Whenever you’re reading the Bible, it’s essential to know the kind of genre or type of literature that you are reading. This is particularly important if you’re trying to interpret scripture.
Knowing what kind of literature you are reading helps you to understand and make sense of the text you are reading. If you don’t, that’s how you can end up making certain judgments of the text that are unjustified, or getting the wrong interpretation.
When reading a book of the Bible, we need to understand why the author has written this. Is it written for a particular purpose or audience? Often you’ll find a quick introduction to a book in a study Bible laying out its intention. However, you can also research this online.
What are the different types of literary genres in the Bible and how should we read them?
For a quick overview, be sure to download a mind map cheat sheet I’ve created of the 6 main literary genres in the Bible.
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6 MAIN LITERARY GENRES IN THE BIBLE
1. Narrative/ historical
The Bible contains narrative throughout most of its books. These report accounts or stories of events or people as they encounter God, sin against each other or live out their lives. It records historical accounts of events as well as providing descriptions of what is happening in particular scenes.
Narrative is relatively straight forward to read. However, we need to be able to see the big picture and God’s redemptive work and purpose throughout to see the proper context. Throughout these narratives, there are many examples of God’s people who fell away from God and then returned repeatedly in repentance as God sought to draw them back to him. This is a distinct pattern that occurs time and time again.
When we read, we must see where they went wrong and learn from their mistakes and avoid their pitfalls, while following their examples when they have done something right.
Within this genre are two sub-genres: law and history.
Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy are the first five books of the Old Testament. These are usually referred to as the Pentateuch.
These take the forms of detailed commands and prescriptions on how to live. In particular, these focus on how to worship God and how to act towards our neighbours, which you’ll find in Exodus.
In Leviticus, it really gets down to the nitty gritty. You’ll find detailed instructions on keeping the law, observing various rituals in order to keep a strict adherence, and the consequences for disobeying the law. Some of these might not even seem relevant to readers of the Bible today but written for a specific time and audience. This is one of the questions we must ask when reading the law. Does the writer intend for it to be universally applicable or simply for a particular audience?
Although I’ve listed this under law, this still contains historical narrative and we should read it as such. The reason I’ve put them under this category is because it became common to find Greek and Latin Bibles referring to the first five books of the Bible as the Law.
The Old Testament is full of historical narrative. Genesis and Exodus which describe the beginnings of the people of Israel, their exile in the land of Egypt and Moses giving them the law. You can see a distinct difference between books like Exodus, which largely relates events, and Leviticus, which mostly lays out prescriptions.
Later books such as Judges, Ruth, 1 and 2 Kings and 1 and 2 Chronicles also expand upon the history of God’s people. Another common feature is genealogies which are long lists of people with unusual names, all forming a long line of descendants.
When you come to the New Testament, Matthew and Luke’s Gospels also include the genealogies of Jesus. The Acts of the Apostles relates the history of the early church and God’s power at work through the disciples.
The Bible contains poetic literature, often found in the Old Testament in the form of Hebrew poetry. This isn’t purely poetry in the way we might understand it in modern literature today. Hebrew poetry employs various devices to get their point across. These include books like Psalms (which are essentially a bunch of songs) and the Song of Solomon (which is almost like a collection of love letters where two people are expressing their feelings for one another).
There are also parts of other books of the Bible which include poetic elements such as in Isaiah or Jeremiah.
3. Wisdom literature
This includes books like Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and Job. Proverbs comprises of many wise sayings that offer advice for different types of situations.
With books like Ecclesiastes and Job, we need to understand who is speaking or expressing their views. The protagonists are not necessarily always correct in what they are thinking.
For example, Job is often in despair and in anguish about his situation. As such, we need to bear this in mind in his tone and content. His friends aren’t always offering the best advice either.
Ecclesiastes offers a philosophical introspection and contemplation of life. We need to understand that the main protagonist of the story often has two opposing view points or perspectives on life. Sometimes he’s looking at life under the sun, which leads him to despair. Other times he rises above that and sees life from “above the sun” – ie God’s perspective.
That means that when we read these books, we need to take this into account, otherwise we can simply adopt the wrong conclusions about life or about what is truth.
That doesn’t mean that the books as a whole are not true or the Word of God. The characters here are offering differing or opposing points of views. This acts as a literary device to contrast it with the truth that underlies it all.
Prophecy in the Bible often takes the form of oracles or visions. In these, the prophet reveals hidden knowledge of God and his plans.
