The Bible contains many different books telling many smaller stories that all tie together into one larger story. These smaller stories are written in different “literary genres.” Some are narratives, others or poems and songs, others are letters or firsthand accounts. They’re all literature, but they communicate in different ways.
Literary Styles and Genres in the Bible
In the Bible, understanding literary genres or literary styles is key to interpreting what you’re reading. You’ll miss out on a lot, or even draw incorrect conclusions if you treat a poem like a narrative or vice versa!
What are the main types of literature in the Bible? Narrative – stories – makes up 43% of the Bible. Poetry – poems, psalms, and songs – makes up 33% of the Bible. Prose discourse – letters, accounts, and dialogues between people – makes up 23% of the Bible.
Narrative makes up half the Bible, and this makes sense because it is the most common form of communication. Stories train us to make sense of the seemingly random events that happen in life. By assembling these seemingly random events into a sequence, we are able to see the meaning and purpose of the events and realize that they aren’t random at all.
Good stories always have characters who want something. These characters allow the author to explore questions such as “Who are we?” and “What does life mean?”
Good stories always involve some kind of conflict, like in our own lives. It forces us to consider the challenges we ourselves face: why is there so much pain and disappointment in the world? And what will we do about it? Stories usually end with a resolution that gives us hope for our own stories.
While the stories and characters can get us thinking about important questions, we should be careful about assuming that because they are in the Bible, we should be like them. Most of the Bible’s people are deeply flawed and even commit evil acts. Just because these acts are portrayed doesn’t mean we’re being told to go and do the same things they did!
Poems and wisdom literature are often hard to understand because they speak through dense, creative language. Add to this that the Bible was originally written in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, and you’ve got a recipe for confusion for modern readers!
In life, we tend to think in familiar, well-worn paths. This is why bad habits or addictions can be so hard to break. We do the same thing daily, weekly, or yearly – unless something shakes us out of our pattern. Good poetry forces us off the familiar path into new territory.
Poetry/wisdom literature in the Bible falls into three main categories: poems/songs (Psalms, Song of Solomon, the Magnifacat in Luke 1), wisdom (Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Job), and prophetic (Isaiah, Jeremiah, and other Hebrew prophets). All of these sub-genres have different tones and goals. Though they all use metaphors and creative language, prophetic judgment poetry and a song of worship are quite different.
These are speeches, letters, or essays that form an argument requiring a logical response from the audience. This literature is found in the Law of Moses (“torah”), the wisdom literature, and the letters written by the Apostles, like Peter, Paul, and John.
These are persuasive arguments or “if…then” statements. The writer wants the audience to come to conclusion and make a decision on that basis.
Literary Styles in Biblical Books
Most books of the Bible, especially the longer ones, don’t have just one literary style or genre. Instead, they have a primary literary style that has smaller sections of different styles embedded within it. For example, the Gospel of Luke is primarily a narrative account of Jesus’s ministry, but it contains several songs (poems) early-on.
In order to best understand the Bible, we need to be familiar with each literary type and how it works. This will guide us to understand what questions to ask while reading and what to pay attention to.
Written content for this topic by Daniel Martin.
- Watch the video together or invite someone to summarize the topic.
- What is your initial reaction to this video? Do you disagree with any of it? What jumped out at you?
- Think of things like satire websites or “fake news.” Why is it important to understand context when you are reading, hearing, or seeing something? Share an example or story if you have one.
- Give an example of how context helped you understand a confusing Bible passage, or how context changed a view you previously held.
- Think about books, movies, TV, news accounts, or simply talking about recent events in your life with a friend. Why do you think stories are so common across cultures?
- What’s a story you love? Why? What does this story illustrate about the power stories can have in our lives?
- “In life, we tend to think in familiar, well-worn paths.” Explain how you’ve seen this to be true in your own life. How have you seen people break out of vicious cycles or pointless ruts?
- How can the Bible’s different types of literature and genres reach all of us right where we are?
- Write a personal action step based on this conversation.