Genre refers to the type of literature to which a writing or an oral tradition belongs. Appreciating genre alerts the reader or hearer to the trajectory that is to be followed by a communication, its purpose, and the emotional tone to be struck. It makes a great difference, for example, to know from the outset whether one is about to join the story of the origin of one’s people, to celebrate their victories in battle, to lament their defeats, to explore the joys of love, to mourn the passing of a once vigorous collective and personal life, or to investigate how divine wisdom can be accessed in the midst of life’s seeming chaos.

These genres—and many more—are developed within the Bible. Sometimes, in the case of literate authors such as Paul of Tarsus, a template of the literary form in question (in his case, the epistle or letter) is in mind, and it helps to know what authors decided to do with their forms, and how readers and hearers would have assessed the work in terms of their expectations. A fallacy, however, commonly afflicts the assessment of genre. Because any work of literature by its definition can be appreciated as a whole, every book in the Bible—no matter how large or small—belongs to some genre or another (and sometimes to a combination of genres). But that observation does not warrant the conclusion that every biblical author attempted to fit a given composition into an established genre. In many cases, biblical compositions pioneered their genres, interacting with precedents from their culture and other cultures, yet framing fresh forms of literature that arose from the unique experience of unusual communities. Even when applying an apparent genre, a writer’s purpose might be to introduce twists that underline a surprising message, as in the case of the book of Jonah.

For this reason, genre should not be approached as an abstract category, as if forms of literature existed prior to biblical compositions, and the authors always attempted to write to those pre-existing templates. Rather, genre unfolds with a literature over time, sometimes self-consciously, but for the most part as an organic expression of the kind of communication that is concerned. This article traces that development by following and describing some prominent genres of literature in the Bible that emerged over time, following the order of chronology rather than the order of the canon.


The literary basis of the Bible was laid long after 1800 B.C.E., the putative time of Abraham, the wandering Aramaean who is revered as the primordial patriarch of Israel. Even the exodus from Egypt (ca. 1300 B.C.E.) was a distant memory for the clans of people who settled in the land of the Canaanites and claimed common descent from Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. But such early events and characters, portrayed in heroic terms, became the basis and the background of an epic presentation: the story of a peoples survival told in often poetic form on the basis of the triumphs and failures of ancestors. What Israel remembered directly, in the earliest sources of the Bible, was the place in which it first grew up: the land they called Israel and its earlier inhabitants called Canaanites. The story of how the war god Yahweh helped his twelve clans (or “tribes”) of people conquer the land he promised them, and inflicted punishment on anyone who abrogated the basics of his agreement with them (the covenant) is the opening phase in the story of the Bible. Judges 2–3, 4–5, 6–9, 11, 13–16, 17–18, 19–21; Joshua 1–8, 9–11, 18, 20, 24; and 1 Samuel 1–15 represent this epic genre.

Joshua 10:1–14 speaks of the sun standing still to allow Israel to destroy its enemies; the source of the statement that Yahweh fought for his people in this way is given as “the book of Jasher.” The initial community that produced these texts in Hebrew was a loose confederation of clans that gathered to make war. Stories from the earliest sources in the Bible (detectable in their style of Hebrew, their patterns of thought, and their historical allusions) depict a decentralized social structure. Central leadership was lacking, and clans allied for purposes of war under charismatic military adventurers called “judges” supported by Yahweh, often by miraculous means and signs. Their policies could be ruthless and frequently set one clan at war against another. Some judges were also prophets, or at least consulted with prophets: by means of sacrifice, music, and trance, they claimed to speak for Yahweh, the god who linked the clans. But priestly sacrifice was also undertaken by many people from the clan of Levi. They settled in what we mostly now call the highlands of territorial Israel. Principally an oral culture, this phase of Israel’s existence nonetheless produced the beginnings of a literature, some of which may have been consigned to writing near the point of origin.

Scribal Narrative and Myth.

Kingship emerged as a necessary military, and eventually juridical, institution, an innovation that brought with it a revised understanding of the divine covenant (see 2 Sam 7 in relation to David’s dynasty), and a powerful scribal class. Scribes became not only the privileged group that happened to be able to write, but also the intellectual branch of the royal propaganda machine: Israel’s first historians.

