Enjoying a Good Story: Old Testament Historical Narrative
Now that we have covered the canon itself, it is time to look at the contents of the canon. We will start with an examination of the various characteristics of the different genres in Scripture. This chapter focuses on historical narrative: “Narrative is a literary genre that builds its sentences and paragraphs around discourses, episodes, or scenes…. Narrative texts can appear in three different modes: story, account, and report. The ability to recognize the various ways a narrative can be presented is a necessary first step to its understanding” (238).
The Old Testament gives much of its historical information in story form. The author also includes speeches, dialogues, descriptions, and commentary on the events in the story. Writers give historical information in the form of an account, which is similar to a story but often includes theological assessment alongside historical information. Finally, historical narrative employs reports such as battle reports, vision reports, and lists or rosters. While all of these types of narrative are historical, they are more than just historical—they are selective presentations of the facts that are designed to bring about a proper spiritual and ethical response by the readers (244).
Finally, we need to examine both the external and the internal elements of the narrative itself. The external elements include author, narrator, and reader. Often the author and narrator are one and the same, but sometimes there is a distinction. There are three internal elements: setting, plot, and characterization: “The setting may include matters of physical location, time, or cultural background of the narrative. Plot has to do with the arrangement of details in the narrative, while characterization considers the spiritual, moral, and psychological makeup of the characters of the narrative, as well as their role in the story” (247).
A Word from the Wise: Poetry and Wisdom
This chapter covers both the genre of poetry and the category of wisdom literature in both the Old and New Testaments. There are four main characteristics of Hebrew poetry: parallelism, terseness, concreteness, and imagery. First, parallelism can be used in many different ways including similar parallelism (closeness of thought over parallel lines), antithetic parallelism (sharp contrast in parallel lines), and progressive parallelism (additional information given in parallel lines). Second, poets employ terseness as “a way of stating their thoughts so concisely that the result is a polished and succinct presentation free of unnecessary details” (271). Third, poetry expresses concreteness, which often uses the five senses to illustrate abstract concepts in a realistic manner. Finally, poetry often uses imagery, which is a “concise way of writing, because an image conveys not only information but also evokes an emotional response” (273). Poetry in the New Testament contains similar uses of parallelism (e.g. Matt 5:7; 7:7, 17) and also expresses beautiful imagery (e.g. John 1:1–5).
Most people identify the books of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Job as wisdom books in the Bible, but wisdom literature is found in other places as well (e.g. Gen 49:1–27; Judg 5:29–30; Isa 5:1–7; Matt 5:21–48): “All wisdom literature is basically instructional in nature, with the author attempting to impart wise observations on the meaning of life and the proper conduct necessary to enjoy life to the fullest” (292). Wisdom literature also employs many different terms to refer to the concept of wisdom: “insight,” “prudence,” “understanding,” and “resourcefulness.”
Though wisdom literature is interspersed throughout the biblical canon, the three main sources of this genre are Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Job. First, “Proverbs are short memorable statements of the true state of things as perceived and learned by human observations over extended periods of experience” (292). There are various kinds of proverbs such as descriptive (describing a way of life), prescriptive (motivational), comparative/contrastive (providing a comparison or contrast), conditional (dealing with consequences of actions), and declarative (making a statement). Ecclesiastes is a unique book and “is an autobiographical quest for the ultimate good and the real meaning of life” (297). It employs similar literary devices to those we have seen before such as parallelism, terseness, and figures of speech. Finally, Job presents a compelling picture of God’s sufficiency and sovereignty in the midst of extreme trials. Readers will quickly see that this book uses many disputation speeches to illustrate its overarching point. All in all, Job is “not only a rich source of biblical truth with strong advice for godly living but also a literary masterpiece that is thoroughly enjoyable reading” (300).
