What is the Bible?
The Bible is a collection of books used by Christians. “Bible” is from the Greek “biblia” which means “little books”. It is separated into two main sections, the Old Testament and the New Testament (sometimes also called the Old and New Covenant). The Old Testament has 39 books, which were all written before the common era. The oldest were written about 1500 B.C. while the most recent ones were likely written before 300 B.C. The New Testament consists of 27 books that were all written in the first century A.D. Many of the books have odd-sounding names because they are named for their authors or for the main person in the book.
Christians believe the Bible to be the Word of God – written by men but given divine inspiration by God. They believe God speaks to people through His actions and words written in the Bible. Though the books were written over a span of thousands of years by over 40 authors, they still exist in complete compatibility with each other.
The Old Testament
“Testament” and “Covenant” are both words meaning “agreement”. The Old and New Testaments are about an agreement established by God describing the relationship between God and humans. The Old Testament deals with God’s covenant with the nation of Israel. It has books of history, law, and prophecy.
The first five books of the Old Testament are sometimes called the Pentateuch or the Torah. The Torah is significant in Judaism because it is seen as books revealed to Moses by God. These books are about the creation of the world, the early Israelite history, and the Jewish laws. As Christianity developed from Judaism, these books are important to Christians as well.
The Old Testament then has books relating to Israel’s rulers and history. These books talk about Israel before it had kings, the appointment of kings, the division of the kingdoms, and the later conquests by other nations.
The last section of the Old Testament is the prophets. The prophets were men chosen by God to deliver God’s message to Israel. Often they condemned the Israelites for their behavior, telling them to live in ways pleasing to God. They also looked forward to a coming servant and king who would save his people, whom they called the “Messiah.” There are over 300 prophecies about the Messiah, all written hundreds of years before the birth of Jesus, and Jesus fulfilled each one!
Much of the Old Testament is about God’s history with people. It shows how the relationship between God and men was constantly being broken because people sinned and disobeyed God’s laws. The Dead Sea Scrolls are the oldest surviving Bible manuscripts known to exist and contain every book of the Old Testament except Esther.
The New Testament
The New Testament also talks about God’s relationship with people, but this time it is a relationship built upon grace, now law. Grace comes through Jesus Christ – “Christ” means “Messiah” – who came as the fulfillment of the prophecies to pay the penalty required for breaking God’s law. Jesus died and took the punishment of God’s wrath in place of all humanity, then rose from the dead after three days to show God’s superiority over death.
The first four books of the New Testament are the gospels, which means “good news”. The good news is the news of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. These books each describe what Jesus did and said when he was here on earth.
The book of Acts immediately follows the gospels and is about Jesus’ followers after Jesus returns to heaven. It describes what Jesus’ followers did and how they spread his teachings across the Mediterranean area.
The rest of the books are letters from Jesus’ followers to Christian churches or to other Christians. They describe how to understand the gospel of Jesus and how to apply it to our own lives. The only exception is the book of Revelation, the last book of the Bible, which describes a vision by a follower of Jesus about the ending of the world.
Versions of the Bible
The Bible was originally written in Hebrew and Greek, but has been translated into many different versions – it is the most published book in the world! Because of this, it can be confusing when you try to start reading. The Good News Bible – Today’s English Version is a translation that has standard English more easily understood by those who learned English as a second language. The Bible has also been translated into every major language.
Reading the Bible
The books of the Bible are divided into chapters and verses. Some Bible versions include topical headings before sections of verses, such as “The Greatest Commandment” or “David Anointed As King.” While these can be very helpful when reading, they were not originally part of the Bible. This is important to remember when studying the Bible. You always want to look at the surrounding verses in order to get the full context of what you are reading.
People quote from the Bible by using book, chapter, and verse. For example, John 3:17 is the book of John (in the New Testament), chapter 3, verse 17.
The Bible is meant to be read, understood, and studied. A good place to begin understanding the Bible as a whole would be to read one of the accounts of Jesus. The Gospel According to Mark and The Gospel According to John are both good places to start. Write down any questions you have when reading and ask a Christian about them later. You also might find it helpful to join a Bible study with a group of students. This would allow you to read the Bible and ask your questions with other people who are also asking questions and finding answers.
However you choose to do it, come to read with a heart ready to learn and look for truth. John Stott, author of Basic Christianity, suggests a prayer for those getting ready to read the Bible that goes like this:
“God I’m an honest seeker after truth. I don’t know if you exist, but if you do, please reveal yourself to me as you are. Show me if Jesus is your Son and Savior of the World. If you bring this conviction to my mind, I will trust Jesus as my Savior and follow him as my Lord.”
The Bible’s Message