Kings legitimated their reigns by means of regular consultation with the prophets who had once been oracles, judges, and warlords. They were still in many ways comparable to the mantic sages of Canaan, using their prophetic trance and ecstatic sacrifice to divine the future. Divination became one means by which Israel’s foreign, domestic, and sacrificial policy was set.

The prophets with their oracular powers emerged literally as kingmakers (and breakers) during this period, but the influence of monarchy was irresistible even for them. The reigns of David (1010–970 B.C.E.) and Solomon (970–922 B.C.E.) saw a period of equilibrium among king, priests, prophets, and scribes. Their alliance produced a narrative line within the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible later attributed to Moses), which tells the story of Israel from the creation of the first human couple to Israel’s inheritance of the land.

This narrative includes political theology, poetry, history, and myth as reflected in many parts of the Pentateuch, an intellectual monument to the extent of the influence of David and Solomon over Israel. Examples of this work include 1 Samuel 15–31; 2 Samuel 1, 3, 6–7, 11–20, 24; 1 Kings 2–3, 5–11; Genesis 2:4B–4; 11:1–9, 12. The narrative succeeds in extending the epic of Israel from the creation of human beings, through the call of the Patriarchs and the liberation from Egypt, and on to the rise of the Davidic dynasty. The extension of the epic of Israel both back in time, to the creation of humanity, and forward in time, to the establishment of the monarchy and the challenges it posed, developed new genres. The primordial past was related by myth, in which features of human life are explained on the basis of their interaction with the divine. Recent (in some cases nearly contemporary) events became the domain of historiographic interests. Once myth and history were developed, they could be mixed with one another, as well as with epic, poetry, and prophecy, to produce interesting combinations within the Pentateuch and throughout the story of Israel’s experience.

At times, the result is coherent composition, in which—for example—Adam’s attempt to deflect blame from himself in the Garden of Eden (Gen 3:12) is echoed in Saul’s alibi at Gilgal for not completing the slaughter of the Amelekites (1 Sam 15:15). Considerable scribal independence (and an accurate awareness of events) is reflected in stories such as David’s adultery with Bathsheba (2 Sam 11:1—12:25). Scenes of this kind pose the question of the intended audience of the narrative. Kings valued scribes for their propaganda, but their work evidently trumped that genre, and broke into history and theological reflection. Prophets were a clear influence in that development, and they then emerged with their own voices.


The power of the Davidic dynasty resulted in the exploitation of peoples of the other Israelite clans by the Judeans (David’s own clan), leading the former to secede under Solomon’s son Rehoboam in ca. 922 B.C.E. (1 Kgs 11—12; 14—16; 17—2 Kgs 11). The name “Israel” went to the north, because all that was left to the house of David was the territory of Judah itself.

Bereft of the support and wealth of the northern clans, Jerusalem proved an easy target for Pharaoh Sheshonq (Shishak) who pillaged the city. Meanwhile, Israel prospered under powerful monarchs who encouraged trade and alliances with surrounding peoples (see 1 Kgs 14—16). Because these alliances were perceived as introducing foreign gods into their country, the prophets increasingly opposed them, and their fundamental message was put into writing for the first time: only complete loyalty to Yahweh could ensure Israel’s survival. Any other course, they claimed, would inevitably and swiftly bring disaster.

The perceived abuses of the Israelite monarchy in the north, then, set in motion the forces that would elevate prophecy into an influential institution with a distinctive literary voice. During the period of the judges, it had been one of the few centripetal powers in Israel. To some extent domesticated during David’s successful legitimation of his reign, it came to independent prominence again after the secession of the north from the south, especially during the reign of Ahab. The prophetic activities of Elijah and Elisha became emblematic of prophecy forever after, involving a dedication to vision and access to the “chariot” of God’s presence, an often strident demand for social justice, overt resistance to the political rule of the house of Ahab and its successors, a violent opposition to idolatry, and a cogent expression of Yahweh’s objection to Israelite practice. The cycle of stories included in 1 Kings 17—2 Kings 11, with the story of Elijah’s miraculous sign on Mount Carmel in his dispute with the prophets of Baal (1 Kgs 18) perhaps provides the best single example. The elevated character of the prophet also influenced the telling of stories of Moses (Exod 3:13–15) and Joseph (Gen 37—50) in the Pentateuch.