Back to the Future: Prophecy
The genre of prophecy is one of the most challenging genres, in part because there is no exact modern equivalent. It is important to note at the outset that though the biblical prophecies were written down, they were primarily meant to be heard. Therefore we, too, should strive to “read with our ears” in order to understand these important words of Scripture. There are two prominent subgenres of biblical prophecy: prophecies of judgment and prophecies of salvation. Formal prophecies of judgment contain two main elements: accusation, which states the charges that have brought about the judgment, and the announcement of the specific judgment which is subsequently brought upon the people. Amos 2:6–16 serves as a prime example: Verses 6–12 serves as the accusation and verses 13–16 as the announcement. There are also other kinds of prophecies of judgment such as woe oracles, laments, and covenant lawsuits.
As we turn to prophecies of salvation, we should note that often oracles of judgment and salvation appear side by side. Much like a father who consoles his son after a time of discipline, God brings encouraging messages of salvation after a season of judgment. Ezekiel 11:14–21 illustrates this point by giving the promise of restoration of new land and the giving of a new heart following an oracle of judgment. It should be noted that prophetic utterances are often rich in literary and rhetorical devices and are rarely one-dimensional. Prophecies include elements of instruction such as disputation, warning speeches, satire, wisdom sayings, and prophetic narratives. As with wisdom literature, there are many examples of prophecy outside the prophetic books of the Old Testament. The Hebrew canon referred to Joshua–Kings as the Former Prophets. We see additional examples of Old Testament prophecy in Jacob’s speech to his sons in Genesis 49 and in Balaam’s oracles in Numbers 23–24.
The New Testament also gives many examples of prophecy, both through individuals and in the church. Elizabeth (Luke 1:41–45), Zechariah (Luke 1:67–69), Simeon (Luke 2:25–35), and Agabus (Acts 11:27–28) provide examples of individual prophecy. John the Baptist was also recognized as a prophet (Matt 11:9), and Jesus is portrayed as the prophet par excellence (Matt 21:10–11). Paul often teaches about prophecy in his letters; for Paul prophecy is used primarily for the building up of fellow believers. While there is overlap between Old and New Testament prophecy, New Testament prophecy is more universal, less structured, and often harder to identify as prophecy.
Hearing the Good News: New Testament Historical Narrative (Gospels & Acts)
Having covered the genres of the Old Testament; we now move to the New Testament. Many scholars have suggested that the genre of the canonical Gospels (and Acts) most closely resembles that of Greco-Roman biography. However, while there are some similarities to this genre, the Gospels and Acts more closely resemble a subgenre of historical narrative: “Like the Old Testament historical narratives, the Gospels and Acts do not merely report facts. The evangelists carefully selected and arranged material that most effectively conveyed God’s message” (372).
Many have wondered why the canon includes four Gospels. First, we should recognize that each Gospel had a specific target audience and displays unique theological emphases. Second, we rejoice to see the multifaceted picture of Jesus through the kaleidoscope of the fourfold gospel: “The cumulative effect resulting from reading all four Gospels is that readers attain a more comprehensive understanding of the story of Jesus as a whole that if they were only reading one of these Gospels” (375). Some, however, might look at the various details of the Gospel accounts and wonder if the diversity between the Gospels has a negative effect on their historical credibility. Yet we should not hold ancient historiography to the standard of our own modern historical conventions; we can have full confidence that the Gospels present accurate and reliable history.
A responsible interpretation of the Gospels includes four key components: historical context, literary context, chronology, and structure. The historical context looks at relevant background information that provides necessary context for interpretation. This context includes both the life setting in Jesus’ day and the life setting of the church when the particular Gospel was written. The literary context requires a similar investigation into the broader scope of the Gospel itself. This point is especially significant when the same event occurs in multiple Gospels. Yes, we want to compare the Gospels when they showcase the same event, but we must first pay attention to the literary context within each respective Gospel.
