Suppose you were to consult the following in relation to your home town: the telephone directory, a daily newspaper, a biography of a local dignitary, and the annual report of the town council.  It is clear that these would all need to be read and used in different kinds of ways.  So it is with the different books of the Bible.  In seeking to understand and apply what we read in the Bible, we need to ask, “What kind of literature is this?”

1. History

Example: 1 Samuel 1:1-5

Includes: Joshua, Judges, 1 & 2 Samuel, 1 & 2 Kings, 1 & 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah.


Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings ‘cover the history of Israel from the time of the conquest of Canaan until the exile. It was a period of victory, success, decline and fall. Above all, the author wanted to demonstrate God’s hand and God’s purposes in all these historical events. In particular, these books are a commentary on kingship, an institution which ultimately failed, and yet which laid the basis for the Messianic hope.’ (New Bible Commentary)


There is no such thing as ‘simple”]’ history: all historical writing is selective, interpretative and purposive.  The historical books of the Bible are no exceptions.  The authors do not simply record events, but explain their significance and draw moral lessons.  The kings are not evaluated in terms of their political importance, but in terms of their devotion to the worship of Yahweh.  1 & 2 Chronicles cover similar ground to 1 & 2 Kings, but present David and Solomon as ‘ideal’ kings, in order to enourage and inspire.  Writing towards the end of the Old Testament period, and at a time of Persian dominance, the Chronicler cherished hopes of a restoration of Davidic rule, and he describes the glorious rule of David and Solomon in the past in terms of what he hopes for in the future.

To what extent are the biblical accounts of people and events normative?  After all, although there might be characteristics in Abraham, Moses, David or Peter that it might be right for us to emulate, there are others that we should avoid, lest we become impulsive, deceitful, adulterous murderers!  By the way, the honesty of the Bible about its main characters makes its presentation of Jesus all the more remarkable.

2. Law

Example: Exodus 21:33-34

Includes: Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy


We tend to think of laws as rules.  The biblical concept include these, but the word ‘Torah’ is wider, and stands for the entirety of God’s revelation.

Two common types of law are apodictic (“you shall…you shall not…”), and casuistic (“if a man…”)


Is the law directly applicable to us today?  Calvin distinguished between (a) the judicial law; (b) the ceremonial law; and (c) the moral law, suggesting that only the last of these is of permanent and universal application.

3. Poetry

Example: Psalm 110:1-3

Although the book of Psalms is the most obvious example, poetry is remarkable prevalent throughout scripture.


Hebrew poetry is characterised chiefly

  • not by rhyme (phonetic agreement; parallelism of sound)
  • or rhythm (metric agreement; parallelism of time)
  • but by parallelism of thought

In other words, thoughts are expressed which complement, complete or contrast with each other.

A well-known modern example:-

We shall fight them on the beaches,
We shall fight them on the landing grounds,
We shall fight them in the fields and the streets.

Among the several varieties are

Synonymous, in which the second thought echoes the first:

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways,”
declares the LORD.

There is a whole run of these in Psalm 19:7-9:

The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul.
The statutes of the LORD are trustworthy, making wise the simple”].
The precepts of the LORD are right, giving joy to the heart.
The commands of the LORD are radiant, giving light to the eyes.
The fear of the LORD is pure, enduring forever.
The ordinances of the LORD are sure and altogether righteous.

Synthetic, in which the second thought completes the first

Psalm 55:6

Oh, that I had the wings of a dove!
I would fly away and be at rest.

Antithetical, in which the second thought contrasts with the first, (there is much of this type in Proverbs)

Proverbs 13:10

Pride only breeds quarrels,
but wisdom is found in those who take advice.

Climactic, in which second and subsequent thoughts build on the first in a step-wise fashion.

Psalm 29:1

Ascribe to the LORD, O mighty ones,
ascribe to the LORD glory and strength.
Ascribe to the LORD the glory due his name;

Chiastic, which might, for example, consist of four thoughts: thought 1 is completed by thought 4, and thought 2 is completed by thought 3.

Matthew 7:6 –

a1Do not give dogs what is sacred;
b1do not throw your pearls to pigs.
b2If you do, they may trample them under their feet,
a2and then turn and tear you to pieces.

Many other sayings of Jesus are reminiscent of Old Testament poetry, Mt 10:39; John 10:14-15; Mt 10:39; Mark 10:45; Luke 14:11; 13:30.


When we read poetry, we expect to have our imaginations excited, and our feelings roused.  A woodenly literal reading is simply not appropriate.  Biblical poetry is packed with vivid and memorable figures of speech.  Particular care needs to be taken to determine what the so-called ‘imprecatory’ psalms’ do and do not mean.

