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The Oxford Study Bible Study Bible supplemented with commentary from scholars of various religions.

Types of Books

NARRATIVE WORKS. Many of the books are essentially narratives. As such, they include at least the rudiments of a plot, an indication of where the events transpired, and some greater or lesser portrayal of the characters. Ordinarily the larger narratives have a chronological order. The various narrative genres may be distinguished from one another on the basis of plot, setting, and characterization, and on the basis of specific purposes. Was a work composed in order to entertain, to edify, or to transmit factual information?

A great many different narrative genres appear in the Bible. A number of the books and literary works may be classified as histories, though not in the modern scholarly sense. A history is a written narrative of past events which is governed by facts, as far as the writer could ascertain and interpret them, and not by thematic or aesthetic organization. It will, then, in most cases be chronological in sequence. Most of the biblical histories are popular histories; that is, the writer's determination of the facts was not based on critically assessed and reliable sources (such as eye-witness testimony or accurate records), but on traditional material (such as stories and legends). Much of the popular history of the Bible could also be called salvation history, since it aims at showing how the sequence of events was directed by God. A major example of history in these senses is the Deuteronomic sequence (see above), which includes many diverse literary types, but viewed as a whole comprises a single interpretative account of the history of Israel from the Exodus to the Exile. The Tetrateuch (“four books”: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers) likewise is such a history, though its sequence is not so neatly ordered because of its history of composition; furthermore, it includes within its historical framework a considerable amount of legal material. Critical analysis of the Tetrateuch has shown that it is composed of two or more originally separate but complete histories of salvation, the works of the Yahwist and the Priestly writer. Other major examples of salvation histories are the Chronicler's work (1 and 2 Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah), 1 and 2 Maccabees, 1 Esdras, and Acts.

Some narrative books are essentially stories, that is, their structure is determined primarily by plot. Stories create interest by arousing tension (suspense) and releasing it. In addition to stories, such as the Joseph narrative, employed in larger works, a number of separate books belong to this category. Many of these owe their content or shape to popular tradition, and thus may be called tales. The Book of Ruth is a short story which probably rests on a folktale; Jonah is a didactic (teaching) story developed from legend. In terms of content, the Book of Esther could be called a historical novel, or in terms of purpose, a festival legend, since it seems to have been written to explain the meaning and significance of the Feast of Purim. In the Apocrypha the books of Tobit; Judith; Daniel and Susanna; and Daniel, Bel, and the Snake are imaginative didactic stories—works of fiction, novelistic in character, and written in order to convey lessons.

Generally speaking, gospels are narratives about Jesus. Their literary form is basically similar to ancient biographies of popular teachers. The title “gospel” was attached to a rather diverse body of narratives about Jesus, only four of which were included in the New Testament. The canonical Gospels generally narrate the public ministry of Jesus; each of them has its own structure, though they all culminate in the story of Jesus' death and resurrection. The apocryphal gospels (those never included in the canon), on the other hand, vary considerably in content. Some, such as the infancy Gospel of Thomas or the Gospel of Peter, fill in “gaps,” that is, give information not provided by the canonical Gospels. Others claim to furnish secret traditions; one recently found gospel, that of Thomas, is a collection of sayings but without any real narrative at all.

The canonical Gospels are the results of the transmission and use of traditions about Jesus, including his teachings. The so-called “Synoptics” (the first three Gospels) are interdependent, since Matthew and Luke used Mark; John apparently did not use the Synoptics but did have access to some materials found also in the others. Essentially, however, John's traditions were independent of the Synoptics, and were developed in distinctive ways. The canonical Gospels were written forty to seventy years after the events which they report. All of the Gospels were probably developed for various uses in the Christian congregations, whose problems are reflected both in the selection of the individual traditions and in the emphases of the individual Gospels.

POETIC BOOKS. Many books of the Bible are poetic works, but this category is not adequate as a generic classification because there are several very distinct types. Moreover, though the prophetic books contain a considerable amount of poetry, they are sufficiently distinctive to merit a separate classification. Divided broadly, there are two kinds of poetic books: cultic poetry and Wisdom literature. The primary example of the former is the Book of Psalms, which is not simply a collection of poems but is the hymn and prayer book of the temple in late Old Testament times. For the most part the psalms and cultic poems are lyrical, that is, meant to be sung (see below). The only other book of cultic poetry in the Old Testament is Lamentations, a collection of dirges and mourning liturgies concerning national disaster. In the Apocrypha, books of liturgical poetry are represented by the Prayer of Manasseh, a short devotional piece, and the Prayer of Azariah and The Song of the Three, added to the Book of Daniel on its translation into Greek.

