Everyone loves a good story, right? And they’re always easy to understand, too… right? Or maybe not so much.
When we move into New Testament Narrative as a genre (basically consisting of the Gospels and Acts) we move into some of the most familiar and most beloved portions of Scripture.
But we must not mistake ‘familiar’ and ‘beloved’ with ‘rightly understood.’
The Gospels & Acts
New Testament Narrative may best be described as ‘Theological History’ or perhaps ‘Historical Theology.’ The term Gospel simply refers to the proclamation of good news and was typically associated with things like military conquest or the birth of a son.
While each Gospel-writer has his own purpose for writing, and therefore his own themes, we need to be familiar with big themes of the Gospels & Acts (kingdom, authority, end of the age, revelation of God, etc.). In particular, we want to see how each is deliberately trying to portray Jesus as the fulfilment of all humanity’s needs and all the OT’s expectations.
Forms of Writing in the Gospels
Parables: A parable is a short narrative that demands a response from the hearer. They are sheep-discerners (Mark 4.10-12). Some hints for parables:
- Watch for contextual indicators which teach why parables are told (Lk 18.1; Lk 15.1-3; Lk 10.26-29)
- Look for a single major point (with perhaps some secondary points), rather than allegorizing or universalizing
- In some sense, these are proverbs in narrative form, contrasting how different people live before God (wise & foolish builders, pharisees/Levites & Samaritans, rich man & Lazarus, Pharisee & tax collector).
- Parables are supposed to make you pensive; don’t press on too quickly
Other Direct Discourse from Jesus. Jesus was the ultimate word ninja. Pay close attention to how he uses his words.
- Hyperbole (Matt 23.23-24)
- Simile, metaphor
- Proverb (Mark 6.4)
- Riddle (Mark 14.58)
- Paradox (Mark 10.43-44)
- Questions (Mark 3.1-4)
- Poetry (Mark 3.24-25)
- Pun (Matt 23.23-24: galma vs gamla; or Matt 16.18: Petros vs petra)
Miracle Stories: The accounts of miracles which display the desperateness and impossibility of human need, but the sufficiency of Jesus. They are everywhere, and they are memorable. These also form the ground for his authority in teaching (Mark 1.27; Matt 8-9). These tend to function Christologically and salvation-historically (who is this man and what does it now mean for the history of humanity now that he has come?).
Pronouncement Stories (what separates Mark’s Matthew’s Gospel from Thomas’ ‘Gospel’.): These are the life settings for the big statements of Jesus (Mark 2.15 sets up Mark 2.17; Mark 2.23-24 sets up Mark 2.28).
Observations in Acts
Acts is a historical-theological explanation of how it came about that this religion went from being an almost exclusively Jewish sect in Jerusalem to a predominantly Gentile, Empire-wide phenomenon in a matter of decades.
- As with all narrative, Luke is not recording what must happen in every circumstance, but merely what did happen in this circumstance
- As with all narrative, Luke must be allowed to establish his own purpose and themes which must govern our own interpretation
- Acts 1.8 is both Coles Notes and a tour guide (see Acts 6.7; 9.31; 12.24; 19.20; 28.30-31). Luke is saying that the ‘Acts’ of the Holy Spirit will be to make Jesus’ people effective witnesses to him so that his blessing is brought to the ends of the earth.
Principles for Interpreting NT Narrative Literature 1
- We must not make false dichotomy between theology and history; history is being presented with the main purpose of teaching theology (Mark 1.1; Luke 1.1-4). Far from destroying credibility, the transparency of the authors makes them even more trustworthy.
- The principle of selectivity must be emphasized (John 21). Always ask, ‘Why this story and not another?’
- Always remember that books were written as a literary whole; individual narratives, sayings, or units of thought must be placed in the flow of thought and argument for the whole book.
- Trustworthy resources indicating cultural norms are very important (John 13).
- Remember that the writers had a specific audience in mind, not generic ‘all Christians for all time.’ Ask, ‘What were the wrong beliefs of their day that they were correcting?’
- Let the pronouncements of Jesus be interpreted in their life setting, rather than immediately universalizing (Matt 5.7-11).
- When examining literary context, always consider who is speaking, to whom they are speaking, and what has occasioned the speaking (Mark 11.27; 12.13, 18, 28, all before 12.38).
- Interpretation is helped when we think in literary categories of setting, plot, foreshadowing, characterization, etc. (Luke 9.51).
- Watch for repetition and for patterns of individual books (questions in Mark, ‘increase’ in Acts, etc.).
- We must always marvel at the majesty Jesus whose presence invokes the coming of the kingdom now (Lk 3.15-17; 11.20), but remember the reality of the not yet that comes at his return (Matt 13.24-30).
- This list is made up from my reflections on various sources including How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth by Fee & Stuart, Introduction to Biblical Interpretation by Klein, Blomberg, and Hubbard, An Invitation to Biblical Interpretation by Kostenberger and Patterson, and Knowing Scripture by RC Sproul. ↩