4. Prophecy

Example: Amos 8:4-10

Includes: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel


Biblical prophecy first of all ‘forth-telling’, and only secondly ‘foretelling’.  Even then, most of the ‘foretelling’ announced events relating to the immediate, rather than the long-term, future of Israel, Judah and other nations.  But some of the prophecies are set against a background of great events in the more distant future.


It is rather easy to come unstuck on the subject of biblical prophecy.  On the one hand, there are those for whom biblical prophecy is little more than enlightened social comment.  On the other hand, there are those who ignore the original setting and message, and treat prophecy as some kind of cryptic puzzle, whose solution results in a detailed programme of future events.

5. Wisdom

Example: Proverbs 10:107

Includes: Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes


The Book of Proverbs deals with the practical issues of everyday life: friendship, anger, slothfulness, eating and drinking, family relationships, envy, pride, the tongue, riches and poverty, truthfulness, and so on.

On the other hand, the Book of Job deals with the profound question of the fairness of God’s dealings with humankind.

Ecclesiastes sets out a stark case for the pointlessness of life.


What does the ‘mundane’ advice that we find in many of the Proverbs tell us about our habit of separating the sacred and the secular?

What can we learn from the doubt that is expressed in Job, and the cynicism that we find in Ecclesiastes?

6. Gospels and Acts


Matthew: emphasises that in Jesus the Scripture has been fulfilled, 1:23; 2:6,15,18; 414-16 etc.  Divides Jesus’ teaching into five blocks.

Mark: contains many hints that it is based on Peter’s eyewitness testimony.  The vigorous, pacey (frequent use of the ‘historical present’) style fits what we know of Peter’s personality.  See, for example, 4:35-41.

Luke: Luke is mentioned three times by name in the NT – Col 4:14; 2 Tim 4:9-11; Phile 24.  From these references we know that he was a physician and that he was a good friend of Paul.  He is also mentioned in connection with Mark (2 Tim 4:9-11; Phile 24).  It is quite possible that this association prompted him to write a Gospel which added the results of his own researches to Mark’s Gospel.

Luke shows great concern for the needy and the disadvantaged.  He pays much attention to women, to the poor and the outcasts, and to those in any kind of trouble.  Based on careful research, 1:1-4 (do we hear echoes of Mary, the mother of Jesus in the early chapters = 2:19,51?)

Luke has a keen historical sense.  He gives us the names of emperors and kings and cites specific dates.  In Luke 3:1-2 no less than seven officials and five territories are named in just two verses.

John: Evangelistic, based on recollection of an eyewitness, 20:31; 21:24.

As befits the last Gospel to be written, John largely avoids ground previously covered by the Synopists.  John uses a number ‘key words’ which are used in a profound spiritual sense – ‘light’, ‘darkness’, ‘world’, ‘life’, ‘truth’, and so on.

Some scholars have asserted that the teaching of Jesus as presented by the Synoptists is incompatible with that presented by John.  That there are differences is beyond doubt.  But then there are significant differences within the synoptic accounts, as well as between them and John.  And in the non-Markan portions of Matthew and Luke (‘Q’) there is a distinctly John-like passage, Mt 11:25-30; Lk 10:21-24.

Another factor may help to account for the differences between John and the Synoptics.  It may be (as Morris suggests in Jesus of Nazareth: Saviour and Lord) that Jesus employed two rather different approaches, in keeping with the rabbinic tradition.  One approach was teaching that was intended to be learned and memorised (recorded in the Synoptic tradition), and the other was teaching of a more informal kind (preserved by John).

The view of Gregory Nazianzen, that Matthew wrote for the Jews, Mark, for the Romans, Luke, for the Greeks, and John for the whole world, still has much to commend it.


The ‘Synoptic Problem’.  How do we explain the similarities, and the differences between the first three Gospels?

The ‘problem’ of the Fourth Gospel.  How do we account for the fact that it is so different from the other three?

Acts is the second part of Luke.  It records the progress of the gospel ‘in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’ (1:8)

Of particular interest are the ‘we’ passages in Acts (Acts 16:10-17; 20:5-15; 21:1-18; 27:1-28:16).  It is natural to assume that Luke, as author of the book, is including himself within this designation.


To what extent does Acts provide us with a model for the church today?

7. Letters

Includes: Roman, 1 & 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, 1 & 2 Thessalonians, 1 & 2 Timothy, Titus, Hebrews, 1 & 2 Peter.


