What is the Bible exactly?

Welcome dear visitor! Here I explain a bit more about how the Bible is put together, especially for first-time readers or people who just wants to find out more (maybe even Christians can benefit from this page!).

The first thing that surprises many first-time readers of the Bible, is that it is not really one book. It is a library of sacred writings put together over centuries. It consists of the Jewish scriptures (The "Tanach" - called the Old/First Testament by Christians) and the Christian New Testament. The Old Testament explains who God is and the beginnings of everything, including the beginnings of the people of Israel and the promise of the Anointed One ("Mashiach" in Hebrew). The New Testament tells about Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of David, acknowledged as the promised Christos ('Anointed One' in Greek) by Christians. The Tanach (Old Testament) was written mostly in Hebrew, the language of ancient Israel (with some shorter bits in Aramaic, the world language after the Assyrian and Babilonian empires). The New Testament was written mostly in Greek, the world language in the time of Jesus, with some short prases in Hebrew and Aramaic, the languages spoken by the people of Israel, the people of Jesus, at that time. Jews accept the Tanach as their holy scriptures, but order the books a bit differently than most Christian Bibles. Some "Christian Bibles" include a few Old Testament books that were not accepted by Jews (or Protestant Christians) as sacred writings, mostly written in the period between the Old Testament and the New Testament. I will not discuss those books here.

  • The Old Testament ("Tanach" = Torah, Prophets & Writings)
    • The Torah / Pentateuch / Five books of Moses (Written ~ 1400 - 1200 BC)
    • Historical books: Joshua -> Kings (Early Prophets) + Ester, Ezra, Nehemia & Chronicles (12 books) (Written ~ 1000 - 400 BC)
    • Wisdom & Songs (The 5 poetical books = Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Song of songs, Ecclesiastes) (Written at different times; most likely in the period 1000 - 400 BC)
    • The prophets (Latter prophets - 3 "major" prophets (+ Daniel & Lamentations) and 12 "minor" prophets) (Written between ~ 800 - 400 BC)
  • The New Testament
    • The four gospels & Acts (Historical) (Written ~ 50 - 100 AD)
    • The 13 letters by Paul (Written ~ 40 - 60 AD)
    • The letters to the Hebrews and the 7 "general" letters (written ~ 35 - 100 AD)
    • The Revelation to John (prophetic) (written ~ 60 - 100 AD)

At the same time, all these books, written by different people, at different times and in different languages, claims to be inspired by One true God. Not only inspired in the way a beautiful woman can inspire a song-writer (although some books were obviously inspired like this), but also inspired more directly by the very Spirit of God entering the prophet resulting in the prophet saying things that he did not know / could not know by himself. Most of those people who could be considered as "Christians" according to the definition found in the Bible (Acts 11:26), would therefore consider the Bible as "the Word of God". The result is that there is also a unity in the Bible, in spite of the fact that it was written by different people. Later writers knew what earlier prophets have already written and many times explain earlier writings or apply it to their own times. For both these reasons (that one Spirit inspired the biblical writers and because later authors knew the earlier scriptures) Christians normally "use Scripture to explain Scripture". This is one useful tip to new readers: don't give up when you don't understand a passage on the first reading... most of the time the same subject is made clearer elsewhere in the Bible.

So where should you start? The easy answer is: at the beginning! :-) Unfortunately, since the first books of the Bible was probably also written first (there are biblical scholars who will disagree about which books were written first, but with little hard evidence), they are also the furthest removed from us in time and culture and you are less likely to understand the circumstances in which they were written. Many Christians will therefore suggest that you begin with a New Testament book like the gospel of John. This is both because the New Testament is closer to our own time and also because it was written more with an eye on the wider world, rather than a focus on the chosen people of God. You can even become a Christian simply by reading and believing the New Testament! However, you may not understand much of what you read, because you do not know the previous Scriptures. Worse, you are likely to misunderstand much of what you read without even realising it. The New Testament testify that Jesus came as the fulfilment to age-old prophesies. We need to know what those promises were, before we can truly understand who He claimed to be. For this reason, I will begin "in the beginning".

The first five books are traditionally ascribed to Moses and are called the "Torah" (Teaching) in Hebrew. The very first book of the Bible (known as "Genesis" in English) starts with the words: "In the beginning...". This is also the meaning of the Hebrew name of the first book ("Bereshit"). It tells the story of origins. How and why God created us as human beings, where things went wrong, how He started again with one man (Abraham) out of whom Israel descended, gave various promises to him and his descendants, and it ends with Israel moving to Egypt (probably some time between 1800 - 1400 BC). The following four books of the Torah describe events from either 1400 BC (traditional date) to 1200's BC, at least 200 years later.