During the eighth century in the north, prophetic works emerged as a literary genre, where the prophet’s words—and increasingly, as the genre emerged, his deeds—were presented as communications from Yahweh to his people as a whole. One hallmark of this evolving prophetic message was that of the impending doom of the north, taken to be a soon-to-be-exacted vengeance for the prophets as well as just satisfaction for Yahweh’s justice. Amos is the closest to the oral origins of prophecy, and its oracles are a good index of how prophets spoke in ancient Israel (see Amos 1—2). But within the same century, Hosea (also in the north) pioneered a literary arc for the prophetic genre, developing the narrative comparison between Israel and a faithless wife (compare Hos 1–2, 8). For works to be copied, and especially for them to be crafted into structured wholes, assumes the cooperation of some scribes with prophets, and this collaboration is confirmed by the development of prophecy in the south, where the book of Isaiah heightens classic motifs of vision (Isa 6—8) and connects them to the Temple: the theme of God’s miraculous protection of Jerusalem is developed in a miraculous history of deliverance from Sennacherib (Isa 36—39). The story of that protection is also narrated in 2 Kings 18:13—19:37, which shows the close relationship that developed between scribes and prophets. Still, the book of Micah from the south in the eighth century retains an earlier style (comparable to the book of Amos), while Nahum and Zephaniah from the seventh century show the continuing vigor of that style, albeit with further development.

Aggregation and Apocalypse.

While Israel prospered, Yahweh’s prophets could be dismissed as annoyances and monarchs could seek friendlier counsel. But in 722 B.C.E., the powerful northern kingdom was broken by the invasion of the Assyrians and their policy of cultural genocide: moving conquered peoples from their own lands, and settling strangers in their place. Northern Israel, along with “Galilee of the nations,” became a foreign province. In the south, Judah escaped Israel’s fate, through a combination of good fortune (the preoccupation of Assyria with greater powers) and its own relative insignificance in Assyrian eyes. That enabled Yahweh’s prophets in Judah (some of whom had actually fled from the north) to draw together the writings of their great predecessors in the north as well as the south and to rewrite history according to the principle that Yahweh rewarded loyalty to him with prosperity and punished rebellion with exile.

Ironically, just as that work was completed—signally represented by the book of Deuteronomy and the initial edition of the Deuteronomistic History—and was embraced by King Josiah as a matter of state policy, surrounding powers closed in on Judah. Josiah himself was killed in 609 B.C.E. at Megiddo (which gave its name to ultimate disaster in the word Armageddon, see Rev 16:16), and then the new empire of Babylonia besieged and destroyed Jerusalem itself in 587 B.C.E. The close of the second book of Kings (2 Kgs 24—25) articulates a tragic vision of history, according to which the sins of previous kings made even the reforms of Josiah inadequate to please God and avert disaster.

The Babylonians pursued the same policy of dispersing conquered enemies that the Assyrians had devised. Prominent prophets and priests found themselves with the royal family in exile in Babylon. Desperation made them cooperate in a way they never had in territorial Israel. The result of that cooperation was the Bible much as we know it: the Pentateuch was completed in exile, and the prophetic works were compiled with the Pentateuch into a canon. Israel had been lost on the ground, but it had been rediscovered in writing, understood as the Word of Yahweh himself.

The Pentateuch, or Torah, was compiled by editing previous narratives, reaching back to the Davidic court and to the prophetic movement in the north. These sources provide stories of the patriarchs and the exodus, but they sometimes locate cognate traditions in different places, according to the geographical bias of each. In addition, the Pentateuch includes a great prophetic addendum attributed to the Deuteronomist (named after the book of Deuteronomy) and the Priestly work (“P”). This complex collection, together with the emerging Prophetic canon, gave landless Israel a charter for its existence that survived the exile in Babylon.

Even with a written Bible, how many generations could Israel have lasted in exile? Had the Assyrian/Babylonian policy been pursued to its intended end, the most we would have known of the Torah and the Prophets would probably have been a few papyrus fragments from scrolls. Jerusalem’s name and buildings would have been buried beneath the settlement of whatever peoples came to inhabit the rubble the Babylonians had left behind. But Babylon itself did not last, and Cyrus the Persian developed a radical new policy: toleration. In 539 B.C.E. he permitted his subject peoples to return to their own lands and worship their own gods. This event was momentous to the extent that an addition was written to the book of Isaiah (chs. 40—55), hailing Cyrus as God’s anointed, or messiah (Isa 45:1–4).

