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Reading 8. An Overview of New Testament Literature

An Overview 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 twentieth-century context. Two things are important when reading the Gospels: Jesus’ own historical setting and the historical setting of the author.


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.” There is a wider variety of concepts than a simple 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 one 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. When Jesus did, do; when 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 b.c.–a.d. 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.


Revelation is a combination of three kinds of literature:

  1. 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.
  2. Prophetic: Prophecy was a word from God for the present situation of the hearers.
  3. 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. 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; 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. 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 in patience in the interim between the dark present and the glorious future.

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 to their usual sense. (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 uderstand 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.

Week 8: Studying Scripture

What is the Kingdom?

What is the Kingdom?

Realm. Kingdom is normally understood as a realm over which a king rules. A modern day example of this idea was the United Kingdom which was made up of many nations: Great Britain, Scotland, Ireland, Wales, etc. People live in the Kingdom (a place) and are subjects of the King or Queen who exercises his or her authority over his or her subjects.

Reign-Rule. Another way to view the idea of Kingdom is found in its dictionary definition: “The reign or rule a king has over his subjects.” This definition is closer to the primary meaning of the Hebrew and Greek words than the concept of realm. In Hebrew the word for Kingdom is malkût (mal-coot). The Greek word is basileia (bah-see-lay-a).

Synoptic Gospels


Week 8: Studying Scripture

Synoptic Gospels


Week 8: Studying Scripture

The Synoptic Gospels

Synoptic Gospels There are three Synoptic Gospels: Matthew, Mark, and Luke. From these three it appears that Mark was written first. Matthew and Luke used Mark as a source for part of their documents. They used a document often referred to as “Q” for the material which is similar in each of their books. Finally, they used a distinct source for their unique material.


© Dr. Winn Griffin. New Testament Survey: A Study Guide. 35. 1997

Synoptic Gospels There are three Synoptic Gospels: Matthew, Mark, and Luke. From these three it appears that Mark was written first. Matthew and Luke used Mark as a source for part of their documents. They used a document often referred to as “Q” for the material which is similar in each of their books. Finally, they used a distinct source for their unique material.


© Dr. Winn Griffin. New Testament Survey: A Study Guide. 35. 1997

Former Prophets


Week 8: Studying Scripture

Easton’s Bible Dictionary: Prophet

Prophet (Heb. nabi, from a root meaning “to bubble forth, as from a fountain,” hence “to utter”, comp. Ps. 45:1). This Hebrew word is the first and the most generally used for a prophet. In the time of Samuel another word, ro’eh, “seer”, began to be used (1 Sam. 9:9). It occurs seven times in reference to Samuel. Afterwards another word, hozeh, “seer” (2 Sam. 24:11), was employed. In 1 Ch. 29:29 all these three words are used: “Samuel the seer (ro’eh), Nathan the prophet (nabi’), Gad the seer” (hozeh). In Josh. 13:22 Balaam is called (Heb.) a kosem “diviner,” a word used only of a false prophet.


The “prophet” proclaimed the message given to him, as the “seer” beheld the vision of God. (See Num. 12:6, 8.) Thus a prophet was a spokesman for God; he spake in God’s name and by his authority (Ex. 7:1). He is the mouth by which God speaks to men (Jer. 1:9; Isa. 51:16), and hence what the prophet says is not of man but of God (2 Pet. 1:20, 21; comp. Heb. 3:7; Acts 4:25; 28:25). Prophets were the immediate organs of God for the communication of his mind and will to men (Deut. 18:18, 19). The whole Word of God may in this general sense be spoken of as prophetic, inasmuch as it was written by men who received the revelation they communicated from God, no matter what its nature might be. The foretelling of future events was not a necessary but only an incidental part of the prophetic office. The great task assigned to the prophets whom God raised up among the people was “to correct moral and religious abuses, to proclaim the great moral and religious truths which are connected with the character of God, and which lie at the foundation of his government.”


Any one being a spokesman for God to man might thus be called a prophet. Thus Enoch, Abraham, and the patriarchs, as bearers of God’s message (Gen. 20:7; Ex. 7:1; Ps. 105:15), as also Moses (Deut. 18:15; 34:10; Hos. 12:13), are ranked among the prophets. The seventy elders of Israel (Num. 11:16-29), “when the spirit rested upon them, prophesied;” Asaph and Jeduthun “prophesied with a harp” (1 Chr. 25:3). Miriam and Deborah were prophetesses (Ex. 15:20; Judg. 4:4). The title thus has a general application to all who have messages from God to men.


