An Overview of New Testament Literature
There are five major kinds of literature in the New Testament. They are:
Gospels are lopsided biographies of Jesus with a focus on meeting the need of the specific audience to which each was written. We must remember that Jesus did not write any of the gospels. These are books about his life and ministry. The Gospels were interested in retelling the story of Jesus to meet the needs of the second-generation communities that did not speak Aramaic and did not live in a Jewish rural or agricultural setting. They were originally meant for believers in Rome, Ephesus, or Antioch. In these settings, the Gospel was encountering an urban, pagan environment. The Gospels themselves function as a hermeneutical model for today’s reader. By their very nature, they demonstrate for us the need to retell the story in our own twenty-first-century context. Two things are important when reading the Gospels: Jesus’ own historical setting and the historical setting of the author.
When I first started working for John Wimber, I drove eighty miles one way to meet with him. One evening, the day before I was to have our weekly writing project meeting, I was feeling that evening on the verge of what I thought might be the flu. I called John and asked if we could postpone the next day meeting. He responded:
How about this: Read the complete book of Mark and pay attention to every healing story, noting what Jesus said or did or said and did. Think about it before you move on. Do what Jesus did in those encounters for yourself. What a novel idea, I thought. I said thank you, hung up the phone, found my reading Bible, and began reading. It took several hours. When I finished, I went to bed. The next morning I woke up completely symptom free. I called him and he told me to take the day off and he would see me the next day.
I have never forgotten that encounter with the Gospel of Mark. One of the reasons, it was such a simple thing to do.
Go ahead, give it a try, not just for physical healing but for any healing that you might need right now.
If you want to read Mark’s Story of Jesus, Here’s A Reader’s Guide to help you along for a more thorough reading of Mark. Click here, which will take you to a list of Biblical Studies, then on that page scroll down until you see the graphic below, then click the line below the graphic.
Parables are cultural stories told by Jesus to present the truth about him and the kingdom of God. Over one-third of the teachings of Jesus found in the Synoptic Gospels is parabolic. What is a parable? The English dictionaries usually define parable as: “a short allegorical story, designed to convey some truth or moral lesson,” or, “a brief story using events or facts of everyday life to illustrate a moral or spiritual truth.” Parables are more versatile than just a simple concept or story with a moral or spiritual truth. Frequently, a parable is not a story at all! There is a broad spectrum within the NT writings also:
- A Proverb: Luke 4.23;
- A Metaphor: Mark 7.14-17;
- A Similitude: (An expanded simile) Mark 4.26-32;
- A Story Parable: Luke 14.16-24;
- An Example Parable: Luke 10.29-37; or
- An Allegory: (There is great debate over whether any of the parables of Jesus are allegorical in nature.
A safe rule is that when Jesus treats a parable as such and gives an interpretation—it is safe to follow his interpretation. One should not decide, however, that because Jesus did this on occasion, that it should be done to each and every parable. What Jesus did, do; what Jesus did not, do not!) Mark 4.3-9.
One can see from this overview that a parable is more than a simple story with a moral attached. You could define parable, as a figure of speech in which there is a brief or extended comparison.
Acts is a narrative written to encourage, to inform, and offer an apologetic. Luke was a Gentile whose writings are an excellent illustration of Hellenistic historiography. This was a kind of history writing which flourished from 300 BC — AD 200. This style of history writing was not just a chronicle of past accounts; it was written to entertain (be good reading) as well as to inform, or offer an apologetic. The two volumes which Luke wrote, i.e., Luke-Acts, fits into this category of writing very well. You must bear in mind that Luke is writing a theological history, not unlike the Former Prophets in the Old Testament. Therefore, you do not only need to know what happened but the purpose which Luke had in mind when he selected and shaped the material in the fashion he did. What was Luke’s purpose? To understand Acts is to understand Luke’s interest in the church’s movement from Jerusalem to Rome, which was orchestrated by the Holy Spirit. To miss this point is to miss the point of the book.
Letters were written to solve problems within various churches of the first century. Twenty-one of the New Testament books are letters (exceptions: the four Gospels, Acts, and Revelation). However, Revelation contains the seven letters to the seven churches. Acts contains the letter sent by the Council of Jerusalem to the churches of Asia Minor (15.23-29) and the letter sent by Claudius Lysias to Felix (23.26-30). There are some general things one should observe concerning letters. Letters were actual letters. Some were more personal than others. They were not necessarily written for the public or for posterity (Luke 1.1-4; Romans 16.22; 2 Peter 3.14-16). The form of the letters followed the same pattern:
- Name of the writer;
- Name of the one receiving the letter;
- A greeting;
- A prayer, wish, or thanksgiving;
- the body of the letter; and
- the final greeting and goodbye.
In the case of the New Testament letters, they were to solve problems. Usually, the letters were to solve some kind of behavior that needed correcting, or a doctrinal error that needed to be set straight, or some misunderstanding, which needed further discussion. In the letters, we have the answers; what we do not have are the questions. You must remember that when the writers of the letters were writing, they were not writing theological treatises. They were not saying everything that they knew concerning the subject at hand. The Letter to the Ephesians, for example, is not a complete theology of Paul on the body of Christ. The letters are theological. They present God’s solutions to the specific problems.
Click here to read the letter to Jude. The click will take you to an online version and display it for you without chapters or verses marked. Remember, those verse markers came some 1600 years later. Enjoy reading a New Testament letter close to the way the congregations to whom Jude wrote would have read it. Enjoy!