The prophetic books that stem from after 587 B.C.E. show an intense degree of scribal engagement. Sometimes additions to prophetic books reveal this activity, but the book of Jeremiah was composed with the active help of named personnel (see the reference to Bar in Jer 36), which was necessary for Jeremiah to communicate to people as far away as Babylon, to whom his letter is quoted (Jer 29). He died before the return from end of the exile that he had forecast, which happened more quickly than the 70 years he specified (Jer 29:10). Specifics for the restoration of the Temple are delivered in the book of Ezekiel. Here scribal assistance is also apparent, but also a new focus on the visionary world entered on the moving throne of God, the chariot (Ezek 1). The specifics of vision become imperatives in Ezekiel, where a plan for the restored temple is set out in detail (Ezek 40—48). In this, and in the development of elaborate visions such as valley of dry bones and its interpretation (Ezek 37) Ezekiel anticipates the development of apocalyptic literature.

When some Israelites did return to Jerusalem, many covenanted themselves to the prophetic promise and eventually set about rebuilding the temple (from 520 B.C.E.). Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi, the latest of the prophetic books, articulate incentives for that program. But others were quite happy to accept the customs and in some cases the women of foreigners. The result was deep conflict between scribes like Ezra (see and Ezra and Nehemiah) and large numbers of assimilationists.

Ezra’s program is said in the book of Ezra (fourth century B.C.E.) to extend to the command that Israelites should separate from foreign wives and children (Ezra 10). Although not as separatist as Ezra’s program, support for a triumphalist point of view was offered from a feminine perspective in the book of Esther and (later) the book of Judith. Those who opposed the separationists especially relied on traditions that centered on the divine feminine, Wisdom, the consort of Yahweh. The literature of Wisdom includes several genres, including aphorism, poetry, philosophical questioning, and theodicy, but the underlying assumption is that Wisdom leads—whether in confidence or in despair—to a clearer understanding of God. Wisdom was usually represented as consistent with the prophetic tradition, and also as manifest in the patterns of nature and in the best of all human cultures. Wisdom is praised in the book of Proverbs, a collection of earlier aphorisms and poems that is given a central core by this praise (Prov 8). Much of the material in Proverbs may be compared with Egyptian and Babylonian sources, as is also case in other Wisdom works, the books of Job, Ecclesiastes, and later (from the second and first centuries B.C.E., respectively) Ecclesiasticus and the Wisdom of Solomon.

Pseudonymity is characteristic of this postexilic period, a convention that permitted the work of aggregation to go on, sometimes with creative mixtures of genres. The secular poetry of the Song of Songs could be attributed to Solomon and the cultic poetry of Psalms (as a whole) to David, and in that way the biblical inheritance of Hebrew poetry was incalculably deepened.

One of the most fascinating aspects of Israelite literary history during this period is the absence of prophecy. The resettlement of the land brought no respite from internal conflict, and the lure of assimilation only grew after Alexander the Great claimed territorial Israel in 332 B.C.E. Yet neither the assimilationists nor the separationists claimed to speak directly in the name of the God of Israel. A principal reason for this was that the power of the scribes on both sides of the argument had fixed the prophetic voice in writing. Further guidance for Israel was to come from interpretation, rather than directly from inspiration. But that apparent dominance of the scribal mode cannot completely conceal what is evident in the writings that record the folk literatures of Israel (such as Tobit in the Apocrypha and the Genesis Apocryphon in the scrolls from Qumran): the prophetic voice continued, but in a different key. Instead of using the language of direct inspiration, vision became the principal guide into the divine world. A growing dedication to the guidance of seers was about to reshape the literary theological terrain of Israel, producing a new genre.

Apocalyptic literature anticipates a final apocalypse (“disclosure”), when God himself will bring justice to Israel and all the nations in an ultimate judgment that will include them all. The final chapter of Zechariah (Zech 14) as well as additional material in the book of Isaiah (Isa 56—66) illustrate this development. The full emergence of apocalyptic literature occurred in an environment of persecution and resistance. One of Alexander’s successors, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, claimed the temple for Hellenism in 167 B.C.E. by offering swine (a delicacy as far as Zeus was concerned) on the altar. The response to that act and the severe repression that accompanied it was the Maccabean revolt, the most militarily successful movement in the history of Israel (see 1 Macc and 2 Macc).