The other poetic books are more difficult to classify. They generally are considered Wisdom literature, itself a wide range of types. The Song of Songs, for example, is lyrical poetry. Though sometimes interpreted as the liturgy of a sacred marriage ceremony, it is in reality a collection of secular love poetry, perhaps assembled for use at weddings. Other Wisdom poetry ranges from the collection of sayings and poems in the Book of Proverbs (see below) through the lengthy instructions in the apocryphal Book of Ecclesiasticus, to the carefully constructed poem of Job. Still other examples of this literature are Ecclesiastes and the apocryphal Wisdom of Solomon. All of these works have in common a certain literary self-consciousness seldom found in other biblical literature. Behind these works often stand poets in the sense of creative individuals.

In the Revised English Bible, as in most modern translations, poetry can be recognized by its verse (metrical) form. The basic principle of Hebrew poetry is the parallelism of members, or the “thought rhyme” of two (or sometimes three) successive lines. For example, in Ps. 29.8 we have:

The voice of the LORD makes the wilderness writhe in travail, the LORD makes the wilderness of Kadesh writhe.

The second line introduces no new thought, but parallels the first. Scholars have recognized different types of parallelism. In the example cited, the two lines are synonymous. Others are antithetical, that is, the second line verbalizes the opposite of the first, or states negatively what the first had presented positively. Thus Job 22.29 :

but God brings down the pride of the haughty and keeps safe those who are humble.

Still others have been called synthetic or formal parallelism, for the second line may develop the thought of the first. Other poetic features more familiar to us, such as meter, rhyme, alliteration, assonance, and the like appear, but they are not as basic as parallelism. There is usually some regularity of meter in the sense of balanced numbers of accented syllables, but this feature seems to be derived from the balancing of parallel lines.

PROPHETIC BOOKS. While prophets were found elsewhere in antiquity, no other culture, before or since, has developed prophetic literature as did ancient Israel. Prophets were known in ancient Mesopotamia, but not prophetic books. Books called prophecies were written in Egypt, but they are quite different from the Old Testament prophetic books. Neither are there prophetic books in the Apocrypha nor in the New Testament, though the Book of Revelation has some affinities with prophetic literature.

The prophetic books receive their distinctive stamp from the prophets' self-understanding as messengers for God. The prophets, on the basis of a particular call and special revelations, announced God's word concerning Israel and other nations as well. They were preoccupied with declaring God's actions in the immediate future.

We must distinguish the prophetic words themselves from the prophetic books. Study of the prophets in recent generations has emphasized that they were not authors who wrote books, but speakers. It was usually their followers or other listeners who committed their words to writing. Occasionally we catch a glimpse of the way the spoken words were written down, eventually to form books or parts of books, as in Jeremiah ch. 36 . Isaiah, when he was not heeded, decided to “tie up the message, seal the instruction” (Isa. 8.16 ). It seems clear from such texts and other indications that something new and significant had occurred when the words were written down. At least two factors were involved. First, writing the speeches preserved the revelation and kept it from being stifled when the prophet was either prevented from speaking, or ignored. Second, there arose a concern that future generations should know that what they were experiencing had already been set into motion by God's word once spoken through his prophets.

The first prophetic “books” doubtless were collections of the sayings of individual prophets. As we shall see, those sayings were of many different types, but for the most part they were short, poetic units. But the prophetic books contain other classes of literature as well, such as narratives. Most of these are reports of prophetic activities, either in autobiographical or biographical style. They range from short accounts, setting the occasions for particular speeches, to lengthy tales; from reports of the prophet's call to accounts of symbolic actions performed as messages. The third genre found in the prophetic books is prayer, such as the so-called complaints of Jeremiah in the Book of Jeremiah, or the hymnic fragments in the Book of Amos.

From the jotting down of the first prophetic utterance to the books we read today was a long journey. The details of that journey elude us, but some of the landmarks can be reconstructed from the evidence in the books themselves. In most cases, the first stage was the recording of individual speeches and small collections of sayings. Often we can recognize some of these earlier collections within the present books; Isa. 2.1 , for instance, appears to be the heading for such a unit. Then other materials were added, sometimes organized loosely on the basis of similar content or type, or on the basis of chronology. Most of these emerging books continued to be expanded by later additions which claimed the authority of the original prophet of God. As a result, most of the books now reflect the experience and the thought of several generations. At least two centuries after the death of Isaiah, for example, prophetic writings still were being added to the book bearing that name.

