Our last article (Methods of Studying the Bible Series Introduction: The Old Testament Genres) gave an overview of the Bible, its characteristics, and its importance in everyday life as well as covered Old Testament genres. This post will shift focus onto the New Testament. There are 27 books that comprise the New Testament canon, written by apostles and disciples alike to unique sets of audiences. The message of the New Testament is Christ's one-time sacrificial atonement on the cross and how to abide in Christ on Earth. It was written in a language (Koine Greek) that could be understood by the general public. These 27 books are grouped into genres known as gospels, acts, letters, and apocalyptic/prophetic literature. We'll cover how to approach the New Testament genres individually as well as give a big-picture perspective of time frame and an inside look at the authors of the New Testament.
New Testament Overview
All the books of the New Testament were written by nine different Jewish apostles and disciples and spanned "half a century" (Hindson and Towns) between AD 45 and AD 95. These books were then circulated independently before they were copied and collected amongst the early Christian church that consisted of converted believers. Since the manuscripts were written in Koine Greek, the common people of the Roman Empire could read, interpret, study, and apply the scripture and were not reliant upon a religious system or clergy to interpret the Scripture for them which led to religious heresy.
The different genres, like the Old Testament, intertwine with other genres (i.e. narrative), but are not more or less God's word than the Old Testament. A common observational mistake (and one that can be highly destructive) is that the Old Testament is now no longer valid or applicable since Christ's sacrifice on the cross. God never changes and therefore His word (both Old and New Testament) remains consistent, but focuses on different aspects of God. The Old Testament consisted of an outward, circumstantial convenant that God established with His nation of Israel and depended on Israel's obedience while the New Testament highlights the eternal, renewed covenant where the Holy Spirit indwells converted believers. As our first article in this series enlightened, we'll dig deeper into studying the Bible by book genre, with the focus now on the New Testament.
The Greek word for gospel (evangelion) means "good news." This is the record of Christ's death, burial, and resurrection. The first four books of the Bible (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) are contained within this genre and give details into "Christ's life, ministry, death, and resurrection" (Cartwright, Gutierrez, and Hulshof, p.216). These are not mere biographies, but a collection of details of Christ's life and ministry that were written to differing audiences and are still applicable today.
Acts of the Apostles
Written in-between, AD 60-62, this genre is the continuation of Luke's gospel, also written in narrative form, by the same author (Luke). Many books within the New Testament were written during this time period, including many of Paul's epistles. Although there are similarities between the four gospels and Acts, unique differences set them apart. Acts is the historical record of the ministry of the Holy Spirit and the establishment of the New Testament church.
New Testament epistles are a collection of 21 letters and make up the majority of the new covenant. These letters are Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon, Hebrews, James, 1 and 2 Peter, 1, 2, 3 John, and Jude. Although Revelation contains sections written in letter form, it's unique composition sets it within its own category. The letters mentioned previously are among the easiest to approach since their messages are of a more straight-forward nature. For example, Romans was written in the winter of AD 56 and 57 to believers in the Roman Empire and illustrates the importance of the Gospel and recognition of sin, God's righteous judgment, and eternity. The majority of the epistles were written by Paul, with some written by Peter, John, James, and Jude.
The book of Revelation is unique in that it fits within three different genres: apocalyptic, prophetic, and epistle. It is also not straightforward like its counterparts in the Bible. "Chapters 2 and 3 contain the letters to the seven churches in Asia Minor. Each of these churches received some form of commendation or condemnation in the early pages. For those chapters, the rules of the road with regard to letters, or epistles, do certainly apply" (Cartwright, Gutierrez, and Hulshof, p. 234). While some chapters of Revelation are epistles (or letters), a some portions of Revelation is prophetic. "In other words, parts of Revelation predict future events. Several key verses in Revelation helps us understand its prophetic nature (1:3; 22:6-7; 10, 18, 19)" (Cartwright, Gutierrez, and Hulshof, p. 234). Just as much as Revelation is prophetic, it is also apocalyptic. This makes up the majority of the book's genre. "The Greek word from which we get the English word 'Revelation' (1:2) is actually apokalypis. Generally speaking, apocalyptic literature provides a vision of events concerning the end of the world" (Cartwright, Gutierrez, and Hulshof, p. 234). When studying this book, it's important to remember to try to not overanalyze the symbols and forget the bigger picture of Jesus and the trinity's plan of redeeming and restoring.
For more on how to study these genres in depth, please see Chapters 32-39 of Everyday Bible Study by John Cartwright, Ben Gutierrez, and Chris Hulshof. Our next articles will go through how to study the genres and Biblical passages effectively and will include a printable pdf handout for in-depth study.