But while the prophetic gift was thus exercised from the beginning, the prophetical order as such began with Samuel. Colleges, “schools of the prophets”, were instituted for the training of prophets, who were constituted, a distinct order (1 Sam. 19:18-24; 2 Kings 2:3, 15; 4:38), which continued to the close of the Old Testament. Such “schools” were established at Ramah, Bethel, Gilgal, Gibeah, and Jericho. The “sons” or “disciples” of the prophets were young men (2 Kings 5:22; 9:1, 4) who lived together at these different “schools” (4:38-41). These young men were taught not only the rudiments of secular knowledge, but they were brought up to exercise the office of prophet, “to preach pure morality and the heart-felt worship of Jehovah, and to act along and co-ordinately with the priesthood and monarchy in guiding the state aright and checking all attempts at illegality and tyranny.”


In New Testament times the prophetical office was continued. Our Lord is frequently spoken of as a prophet (Luke 13:33; 24:19). He was and is the great Prophet of the Church. There was also in the Church a distinct order of prophets (1 Cor. 12:28; Eph. 2:20; 3:5), who made new revelations from God. They differed from the “teacher,” whose office it was to impart truths already revealed.


Of the Old Testament prophets there are sixteen, whose prophecies form part of the inspired canon. These are divided into four groups:


(1) The prophets of the northern kingdom (Israel), viz., Hosea, Amos, Joel, Jonah.


(2) The prophets of Judah, viz., Isaiah, Jeremiah, Obadiah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah.


(3) The prophets of Captivity, viz., Ezekiel and Daniel.


(4) The prophets of the Restoration, viz., Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi.




Old Testament Canon


Week 8: Studying Scripture

Hebrew Old Testament Canon

The Jewish form of the Old Testament is different from the form in the Protestant Bible. The Hebrew Bible contains three divisions: the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings. The first section (the Law) contains Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. This section is also called the Pentateuch or five books.


The Prophets has two divisions. First, the former prophets which contain Joshua, Judges, First and Second Samuel, and First and Second Kings. Second, the latter prophets which are Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the Twelve Prophets (Hosea through Malachi). The remainder of the Old Testament books are gathered in the Writings which has Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Esther, Daniel, Ezra-Nehemiah (one book) and First and Second Chronicles.

Claudius Lysias


Week 8: Studying Scripture

Easton’s Bible Dictionary: Claudius

Claudius — lame. (1) The fourth Roman emperor. He succeeded Caligula ( 41). Though in general he treated the Jews, especially those in Asia and Egypt, with great indulgence, yet about the middle of his reign ( 49) he banished them all from Rome (Acts 18:2). In this edict the Christians were included, as being, as was supposed, a sect of Jews. The Jews, however soon again returned to Rome.


During the reign of this emperor, several persecutions of the Christians by the Jews took place in the dominions of Herod Agrippa, in one of which the apostle James was “killed” (12:2). He died 54.


(2) Claudius Lysias, a Greek who, having obtained by purchase the privilege of Roman citizenship, took the name of Claudius (Acts 21:31–40; 22:28; 23:26).



Week 8: Studying Scripture

Easton’s Bible Dictionary: Felix

Felix — happy, the Roman procurator of Judea before whom Paul “reasoned” (Acts 24:25). He appears to have expected a bribe from Paul, and therefore had several interviews with him. The “worthy deeds” referred to in 24:2 was his clearing the country of banditti and impostors.


At the end of a two years’ term, Porcius Festus was appointed in the room of Felix (A.D. 60), who proceeded to Rome, and was there accused of cruelty and malversation of office by the Jews of Caesarea. The accusation was rendered nugatory by the influence of his brother Pallas with Nero. (See Josephus, Ant. xx. 8, 9.)


Drusilla, the daughter of Herod Agrippa, having been induced by Felix to desert her husband, the king of Emesa, became his adulterous companion. She was seated beside him when Paul “reasoned” before the judge. When Felix gave place to Festus, being “willing to do the Jews a pleasure,” he left Paul bound.

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