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?
The Gospels, while biographic, are not biographies. A biography is concerned with the cradle to grave events of a person’s life and, while it may present many facts, does so with a slant, either turning the person into a near perfect hero, or portraying him as a villain. The four Gospels are remarkably thin on details about Jesus: what he looked like, his childhood or young adulthood, his family relationships, his work… Instead, after briefly touching on his supernatural birth (in two of the Gospels only), they launch right into Jesus’ three-year teaching and healing ministry and before you know it, you’ve reached the week before Jesus’ crucifixion which, in the case of Mark, takes up fully the second half of the book. Then it’s on to the resurrection and you’re left to draw your own conclusions. While our modern biographies usually try to give a chronology of the person’s life, the Gospels are more concerned with persuading us of Jesus’ identity as the Son of God.
The epistles are written by Paul, James, Peter, John, Jude and an unknown writer. They are usually structured in two parts, first the theology, and second, its practical application for the church group or the individual. The one outlier is the Epistle to the Hebrews. There’s an interesting case for Hebrews being the transcript of a series of talks, since structurally it is divided into three parts that each follow the theology-application structure. Most of the epistles are written to church groups, though some are to individuals. Many of them are written to Gentile groups, though some have a specifically Jewish audience.
Last, the book of Revelation is unique in the New Testament with its weird imagery and terrifying end-of-the-world prophecies. The Greek word for this text is “apocalypse” which literally means the pulling back of the veil. In the visions John relays to us, we get a glimpse of reality as God sees it, we get to see behind the curtain. To interpret Revelation, it’s important to read it along with Daniel, Ezekiel and Zechariah, Old Testament prophets who saw a similar vision of the end times.
As we did for the Old Testament, let’s take a look at the genres of the various books and then I’ll propose some questions for guiding your reading of each genre.
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.