The second book (Exodus) continues the story of Israel and their God, starting with the birth of Moses in Egypt, the redemption of Israel from Egypt and the covenant/agreement made between God and this people (the 10 commandments).

The third book (Levitikus) continues with the terms of the covenant, with an emphasis on the priests and their responsibilities.

The 4th book (Numbers) describe the history of the 12 tribes of Israel as they moved from the mountain of the covenant to the promised land and back into the desert again for 40 years after being unwilling to trust God.

The last book of the Torah (Deuteronomy) is written as the last speech by Moses to the new generation of Israelites just before they cross the river Jordan into the promised land. He reminds them of the covenant and its terms (including a repeat of the 10 commandments), he confirms Joshua as the new leader, and the Torah ends with the death of Moses just outside the promised land.

From archaeological evidence we know that Israel was already in the land of Canaan (Israel) by 1213 -1203 BC (The Merneptah Stele). The book of Joshua describe how God gave the 12 tribes of Israel the victory over the Canaanite kings and how the tribes started to divide the land among themselves.

Judges describe the period following Joshua when Israel had no king and started to settle in the land. Because they did not drive out all the Canaanites, they would forsake the God of Israel and serve idols. Then the LORD would forsake them, their enemies would oppress them and they would return to Him. Then He would raise up a judge to deliver them. In general it was a time of lawlessness, with this pattern of faithless Israel forsaking their God, followed by God's anger and then mercy, being repeated with different deliverers in different circumstances.

A small book (almost a short story) that takes place during time of the Judges are then interposed. In the Hebrew Bible this book is found in the grouping of the "writings" (Ketuvim) and is one of the scrolls traditionally read during one of the Jewish festivals. This is the story of Ruth, a Moabite woman who was to become the great-grandmother of King David. Although the order of the books of the Tanach (Old Testament) differs between the Jewish Scriptures and most English Christian Bibles, the books are exactly the same. Here I will follow the English (Christian) order for convenience sake.

The 2 books of Samuel (probably not written by him) tells the story of the last judge of Israel and one of the first great prophets in Israel after Moses, Samuel. It also tells the story of the first king of Israel, Saul, his disobedience to God, and the rise of the king chosen by God in his place, David. David, with all his faults, are shown as a man after God's heart and shown as the fulfilment of previous promises that kings will come forth from the decendants of Abraham and Israel. He establishes Jerusalem as the royal capital of Israel (and later of Judah). To him is given the Messianic promise that he will have a descendant on the throne forever. This period is generally seen as having occurred around 1000 BC (with archaeology showing a change from mostly rural, small settlements, to more centralised cities).

The two books of Kings tell the history of Israel from the time after David. The temple of the LORD is built by David's son, King Solomon. However, because he does not remain true to the LORD, the Northern 10 tribes rebel and anoint their own king in the place of David's grandson. From there on the people of Israel are split into two groups with the majority of Northern tribes falling back into idolatry. None of the Northern kings follow the LORD and He repeatedly send prophets to warn them and call them back to Himself. In the South (called Judah after the largest remaining tribe), it does not go much better, with a few godly kings typically followed by a number of faithless kings. In the end, both the Northern tribes (taken by the Assyrian empire) and the Southern kingdom (by the Babylonian empire) are taken into captivity (just as they were warned by Moses), when they persist in not returning to God. This happens in the 5th century BC. The last event mentioned in these books were just after the start of the Babylonian captivity.

The two books of Chronicles were written after the end of the captivity as the first Jews were allowed return to Israel by the Persian empire in the 4th century. The period covered is basically the same as that of the two books of Kings, but only considers the Southern Kingdom with an emphasis on the descendants of David. Because it was written so late, it is not considered as part of the "prophets" in the Jewish Scriptures (unlike Kings), but forms part of the third section, the "writings"(Ketuvim).

The two books of Ezra and Nehemiah describe the return of the people of Israel to their land (mostly the Southern tribes) and their struggles to resettle it. It was probably written in the 4th century BC. Both these books are also considered as part of the 3rd section of the Jewish scriptures, because of being written so late (and possibly because they include some Aramaic sections).