Revelation is a combination of three kinds of literature:
- Apocalyptic: This style of literature was concerned with the coming judgment and salvation of God’s people. It saw no hope in the system of the world as it stood and projected a violent and radical end of history. In its place was a new world completely controlled by good. The author expressed this in symbols and images.
- Prophetic: Prophecy was a word from God for the present situation of the hearers.
- Letter: It is sent by the author to a specific group of people.
The Book of Revelation is the NT representative of the apocalyptic type of literature. There was a great mass of apocalyptic literature during the intertestamental time. It is the literature composed of dreams and visions.
Events were written in code. They were deliberately couched in language which, was unintelligible to an outsider, and a message of hope and encouragement to live patiently in the interim between the dark present and the glorious future.
There are six features, which historically mark most examples of apocalyptic literature:
- Visionary Experience;
- Ancient Names such as Enoch, Abraham, Moses, and Ezra to conceal the identity of the writer;
- Despair: The apocalyptic writers were pessimistic. They saw no hope of restoration;
- A cosmic struggle between God and the devil;
- The language used is symbolic and dramatic.
- Angels and demons engage one another through the medium of mythological and zoological figures, such as dragons, monsters, members of the animal kingdom, and species of reptiles.
If you want to read and listen to a renderinging of Revelation Click Here, which will take you to a list of Biblical Studies, then on that page scroll down until you see the graphic below then click the line below the graphic.
Figures of Speech
Literary devices are words or phrases and sometimes sentences, which usually have a cultural significance and mean something quite different than the definition of the words at face value. Scripture uses many colorful images, which are drawn from a multitude of places. There are business images like steward and servant. There are domestic images like groom and bride or father and child. Any discerning student of Scripture should be aware of these forms and observe them in his or her study. Here are a few common ones:
Simile: The comparison of two things employing the words as or like. He is as strong as an ox. (Psalm 1.3; 5.12; 17.8; Acts 2.1ff.);
Metaphor: The comparison of two things by direct assertion without using as or like. (Psalm 23.1, 84.11; Jer. 2.13)
Hyperbole: This figure of speech is an exaggeration for effect. Jesus adopted the rabbinic tool as one of his main teaching methods. Many serious errors are made by not understanding this literary device. As an example, to give one’s cloak if only asked for a tunic (Matt. 5.39-40); does not teach the limits of a servant’s attitude but teaches service. (Deut. 1.28; Psalm 6.6; Matt. 5.30; John 21.25)
Metonymy: The use of the name of one thing for that of another, associated with or suggested by it. Today, the White House said. In the OT throne in 1 Chronicles 17.12 equals kingship, key in Isaiah 22.22 is equal to authority. (Luke 24.27; Rom. 3.27-30; Jude 3)
Synecdoche (si-nek’-de-ke): The representation in which a part is used for a whole or a whole is used for a part. (Judges 12.7; Isa. 2.4; Joel 3.10; Micah 4.3)
Personification: Applying personality traits to things or ideas. (Psalm 35.10, 114; Isa. 55.12b; Matt. 6.34)
Apostrophe: The addressing of imaginary objects. (Psalm 114.5)
Irony: A method of humorous or sarcastic expression in which the intended meaning of the words used are in direct opposition of their usual sense. 1 (Gen. 3.22; 37.19; 1 Cor. 4.8-13)
Euphemism: The substitution of a word or phrase that is less direct because the writer believes that the direct form would be distasteful, offensive, or unnecessarily harsh. (Lev. 18.6ff. RSV)
Litotes (lit’-e’-tez): An understatement for effect. (Acts 15.2, 27.20)
|Living into the Text!|
It is always important to live into what you have learned. Pause at this point and ask for the help of the Holy Spirit to meditate on and put into practice some or all of the following.
- Why is the historical setting of Jesus and the historical setting of the author important when trying to understand the Gospels?
- How would understanding that Parables are not stories that present a spiritual truth reflect in your comprehension of the Parable?
- How should understanding that Luke wrote a theological history change the way in which you grasp the meaning of the stories in the book of Acts?
- Why is it important to understand the problem that the letters addressed in order to comprehend the content of the letter?
- Since Revelation is a book whose character is that of dreams and visions, what cautions should we take not to find in the words some exact literal meaning?
- How does understanding figures of speech keep a reader from making the text say something that it does not intend to say?
The articles below come from various Bible Dictionaries and other sources. The posting of these brief articles are to introduce some readers to the vast amount of information that is provided to enhance your reading of the text of the Bible with a hope that it will lead to a better understanding of the text and will lead the reader to an improved praxis in his or her community of faith and personal life. You might read the articles offline in a number of different Bible Dictionaries. If you do not own a Bible Dictionary, I would recommend New Bible Dictionary 3rd Edition. If you like lots of color pictures, try Revell Bible Dictionary. Revell Bible Dictionary is no longer in print but is available from Amazon. One of these should suit your personal needs. Another option is Baker’s Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology, which is one of the most useful and practical theological reference books online. With bibliographies for most entries, further reading help and study is very practical.
Elwell, Walter A. “Gospel” Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology. 1996.
Elwell, Walter A. “Parable” Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology. 1996.
Elwell, Walter A. “Luke-Acts, Theology of.” Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology. 1996.
Pratt, Dwight M. “Letters” International Standard Bible Encyclopedia. Public Domain.
Beasley-Murray, George. “Apocalyptic/Revelation” Holman Bible Dictionary. 1991
- John J. Collins. Apocalypse, Prophecy, and Pseudepigraphy: On Jewish Apocalyptic Literature. William B. Eerdmans. 2015. 104. ↩