Prophecy appears in many books of the Old Testament. The prophetic Old Testament books are divided into the 4 major prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Daniel) and the 12 minor prophets (eg Hosea, Obadiah, Micah and others). However, there is also prophecy in the New Testament such as Revelation. This actually belongs in a special category of prophecy known as Apocalypse. Apocalypse contains far more symbolism than the usual prophetic writings. Parts of Daniel fall into this category as well.
In addition, there are several instances of prophecy within a book that is not specifically prophetic. For example, Jesus speaks of numerous prophetic future events in the gospels. He describes how the sun will grow dark, stars will fall from space etc. He also points to the coming of the Son of Man when Jesus himself returns in glory.
Much of prophecy employs language and vocabulary that is symbolic in nature. This makes it not straight forward to interpret. Some of these refer to future events yet to be fulfilled either in our own lifetime or centuries later. Others refer to things which already happened in the distant past, as far as we are concerned. And others still seem to refer to events which may be fulfilled in multiple ways at various points throughout history.
Although Gospels contain elements of historical narrative, they go beyond this, making them their own genre altogether. The purpose of the gospels is to proclaim Jesus and to point to him, his teaching and his works.
As Luke writes at the beginning of his gospel in Luke 1:1-4
“1 Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled[a] among us, 2 just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word.3 With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, 4 so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.”
John also writes in John 20:30-31
30 “Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. 31 But these are written that you may believe[a] that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”
Scholars often refer to John’s Gospel as a book of signs, as Jesus’ miracles (or signs) point to Jesus as Messiah.
Therefore when we read the gospels, although we read it as a historical narrative, we ultimately engage with it in a way that we may encounter Jesus as well, just like the disciples.
For a creative way to read gospels, check out my graphic novel version of Luke’s Gospel here.
Within the gospels is the literary sub-genre of parables.
Parables are found in Matthew, Mark and Luke’s gospel, but not in John’s gospel. They also appear in some places in the Old Testament. Jesus used this teaching method, telling vivid stories that captured the imagination to illustrate a point.
In Luke 8:10 (and parallel passages in Matthew and Mark), Jesus explains the purpose of parables to his disciples. He says
“The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of God has been given to you,but to others I speak in parables, so that,
“‘though seeing, they may not see;
though hearing, they may not understand.'”
Through the parables, Jesus revealed truths about the Kingdom of God to those who would believe. To others, the truth would remain hidden.
Over the centuries, various scholars and church leaders have sought to discover a deeper, esoteric truth in the parables. They believed that these stories contained allegorical details that actually pointed to other real life events. The Good Samaritan is one such example of this. People have tried to speculate what each of the characters and different items in the story represent.
However, other scholars such as CH Dodd in his book The Parables of the Kingdom, have argued that we should not assign allegorical interpretation to the parables. If we do so, we this can lead us to ridiculous conclusions. We can begin to treat them also as a hidden code, which is not what Jesus intended at all.
Instead, we should read them as demonstrating the point that Jesus himself was teaching in the Gospels.
6. Epistles/ Teaching
The New Testament contains a number of epistles or letters written by various apostles such as Paul, Peter or John to different audiences. These are usually either churches in a particular region or specific individuals.
These letters contain teaching and doctrine. These explain and elaborate on the truths of the Gospels and other parts of the Old Testament. Paul, for example, will often set things in their proper context to explain how we should understand certain events in the Old Testament.
In Romans, Paul makes reference to the law. He explains that it existed precisely to show that it was impossible to keep. No-one could become righteous through the law itself. It merely existed to act as a measure of how we would ultimately fall short.
In other letters such as those to Timothy or Titus, Paul is speaking words of encouragement, seeking to build others up in the faith. Throughout the letters, Paul also uses many “one another” statements which you can read about here.
The Acts of the Apostles provides much of the historical background to these letters, giving us a clue as to when and where they were written.
The epistles are a great place to start reading the Bible to understand Christian doctrine and get an overview of scripture. The writers go into a lot of detail. This makes it easier to understand the text compared to some other parts of the Bible.
It’s important to know the literary genre of the book we’re reading in the Bible. If we neglect this, it can lead to misunderstandings and wrong assumptions. We can also end up applying God’s word in the wrong way.
For an overview of all the books of the Bible, so that you can see where everything fits, I’ve created a printable mindmap cheat sheet. You can download this and stick on your wall for reference.
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Finally, which literary genre of the Bible do you find easiest to read and understand? And which one do you find the most difficult?
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Robert is the founder of Drawing on the Word. He has a Bachelor’s degree in Theology and a Master’s degree in Systematic Theology. He also has a degree in Law and was called to the Bar. Robert previously taught religious studies and was a theology lecturer. He is an artist, musician and writer, and has created a graphic novel version of Luke’s gospel. You can follow him below.