Jon and Tim discuss the different literary styles used in the Bible.
This is part four of our How to Read the Bible series. Jon and Tim discuss the different literary styles used in the Bible. (It's not just a history book!)
In the first part of the show (0-28:00), the guys go over an example of both poetry and narrative in the Bible, Exodus 14 and 15. It's the Exodus story told in both narrative style and then Hebrew poetry.
In the second half of the show (28:00-End), Tim shares an example of prose discourse in one of Paul's epistles.
Tim discusses how Paul's writing style was heavily influenced by philosophers like Seneca.
This series is designed to accompany our video series on Youtube called "How to Read the Bible.
You can view the accompanying video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oUXJ8Owes8E
"Introduction to Poetry" by Billy Collins
"Preaching and the Literary Forms of the Bible" by Thomas Long
"Jabberwocky" by Lewis Carroll
Defender Instrumental by Rosasharn Music; Take It Easy by Beautiful Eulogy
Podcast Date: June 23, 2017
Speakers in the audio file:
Jon: Hey, this is Jon at The Bible Project. Today on the podcast, we're going to
continue our conversation in the series on How to Read the Bible. If you're
like me, the Bible can get really intimidating and even confusing. And one
reason is because there are different styles of writing in the Bible.
In this episode, Tim and I are going to talk about three main types of literary
styles in the Bible: Poetry, narrative and press discourse. And of the three,
perhaps the hardest one is poetry, yet, poetry in the Bible is really important.
Tim: One of three chapters in the Bible is not trying to communicate content or
information to you. It's rather trying to create an experience that shapes how
you feel and how you think. That's remarkable to me. A third of the Bible is
this kind of literature.
Jon: in this episode, we break down some examples of biblical poetry, narrative
and discourse and we talked about their differences. Here we go
33% of the Bible. That's a really clean number there.
Tim: Forget what the decimal's for when I did my...I did by chapters. Did I write it in
these notes? I have it somewhere in my notes. Here it is. 502 chapters in the
Bible are narrative, 387 are poetry.
Jon: Now, it's not always that clean. A chapter can have both.
Tim: That's true. I tried to round up because there are many poems that are
embedded in stories, in which case, that's the narrative chapter. I didn't count
it as a poetry.
Jon: Oh, so poetry actually has a little bit more—
Tim: Probably poetry, yeah. But some poems embedded in narratives are whole
chapters. So yeah.
Jon: You would count that as a poetry chapter?
Tim: Yeah. There's probably another dozen to 15 chapters’ worth of poetry
embedded in small poems in either Paul's letters, he quotes a number of
poems, or in other narratives. So yeah, it's probably more like 35%, maybe
Here's the thing with poetry. This is like the Dead Poets Society. You can begin
with a definition.
Jon: Let me put that on my list to watch again.
Tim: Remember when he's drawing on the board? They have somebody read from
this classic introduction to the poetry and he's drawing a chart. He’s drawing
a chat and he talks about it, and then he's like, "Everyone....
Jon: And everyone's like, "Ahh."
Tim: Here's the thing. We could read the Encyclopedia Britannica definition of
poetry, we could read a sentence from one of the classic introductions to
poetry by Lawrence Perrine, or we could read just an example, one of my
favorite examples of the uniqueness of poetry in biblical literature. Do you
might start with the example or start with the definition?
Jon: The example. Like an actual poem.
Tim: The example is actually reading a narrative that's told in the Bible. Then right
after it is told, a poetic retelling of the narrative you just read. So you can see
very clearly how narrative and poetry work differently.
So Exodus chapter 14, classic story. It's where the Israelites walk through the
sea as on dry land and Pharaoh's destroyed.
Jon: This is the narrative?
Tim: This is the narrative. "Then Moses stretched out his hand over the see all that
night. The Lord drove back the sea with a strong east ruach, wind and turned
it to dry land." All that language is echoing Genesis chapter 1. "And the
waters were divided, the Israelites went through the sea as on dry ground
with a wall of water on the right and on their left.
The LORD said to Moses, "Stretch out your hand over the sea so that the
waters may flow back over the Egyptians and their chariots and horsemen."
So Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and at daybreak, the sea went
back to its place.