The book of Daniel characterizes apocalyptic, in its attribution to a sage from the past, interpretation of dreams, visions, and omens, an emphasis on supernatural beings such as angels, a tendency toward dualism between good and evil, and the dividing up of time into epochs or periods. This literature is also concerned with the future, as well as describing the past and present with the help of imagery and symbolism drawn from mythological literature. Daniel 7 presents a vision seen by Daniel in which there is a battle between beasts whose description draws upon the mythic images of the chaos that preceded creation. Its climax is the coming of “one like a son of man,” to whom dominion, glory, and kingship are given. Daniel is unusual in the Hebrew Bible in being composed in two languages (Ezra also containing some letters written in Aramaic). Daniel begins in Hebrew (1:12:4A) but soon has a long section in Aramaic ( 2:4B7:28), which includes the well-known stories and the strikingly different chapter 7. The remainder of the book is in Hebrew again. Aramaic had become the lingua franca of the Near East with the rise of the Persian Empire; Daniel’s partial composition in that language probably reflects its popular appeal.

Although the revolt of the Maccabees enjoyed apocalyptically motivated support, the members of the Maccabean dynasty proved no less ambitious than their Davidic predecessors. They attempted to arrogate the powers of kingship and priesthood to themselves and earned the contempt of many apocalyptists, priests, scribes, and Wisdom teachers. So the victory that might have brought unity in fact resulted in further factionalism. The Essenes of Qumran combined the interests of priests and apocalyptists, while other apocalyptic movements were more purely literary. The Pharisees maintained a loyalty to the Mosaic traditions of Yahweh, but in an oral form (to steer clear of the control of scribes). Meanwhile, diehard zealots yearned for the days of the Maccabees, and the Wisdom school thrived in the Greek speaking Diaspora. In the midst of such conflict, it was easy for the Romans to assert their control over Jerusalem (in 63 B.C.E.) and the entire kingdom of the Maccabees, handing it over to Herod the Great and his family.

The New Testament: Letters, Gospels, and Catholic Writings.

Paul was the single most important figure in spreading the movement that began with Jesus and came to be known as Christianity to the wider Roman world. His influence was largely literary (and postmortem). During antiquity, definite types of letters emerged as literary forms, including the argumentative, the deliberative (or advisory), and the commendatory. Although Paul’s genuine letters (1 Thess, Gal, 1 Cor, 2 Cor, Rom, Philm) are predominantly deliberative, they skillfully weave in the other types, as well. Near the end of Paul’s life, the influence of his disciple Timothy became increasingly obvious, and the letters more commendatory (in Phil, Col, Eph). Later imitations of Paul’s work aim to make a dogmatic impact (the Pastoral Epistle [1 Tim, 2 Tim, Titus], 2 Thess, Heb.).

In the Book of Acts Paul also features as a central figure, although there are crucial difference between what he says or implies in his letters and what is said about him in Acts. Yet Acts does preserve valuable information about Paul’s career and the strategy of other apostles and leaders to bring Jesus’s message to the Mediterranean basin.

Although Paul’s primary concern is Jesus’s redefining of the covenant people, the Hellenistic influence on him is apparent in both the literary structure of his writing and in several characteristic aspects of his thought. When Paul describes what the Spirit produces in the moral life of the believer (Gal 5:22), he begins with qualities that are based in the biblical tradition: love, joy, and peace. But he then shifts to terms that come out of Stoic ethics: patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. The argument of the letter to the Romans builds on the assumption that, just as Jews have the law of Moses given to them by God, so the gentiles have the law within (Rom 2:14–16), what Stoics would call the law of nature, which provides them with norms by which they should live. He goes on to show that both Jews and gentiles disobey the law they have received in a manner consonant with Stoicism. Far from finding any conflict between his convictions as a devout Jew and the insights he has gained from pagan culture, Paul draws on both to make his arguments.

Similarly, Paul’s style in his letters shows affinities with Jewish modes of interpretation of scripture, while at the same time he also utilizes the rhetorical style of his Greco-Roman contemporaries. He poses, for example, questions that would be raised by his opponents and then goes on to answer them—a method of argument characteristic of Hellenistic culture. Paul’s cultural mix in background and outlook helps explain his effectiveness in reaching out to a wide gentile audience. As is evident from his letters, he was articulate—even eloquent—in Greek, although he always eschewed the kind of classical allusions of a writer (such as Philo) who had more thoroughly embraced Hellenistic culture.

