A look at the divisions of the New Testament

The Gospels, the letters or epistles, and the apocalyptic genre have their equivalents in the Old Testament

By Sister Anna Marie McGuan, RSM

After having examined the divisions of the Old Testament (the Pentateuch or Torah, the Historical Books, the Prophets, and the Wisdom books—see the April ETC), a similar division of the New Testament can also be helpful. The purpose of such a schematic outline is to orient the reader as he reads each book in this second part of the Bible known as the New Testament.

Knowing what type of writing one is reading can be extremely useful in understanding the text. For example, the book of Revelation is a symbolic or allegorical interpretation of history and eschatology. It does not carry the same historical valence as the four Gospels, and it is not meant to be read as a literal historical account of the end times.

The New Testament literature can be divided more easily by genre or type of writing than the Old Testament because the contents of each book are more uniform. Interestingly, as in the Old Testament divisions, one can perceive three categories of texts: the Gospels, the letters or epistles, and the apocalyptic genre.

These correspond roughly to the three-fold division of the Old Testament according to the Jewish mindset: the Gospels are the new Law; the letters and epistles are similar to the wisdom literature in that they contain doctrinal teachings, practical counsel, and moral exhortation; and the apocalyptic genre can be compared to the prophets. In fact, some of the symbolic and allegorical imagery in the book of Revelation, which can seem very strange to the modern reader, is very similar to some passages in the Old Testament prophets.

The texture of each section is different, which becomes almost immediately apparent as one begins to read. The Gospels are historical in nature, but they also contain a theological message: who is Jesus of Nazareth and what is the meaning of His life, death, and resurrection? The four Gospels are according to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. The Acts of the Apostles is also a historical-theological book, and is almost certainly the second volume of a two-volume work that includes the Gospel According to Luke and the Acts of the Apostles. A look at the introductory verses of those two works makes it clear that they are meant to be read together (Luke 1:1-4; Acts 1:1-3).

The epistles and letters of the New Testament claim various authors, most notably St. Paul. He is the purported author of 13 letters in the New Testament, not counting the Letter to the Hebrews, which has been traditionally ascribed to him as well. St. Paul’s style is intelligent, direct, and zealous. After preaching the Gospel in Israel, Syria, Asia Minor, and Greece, he corresponded with the communities to teach and encourage them in the faith. He was on a mission to bring the salvation won by Jesus Christ to as many as he could. He did so by almost constant traveling. Hence, his letters allowed him to keep in touch with many communities. He also asked that the communities share his letters with one another, which they did.

Other New Testament letters are attributed to St. Peter, St. John, St. James, and St. Jude. Like the letters of St. Paul, they include doctrinal content and encouragement on the path of virtue. Some scholars posit that certain letters of the New Testament, like 1 Peter, are actually homilies because of their pastoral tone and Scriptural explanations.

The Book of Revelation is in a category all its own as far as New Testament writings. The genre is that of apocalyptic literature, and it contains specific elements that, if not understood correctly, can lead to misinterpretation. For example, the use of numbers, colors, and physical descriptions of monstrous beasts and cosmological disturbances is a symbolic way of describing and explaining the vicissitudes of history and the end-times. Apocalyptic genre is not meant to be read literally; it purposely describes events of history in mysterious images to offer a theological reading of that same history. The goal is to describe the theological import of the events. For this reason, many scholars understand the Book of Revelation as a theological interpretation of the persecutions the first Christians were facing. The ultimate triumph of the armies of God over the bestial forces of evil, and each person’s decision to worship God or bow down to the beast summarizes the Christian understanding of history: despite the horrific persecutions the Christians suffered, the war against evil has been won in the triumph of Christ, but each person must freely believe and cooperate with God to be saved.

The focus of all the New Testament writings is one: to bring to the world the Person of Jesus Christ and the salvation He won for us. The diversity of literary styles and genre correspond to the needs present in different communities and to the most effective way for the evangelists and other authors to preach the Gospel.

Sister Anna Marie McGuan, RSM, is the director of the Office of Christian Formation for the Diocese of Knoxville. She also writes for SimplyCatholic.com, a ministry of Our Sunday Visitor. This column originally appeared at SimplyCatholic.com.

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