The Egyptians were fleeing toward it, and the LORD swept them into the sea.
The water flowed back and covered the chariots and horsemen--the entire
army of Pharaoh that had followed the Israelites into the sea. Not one of
them survived." Epic scene.
Jon: So that's the character of Moses and the Israelites. The setting is the sea.
Tim: The sea of reeds.
Jon: The sea of the reeds on the way into the wilderness. The other character is
Tim: The conflict is the Egyptians led by Pharaoh want to destroy the slaves that
they just let go.
Jon: So they are off to go get them.
Tim: Through Moses, God fights on Israel's behalf and all Moses—
Jon: By taming the sea?
Tim: By taming the waters. Making the waters to [split? 00:05:13] just as they did in
Jon: And then the resolution is Pharaoh gets ripped over.
Tim: So you walk away from the story going, "God's Creator of all things, and He's
on a mission to defeat evil and rescue the helpless." That's the story.
Jon: All right.
Tim: All right. You turn the page to Exodus 15 and the Israelites sing the first
worship song in the Bible. I've just excerpted these two sections that retell the
story we just read. It opens with "The LORD is my strength and my song. He is
my God; I will praise him. He's highly exalted." It goes on verse 4.
"Pharaoh's chariots and his army he has hurled into the sea. The best of
Pharaoh's officers are drowned in the sea. The deep waters covered them;
they sank to the depths like a stone. Your right hand, O LORD, majestic in
power, your right hand, O LORD, shattered the enemy.
By the blast of your nostrils waters pile up. The surging waters were like a
wall; the deep waters congealed in the heart of the sea. You blew with your
breath. The sea covered them; they sank like lead in the mighty waters. So
Some interesting things to contrast. It opens up "Pharaoh's chariots and his
army hurled into the sea." That's a very different image than what we got in
Tim: You do get the water standing, congealing like a wall later in the poem but in
this first line, it just looks like God picked them up and just threw them into
Jon: But when he says, "The deep waters congealed in the heart of the sea," it
evokes more emotion for me than when he says just—
Tim: The narrative is a little clinical. It's just like, "And the waters parted and they
stood up like a wall on the right and left."
Jon: I guess narrative can use poetic tons of phrases and stuff all the time.
Tim: All the time.
Jon: One observation is that the poetry actually made me feel like I was there
more than the narrative.
Tim: Oh, interesting. Yes. It evoked your imagination more than the story?
Jon: Yeah, it did. And it might have just been the way the story is written - you
said it's clinical, it is a little more clinical - because a good storytelling can do
the same thing.
Tim: That's true.
Jon: But I mean, the blasting of his nostrils, pile up the water.
Tim: Blast of your nostrils, you blew your breath. In the narrative, the description is,
"the Lord drove the sea back with a strong wind." It's same word "breath" or
"wind." Ruach. And it's God doing it. But nostrils and blowing?
Jon: It's connecting more ideas. So poetry—
Tim: Here. There's one more.
Tim: Whose hand is most important in the narrative?
Tim: Moses stretched out his hand. Then God says, "Stretch out your hand." And
Moses stretched out his hand. So three times Moses' his hand is the key thing
shaping the flow of the narrative. In the poem, it's God's hand. "Your right
hands, O Lord. Your right hand."
Actually, the poem never even mentions Moses. In the poem, only God is the
actor through his hand and his nostrils, and his mouth. In the poem, Moses is
the main actor at the Lord command. Sorry. In the narrative, Moses is the
So that's the difference there, that the poem also is a level of theological
Jon: What did this mean?
Tim: If you were there, what you would see is what the narrative tells you. The
poem steps back and uses metaphor "God has big nostrils." It's also
interpreting the event in a really reflective way that Moses' hand was like
God's hand. All of the vivid imagery of them sinking, the soldiers sinking,
Jon: The weightiness of - he's calling them lead.
Tim: Yeah, they sink like lead and like rocks. There we go. That's good. You get the
experience. So what just happened?
Jon: Well, it seems like the poem was like, I'm not worried about making sure that
the character...I don't know. That's the thing is like poems and stories, there's
definitely an overlap. Like if you drew the Venn diagram, you could have right
there in the middle this very poetic storytelling.