The prophetic books were read and expounded in the Israelite communities which developed and preserved them long before they were canonized as sacred Scriptures. When the Babylonian exiles in the sixth century B.C.E. heard the voice of Amos of the eighth century announcing punishment, they understood their experience as arising from God's activity, and they could turn to the future which they believed lay in God's hands. Again, Jeremiah's pronouncements against Judah were used as texts for sermons exhorting obedience. And Deutero-Isaiah (Isaiah chs. 40–55 ) argued that Israel's Lord was the only God of history and human affairs, for this God had announced beforehand through the prophets what was to come.

LETTERS. The New Testament is dominated by letters. Of the twenty-seven books, twenty-one are called epistles (the Greek word for letters), most of which are linked to Paul. The letter form became the most important genre in early Christianity. This development is best appreciated when it is seen in light of the Hellenistic letter-writing conventions. Hebrew or Aramaic letters do not appear to have been as influential as the Greek.

Even before the emergence of Christianity, the Greek letter had already become a remarkably stable literary form, despite the diverse kinds of letters which were written. It is useful to distinguish private letters (correspondence between friends or business letters) from public letters. A considerable quantity of private correspondence, mostly on papyrus, has been preserved; much of it has been published since the late nineteenth century. The public letter could be an official correspondence between a public official and a city council, or a series of discussions of moral or political topics cast in letter form, a letter-essay, or a body of magical information made available as a letter. Almost any kind of material could be presented in the form of a public letter, for it was intended for publication and sale.

Both the private and the public letters followed established conventions, with considerable flexibility in detail. The Hellenistic letter had three main parts: the introduction, the body, and the conclusion. The introduction normally named the writer and the recipient, stated a greeting, and may have included the writer's thanksgiving for deliverance from illness and/or a wish for the reader's health. The body could be short and to the point in private correspondence, or lengthy in essays cast as letters. The conclusion expressed greetings and wishes for the persons known to both the writer and the reader, a final greeting, and sometimes the date. Christian letters followed these conventions and modified them at the same time.

A rigid distinction between public and private letters will not work for Paul's correspondence because of the nature of his writing. Paul responded to particular issues by means of letters only because he could not deal with the issues face to face. His letters stand somewhere between private correspondence and public letters; they were not designed to be published and sold in the book stalls, but rather to be read to his congregations and then exchanged (in some cases at least) with other congregations.

Paul follows the convention of naming the writer and the readers (X to Y): but he modifies this by frequently naming his associates, by characterizing the receiving congregation, and by changing the greeting from “Greetings” (Greek charein) to “Grace” (charis) and by adding “peace” (from the Hebrew shalom). In Romans, possibly the last letter genuinely from Paul, the opening becomes more complex, for in it Paul summarized the Gospel in six verses before proceeding to write “to all of you in Rome, who are loved by God and called to be his people.” Generally, Paul also modified the thanksgiving; instead of expressing thanks for his own safety and health, he wrote his thanks for the life of the congregation, and did so in a way as to subtly indicate the theme of the body of the letter which followed. The body of the letter was developed according to the needs of the occasion, but regularly included exhortations and a section in which he spoke of his travel plans, expressing a desire to visit the congregation personally. The closing not only amplified the greeting pattern, but frequently included a personal word in his own hand (e.g., 1 Cor. 16.21 ff.; Gal. 6.11 ff.; Philem. 19 ff. ) in accord with the practice of official letters in Hellenistic times.

The post-Pauline generation not only imitated Paul's letter writing but developed the catholic (general) epistle to the church at large (e.g., 1 John) or to the churches of a region (1 Peter). The post-Pauline letters tended to become letter-treatises, from which the personal touches are generally absent (e.g., Ephesians, Hebrews, 1 John, 2 Peter); 2 John and 3 John are exceptions. In the second century, the letter-writing tradition continued to flourish but did not enter the canon.

In the New Testament, the epistles stand in a clear order: first, those associated with Paul, with Hebrews standing at the end because it was once thought to be from Paul, and then the Catholic Epistles. Of the Pauline Epistles, those addressed to churches stand first, then come four letters addressed to individuals. The Catholic Epistles begin with James, traditionally thought to be Jesus' brother and head of the Jerusalem church, followed by letters attributed to Peter, John, and Jude. Thus the sequence of letters in the epistle section of the New Testament disregards chronological order.

