What is the Bible?

The word “Bible” cBibleomes from a Greek word that means “the books.” It is actually more a collection of writings than a single book. Most of the writings are shorter than what we would consider a book. The collection “was produced over a time span of about one thousand five hundred years. Century after century men added to this book,”[i] often not even fully aware of each other’s writings. In spite of that, it has a remarkable consistency.

The Bible has two main divisions. The first, written almost completely in Hebrew,[ii] consists of the Jewish sacred writings, which Jews call the Tanakh. This name is an abbreviated combination of the names of the three sections into which they divided their writings, namely the Torah (which means “Instructions”), the Nevi’im (prophets), and the Ketuvim (writings). In the Christian Bible, these writings are somewhat rearranged and some of them are separated into more than one writing. These form the 39 writings that appear in what Christians call the Old Testament (OT). Though the material is arranged differently in the Tanakh and the Old Testament, the content of the Jewish and Christian collections is identical. These writings cover the period from the creation of the world to about 400 BC, although the actual writing began in about 1500 BC.

Christians add another 27 writings, all originally written in Greek,[iii] which form the Bible’s second division. These were produced in the first century of our era and are called the New Testament (NT). The word, testament, is really the same word as “covenant,” which describes a particular kind of relationship between people. In the Bible, it refers to the way God relates to his people. In the Old Testament it is the way God related to the Hebrew people, who were the descendants of a man named Jacob, whose name was later changed to Israel. He was the grandson of Abraham and the main part of the Bible’s story really begins with him. The Hebrews are often called Israelites or “the children of Israel” because of their descent from Jacob who became Israel. The Jews are mainly descendants of one of Jacob’s sons, named Judah, although some of the other Hebrews also became part of them.

The New Testament begins with four separate accounts of the life of Jesus, who is its main character. It describes both the events in Jesus’ life and his teachings. The name, New Testament or new covenant, was used by Jesus himself during the last meal he ate with his disciples before his death. It means that he was introducing a new and greater way in which God would begin to relate to his people. After these stories there is one book of history, called “The Acts of the Apostles” or “Acts” for short. It tells the story of how Jesus’ followers spread the news of him far into the Roman Empire of their day. Then comes a collection of letters written by Jesus’ early disciples to help guide his other followers. The NT ends with a book of visions given to one of Jesus’ closest disciples named John.

Some churches add some additional writings to these collections. Some of these come from the period between the two testaments (400 BC to 1 AD). These shed some interesting light on the history of that time and help us understand the way the Jews thought at the time Jesus appeared. Others of these writings come from the first century and beyond. But the 39 writings in the Old Testament are what both Jews and Christians consider their sacred writings. The 27 writings added in the New Testament are what all Christians agree are additional sacred writings. Though there is value in these other writings, all the most important teachings of the Christian faith can be found in the common 66 writings.

[i] Bruce Wilkinson, Kenneth Boa, “Talk Through the Bible” (Thomas Nelson: Nashville, Tenn.), (1983), p. xii.

[ii] There are a few short passages originally written in Aramaic, which was a dialect of Hebrew.

[iii] Jesus and his closest disciples probably spoke several languages. His sayings show signs that they were originally spoken in Aramaic, which was undoubtedly his common household language.

The Old Testament

The Beginning

Adam & Eve at creationThe Old Testament is the story of how God has related to the human race beginning with creation up to about 400 years before our present era. Its first section consists of 5 extended writings by Moses, who was the first leader of the Hebrew nation. It starts with God’s creation of the universe and tells of his creation of the first human beings. They were created to enjoy perfect harmony with God, with themselves (they experienced no shame), with each other, and with the world. They took care of it and it produced food and met all their physical needs. But they disobeyed God and because of that they lost their four original harmonies. We all have followed in their footsteps and often disobey God just like they did. The rest of the Bible is all about how God is working to bring us back to the original harmonies that he created us to enjoy.

The world quickly became violent and corrupt. At one point things became so bad that God had to destroy all of humanity except for one man, named Noah, and his family. This shows that God is the final judge of the world and will not tolerate evil forever.

The main story continues with Abraham, the father of Isaac and Ishmael. Through Isaac the Hebrew people that descended through his son, Jacob, who was later renamed, Israel. That also became the name of the nation that descended from him. The Arab nations descended through Ishmael. God’s plan was to begin by bringing Israel into an especially close relationship with him. They would then be his instruments to bring the whole world back into a harmonious relationship with him.