Tim: We're reflecting on the memory of an event or of an experience.
Jon: Because there's other poems that are so abstract that it gives you feelings
and emotions and it might conjure up ideas.
Tim: Okay, sure. So that would be poems that aren't reflecting on a story. In this
case, this one is.
Jon: This one it is. It is it seems like kind of in the middle. This poem has a
Tim: It's a poetic retelling of a memory. That's right. In this case, this is why it's a
good example because the poem's anchored in something that seems more
familiar. So it's not like abstract poetry. But the techniques and the mode of
communication is fully poetic.
Jon: The elements of story are there, but what else does it have that makes us
think, "Oh, this is more poetry"? And that seems to be its loose structure. It's
not really worried about sequence this much.
Tim: Yeah, sure, it's not about sequence. You mentioned your imagination was
Jon: Yeah. And I think that's because much more liberal use of metaphor, which is
making me connect the ideas that I either haven't connected before or that
has helped me see maybe I have but it just is planting that idea right in front
Tim: So ignited your imagination through its use of metaphors that you wouldn't
have thought of. Like you'd never read the narrative and go, "Oh, God blasted
with his nose." And then, emotion. You felt something when you think of God
blasting with his nose breath?
Jon: Right. Or just the example of the wall of water. To me, that's the most
magnificent image in the story is...Where is it in the story?
Tim: The waters congealing.
Jon: But where is it in the actual story?
Tim: Verse 22. "A wall of water on their right and left." That's it.
Jon: Wall of water on their right and left. That's an amazing image.
Tim: Yeah, it is actually. It is.
Jon: That's an intense image. When I read it in the story, I'm like, "Whoa, that's
intense." But then when I get into the poem, and it says, "The surging water
stood up like a wall," now it's actually making the waters - What's the word?
Anthropomorphizing the waters. The water stood up. The surging water
stood up. So it's like giving the waters more of a character.
Tim: Yeah, or animating them.
Jon: Animating them. It wasn't just a wall. It was a wall that congealed in the heart
sea. So I'm picturing the wall now and it is just as intense, but now there is
even more emotion to it.
Tim: Yeah. It's like when Jell-O cool.
Jon: Congeal. What's the Hebrew word there?
Tim: It's a unique one.
Jon: It must be for them to use such a unique English word.
Tim: Qapha' [SP] from qapha. To thicken, condense or congeal. It's used here. It's
used one time in Zephaniah when he talks about wine that's left to sit for too
Jon: It congeals
Tim: It gets all like thickens and gross. God says, "I'm going to search Jerusalem
with lamps and bring justice on those who are complacent who are left like
wine that congeals."
Jon: Does wine do that? Wine thickens if you leave it out?
Tim: Apparently. Maybe how they made wine. Then Job asks God, "Don't pour me
out like milk. Don't congeal me like cheese." Oh, so that's like cheese
Tim: That's it. Those are the three times the word occurs in the Bible. Anyway.
Jon: That's amazing. Like Jell-O.
Tim: Yeah, hardening like Jell-O. Okay, all right. Let's back up. Let's allow
Encyclopedia Britannica to give us a scientific definition of what just
Jon: Oh, can I say one more thing that I noticed?
Tim: Yes, please.
Jon: The cadence.
Tim: Oh, yeah, yeah. Totally. That's very important.
Jon: There's a rhythm to it. I don't know why that's significant, but all poetry seems
to have that.
Tim: Different cultures have different types of rhythmic structures, and a lot of the
English European tradition have rhyme. Rhyming is way to do that. Not really
a feature of Hebrew poetry, but Hebrew poetry definitely has a very
intentional kind of structure to it. Itself communicate.
It's called parallelism, where basically you create little pairs, sometimes triads,
most often pairs, where you pair two things and either you create them in a
sequence, or you are saying the same thing twice. There's a whole variety of
ways you can use it. But it creates a structure. Pharaoh's chariots and army
hurled in the sea. Best of Pharaoh's officers drown in the sea. Deep waters
covered them, they sank to the depths like a stone.
Jon: It's saying the same thing three times in a row. Three different ways.
Tim: Yeah, totally. "Your right hand, O Lord, majestic in power." "Your right hand, O
LORD, shattering the enemy." That's a good example where you just said one
thing. But "majestic in power" "shattering the enemy" are two very different
things and you want to say both.
