularly for Christians is the passage addressing? This is the starting point for correct understanding of the details of the passage. (3) The symbolism that characterizes the graphic word pictures and images of apocalyptic writing must be addressed cautiously and carefully. Literalism here is not only a mistake, but reveals the ignorance of the Bible student dramatically. The honest Bible student will first attempt to find similar images in the apocalyptic literature that precedes the book of Revelation as the first clue to identification. The first century Christian readers drew upon their background understanding in order to interpret these images; the modern reader must attempt to do the same in so far as is possible. (4) How have these images in the passage been interpreted down through the centuries of Christian interpretative history? Awareness of the range of interpretative conclusions will help avoid repeating many of the mistakes others have previously made. Here the Bible student must make wise choices about the use of secondary sources. Within the past decade scholarly interest in the apocalyptic genre has produced a significant number of excellent commentaries on the book of Revelation, which have been liberated from the older enslavement to a presupposed eschatological assumption about the second coming of Jesus. Identifying the rhetorical structure of the text
        The second internal literary aspect of a passage has to do with how the thoughts of the writer within the passage are organized. The identification of both the broad and the sub-genre of the passage frequently suggests patterns of thought structure in broad categories. But, the individuality of each NT writer's style and way of expressing himself give uniqueness to each passage. Identifying this structure is a vital part of correct exegesis of scripture. Within the past few decades the maturing of the Rhetorical Critical methodology has provided increasing help here.
        For the beginning Bible student working only with English translations the procedure is first to read the passage several times in different translations paying close attention to sentence structure and thought flow. Note repeated words and/or synonyms. If the passage contains several verses once should note paragraph divisions across the different translations. Although the ancient Greek texts did not contain paragraphs, modern translators divide the text into these thought sections on the basis of perceived shifts of thought. When the Bible student detects similar break points at the same place in the passage across the various translations, he/she can be more certain that these break points represent genuine shifts of thought that can provide the basis for outlining the passage. Only after this intensive analysis of the scripture passage, should commentaries be consulted. These, however, can provide helpful discussion of the thought structure that may be missed in the translation comparison. One particularly helpful commentary in this regard is the Word Biblical Commentary series. After the notes section on each passage, a discussion of the literary structure of the passage follows and usually is quite insightful.
        For the more advanced Bible student, the tools of discourse analysis and rhetorical criticism are very important aides. One procedure that I developed in this area several decades ago is called Block Diagramming and Semantic Diagramming of the text; see the Supplementary Materials section of Greek 202 for details. These procedures focus on detailed analysis of the Greek text of the passage and lay a foundation for a biblical based sermon of the passage. Insights from Discourse Analysis, Rhetorical Criticism, Structuralism etc. are blended together into a somewhat simplified process for doing in depth analysis of the thought structure of the passage.



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Internet Modern History Sourcebook at

"Studying History," Internet Modern History Sourcebook at

"Studying Ancient History," Internet Ancient History Sourcebook at

Ancient/Classical History at

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Thucydides, "On Inventing Speeches," Internet Modern History Sourcebook at

Dionysius of Halicarnassus, "Thucydides," Critical Essays, in the Loeb Classical Library, 1:456-633. Translated by Stephen Usher. 2 vols. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1974.

Gerald W. Schlabach, "A Sense of History: Some Components," Internet Modern History Sourcebook at

Link to Ancient Rome at


A Glossary of Literary Criticism at

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Literary Criticism on the Web at