The Apostle Paul told his younger friend Timothy that “all Scripture is breathed out by God” (2 Tim. 3:16). Paul meant that the Bible is God’s communication to humans like us (see Matt. 5:17; Mark 13:31; Rev. 22:18–19). In sixty-six books, God himself has shared what he has intended us to know. But it’s not always easy to figure this out. Why? Because there are different types of literature in the Bible: not just stories and not only commands.
What is Genre?
Literary “genre” refers to a type of writing characterized by a particular form and content. When we can distinguish the various genres in Scripture, this helps us interpret the Bible more accurately and not confuse what God wants us to hear.
In a recent blog, we covered genres in the Old Testament. But there are also four genres used in the New Testament:
The Gospels are the first four books of the New Testament: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Although the Gospels are similar to other ancient historical biographies, they are also unique.
- As histories, the Gospels root Jesus’ life-story within first-century Judaism during the Graeco-Roman civilization. Still, they have a distinct bias (which is not a bad thing).
- As biographies, the Gospels include biographical material on Christ, but they are more than memoirs.
The overriding purpose of these “Gospels” is to explain and praise the person and work of Jesus. The Gospels include both doctrine (theological teaching) and narrative (stories). Still, they are far more action-packed than a customary historical narrative.
Also significant are Christ’s miracles and encounters with individuals interspersed with his teachings in parables (another type of genre with a specific purpose)and discourses (long speeches). But most significantly, the Gospels announce the good news of salvation through Jesus. They call for a decision on the part of the reader that can lead to faith in Jesus Christ: John even points out that this is why he wrote his gospel (John 20:31)!
The “Acts of the Apostles” is the second of a two-volume work written by Luke: the first “volume” is what we know as the Gospel of Luke, and the second volume is what we know as the book of Acts. While Acts is a unique genre, it shares features with Hellenistic (Greek) writings, the Old Testament, and the Gospel genre.
- Like other Hellenistic writings, the author Luke gives Acts a preface with a formal dedication (to a person named “Theophilus,” Acts 1:1). And Hellenistic historical works also included formal speeches, tales of voyages, and the different episodes in both friendly and hostile circumstances like are mentioned in Acts.
- The Old Testament profoundly impacted Acts: both with extensive Old Testament quotations, but also by including Old Testament-like “divine commissioning narratives” (when either God or his angel appears to a human, gives them a task, and assures them of God’s presence) like when the apostles are in jail (Acts 5:17-21) or Paul experiences one of these commissions (Acts 16:6-10).
- The Gospel genre also influenced Acts: it parallels Luke’s story of Jesus, and it also tells the stories of Peter’s and Paul’s miracles, defenses, and sufferings. And Acts interprets all of history as ultimately under the direction of a sovereign God.
3. Letters (Epistles)
An “epistle” is a letter presented as a message from God with the authors writing under the Holy Spirit’s inspiration (see 2 Tim. 3:16; 2 Pet. 1:20-21). And there are the twenty-one epistles to various churches or individuals in the New Testament (Romans through Jude in your table of contents).
These letters have an established first-century literary form consisting of four standard elements:
- Salutation (greeting) (“Grace to you and peace…” Phil. 1:2)
- A thanksgiving prayer on behalf of the readers (“I thank my God in all my remembrance of you…” Phil. 1:3)
- The body, which is the main point of the letter (“I want you to know…” Phil. 1:12)
- Farewell (“Greet every saint...The brothers who are with me greet you…” Phil. 4:21-23)
How should we read these letters written to someone else? The person (usually an apostle) writing the letter instructs in two ways:
- First, they explain certain truths or doctrines, often giving logical support for those truths (e.g.: Rom. 1-11)
- Then, based on this instruction, they encourage or advise the readers to follow specific courses of action or develop certain characteristics (e.g.: Rom. 12-16).
As you read these letters, try to catch turning points of the letter from instruction to the application, like in Romans:
“I appeal to you, therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God [because of the instruction of the previous chapters], to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship [now to apply these truths in certain ways]” (Rom. 12:1-2).
Finally, the fourth New Testament genre is actually a genre that is also used in the Old Testament occasionally: “apocalyptic.” The Book of Revelation is an apocalyptic work that:
- Reveals the future given by God (Rev. 1:1)
- Through a mediator or an angel (Rev. 1:1; 22:16)
- Who delivers the disclosure to a seer/prophet (Rev. 1:1)
- In visions (Rev. 1:10)
- Using symbolism (Rev. 1:20; 7:4–8)
These writings aren’t intended to be used to predict the precise date when the end of the world will happen. But they are designed to encourage us to endure to the end of our lives and be ready for Jesus to come in God’s perfect time. Apocalyptic writings were written during a time of persecution or crisis (Rev. 1:9) with a central theme or message. Revelation's central message is an incredible ending to the Bible: the final triumph of God over the evil kingdoms of the earth (Rev. 1:1; 19:17–21).
Having an idea of literary genre is an essential ingredient in understanding the various books of Scripture. If we misunderstand the genre, we risk misunderstanding the meaning that the author intended (both to their original audience and applying it to our lives!). But once we get the genre, God speaks even more clearly to us and helps us find our next steps in knowing and following him.