Jon: I remember learning this. Instead of rhyming sounds, they rhyme concepts.
Tim: Yeah. Then it gets you to pair or bounce off of each other two things that you
wouldn't have thought. "Surging waters standing up like a wall" is paired with
"deep waters congealing like jello." And you think, "Oh, how the walls
become..." You know, it ignites your imagination. Then you're thinking about
these two walls made out of jello.
Jon: Jellowy water.
Tim: Okay, perfect. Perfect. This is from Lawrence Perrin it's one of the classic
Western introductions to poetry called Sound and Sense. He says. "Poetry is
the kind of language that says more and says it more intensely than does
ordinary language." It's not a not very technical description but I like it.
It says more and says it more intensely than normal language. So normal
language says, the sea blows with the waters, they parted into a wall.
Jon: There's a wall in left and right.
Tim: Yeah. You are saying more by calling the "surging waters standing up like a
wall" "deep waters congealing." Just right there you're saying more and you're
saying it more intensely. With the pairing of "standing up like a wall" and
"jello congealing waters," now your imagination is set loose to create more
meaning than any of those words would do by themselves.
That's what poetry does. It's a condensed form of language that uses and
pairs new images, metaphors, ideas, and then you, the reader are set free to
go on your own experience now. It's participation. Just like stories force you
to participate, poetry forces you to participate through your imagination and
through your emotions.
So poetry has this main aim to affect how you feel and how you daydream,
you could say. Its primary goal is not to communicate information. This is a
big hang up, I think, especially more Western religious traditions have is
because we think, again, of the Bible as primarily moral instruction literature.
The fact that a third of it is poetry - and it shapes you and it affects how you
think even morally - but its primary goal isn't to tell you what to do. Its goal is
to set loose your imagination and make you feel.
Jon: This has reminded me of a poem actually. Have you heard of Billy Collins?
Tim: Talk to me.
Jon: He's a very accessible poet. He's got this poem called "Introduction to
poetry." I want to read it. He's an also an instructor.
"I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide
or press an ear against its hive.
I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,
or walk inside the poem's room
and feel the walls for a light switch.
I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author's name on the shore.
But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.
They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.
Tim: Wow, that's really good.
Jon: Yeah, it's good. Huh?
Tim: Whoa. What is that? Billy Collins?
Jon: Billy Collins "Introduction to Poetry."
Tim: I'm just going to put that in for future lectures. That's awesome.
Jon: His poems are amazing. It's like the only poetry I've ever read recently that I
just get absorbed in it. His poems are great.
Tim: Couple of things. I have two quotes down in the notes. One is, poetry is this a
surprising form of language. This is from Thomas Long, who actually wrote a
book called "Preaching from the Literary Forms of the Bible."
It's actually a whole book for pastors and teachers, helping giving you ideas
for how you when you preach from the different kinds of literature from the
Bible, you should preach in a totally different way. Like you shouldn't actually
preach or teach from a poem with the same approach as a narrative. Poem
isn't trying to communicate information; so don't teach it the same way you
would teach Romans...
Tim: Yeah, totally. He has this great line where he says, "Poetry works to disrupt the
customary ways in which we use language. Poetry stretches the ordinary uses
of words and places them into unfamiliar relationships with each other,
thereby, cutting fresh paths across the well-worn grooves of everyday
language." He just did it in this sentence. Then what you just read, the Billy
Collins is exactly waterskiing across the poem.
Jon: Put your ear up to the hive of the poem.
Tim: Yeah, totally. It's that.
Jon: That image is so intense to me because beehives are so —
Tim: You would never do that.
Jon: Yeah, you would never do that.
Tim: They're like alive with frenetic dangerous energy. And he's saying that's what a
good poem is.
Jon: And to interact with the poem you've got to put your ear up to it. Sticks with
Tim: It's using language in surprising...The surging water stood up."
Jon: Surprising. Waters don't stand.
Tim: Oceans don't congeal like jello, but in Exodus 15 they do. Just pause. I almost
don't want to read the Encyclopedia Britannica definition because it's so
Jon: It's so clinical.
