Guidelines for Interpreting Literary Forms

 The Epistles:

1) Recognize the customary letter form: 1) name of writer, 2) name of recipient, 3) greeting, 4) prayer or thanksgiving, 5) body 6) final greeting and farewell.
2) The epistles are occasional in nature, so it is essential to try to understand the historical situation that was being addressed.  A good procedure might be

  1. Consult a Bible dictionary to learn about the church that is written to and it’s particular surroundings
  2. Several times, read the whole letter in one sitting;
  3.  Ask questions about who were the recipients and their circumstances, the author and his circumstances and attitudes;
  4. List any key themes or key phrases that are often repeated.

3) A working outline is very helpful in understanding the flow of the author’s thought.
4) Learn to think in paragraphs, recognizing the natural units of thought.
5) Ask “What’s the point?”  Try to summarize the content of the paragraph and why it is stated at this particular point.
6) Don’t go outside the text to understand the point.
7) Seek to work until there is nothing in the text that doesn’t fit into the argument or point of the passage.
8) Realize that some particulars were understood between the author and audience and are lost to us.  However, the main point is usually still understandable.
9) Concerning application, many instructions and examples were given to specific situations and a specific culture and so will not apply to us in the same way.
10) Whenever we share comparable life situations with the first-century setting, God’s Word to us is the same as His Word to them.
11) When situations are not comparable, seek to discover the principle that transcends the historical particularity

Historical Narrative

  1. The purpose of a narrative is to tell what happened in the past. The history books of the Old Testament (Genesis through Nehemiah), the gospels, and Acts are examples of narratives.
  2. A narrative does not usually directly teach a doctrine, but illustrates doctrines taught elsewhere.
  3. Narratives record what happened, not necessarily what should have happened.  The things people do in narratives are not necessarily a good example to us. We are not always told at the end whether what happened was good or bad.
  4. Narratives are selective and incomplete. Their purpose is not to give a full account of people’s lives or of events, but to bring out those events that are relevant to the author’s purpose.
  5. Old Testament narrative functions on three levels, the universal plan of God, the history of Israel, and the biographies of individuals.
  6. God is the ultimate hero of all Biblical narratives
  7. Unless scripture explicitly tells us we must do something, what is only narrated or described does not function in a normative way—unless it can be demonstrated that the author intended it to function in this way.
  8. In Acts, search for the point that the narrative is intended to teach and take this as normative, but do not regard what is incidental to the main point as normative.  Historical precedent must be related to intent.  In other words, if it can be shown that the purpose of a given narrative is to establish precedent, then such precedent should be regarded as normative.
  9. A precedent may justify a particular action without establishing that action as normative. In other words, Biblical examples may be regarded as examples that would be wise to imitate, but not understood as normative or to be repeated by all Christians in every place and age.

The Gospels

  1. The gospels were each written to different Christian communities with different needs and therefore emphasize different aspects of Jesus’ life and teaching.  For example Matthew seems to be aimed more toward a Jewish audience, while Luke seems to be aimed toward a Gentile audience.  The authors’ concern was not only to tell the historical story of Jesus, but to tell it in a way that was intelligible to the audience addressed and that met their specific needs.
  2. The stories and sayings of Jesus may have been recorded by one of the disciples or may have been transmitted orally over a period of perhaps thirty years.  Either way, many of Jesus’ sayings were available to the evangelists and it was the evangelists themselves, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit who selected which sayings to use.
  3. As would be true with any itinerant preacher, Jesus gave the same basic messages and told the same stories on different occasions. Therefore we should expect that a story or saying or sermon in one gospel may have a different emphasis in another gospel, often having been spoken at a different time.
  4. Certain early church fathers believed that Matthew was written first, but many contemporary scholars believe that Mark came first.  Either way, linguistic evidence argues that the three synoptic gospels often used the same source, a source written in Greek.
  5. Comparing parallel passages may give insight into Matthew, Mark or Luke’s concerns and intentions as we notice how they differ from one another. In other words, the evangelists were authors, not merely compilers and what they compiled and how they did so can give us clues as to their intent.
  6. Jesus teaches that the kingdom of God would not come all at once as the Jews were expecting, but would be inaugurated gradually and in a way hidden to most people.  The kingdom of God was at hand (being revealed in their midst) but it’s fullness would not come until later.
  7. True parables (stories that remain stories from start to finish) were intended to powerfully hammer home one particular point.  They tend to have an unexpected twist for an ending, similar to a joke
  8. To determine the point of the parable, we must determine the main points of reference (people or things) and the unexpected turn in the story.

The Law

  1. The Old Testament law is a covenant between God and the nation of Israel.
  2. The Old Testament (covenant) is not our testament.  We have to assume that none of its stipulations are binding upon us unless they are renewed in the New Covenant.
  3. Some of the Old Testament law has clearly not been renewed in the New Testament, but some has.  Jesus inaugurated a new law that has similarities to the old, but is also quite different.  Examples of Old Testament laws that have not been renewed in the New Testament are the laws about animal sacrifices and the laws about foods and objects that are ceremonial clean or unclean.
  4. All the Old testament law is still the Word of God for us even though it is not still the command of God to us.  We can learn about God’s character and how to love others from a law that was written by Him to others, even though we are no longer under that law.
  5. The law is not technically comprehensive.  It usually sets a standard by an example, rather than by mentioning every possible circumstance. There is a spirit behind the law that goes farther than its actual commands.
  6. The law’s purpose was not to provide eternal life and true righteousness before God.  It is impossible for a sinful person to fulfill the spirit of the law (thus the resort to fulfilling only the letter of the law).  One purpose of the law was to benefit Israel through  suppression of idolatry, suppression of wickedness through punishment, separating them from the pagan nations (through ceremonial holiness laws), establishing a just government, etc.
  7. Some of the unusual prohibitions of the law, such as not mixing seeds or cutting the edges of the beard, most likely relate to the Canaanites’ belief in sympathetic magic or other pagan beliefs.

