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The Access Bible New Revised Standard Bible, written and edited with first-time Bible readers in mind.

Narrative and Non-Narrative Books

One of the first classifications would involve the broad distinction between narrative and non-narrative books. Narrative books are those that tell a story and that, by and large, follow the traditional forms of storytelling—plot, character, setting, dialogue, etc. The narrative books of the Bible are often the best-known and the most beloved because they tell stories that people remember and retell—Genesis, 1 and 2 Samuel, Ruth, Esther, the four Gospels—but in reality, narrative and non-narrative books are fairly evenly balanced in the full sweep of biblical literature. Non-narrative books are those that, in contrast, do not tell stories. Non-narrative books in the Bible range from the poetry of the Psalms to the community instructions in Paul's letters.

Again, a comparison between Paul's letters and the book of Acts may be the most helpful way to illustrate the difference between narrative and non-narrative books. In the Acts of the Apostles, one of the goals of the author, Luke, is to tell the story of the rise of the Christian church, as the good news of Christ spread to the Gentile world. The reader is positioned to see the story of early Christianity the way Luke sees it and to understand that this story forms the foundation of the future life of the Christian church in the world, right up to the present day. As such, the stories about the mission to individuals or communities stand as illustrations of this basic story line. Paul's letters, by contrast, are not stories about the spread of the gospel in the Gentile world, nor does Paul write them so that the reader can see how the church grew and developed. Rather, Paul's letters are the urgent writings of someone on the front lines, so to speak, written to communities who have only a beginning sense of what it means to embrace the gospel that Paul preaches. A story could be constructed about each of the communities to which Paul writes (which to some extent Luke does in Acts), but that is not Paul's goal in writing. Paul writes to help these newly formed communities resolve particular theological and pastoral issues or crises with which they struggle. He addresses his readers directly through the letter: He talks to them about their own situation, not about another situation, as is the case with the audience of the stories in Acts.

Acts and the letters of Paul, then, give the Bible reader very different exposures to the life of the early Christian church by virtue of the differences in their literary type. Acts, a narrative book, offers a story of the church that has a beginning, middle, and end (however open-ended that ending may be; see the commentary on Acts). It has a cast of characters and a clearly defined plot. Paul's letters, non-narrative books, have none of that. With the exception of Paul and a few of his co-workers, there is no clear cast of characters, only the largely anonymous members of the church to whom each letter is sent. There is no defined story line, because Paul's letters are written out of and to ongoing struggles and situations, so we as modern readers find ourselves in the middle of a situation to which we are outsiders.

Paul cannot provide what Acts does—an ordered story—and Acts cannot provide what Paul's letters do—the sense of urgency and intensity that comes from addressing a crisis. Reading a story and reading a letter are two very different things. Each of these two types of literature, one narrative, the other non-narrative, has something valuable to contribute to our engagement with the biblical writings, but in order to grasp this experience we must read, assess, and appreciate each one on its own terms.

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