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The structure of Biblical books

Julian Spriggs M.A.

Different kinds of structure

The authors of books of the Bible used a variety of different structural techniques in the writing of their books to organise their material. There is normally one main kind of structure in each book, but there may be other kinds within that main structure.

Geographical

The structure of the book is based primarily on the geography. Examples are the Book of Joshua and the Book of Acts.

Chronological

Some books are structured based on time and events. Chronology is normally considered to be very important in western writing, but is not so important in Hebrew or more eastern writing. Examples would be the Books of Exodus and Numbers, where the events of the Exodus and wilderness wanderings are described in chronological order.

Biographical

The structure of the book is based on the main characters. Examples would be the Books of Judges and 1 and 2 Samuel.

Topical

The structure of the book is primarily based on ideas or themes, sometimes mixing up the chronology. Examples would be the Book of Jeremiah and the Gospel of Matthew.

Logical

The structure of the book shows a logical progression of ideas and development of thought. Examples would be Paul's letters to the Romans and to the Galatians.

Epistle

The structure of the book shows the structure normally used in Greek letters. This is seen in most of Paul's letters, as well as the general letters, and even the Book of Revelation.

These are the main portions of a Greek letter:
1. The name of the writer, followed by a brief description
2. The name of the recipient(s), followed by a brief description
3. A greeting, "Grace and peace ..."
4. A thanksgiving for the readers and a prayer, which often summarises the main themes of the letter.
5. The main body of the letter
6. Final greetings and news
7. Benediction or blessing

Anthology

This is when the book consists of a collection of material, with not much apparent structure. Examples would be the Psalms and the Proverbs.

Laws of Composition

These are structural techniques used by authors in their writing. Some of these are characteristic of particular authors, showing how they arrange their material. The same laws of composition used in the Bible are also seen in modern books, but are also apparent in music, films and even television dramas.

These laws of composition can be seen on the level of the whole structure of the book, or at a smaller level.

Comparison

Comparison is when two things are seen as being alike in some way. An example is when Paul compares marriage with being under the law (Rom 7:1-6).

Contrast

Contrast is when two things are stated together as opposites. An example is in the Book of Acts when Barnabas who sold a field and gave the money to the apostles is contrasted with Ananias and Sapphira who lied about the value of the property they sold (Acts 4:36-5:1).

Repetition

Words, phrases or even whole accounts can be repeated for emphasis. Some repeated words or phrases become particularly characteristic of that book. Examples are the word 'holy' in Leviticus, God being described as 'the holy one of Israel' in the Book of Isaiah, and Paul's testimony being repeated three times in the Book of Acts.

Principality

This is noting emphasis and de-emphasis, where some topics are given a lot of attention, while others are given less, or very little attention. In the Gospels, particularly in John's Gospel, a greater amount of material is written about the last week of the life of Jesus, compared with the rest of his ministry. In the books of 1 & 2 Kings, some kings are given several chapters, while other kings are dismissed in a few words.

Continuity

Continuity is similar to repetition, but with some variation and development in the theme. An example is the three 'lost' parables in Luke's Gospel (Lk 15), where there is an increase in intensity up to the third parable of the prodigal son.

Climax

Climax is when everything in the book builds to a high point at the end of the book. Examples would be the books of Job, Revelation and Ecclesiastes.

Radiation

Radiation is more difficult to identify, but is found when there is a central point of the book, around which the rest of the book focusses. Examples would be the Book of Philemon which radiates around Paul's appeal for Onesimus (Phm 10), and the Book of Philippians where the whole book radiates around the example of the humility of Christ (Phil 2:1-11).

Interchange

Interchange is when the author alternates between two different topics. He begins with subject A, interrupts by going on to subject B, before returning back to subject A, then to subject B.

An example is in the birth narratives in Luke's Gospel
A. John's birth announced (1:5-25)
   B. Jesus' birth announced (1:26-56)
A. John born (1:57-80)
   B. Jesus born (2:1-20)

Chaism

This is found quite frequently in Jewish writings, and in the Old Testament. This is similar to interchange but the topics are nested. There can be two or more topics, in the form AB BA or ABC CBA, so the second appearance of the topic is in reverse order to the first appearance.

An example is found in the Book of Revelation
A. Dragon introduced (ch 12)
   B. Beasts introduced (ch 13)
      C. Babylon introduced (ch 17)
      C. Babylon judged and destroyed (ch 18)
   B. Beasts judged and destroyed (ch 19)
A. Dragon judged and destroyed (ch 20)

Cruciality

Cruciality is where the book has a significant turning point or pivot. This is the point where there is a major change in the focus or content of the book. One example is Peter's confession in the Gospel of Mark (8:27-30), or David's sin with Bathsheba in 2 Samuel (2 Sam 11-12).

Harmony

Harmony is when there is a single major theme of the book, around which the rest of the book fits. An example is the Book of Hebrews, where the whole book centres around the superiority of Christ.

Interrogation

This is when the author asks questions as part of the narrative, then answers them. Examples are in Romans (Rom 6-7), as well as Habakkuk and Malachi.

General to specific

The author begins with a general issue or theme, then focusses on more specific topics. In 1 Corinthians, Paul begins by teaching about wisdom in general terms (ch 1-4), before addressing specific topics raised by the church, which shows their lack of wisdom.

Problem to solution

The author raises a problem, or issue in the church, then gives the solution. An example would be the Book of Galatians.

Theological to application

This is characteristic of Paul, who presents the theological portion of the book, before moving to practical application. It is found in several of his letters, including Romans, but is also noted in the Book of Hebrews.