Most of the New Testament letters follow a form that was common in ancient times

  1. name of the writer
  2. name of the recipient
  3. greeting
  4. prayer, wish or thanksgiving
  5. body
  6. final greeting and farewell

Some, however, do not follow this structure closely.  Indeed, the writer to the Hebrews calls his homily a ‘word of exhortation’, 13:22.

Typical structure: doctrinal + practical (e.g. Ephesians)


The authorship of some of the letters (e.g. Ephesians, 1 & 2 Timothy, Titus, 2 Peter) is disputed.

Most, if not all, are ‘occasional’ writings.  That is, they were prompted by particular questions and problems.  But this means that we have the answers, but not always the questions.  It has often been said that reading a letter is like listening to one half of a telephone conversation.  In the case of Paul’s Corinthian correspondence, it is clear that considerably more communication took place than has been preserved in the New Testament.

The distinguished New Testament scholar C.K. Barrett wrote: ‘I believe that the church in our generation needs to rediscover the apostolic Gospel; and for this it needs the Epistle to the Romans.  It needs also to rediscover the relation between this Gospel and its order, discipline, worship, and ethics; and for this it needs the First Epistle to the Corinthians.  If it makes these discoveries, it may well find itself broken; and this may turn out to be the meaning of the Second Epistle to the Corinthians.’

8. Apocalyptic

Example: Revelation 12:1-6

Some parts of the Bible (Revelation, and parts of Daniel and Zechariah) are written in a style called ‘apocalyptic’.  In such writing, a vivid picture is painted of imminent disaster or cosmic cataclysm in which God destroys the powers of evil and causes righteousness to reign.  In understanding this style, it is especially important to recognise the highly figurative language and to ask what the meaning would have been for the original readers.

The author of Revelation simply calls himself ‘John’ – a common enough name.  Early tradition ascribes the book to the apostle John.  Modern scholarship has expressed doubt about this, speculating on the existence of two or even three ‘John’s’ in connection with the Gospel, the letters, and the Revelation.


As Beasley-Murray points out, the introduction to the book indicates that it incorporates three literary genres:-

1.  Apocalypse, v1.  Such writings were quite common in the two centuries before, and the one century after, Christ.  They were mainly Jewish.  ‘Their chief concern was to reveal God’s purpose in history, notably in bringing judgment on the wicked of the earth and his kingdom for the righteous.’  The forerunner of this type of writing was the book of Daniel.  Apocalypses were often written in the name of a famous saint, such as Enoch, Abraham, Moses, Elijah, Ezra.  They use rich symbolism and often draw on earlier prophecies.

2.  Prophecy, v2.  Revelation stands in the prophetic tradition.  ‘It is generally recognized that the [OT prophets] addressed their contemporaries in relation to their own situation, i.e. they gave God’s word for their own day. The uniqueness of their ministry lay in the way they set their people in the context of God’s dealings with them in the past and in the light of God’s purpose for them in the future. Prophecy in the NT can be described as the words of Spirit-guided preachers for the world, and the church through which God’s revealed purpose for the world and his will for humankind are revealed. That would be an adequate description of Revelation. It conveys the assurance that the opposition of human beings and of all the powers of evil cannot frustrate God’s purpose for the world that he has made, and in the light of this the call goes out for persistence in faith and obedience to the Lord on the part of his people.’ (Beasley-Murray)

3.  Letter, v4.  Just as with the letters of Paul, say, Revelation is primarily addressed to particular people in particular situations, and yet have a more general relevance to all believers in all ages.

There are about 500 references to 27 different books of the OT, in order of frequency Isaiah, Psalms, Daniel, Ezekiel, Jeremiah, Exodus, Genesis, Zechariah, Deuteronomy, Joel.


The main problem for many Bible readers is getting any kind of ‘handle’ on Revelation.  Richard Bewes, in his helpful and very sane little book called ‘The Lamb Wins!’ says, ‘It seems to be the whole of this Church age that is basically in view – the entire are stretching between Christ’s first and second coming. – the era in which John and his readers were living, the age in which you and I are situated.  These visions are given to strengthen the Christian of every century against the day when his own world seems to go up in flames.  We learn from this book of the patterns that we can expect history to reveal; we allow its throbbing message of conflict and ultimate triumph to colour our own distinctive Christian world-view; we learn to see the end from the beginning; we develop our own certain expectation of Christ’s return and victory, and shape our lives and our service accordingly.’

Further Reading

Gordon Fee & Douglas Stuart, How to read the Bible for all its worth.  Scripture Union, 1993.

Raymond Dillard & Tremper Longman III, An introduction to the Old Testament.  Apollos, 1995.

Don Carson, Douglas Moo & Leon Morris, An introduction to the New Testament.  Apollos, 1992.