Tim: But it's interesting. Okay, I'll just read it. It's a long run on sentence. To me, it's
actually so ironic that this is the definition of poetry. "It's a kind of literature
that evokes a concentrated, imaginative awareness of one's experience or
emotions by means of well-crafted language that is chosen for its meaning,
sound and rhythm."
Jon: That's not bad.
Tim: No, it's not too bad. It's just a long, complicated sentence. There are three
things. It evokes a concentrated, imaginative awareness. So concentrated—
Jon: It does more with less.
Tim: It does more with less and it's an imaginative awareness. You go inside your
mind and start painting pictures. What are you aware of in that concentrated
imaginative way of your experience and your emotions? And how do poetry
do that? Through well-crafted language that is chosen for its meaning, which
is also true in narrative, and also true in a good essay, but also for its sound
and for its rhythm.
The sound and rhythm communicate things that are really intangible but they
communicate things as the poem did there. The famous example of this is
Lewis Carroll. I actually don't know that much about Lewis Carroll.
Jon: Me neither.
Tim: He was a British English author, writer. He wrote "Alice in Wonderland."
Jon: Oh, okay.
Tim: Then "Through the Looking Glass." But he wrote this famous poem called
Jon: Oh, yeah, Jabberwocky.
Tim: And the "Hunting of the Snark."
Jon: And he just uses this nonsense language, right?
Tim: Yeah, yeah. The whole thing about Jabberwocky was using non-existing
Jon: And the sounds carry the meaning?
Tim: And the sounds carry the meaning and the rhythm of it. This is the opening
Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.
Jon: Wow. I pictured a meadow - kind of a dark meadow.
Tim: That's the brillig. Oh, no. The wabe.
Jon: The wabe?
Tim: Yeah. And what's going on in the meadow?
Jon: I mean, just like the wind's going through this maybe mist and just like—
Tim: The slithy toves.
Jon: There are these creatures in the meadow. It's kind of a swampy meadow.
Tim: Yeah. It was all mimsy. But then the mome raths outgrabe. It's the beginning
of plot conflict something.
Jon: It's amazing.
Tim: It's complete nonsense, but it communicates through rhythm and sound.
Jon: That's cool.
Tim: Then, once you're using words that you do understand in freshman. There
you go. There you go. That's poetry. Poetry is amazing and I don't read
enough of it. I'm actually disciplined this year; I'm going to—
Jon: Grab some Billy Collins.
Tim: That's good. I was going purchase TS Eliot, "The Four Loves," which I've heard
is one of the most bottomless modern poems.
Jon: I should do that too.
Tim: What's funny is that it's the easiest thing to not do before bed or something.
It's like the last thing. Because it's not functional—
Jon: And it's hard sometimes - oftentimes.
Tim: But I've found we've done a couple times recently where the last thing we do
before turning out the light is reading a poem aloud.
Jon: Oh, cool.
Tim: I always go to bed with the full imagination.
Jon: I've also wanted to memorize poetry but never have.
Tim: Seemed noble. You want to be the kind of person that memorizes poetry?
Jon: Yeah. This is my ideal self is someone who has a lot of poems memorized.
That's my ideal self.
Tim: So let's stop and just maybe land the plane on this one, and just say, a third
of the Bible is this kind of literature.
Jon: That's crazy. One out of three sentences in the Bible. Or one out of three
Tim: One of the three chapters in the Bible is not trying to communicate content
or information to you. It's rather trying to create an experience that shapes
how you feel and how you think. That's remarkable to me.
The poems reflect on all kinds of concrete events sometimes. The book of
Lamentation it's all about the fall of Jerusalem and—
Jon: What if a third of the sermons you heard were poetic sermons?
Tim: Yeah. Very good question.
Jon: That to me, going back to the son versus the knife. We like to use the knife as
a tool. It's easier to handle and it's quick and it's decisive.
Tim: It gets things done in very efficient way.
Jon: If I want to change people's behavior, I grab my knife, and I say, "Here's what
this means. Here's what you should do. Here's how you should change the
way you think."
Tim: And the scriptures are likened to a knife. Like in Hebrews, double-edged
Jon: You need that.
Tim: You need that. That's right.
