I just finished Making Sense of the Bible: Literary Type as an Approach to Understanding (Eerdmans, 2002) by Marshall D. Johnson. I was pleasantly surprised at the quality of the commentary and the boost it gives to understanding the biblical corpus. The eight literary types — sometimes called "genres" — covered in the book, with examples of each, are as follows:
- Wisdom Literature - Proverbs, James.
- Hymns and Liturgies - Psalms.
- Historical Narratives - Samuel/Kings, Acts.
- Prophetic Literature - Jeremiah, Second Isaiah.
- Legal Collections - Exodus 20-23, Deuteronomy 12-26.
- Apocalyptic Literature - Daniel, Revelation.
- Letters - Jeremiah 29, Galatians, Romans.
- Gospels - Mark, John.
Most of the types have parallels in secular literature of their time. Paul was not the only Roman to write letters; Jewish writers weren't the only ones to compile wisdom lists of practical advice for leading the good life. "Gospels," however, seem to represent a new genre without a parallel in the Hellenistic world. They aren't really biographies, they are something else. I'll give a few details on a couple of the other types.
Legal Collections - For an example, go read the Covenant Code, Exodus 20:22 to 23:33, in an NIV Study Bible (or similar modern language, topically-grouped arrangement and presentation). It really is a more detailed expansion of the Ten Commandments, which appear to be statements of principle that get fleshed out or presented in more detail in the Code. Such a restatement would be required to actually apply the Ten Commandments to real live cases that require adjudication. Another way to look at the two sections is that the Code represents the accumulated experience of actually regulating the social interactions of a community over many years, whereas the Ten Commandments are distilled principles which appear later to inform or justify the detailed regulating codes.
Apocalyptic Literature - In six short pages, the author brings a degree of balance and understanding to this often troubling genre. I close by quoting one paragraph from page 79 (emphasis added):
The first principle of all biblical interpretation applies with full force when we read apocalyptic literature: the text must have had specific meaning to its first readers. The book of Daniel makes good sense in the context of the Maccabean revolt, as does the book of Revelation when seen in the context of Roman persecution of Christians in Asia Minor at the end of the 1st century C.E. . . . Understood as literature of despair, cries for justice, and calls for the reversal of power, . . . such documents retain their effectiveness . . . and can have a strong impact on readers of all ages.
[retitled, reformatted, and rewritten, 6/18/06]