There are three basic genres in the New Testament: history (Gospels & Acts), epistles and apocryphal prophecy. The Gospels are arranged in the order Jerome and other ancients thought they had been composed, Matthew first, John last. Then there is the book of Acts, written by Luke, that recounts the beginnings of the Christian church. The following books, or epistles, are arranged, oddly enough, from longest to shortest. The New Testament closes with a lengthy series of visions, a revelation, about the end of the world seen by the apostle John while he was exiled on the island of Patmos.
So what are the guiding principles for better understanding and appreciating our reading of each one?
Knowing the different genres found in the Bible can be helpful in understanding and interpreting them. Nothing ground-breaking here, as we tend to sense instinctively whether to take something literally or figuratively. Just as you wouldn’t read Pride and Prejudice (novel: romantic comedy) the same way you’d read Leaves of Grass (poetry), you don’t read Leviticus 3:16 (And the priest shall burn them on the altar as a food offering with a pleasing aroma. All fat is the Lord's.) the same way you would Proverbs 3:16 (Long life is in [wisdom’s] right hand; in her left hand are riches and honour). One passage is clearly prescriptive—do this, don’t do that—and the other is figurative, personifying wisdom as a woman bearing abstract gifts.
Genre was foremost on the minds of those who first compiled the different scrolls of the Scriptures into a fixed order. The Jewish Bible, or what Christians call the Old Testament, is called TaNaKh in Hebrew, a collection of three types of writings: Torah (Law), Nevi’im (Prophets) and Ketuvim (Writings). The Christian Old Testament books are arranged slightly differently, but the same basic groupings are preserved. Book by book, here’s a quick overview of the main genres you’ll find.
For a lot of people, the Bible is either art or truth. For me, it's both, and I hope to persuade readers in both camps to see the other perspective.