Jon: But then a third of the time you probably need to just sit in it and let it just
put your ear up to the hive. What would that look like? I think most people
would walk out of that Sunday service going like, "Well, that was weird."
Tim: But that one part was really interesting.
Jon: And yeah, but that sticks in you.
Jon: Okay. I think we landed the plane.
Tim: Yeah, on that one.
Tim: The last part of the bookstore in our biblical bookstore video.
Jon: The corner of the bookstore.
Tim: The corner because it's only one quarter.
Jon: It's only one quarter.
Tim: One-quarter of it. 24% of the Bible is prose discourse.
Jon: To go back to the grocery store thing, that's where we should put the
discourse in the back so you have to walk through the rest of the store. You
come in for the discourse, but you have to walk through the poetry aisle to
Tim: That's actually kind of how the Bible is organized if you start on page 1 and if
you start on page 1 of the New Testament. Anyway. So with prose discourse,
that may not be a quiet prose. In American terminology - I don't know what is
in British - prose discourse is not nonfiction. We call this nonfiction in our
culture. It's not narrative. It's not literature. We call it. literature. It's not poetry.
Jon: And articles.
Tim: Yeah. You feel like you're hearing someone give a speech, a little mini-speech
or a little essay embodied form.
Jon: It's the quickest way to convey information.
Tim: Yeah. It has two main goals, typically. Usually, it's to get your listener to do
something and you persuade them by a set of arguments or set of facts that
you arrange as an argument to persuade them to do something.
Actually, that's a really important part is that even prose discourse, the main
purpose isn't just to give you information. Still, it's to get you to do
something, to persuade you that you need to make certain kinds of choices.
And it'll do that by engaging your intellect, engaging your reason, your
rational capabilities. If this is the case and if this is the case, and because of
that these things follow. And in light of all of this, therefore, you should do X,
Y, and Z.
That kind of staged sequential, linear process of thought and reasoning
leading to rational outcomes and decisions, that's a very specific way that our
brain works. Totally different than narrative and poetry. And a quarter of the
Bible is this kind of literature.
In the Old Testament, the best example is the book of Deuteronomy, which is
mostly Moses seeking to persuade the Israelites to be faithful to the
Jon: It's one long lecture.
Tim: Yeah, the whole book is set as one long lecture. Then the essays, there are
laws within it and even little mini-narratives. But the biggest sections in the
first half and the end are these kinds of discourse. "Remember this. That
taught us this. From this, we know this is true. Therefore, do this." That kind of
But Ecclesiastes is mostly this. Ecclesiastes has many embedded poems within
it. Actually a lot. But the main framework, the way the philosopher thinks
through things is very much "I saw this, and I conclude this. Therefore, I'm
going to do this." And that kind of thing.
This literature is littered with logical connector terms, like, "and" "therefore,"
"but," "because," "so that." "as a result." That's actually how you learn how to
I remember when we took our introduction to reading the Bible from Ray
Lubeck, actually, we did one semester on narrative and poetry - we studied
the book of Jonah - and then we did one semester on prose discourse. And
we did Ephesians.
And do you remember, one whole exercise was going through...? Well, I think
I made a photocopy. Then I just highlighted in pink all of the logical
connective words. "And," "But," "therefore."
Jon: I don't remember.
Tim: He had us do a paragraph. That's what we did. Actually, he had us do a
sentence diagramming exercise.
Jon: I remember that. I remember the sentence diagram.
Tim: And you diagram it, you shape the diagram, by means of the "ands"
"therefores" you subordinate things, "because," "so that," "as a result." There
All of the New Testament letters are shaped by this kind of structure.
However, embedded within them are poems. Paul's constantly embedding
Jon: And stories sometimes.
Tim: Yeah, little mini story sometimes too. This is really significant. Narrative, I
think, engages both hemispheres of the brain because you're seeking pattern
Jon: Which is the right side.
Tim: But also through your imagination. Poetry is mostly engaging your right brain
in which is image, experience, emotion, feeling sensory. Then discourse is
mostly left brain, which is also about patterns like in narrative but in a more
Jon: It's connected to the logical and it's connected to language. All language is
going through your left brain. So you can't read language without engaging
your left brain. The whole to brain thing is very interesting. You know how
people say, like, "I'm more left brain or more right brain?"