The chronology and arrangement of each Gospel also plays a significant role in interpretation: “In some situations, a Gospel may reflect a chronological as well as a topical arrangement. The two are not necessarily mutually exclusive. In other instances, the same event may be narrated in the context of differing chronological presentations” (397). For example, Matthew appears to reflect a thematic ordering, Mark and Luke/Acts are organized around geographical locales, and John is chronological. This principle also applies to the structure of the Gospels: “The evangelists chose to organize their accounts differently, both at the macro- and the micro-level. An understanding of how the evangelists chose to structure their message is important because it provides the reader with clues about the ideological focus of the author” (399).
Calling for Discernment: Parables
A parable is “a short narrative that demands a response from the hearer” (426). Parables are realistic in that they do not contain fanciful elements that would be found in myths or fairy tales, yet they are not true stories like historical narrative. The key to interpreting parables rightly comes from context. Jesus will often tell a parable to respond to a particular situation, and those who do not have ears to hear will interpret the parable negatively, but those who truly know Jesus will interpret it positively. Jesus tells parables to eliminate the possibility of a neutral listener.
Throughout church history, the parables have been treated as allegorical, often giving far too much free reign to interpretation. Origen of Alexandria (AD 185–254) developed a threefold sense of interpretation: literal, moral, and spiritual. Interpreters in the Middle Ages added a fourth kind of interpretation, anagogical or eschatological. While many church leaders in the period of the Reformation spoke out against an allegorical interpretation of Scripture, many interpreters continued to allegorize. Modern interpreters provided other approaches to the parables (such as social-scientific ones) that often obscured the relevant meaning.
So how should we approach the parables? First, we must keep in mind that parables are not historical narratives; they are realistic, but made-up stories designed to teach a spiritual lesson or truth, often about the nature of God’s kingdom. Second, “While not falling back on the pattern of extreme allegorization and subjectivity that dominated the interpretation of the church for so long, it is clear that the parables may be more allegorical in character than is generally acknowledged” (436). Finally, we can recognize some general patterns in the New Testament parables. For example, many of Jesus’ parables have a triadic structure. They have three characters or groups of characters: a master and two contrasting subordinates. “The implication of this is that the perspectives of the main characters reflect different parts of the overall meaning of the parable” (437).
Going by the Letter: Epistles
Twenty-one of the twenty-seven New Testament books bear the superscript “Epistle.” These epistles, or letters, in the New Testament display a certain degree of similarity with the standard template of first-century Greco-Roman letters: “Typically, the ancient letters opened with an identification of the sender and the addressee, followed by a salutation or greeting … and adding the element of prayer, which could contain a health wish” (455). Readers who are familiar with the New Testament epistles will recognize the similarities. Yet it is also important to recognize where the New Testament epistles deviate from the standards of the day because these deviations often highlight emphases by a particular author.
The question of authorship is another key topic when studying the epistles. We know that the New Testament letter writers occasionally used secretaries (Rom 16:22; 1 Cor 16:21), but how can we be sure that Paul, for example, wrote all thirteen letters that bear his name? Many scholars today claim that the letters to Timothy and Titus, as well as 2 Peter, are pseudonymous, meaning that “a later follower [of Paul] attributes his own work to his revered teacher in order to perpetuate that person’s teachings and influence” (462). A similar position is that of allonymity, a mediating position, “which holds that a later author edited what Paul wrote but attributed the writing to Paul or another person without intent to deceive” (463). Neither of these positions, however, represents satisfactory answers to the question of authorship, since the early church decisively condemned all those who wrote using someone else’s name (i.e., Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 6.12.3).
There are several issues that pertain to specific New Testament letter writers that deserve special mention. Readers of Paul will benefit by studying his use of the Old Testament. Specifically, readers should analyze the broader context of the Old Testament passage that is quoted and then ask how the passage is used in its current New Testament context. More advanced readers should also determine whether Paul quotes from Masoretic text (Hebrew) or the Septuagint (Greek) and discover theological implications from this analysis.