Another scroll that is read at a Jewish festival (Purim), is the little book of Esther, which also happens in the times of the Persian empire, but not in the land of Israel itself. It describes how God used simple circumstances, with no obvious miracles, to save His people from annihilation by placing somebody in the right position at the right time.

These books include both wisdom(philosophy) literature and songs. They form the most important part of the "writings" to the extend that the New Testament sometimes simply talk about "the Psalms" to describe the whole last section of the Tanach (in the Hebrew order, Psalms is the first book of this section). They were written and collected over a long period, since at least the time of King David (possibly even earlier for Job) until the exile.

Job is the first book, describing why it is not always sin or wrongdoing that leads to difficulties in people's lives. It uses both the specific history of Job, as well as the various (typical) responses from his friends to make the argument. In the end, Job is vindicated, but also humbled through his experience of God.

Psalms is the spiritual songbook of ancient Israel. Various people contributed, including Moses, David, Solomon and more.

The book of Proverbs is exactly what the name says: a collection of various Israelite proverbs. Most of the book is ascribed to King Solomon, David's son, but there are also later collections from the time of King Hezekiah and others. Fearing the LORD is presented as the beginning of all true wisdom and knowledge.

Ecclesiastes is a book by or about Solomon, David's son, describing the futility of everything under the sun and therefore the importance of not confining the meaning of life as simply being about typical human endeavours. Think of the LORD while you are still young; enjoy life, but remember that He will ask you to give account of everything you did. Do not waste time chasing after the typical things humans crave; all of this is chasing after the wind and futile.

Song of songs is a love song. It describes the love between a man and woman, which is also seen as a model of the love God has for his people. This same depiction of the love of God is used in various other places in Scripture, including the prophets (e.g. Hosea, Ezekiel) and the New Testament.

Called the latter prophets in the Hebrew scriptures and considered (together with most of the books between Joshua and Kings) as part of the "Nive'im" (prophets), this section include both the longer prophetic books (the "major" prophets) and the 12 "minor" prophets. In the Hebrew Scriptures, Daniel and Lamentations are not considered as part of the "prophets", but rather as part of the "writings" and therefore only have 3 major prophets: Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel. The 12 "minor" prophets were traditionally written on one scroll for convenience.

First among the prophetic books are Isaiah. He lived during the reign of a number of kings in the Southern kingdom of Judah shortly before the Northern kingdom of Israel was taken into captivity by the Assyrians. His prophesies range from short-term prophesies for the immediate future to prophesies about the last days and a new heaven and earth. Also included are a number of striking prophesies about the Messiah, the future anointed Servant of the LORD, the root and shoot of David.

Jeremiah lived just before the (and after) the Southern Kingdom of Judah was taken into captivity by the Babylonians. His prophesies are mostly urgent calls to repentance, otherwise God will give them into the hands of the Babylonians to be exiled. But there is also the promise that He will not reject them forever; after 70 years they will return to their land and in the far future, the Servant of the Lord, David, will rule over them again as the good Shepherd.

Lamentations is strictly speaking not a prophetic book, but is included here, since the prophet Jeremiah is traditionally considered as the author of the book. It is a collection of mourning songs about the destruction of Jerusalem. In the Hebrew Scriptures it is considered as part of the "writings" and is usually read on the day that commemorates the destruction of the temple.

Ezekiel also lived just before and during the exile. He was already in exile even before the fall of Jerusalem and sees the glorious presence of God leaving the temple because of the sins of the people. He foretells the destruction of Jerusalem, but also sees a vision of the future resurrection and restoration of Israel.

The book of Daniel does contain prophesy, but consists mostly of the history of Daniel and his friends, Jewish exiles in Babylon who are forced to serve at the king's court. Parts of it is written in Aramaic, the diplomatic language of the Babylonian empire. It is also grouped with the "writings" in the Hebrew bible instead of with the "prophets".

The 12 "minor" prophets include the books of Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi. They were written at different times stretching from the time of Isaiah until after the exile. Most of the books consist of warnings unless the people repent, but also with messages of hope for the future. Jonah is unusual in the sense that it consists mostly of the story of Jonah, rather than his prophecies.

The historical books of the New Testament (the first five books of the New Testament) consists of the four gospels and the book of Acts. Although the word "gospel" is generally used in the New Testament to refer to the "Good News" about Jesus as the promised Messiah and the establishment of God's Kingdom on earth, it also refers specifically to the four books written about the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ/Messiah/Anointed One. These four books of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were written by different witnesses to the life of Jesus. Some of the writers were eye-witnesses themselves (e.g. Matthew and John), while others wrote down the accounts given by eyewitnesses (e.g Mark and Luke).