After periodic revolts, the national Jewish war against Rome was too much for the patience of the Empire, and Titus burned Jerusalem and the temple in 70 C.E. In a single act, he destroyed the power base of the priests, just as he exterminated the Essenes. Jews in the Diaspora continued to cherish Wisdom, but increasingly they found their loyalties divided between the traditionalism of the Pharisees and the apocalyptic fervor of groups such as the sect called the Christians. Jesus’s followers developed—like the Pharisees, their principal competitors in the Diaspora as well as in Israel—their own oral traditions to meet the crisis of the Temple’s destruction with the promise of a messiah who would at long last bring the final Israel to earth.

Just as the Pentateuch can only be appreciated by means of a familiarity with its sources, so the different cycles of tradition within the Gospels need to be recognized. They were developed by the most important teachers within earliest Christianity: Peter, James (Jesus’s brother), the select group of twelve apostles who appear to have compiled Jesus’s sayings (as a rabbi’s teaching would be collected in a Mishnah), Mary Magdalene, and Barnabas (a Levite from Cyprus and Paul’s sometime companion). Paul’s relationship to this considerable establishment of power is also important to assess. Yet all the while those developments were unfolding (until their climax in the Revelation of John), all these Christian teachers were shadow boxing with their Pharisaic contemporaries, who were shaping Rabbinic Judaism during just the period when the New Testament took shape.

The Gospels are a unique form of literature, which emerged as a result of Jesus’s own teaching and the movement that he inspired. The word in Greek, euanggelion, traditionally rendered “gospel” in English, literally means “good news,” but that translation is too generic to do justice to how this term was used originally. The Greek version of the scriptures of Israel shows that, contextually, the issue was good news in the context of battle, so the word refers to a message or announcement of victory. In the Aramaic of Jesus’s time, besorta’—which corresponds to euanggelion—referred to such a message of victory. In the book of Isaiah in its Aramaic version (the Targum), for example, the verbal form basar is used to speak of the tidings of God’s final triumph (Isa 52:7), while the noun refers to the message of the prophet who speaks that promise (Isa 53:1).

No Gospel is simply a copy of another; rather, each represents the choices among varying traditions, written and/or oral, and the development of those traditions that had taken place in a given locality. Although a consensus is emerging in regard to the cities in which each Gospel arose, their origins are a matter of inference, based upon clues in the texts themselves and later traditions of the Church. Similarly, the actual authors of each Gospel are unknown. Who they were, where they worked, and what the purpose of their writing was, are all matters that must be inferred from the texts themselves.

These writings are so distinctive that the term “gospel,” originally an Aramaic term for a prophetic announcement of God’s victory, came to be applied to them as an appropriate title—and a new genre of literature. In the case of the Synoptic Gospels, the purpose appears to have been to prepare converts for baptism, while John develops a homiletic approach, on the basis of established familiarity with the new faith.

The second-century teacher Justin Martyr referred to the Gospels today included in the New Testament as “memoirs of the apostles” (Apology 66.3). By his time, a powerful new concept had become current among the followers of Jesus: they believed that God directly addressed the church at large, not only individual congregations, by means of what the apostles said in their writings, and that the apostolic message concerned the ultimate fate of all humanity and the end of the world as we know it.

This conviction insisted that the words of the apostles were universal, or “catholic” (katholikos) in the language of the time, and that they included apocalyptic truth. In this literature the community of God’s people is typically called upon to accept suffering and even martyrdom during the present period of cosmic struggle, but they are given assurance that they will be vindicated and will enjoy new life in the age to come. The eschatological expectations of Christianity varied, but a commitment to eschatology, and to the conviction that the apostolic message addressed the Church as a whole, not merely particular localities, remained constant factors.

The dating of the individual documents that voice this consensus is still open to discussion, and several of them found their way among the books accepted in the New Testament only late and with difficulty. Seven of them (Jas, 1 Pet, 2 Pet, 1 John, 2 John, 3 John, and Jude) are known as the Catholic Epistles, since they address Christians beyond particular communities. Because they are not communications with specific communities, and are for the most part pseudonymous, these writings stretch the genre of letter into that of epistolary instruction. In addition, other works produced after the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E. (Mark 13; Matt 24–25; Luke 21; 2 Thess; Acts; and Rev) show how a catholic consensus emerged out of apocalyptic convictions.