One major distinctive of Hebrews is that it combines oral and written features. The author mentions that he has previously written to his readers (Heb 13:22), yet many of the rhetorical devices in the book indicate that the document originated as a sermon or series of oral messages.
The strong Jewish influence is unique in James. James prioritizes Old Testament examples such as Abraham, Rahab, Job, and Elijah. He also demonstrates familiarity with Jewish concepts that other New Testament authors do not discuss. Though James mentions Jesus by name only twice (1:1; 2:1), evidence strongly indicates that James draws significant themes from Jesus’ teaching, especially the Sermon on the Mount.
Careful readers will notice the similarity between Jude and 2 Peter. Most likely, Jude was written first and was subsequently used as a source for 2 Peter. Many scholars, as mentioned, have called the authorship of 2 Peter into question. They claim that the language and style is so different between the two Petrine letters that Peter cannot possibly have written 2 Peter: “The linguistic argument, however, is an argument from silence; we cannot know what Peter could or could not have written” (487). Peter could have written in two different styles that were fitting for different situations. In addition, Peter could have used a different amanuensis for 2 Peter than he did for his first letter.
Finally, it is important to understand how to interpret the epistles as a genre. In this regard, we should note that the epistles are occasional or situational in nature. None of the letters in the New Testament was written as an abstract compendium of Christian doctrine. Take the Corinthian letters, for example. Paul uses the phrase “now concerning” as a way to introduce topics that were particular to the situation at Corinth: “Faced with such specific situations that are time- and culture-bound, the interpreter has the responsibility to reconstruct as precisely as he can the original situation that gave rise to the problem which Paul addressed by looking into the social, historical, and cultural contexts of Corinthian Christianity” (492). Yet it is also true that the epistles are not only occasional but also normative. Even for contemporary Christians, “it is inevitable to conclude that the teachings offered to the churches facing certain circumstances are applicable to any church or individual facing similar situations throughout the ages” (494).
Visions of the End: Apocalyptic (Revelation)
When approaching apocalyptic literature, we must first define our terms:
- Apocalypse: “a particular genre of literature written between approximately 200 B.C. and A.D. 200”;
- Apocalyptic: an adjective “describing either the literary genre or the worldview”;
- Apocalypticism: “a worldview, ideology, or theology merging the eschatological aims of particular groups into a cosmic and political arena” (519).
A deeper look reveals three main functions of apocalyptic literature. First, it includes visionary or revelatory communication. Second, it contains a heavy use of symbols, metaphors, and figurative speech. Finally, it includes a dualism between earthy and heavenly realities (521).
There are four main approaches to the interpretation of Revelation. The preterist position “approaches the relationship of history and the Apocalypse from the vantage point that the events prophesied were fulfilled in the first century” (522). The historicist position is mainly obsolete now but was popular during the Middle Ages and the Reformation era. This position looked to its contemporary culture for the meaning of Revelation: the Pope was the antichrist and the wars in Western Europe at the time corresponded with the wars in Revelation. The idealist position “sets aside the historical question altogether by positing that Revelation is not about events in the space-time continuum but rather symbolically portrays the spiritual and timeless nature of the battle between good and evil” (523). Finally, the futurist position holds that Revelation 4–22 refers to future events. This position is the most common in evangelicalism today and is often expressed in modified versions such as historical premillennialism.
One of the greatest challenges in interpreting Revelation has to do with the interpretation of the various apocalyptic symbols. Here are seven steps that can serve as a guide to interpretation:
- Recognize the symbolic imagery associated with the description of people and beings, colors, numbers, institutions, places, and events.
- Look for interpretations of these symbols within the vision.
- Determine if the symbol stems from an allusion to the Old Testament.
- Compare the symbol with other apocalyptic writings to see if it is a common symbol with a relatively standard meaning.
- Look for any possible connections between the symbol and the cultural-historical context.
- Consult treatments of the symbol in scholarly commentaries and other works.
- Remain humble in your conclusions (552–57)
Summary by Mark Baker with Andreas Köstenberger