Luke also wrote a second book (Acts) to tell about what happened after Jesus was resurrected and how the "Good News" spread throughout the Roman empire, from Jerusalem and further.

As recounted in the book of Acts, one of the early persecutors of the followers of Jesus (Saul of Tarsus) had an encounter with the living God and became a fervent follower of Jesus himself. He became one the "sent ones" (apostles) who took the gospel also to non-Jews and non-Israelites, establishing a number of new congregations along the way. He wrote a number of letters to these congregations to advise them on various problems, but also to encourage them and make practical arrangements. These letter are generally not ordered in the same order they were written, but originally were ordered longest letter first, with the personal letters (written to individuals rather than congregations) at the end.

The first letter of Paul in the Bible is the one written to the Roman congregation. Since it is the only letter we have written by Paul to a congregation he had not started himself, we have in it the fullest explanation of the message of Paul (and the early disciples). Whereas he could remind people in his other letters about the message he has declared to them before, he could not do this with the Roman congregation.

Roman are followed by two letters written to the congregation in Corinth, Greece. They had various problems, and had to be reminded to live a new life filled with the love of God, given by His Holy Spirit. Paul also had to defend himself against "false teachers" who were making him suspect in their eyes. He had to advise them on dealing with sin withing the congregation and on Christian unity.

After Corinthians comes the letter to the Galatians, probably one of the earliest letters by Paul. In it he specifically argues for the importance of Jesus as sufficient and the Spirit as the one leading us into obedience to the law of God instead of trying to impress God by our own deeds.

Galatians is followed by Ephesians, a book that focuses a lot on the christian walk and way of life.

The next letter after Ephesians is Philippians, written from jail and encouraging the Philippian congregation to live with joy in all circumstances.

Colossians was probably written at the same time as Ephesians and have a lot overlap in language and subject matter. It makes clear the relationship of Jesus as the "Son of God".

The two letters to the Thessalonians were written to a young congregation undergoing heavy persecution and is full of encouragement to them to continue in joy on right way in spite of the circumstances.

The two letters to Timotheus, and the letters to Titus and Philemon were written to individual Christians who were either in leadership positions where they had to help establish a congregation or more personal and practical (e.g. Philemon: written to plead for a run-away slave).

The only letter in the New Testament where the author is not identified explicitly, is the book of Hebrews. It is written to a group of Jewish Christians who are being persecuted and they are encouraged while the fulfilment of the Old Testament in Jesus is explained in more detail.

In addition to Paul, the other apostles ("sent ones") of Jesus also wrote letters to various congregations. These include the brother of Jesus, James, two letters by the "chief" apostle, Peter, three letters by the apostle John (one of the sons of Zebedee) and a letter by a younger brother of James, Jude. Some of them were probably written even earlier than the letters of Paul and they feel almost closer to Jesus as described in the gospels (e.g. more direct quotes of His words).

A book that scares many people, Christians included, is the last book of the Bible, the Revelation to John. This is mostly because it seems difficult to understand as it is full of allegories and visions that are unexplained. However, when actually reading it, it can be seen that this is actually a book that brings together in unity a number of Old Testament prophecies. For the first time their relationship to each other becomes clear. Obviously, if you do not know the prophesies to which the book of Revelation refer, it will be very difficult to make sense of what is written. It is no accident that Revelation was probably the last book in the Bible to be revealed... it is meant as an explanation for previous prophesies.

But it is also meant to be a book of encouragement to persecuted Christians: even though it looks like the evil one has taken control of the world and is doing what he likes, God still remains in control and is using different events to call people away from sin and back to Himself. And the book ends with some of the most beautiful pictures of what the future holds for those who have been bought by the blood of the Lamb who is also the Lion of Judah, the King of kings and Lord of lords, the living Word of God. My experience when I first read Revelations has been that although there remains a lot that I don't understand, there is enough that I actually could understand to make it worthwhile... the bits that I could understand, told me enough about God that I did not have to worry about the bits I didn't understand yet. This principle is true for most of the Bible, even when I read it today.

While this introduction can help a lot to at least get an idea about how the Bible came to be and how the various books fit together, it can never be a substitute for reading the Bible for yourself. You might just be surprised by the God revealed within its pages!




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