The first apocalypse written in Jesus’s name appears in Mark 13, Matthew 24—25, and Luke 21. Unlike his other teachings in the Synoptic Gospels, this “Little Apocalypse” (as it is called) is arranged as a continuous discourse, a carefully crafted speech. It comes complete with notes to the reader, in the form of a reference to the book of Daniel; the “abomination of desolation” in the Little Apocalypse alludes to the destruction of the temple (Mark 13:14; Matt 24:15; Luke 21:20; cf. Dan 11:31; 12:11). The literary structure of the discourse is so unlike the usual form of Jesus’s teaching, it is generally regarded as a speech synthesized from elements of Jesus’s sayings together with references to Daniel. Jesus’s teaching could be collected under various genres of statement, for example, the parable, the aphorism, the prophetic announcement, and the command. Groupings of these collections are evident in the Gospels, but the Little Apocalypse is unusual for its extent and cohesion. Unlike the book of Daniel, however, the Little Apocalypse steps back from calculating a calendar of the end time. It seems to move confidently in that direction, with its account of disaster and war, and the coming of the Son of Man. But then comes the warning, “But concerning that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven nor the son, except the Father” (Mark 13:32; cf. Matt 24:36; Acts 1:7).

The Acts of the Apostles is composed as a companion volume to the Gospel according to Luke. Its presentation precisely explains its purpose, and its difference in genre from the Gospel. Although the author is the same in Luke and in Acts, the genres differ. Where Gospel aims to instruct in the basics of Christianity (Luke 1:4), Acts is composed in the genre of an exemplary history (such as 2 Macc) for believers. The risen Jesus here says to his apostles: “It is not for you to know the periods or times that the Father set by his authority, but you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you and you shall be my witnesses both in Jerusalem and in Judaea, and in Samaria and until the end of the earth” (Acts 1:7–8). Both in what it negates and in what it asserts, this statement represents an overture to the entire program of Acts. The power of apocalypse is here calibrated, away from knowing the end and toward witnessing by the power of the Spirit until the end.

The Revelation of John is a trenchantly visionary work that takes the genre of apocalypse to a new level. It presents itself as a communication of precise visions and a guide to explain how they can be understood. Such features also appear, of course, in works such as Ezekiel, Zechariah, Daniel, and the Little Apocalypse. In the case of the Revelation, however, visions become the staple content of the whole, mediated through various means. The initial “letters” to the seven churches are so general as to be catholic, and are presented as messages from heaven. The book introduces its core with the opening of a gate or door in heaven (Rev 4:1), which invites the seer to be shown the mysteries that surround the throne of God in the following chapters. The divine throne had long featured in prophetic literature before John wrote his apocalypse. Visionary narratives include those of Moses (Exod 24:9–11), Isaiah (6:1–4), Ezekiel (1:4–28) Zechariah (3:1–9), and Daniel (7:9–14), all of which find citations or allusions in the Revelation to John. Detailed though those visions often are, in its extent and depth, the Revelation represents a conscious synthesis and extension of their imagery.



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  • Lang, Bernhard. The Hebrew God: Portrait of an Ancient Deity. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2002.
  • Metzger, Bruce M. The Canon of the New Testament: Its Origin, Development, and Significance. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987.
  • Nicholas, William C., Jr., I Saw the World End: An Introduction to the Bible’s Apocalyptic Literature. New York: Paulist Press, 2007.
  • Puig i Tàrrech, Armand. Jesus: A Biography. Waco, Tex.: Baylor University Press, 2011.
  • Riesner, Rainer. Paul’s Early Period: Chronology, Mission Strategy, Theology. Translated by D. Stott. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1998.
  • Smith, Mark. The Early History of God: Yahweh and the Other Deities in Ancient Israel. 2d. ed. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2002.
  • Stowers, Stanley K. Letter Writing in Greco-Roman Antiquity. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1986.
  • Talbert, Charles H. What is a Gospel? The Genre of the Canonical Gospels. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1977.
  • VanderKam, James C. and William Adler, eds. The Jewish Apocalyptic Heritage in Early Christianity. Compendia rerum Iudaicarum ad Novum Testamentum, Section 3, Jewish Traditions in Early Christian Literature 4. Assen: Van Gorcum; Minneapolis: Fortress, 1996.

Bruce Chilton