APOCALYPSES. The only book in the Bible that calls itself an apocalypse is the Revelation of John (“apocalypse” means revelation). In the past two centuries, scholars have come to use this self-designation for a great variety of writings with which the Revelation of John shares important features. Although many such writings from the biblical era have come to light, the Bible contains but three books that are commonly deemed apocalypses: Daniel in the Old Testament, 2 Esdras (4 Ezra) in the Apocrypha, and the Revelation of John in the New Testament. The texts commonly regarded as apocalypses are so diverse that it has proven exceedingly difficult to identify a literary form that characterizes them all. On the one hand, many “apocalypses” juxtapose blocks of quite different types of material. For example, Daniel begins with stories about Daniel, the Book of Revelation begins with seven letters to as many churches, and of the sixteen chapters of 2 Esdras only chs. 3–14 constitute an apocalypse. On the other hand, many books not considered apocalypses also contain apocalypse-like sections (e.g., Isaiah, Ezekiel, Zechariah, Jubilees, Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, the Life of Adam and Eve [also called the Apocalypse of Moses], the Synoptic Gospels, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, and 2 Peter).

What, then, is an “apocalypse”? Essentially, it is a text that reports that an other-worldly being (angel or archangel) has given a revelation whose content, be it ever so important, cannot otherwise be known to humans. An apocalypse usually tells how and by whom the revelation was given, and frequently includes directions for preserving it in writing. The means of the revelation vary from dreams to visions to journeys through the heavenly world or to the underworld. The content also varies greatly: cosmological “information,” descriptions of end-time catastrophes, portrayals of the Last Judgment and the ultimate fate of the righteous and the wicked, the destruction of Satan and Satan's minions, allegorical overviews of the history of the oppressed righteous, and predictions of what is about to happen. The Revelation of John is the only apocalypse which identifies its author as a contemporary of the readers. Otherwise, apocalypses are pseudonymous: they claim to record revelations given to ancient figures like Adam, Enoch, Moses, Ezra, Baruch (Jeremiah's associate)—though the War of the Sons of Light and the Sons of Darkness (one of the Dead Sea Scrolls) is anonymous. Christian apocalypses were often written in the name of an apostle: Peter, Paul, James, etc. Pseudonymity confers on the texts the authority of a hero; by presenting the revelation as something disclosed to an ancient figure, the author conveys an important point: history is neither unintelligible nor meaningless; rather, history has happened, is happening, and will happen exactly as God determined that it would and disclosed long ago. The “historically-oriented” apocalypses are thus pamphlets of encouragement.

The adjective “apocalyptic” is commonly used to refer to a particular view of eschatology (the doctrine of “last things”), one which emphasizes inevitable, imminent disaster. But just as not every eschatology is apocalyptic, so apocalypses are not simply visions of doom. “Apocalyptic” is also used frequently as a noun (instead of “apocalypticism”) to refer to a mindset of a particular religious development in Judaism and Christianity at the turn of the eras. Basic to this outlook (not limited to apocalypses or to apocalyptic sections of other books) is the notion of discontinuity between “this age” (the whole of history) and “the age to come,” the God-given alternative which will replace it. This too is portrayed in various ways, sometimes as the rejuvenated earth free of suffering and wickedness, sometimes as the Messiah's reign in Israel, or as the arrival of a “new heaven and new earth” as in the Revelation of John. An array of images and motifs portrays this discontinuity; e.g., the return of primeval chaos (stars fall and the moon turns to blood), unprecedented wars and calamities climax evil's rebellion (e.g., Armageddon). There are many scenarios of the end-time. The modern idea of progress, however, is almost the exact opposite of the apocalyptic view of history, according to which things will get worse, not better, until history itself is replaced by the “age to come.”

Oppressed and persecuted communities repeatedly have been encouraged by the apocalyptic promise that this history will be replaced, that the Great Judgment will reward the good and punish the wicked, and that paradise will be restored if not surpassed. According to this outlook, such assurances cannot be inferred; they depend rather on revelation, on apocalypse. Thus literary form, language and imagery, and theological content are compatible. No part of the Bible has had a greater influence on the imagination in Western art and literature than its apocalyptic materials.

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