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.
Moses is another Old Testament figure who foreshadows Jesus Christ, like Joseph. In fact, the parallels are striking. While there are certainly major differences between the two—Jesus lived a sinless life; Moses killed a man; Moses establishes the moral and civil code of a nation; Jesus says his kingdom is not of this world—but in at least seven key ways, Moses’ life hints at the character and mission of the Messiah to come.
When I was twelve years old, we read a short story called The Scarlet Ibis by James Hurst in my Grade 7 English class. The dying ibis that lands in a tree in the backyard, my teacher explained, was an example of foreshadowing, the author letting us know in advance about the tragedy to come. I was entranced. To this day when someone mentions foreshadowing, I see a scarlet ibis in my mind.
The Bible is full of foreshadowing as well, but of a special kind. Throughout the Old Testament are figures whose lives predict to greater or lesser degree what the Christ would be like, called types. The first one we encounter is Joseph, around 1850 years B.C., whose life story shows four key aspects of Jesus’ character and mission.
One of the main poetic devices in Biblical poetry is a repetition of two or more ideas, called parallelism. Like most Hebrew poetic devices, this is hyper-translatable, since its beauty does not depend on the sounds of any given language. This is the major characteristic of Hebrew poetry and it parallelisms are used extensively in all the books of Wisdom and Prophets from Job to Malachi.
Have you ever been so excited you could hardly sleep? That’s what happened to me the night I noticed something amazing in John’s Gospel. Toward the end of writing my post on the seven signs in John’s Gospel, I saw there was yet another chiastic structure. The more I thought about it, the more I was blown away by both John’s message and his literary genius.
Take a look at the signs in order:
Ever wondered why John’s Gospel has such different feel than the other three, which we call “synoptic” or “same view”? For one, Matthew, Mark and Luke record many more of Jesus’ miracles without necessarily drawing lessons from them. In contrast, John says what he’s recording are signs, actions that symbolize some element of Jesus’ nature or mission or power. His account of Jesus’ three teaching and ministry years is a crescendo of miraculous events that culminates in the raising of Lazarus from the dead. Let’s take a look at all seven signs and what they say about Jesus.
Remember metaphors? My love is like a red, red rose. Oh wait, that’s a simile. A metaphor is You’re a three decker sauerkraut and toadstool sandwich with arsenic sauce. Just like You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch, John’s Gospel is full of sit-up-and-take-notice metaphors. In this post, I’d like to talk about the structure of the 7 metaphors and what that means for interpreting them. Here is the list in order of appearance:
John 6:35, 48, 51 I am the Bread of Life
John 9:5 I am the Light of the World
John 10: I am the Gate for the sheep
John 10:11, 14 I am the Good Shepherd
John 11:25 I am the Resurrection and the Life
John 14:6 I am the Way, the Truth and the Life
John 15:1 I am the True Vine
Did you ever have to write an acrostic poem in elementary school? You know, down the left side of the page you write your name and for each letter you write a word or phrase that describes you? I was never very impressed by our so-called poetic creations and I came to view acrostic poems as poetry-for-people-who-can’t-write-poetry.
Later, my opinion of acrostics recovered as I discovered poems where the initial letters didn’t stand out from the others and spelled a code or a series of words, such as in Geoffrey Trease’s Cue for Treason, or Lewis Carroll’s The Looking Glass. And the Bible is full of acrostics, too, though instead of spelling words, they are abecedarian, a list of the letters of the alphabet.
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.