Literary Structure of the Bible

A helpful, informative survey covering the various genres of the Bible.
  • Jim George
  • 2011 1 Jan
Literary Structure of the Bible

Old Testament

The Historical Books:  Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1 & 2 Samuel, 1 & 2 Kings, 1 & 2 Chronicles

The first 17 books of the Bible trace the history of man from creation through the inception and destruction of the nation of Israel. In the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible), Israel is chosen, redeemed, and prepared to enter a promised homeland.  The remaining 12 historical books record the conquest of that land, a transition period in which judges ruled over the nation, the formation of the kingdom, and the division of that kingdom into northern (Israel) and southern (Judah) kingdoms, and finally the destruction and captivity of both kingdoms.

The Poetic Books:  Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon
The 17 historical books which comprise the first portion of the Old Testament are concluded. They gave the history of civilization from creation to the time of the Persian Empire.  They record the history of the Jewish nation from its inception through its days of glory and deportation, and finally, to its days of survival as a small, insignificant nation surrounded by enemies intent on destroying it.

Now comes a different set of books, which are known as the poetic books of the Bible: Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Solomon. They don't relate historical experiences.  Rather they relate the experiences of the human heart. They do not advance the story of the nation of Israel. Instead, through the use of Hebrew poetry, they delve into the questions of suffering, wisdom, life, love, and most importantly, the character and nature of God. And finally, they have another important function—they serve as a hinge linking the history of the past with the prophetic books of the future.

 The Prophetic Books:  Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel, Daniel, Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi
The next 17 books of the Bible comprise about one-fourth of the Scriptures and make up the last division in the Old Testament—the Prophets. The office of prophet was instituted the days of Samuel, and those who were prophets stood along with the priests as God's special representatives. The men who wrote these books were called or appointed to "speak for" God Himself. God communicated His messages to them through a variety of means, including dreams, visions, angels, nature, miracles, and an audible voice. Unfortunately, the messages they shared from God were often rejected and their lives endangered.  The prophetic books have four major themes and purposes:

1. To expose the sinful practices of the people

2. To call the people back to the moral, civil, and ceremonial law of God

3. To warn the people of coming judgment

4. To anticipate the coming of Messiah

New Testament

The Historical Books:  Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Acts

Like the Old Testament, the New Testament is not one book, but a collection of 27 individual books that reflect a wide range of themes, literary forms, and purposes. The first five books in the New Testament—Matthew, Mark, Luke, John (called the Gospels), and Acts—are entirely narrative and the only historical books in the New Testament. The first four books, or the Gospels, are a historical account of the life and times of Jesus Christ, the Messiah, whose birth, life, death, and resurrection were prophesied throughout the Old Testament. The book of Acts provides a factual report of the period from Christ's final words to His followers and His ascension into heaven to the travels and trials of the apostle Paul. Acts describe some of the key events in the spread of the "good news" from Judea to the far reaches of the Roman Empire.

The Doctrinal Books:  Romans, 1 & 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 & 2 Thessalonians, 1 & 2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon, Hebrews, James, 1 & 2 Peter, 1, 2 & 3 John, Jude, Revelation
With the end of Acts and the historical books of the New Testament, the Bible moves to 22 letters (called epistles are letters of doctrine—teaching and instruction in Christian truth and practice.

The first nine epistles (Romans through 2 Thessalonians) are penned by the same human author, the apostle Paul, and contain many of the doctrines or essentials of the Christian faith. They are all addressed to Christian assemblies, or churches.

The four that follow (1 Timothy through Philemon) are also written by Paul but are addressed to individuals. Their contents center on personal relationships.

The final nine letters of the New Testament (Hebrews through Revelation) are addressed to groups scattered throughout the world. Their messages address the issues of persecution, false teachers, the superiority of Christ, and His soon return. Even though the book of Revelation focuses largely on God's prophetic plan for the future, it is also a letter of Jesus Christ, transmitted through the apostle John, affirming Christ's authority and His concern for the church. Revelation closes with a wonderful glimpse of the church's future home in heaven.

 Article adapted from The Bare Bones Bible Handbook: 10 Minutes to Understanding Each Book of the Bible by Jim George. (Harvest House Publishers © 2006) 

 Jim George and his wife, Elizabeth George, are Christian authors and speakers. Jim, author of A Husband After God's Own Heart (a Gold Medallion finalist) and The Bare Bones Bible Handbook, has M.Div. and Th.M. degrees from Talbot Theological Seminary. He served in various pastoral roles for 25 years and on The Master's Seminary staff for 10 years. Jim and Elizabeth have two married daughters and are grandparents.