Tim: Oh, that's not true. Everybody's using their whole brain.
Jon: Everyone's using the whole brain unless you've severed your - What is it
called? Whatever. That thick cable of brain that connects your two
hemispheres. If that's been severed, then you're in trouble. There's been a ton
of interesting studies on people who have a suffered brain. But everyone has
that thick cable and so you can use both sides of your brain.
But it is true the hemispheres they have disciplines that they do it much
better than. The language goes through your left hemisphere, but experience
an emotion is more generated from your right hemisphere.
Tim: I feel like you would know more about this than I do, about the unique—
Jon: Cerebral cortex. That's it.
Tim: Who was it? Was it Aristotle or Plato, who said, "What makes humans is that
there's a reasoning animal"? Humans uniquely are able to abstract things,
ideas into this symbolic and then create whole hypothetical chains of cause
and effect to try and illuminate a decision before me. "Do I take this? Do I eat
this berry? Do I not eat this berry? Or do I swim in that lake or do I not?"
Humans uniquely have this ability to create this elaborate cause-effect
Jon: It doesn't seem like we know exactly how uniquely because we don't
experience life like animals, or as CS Lewis wished animals wrote stories, so
we could know.
Tim: Maybe it's not a difference in kind, but maybe just some degree?
Jon: Well, yeah, there's definitely a difference. It's like we have language the other
animals don't have, which allows us to understand things in a much more
abstract way and create more concepts. And then we have the ability to think
about life as a story. So the past it can then inform how we think about now
and the future, and then we can imagine futures and work towards futures.
Animals just don't do that. Like a squirrel when it's burying a nut isn't thinking
like, "Hey, next summer, or next winner, I'm going to be so glad I buried this
nut." It actually just has this instinctual urge to bury the nut. And it doesn't
know why. Most likely the case. I don't actually know. Never been a squirrel.
Tim: That's it. Something about humans to a degree that no other species on the
planet does, we're able to abstract out cause-effect patterns in long chains to
motivate behavior that makes no sense.
Jon: And we're constantly telling ourselves stories of why things happened and
creating meaning through the stories so that we can have motivation to
continue. Animals just don't do that.
One really interesting thing I've been thinking about is, there's a certain kind
of - what do they call it? Heuristics. There's a certain kind of heuristic. It's the
sunk cost...I don't know what they call it. But it's kind of like the sunk cost
heuristic, where it's like, if you've already put a bunch of energy into
something, you're now more committed to that thing. So even if now it's not
going to work out, it's harder for you to abandon that project because you've
put so much energy into it. It doesn't make sense logically—
Tim: Oh, sure. It becomes utterly irrational why you'd keep doing that thing.
Jon: But to us, we've attached so much meaning to all of our labor and we've told
the story about why it's so important, we can't abandon it. And humans just
do this all the time. Where like a dog won't do it.
Like if a dog's been sitting at a certain door waiting for days for the store to
open for to get a treat, and he's just waiting and waiting and waiting and it
never happens, and then the door opens like 10 feet away, a different door,
the dog's not going to be like, "I'm just committed to this door, though."
The dog will never do that. It'll just go to the next other. "Oh, there's a treat
over there." But humans will actually do that. They'll just sit there like, "No, I'm
committed to this store." Why do we do that? It's we're attaching all this
meaning to it. This might be more about story than actually discourse at this
Tim: Well, but there, I think the point is that we've abstracted the value of sitting at
the door. It may be a bigger story about it, but the point is we've turned the
value into an idea that we use to motivate ourselves. I like the squirrel
analogy too. On a basic level, we're impulse sensory creatures also, and so
maximize pleasure, and minimize pain.
Jon: The lizard brain.
Tim: Yeah. But we will also deprive ourselves of pleasure for some long-term goal
and will convince ourselves to do it based on an abstract set of reasoning.
Jon: That is the difference between the lizard brain and the neocortex. All animals
have a neocortex. Even like a mouse, it's like the size of a postage stamp. It's
very thin, and it's a small covering of their brain, but it's that neocortex that
allows them to observe the things have happened and then learn from it. A
lizard can't do that. A lizard all instinctual.