The Prophets

  1. The prophets were sent not to alter the law or bring a new law, but to remind, convict, and enforce the law that had already been given. They did not invent the blessings and curses they announced or announce any new requirements that were not already contained in the law.
  2. The prophets’ message was not their own, but Gods.  They held a kind of societal office, ambassadors from a heavenly court.
  3. Start by looking at the historical context of the prophet’s writings.  This can be obtained from Bible dictionaries, commentaries and handbooks.
  4. The writings of the prophets are collections of oracles (prophetic messages) given to them at different times.  Learn to think oracles.  Each oracle was given to a specific historical situation, which may not always be discernible to us.
  5. Some prophetic passages are collections of different oracles without any statements as to where one ends and another begins.  It is critical for proper interpretation to ascertain this.  A good commentary can be a great help here.
  6. The prophets sometimes used standard forms for their oracles (p 177).  Some are: a) The lawsuit (Isaiah 3:13-26); b) The woe (Habakkuk 2:6-8); c) The promise (Amos 9:11-15)
  7. Most prophecies were written in poetic form to facilitate memorization. Hebrew poetry often employs parallelism
  • Synonymous — the second line reinforces and repeats the first
  • Antithetical — the second line contrasts the first
  • Synthetic — The second line adds further information
  • Climatic — the second line heightens the effect of the first
  • Dimorphic — one line followed by two different parallels

The Psalms

  1. The psalms are songs and as such are designed to appeal to both the mind and the emotions. They often contain metaphor and hyperbole (purposeful exaggeration).
  2. Psalms are of various types and each type has a usual form
  • Laments (more than 60) help a person express trouble, suffering, or disappointment to the Lord
  • Thanksgiving psalms (16) express joy to the Lord for something He has done.
  • Hymns of praise (16) express praise to God without reference to previous miseries or recent accomplishments
  • Salvation history psalms (5) review the history of God’s work amongst His people
  • Psalms of celebration and affirmation (28) include covenant renewal liturgies, Davidic covenant psalms, royal psalms (dealing with kingship), enthronement psalms, and the songs of Zion
  • Wisdom psalms (8)
  • Songs of trust (10) emphasize the fact that God can be trusted
  1. Each type of psalm was intended to have a different function in Israel.  Some were used in temple worship
  2. Psalms often have different patterns, arrangements or repetitions of words or sounds.  Some psalms are acrostic.
  3. Each psalm is to be read as a literary unity, not split into separate thoughts as Proverbs often are.

Wisdom Literature

  1. The wisdom books were put together by wise men in Israel, whose goal was to transfer wisdom in a way that was easy to remember, through the use of poetry or proverbs.
  2. Biblical wisdom emphasizes more than simply knowledge but is highly practical, moral, and volitional.  Responsible, wise, and righteous living was the goal.
  3. Some wisdom passages and even whole books are foils—arguments against the truth of God.  Ecclesiastes argues for existentialism—that the reality and finality of death mean that life has no ultimate value.  The entire book, except for the last two verses brilliantly argue toward this end.  The speeches of Job’s friends falsely contend that whatever happens in life, good or ill, is a direct result of whether God is pleased with you or not.
  4. A proverb is a brief, specific expression of truth, designed to be memorable.  The briefer a statement is, the less likely it is to be totally precise and universally applicable.  Often, they are pithy, inexact statements, like “Look before you leap” or “practice makes perfect” or “make hay while the sun shines.” They do not state everything about a truth but point toward it.  If taken literally, they are often technically inexact. No proverb is a complete statement of truth.  No proverb is so perfectly worded that it can stand up to the unreasonable demand that it apply in every situation at every time.
  5. Proverbs are not to be taken as categorical, always applicable, ironclad promises.  They are not guarantees from God. The particular blessings promised are likely to follow the wise course of action presented.
  6. Each proverb must be balanced with others and understood in comparison with the rest of Scripture.
  7. Proverbs are often figurative, pointing beyond themselves.  They can use exaggeration or other literary techniques to make their point.
  8. Proverbs are intensely practical, not theoretically theological.
  9. Proverbs strongly reflecting ancient culture may need sensible “translation” so as not to lose their meaning
  10. Song of Songs is not an allegory of Christ and the church, but is a romantic love song showing who to love and how to love.


  1. Portions of Daniel, Zechariah, Revelation and Ezekiel qualify as apocalyptic in genre.   They include highly symbolic visions that challenge and encourage God’s oppressed people by foretelling the final triumph of God at the end of history.
  2. When future events are designated by a symbol, the designation is not direct but metaphorical.  Still, the event designated is real and historical (or will be historical).
  3. Interpretation of Biblical symbols in Revelation in particular requires a thorough knowledge of Old and New Testament symbols, prophesies and apocalyptic visions.
  4. The clearest guide to the meaning of a vision is the statement of the biblical interpreter (angel).  The vision is metaphorical, but the interpretation literal.


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