For some time now, I’ve worked, on and off, in my own modest way, on understanding the structure of a Bible book, in order to appreciate better its message and the meaning of a given passage. If context is meaning, and it is, this would seem to be an important task.
Before we can do the task of analysis, so the thought goes, we must see the whole picture, the synthesis.
The usual approach to mapping out a book’s structure is to outline it according to the usual, Western approach. Roman numerals I, II, III. Sub-points A, B, C. Under each of those, 1, 2, 3. You get the idea.
But the Hebrews and the Jews didn’t necessarily think along those lines. They had other ways to organize their materials. The effort to understand those can pay wonderful dividends.
Let’s start at a book’s beginning, for example.
Much more so in antiquity than today, first sentences are the primary point-of-entry for literary productions. The first column of writing, even the first sentence, performed much the same purpose as the modern book jacket precís, table of contents, and title page. In the Greco-Roman world, a “book,” available in the form of a rolled-up scroll, did not allow for informal browsing, for the purpose of divining its approach, genre, or subject matter. Hence, the opening sentence was crucial for putting those who either read it or who heard it read on notice as to what could be expected in the work as a whole. (Joel B. Green, The Gospel of Luke, NIC [Eerdmans, 1997]: 33).
In modern works, the opening sentences do not weigh so heavily as in ancient literature. The physical nature of the scrolls, the hearing of the documents through the voice of a reader, rather than a silent, visual reading, both placed upon the document’s beginning a far heavier weight than moderns are accustomed to.
The openings of Paul’s letters are widely recognized as containing a hint of the content to follow. The prologue of the gospel of John is another significant beginning as well.
This is just a taste of the type of study needed to appreciate the structure of a Bible book and the full meaning that occurs by relating the part to the whole.