Tim: It's always in the moment impulse, you are saying?
Jon: Yeah. It can't observe another lizard do something unique and go, "Oh, I
should do that." A mouse can. A mouse can observe another mouse do
something and go, "Oh, interesting. I should do that," and learn from
experience. That's because of the neocortex. Then humans have this thing
folded neocortex. We've got this massive one that's all over the brain.
Tim: In terms of biblical literature, this is fascinating. Think of a letter like
Ephesians, which was the first...it's what we studied when we were introduced
how to study this type of literature. It's a great example of prose discourse
that's designed to persuade through information and then change of
behavior because it's cleanly broken into two halves connected by the word
"therefore" at the beginning of the second half in chapter 4.
The first half, actually it has a poem opening and closing it. It has a lot of
storytelling within it, but basically telling the story of Israel as the covenant
people, and then how through the Messiah, Gentiles, non-Jews are now
included in the covenant Family of God, and he's brought eternal life, and he's
defeated evil, and he's created a new family. That's more story driven, but he
has full of there for us.
But then chapter 4, it says, "Therefore." And then he gets pretty abstract. He
starts talking about "keep your unity." He's writing to a multi-ethnic
community. Think of impulse behavior, like attracts like. It's a very strong
behavior. And ethnic groups keep kind of high boundaries around
themselves. And then the Greco Roman world of Paul's day, it's a very multiethnic
Jon: Your lizard brain will tell you not to trust people that aren't like you.
Tim: Don't trust people that aren't like you. What Paul was able to accomplish was
communities that intentionally remove the barrier as he talked about in
chapter two, remove the ethnic barrier to realize their common humanity in
the Messiah. That they are actually one new humanity made up of all kinds of
So he starts saying, "Listen, we have one faith, one Lord, one baptism, one
God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all." Sounds like
Holy Spirit language. One spirit. Then just on the basis of those ideas, he was
able to create communities of people who chose to override one of the most
basic human impulses, which is to withdraw from people who aren't like you.
Such a powerful example. It's like eating. Such a powerful impulse.
Humans are able to override...
Jon: With rationality.
Tim: ...by means of rational chains of thought to override our basic bodily or our
most basic impulses. And that's the power of this literature is it gets you to
think in new ways to accomplish change on a fundamental level in the lives of
the people who read this. That's all what Paul's letters are designed. All these
letters in the New Testament engage your brain to invite you to do a new
story turned into a set of ideas that you then turn to motivated whole
different course of action. That too is a quarter of the Bible literature.
It's very much in the first century. It's no joke that most of it is in the New
Testament letters. Those letters are influenced by conventions of Greek and
Roman letter writing, Greek and Roman argument and philosophy.
Here's the interesting exercise. Paul grew up in Tarsus and so people have
tried to reconstruct what his education would have been like because as an
educated Jewish man, cosmopolitan, Tarsus. Man, you go through it and you
read some of the classic educational texts that people were raised on and you
feel like...so there's one in Seneca.
Jon: He would have been reading Seneca?
Tim: Correct. Seneca, Tacitus. No. Was he later? I forget. There's a set of my
Amazon wish list. It's about four books. The first time I read this it was
reading a section of Seneca and I felt like I was reading the letter to the
Romans. The idioms, the manner of speech and "What should we say then? In
light of this, tell me this. Do you say this? I tell you this. But if that is so how
can this be?" You feel like, "Oh, that's how Paul writes."
Then you realize like, "Oh my gosh, where did he learn how to write? He went
to school." And how did you learn back then? You just immerse yourself in
the educational classics.
That's a good example where the writing didactic reasoning style of prose
discourse of the New Testament is very much this melting pot of Jewish
biblical culture and imagination merged with the Greek philosophical
Tim: Yeah, it's really cool. Anyway, all that say this literature makes you think and
makes you think in deeper ways than you probably would normally. And
that's his goal is to engage your brain so that you'll make new different kinds
Jon: Thanks for listening to The Bible Project podcast. We'll be continuing this
series on How to Read the Bible through this summer. It's also a series on our
YouTube channel. You can check that out at youtube.com/thebibleproject. All
these resources are free, and it's thanks to your generous support. So thanks
for being a part of this.