God called Abraham to leave his comfortable home in what is now Iraq and move into a land on the southeast corner of the Mediterranean Sea. This land didn’t have many people in it so it was an ideal place of a new nation to emerge. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob/Israel lived there as nomads. However, a famine brought Jacob into Egypt, where he and his clan settled. Although they began to multiply, there they also got enslaved for about 400 years.

Moses and the Covenant

Eventually, God raised up a powerful leader named Moses. He had some dramatic confrontations with the Egyptian Pharaoh who eventually was forced to allow the Hebrew slaves to escape. Their miraculous deliverance convinced them that God was truly on their side. To this day the Jewish people still consider this the greatest deliverance they have ever experienced. They had now grown to twelve tribes, each of which descended from one of Jacob’s twelve sons.[1]

Now God’s relationship with his chosen people began in earnest by his making a covenant with them. Such covenants were well-known in Moses’ time. What it meant is that God would become Israel’s supreme leader. He and his people would be united by a life-long devotion and loyalty to one another.  God would protect them and provide for them. They, in turn, would be committed to love him and obey his laws. These laws were part of the covenant and covered every aspect of life—their health, their economics, their social relationships, and their spiritual lives as well. If these laws were obeyed, God promised that they would be so greatly blessed that other nations in the world would notice and become interested in the God who gave them. This is the way other people would be brought to God.

A covenant in that culture was the most serious relationship that people ever entered. If it would be kept there would be benefits to both sides. But if either party was unfaithful to it, they agreed that a serious curse would come on them which would lead to great suffering and disaster.

Covenant is still a very important principle. It is the only way God relates to his people. In fact, it is so important that the two divisions of the Bible should really be called, The Old and New Covenants. The word, Testament, is just an old English word for covenant. As we will see, God later moved on to a new covenant, brought about through Jesus. But the basic idea of a covenant relationship with God continues to this day, still including the possibility of great blessing, but also still carrying the possibility of disaster if it is not kept faithfully.

God promised Israel that they would inherit the land in which their forefather, Abraham, lived. It was that land on the southeastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea, as far east as the Jordan River.

After 40 years in the Sinai desert Moses’ successor, Joshua, led them into their “promised land” where they lived for the next 400 years as a group of loosely-organized tribes. The records of the fortunes, good and bad, of the Hebrew people constitute the next section of the Old Testament called Old Testament History.

The Kingdom

Then they became a united kingdom under three successive kings, Saul, David, and Solomon. The best of these was the second, David, who established his capital in Jerusalem. Under Solomon, his son, the kingdom enjoyed its greatest power and prosperity. It was during this time that Hebrew literature developed. David, Solomon, and others produced a drama (Job), a book of songs, called the Psalms, a book of wisdom (Proverbs), a book of philosophy (Ecclesiastes), and a love poem (Song of Solomon). These 5 writings are in a section called Literature.

However, after these kings the kingdom split in two. Ten tribes formed the kingdom of Israel to the north and the other two became Judah to the south. Sadly, both kingdoms gradually slid away from faithfulness to the covenant. They began to worship idols and fell into all kinds of sin, both personal and social. Their rich and powerful people oppressed the poor and needy. This displeased God greatly. Only a few remained loyal to God. There were several important revivals in the southern kingdom of Judah during which its people repented of their sins and turned back to God. That never happened in the north and therefore that was the first of the two nations to experience the covenantal curse.

The Prophets

There were always prophets that God sent to both kingdoms. Although they made many predictions that came to pass, their main focus was to call people back to God and faithfulness to their covenant. At first they merely spoke their messages. Later they also began to write them down. These writings are in two sections, called the Longer Prophets and the Shorter Prophets. Each of the longer ones was originally written on a single scroll. The shorter ones were all written together on one additional scroll.

The height of written prophecy came during the eighth century before the beginning of the Christian era. The prophets first called people to repentance. When they saw that this was not happening they then predicted that God would punish them, cause them to be defeated in battle, and taken captive to countries far away. This eventually happened just as predicted. Both kingdoms were defeated and their people were killed or taken captive, the northern kingdom, Israel, by the Assyrians and later on, the southern kingdom, Judah, by Babylon.

On the other hand, their prophets also predicted that God would eventually restore Judah through the work of a promised deliverer who would also become their king. He was called the “Messiah,” or “Anointed One.”[2] One of the Old Testament prophets named Jeremiah predicted that God would have to make a “new covenant” with his people (Jeremiah 31:31-34). The problem with the old covenant was that for many Israelites it was only an external thing—a collection of rules and regulations to be obeyed. It did not change their hearts and therefore did not prevent them from eventually turning away from their God to worship other gods. Jeremiah predicted that there would come a time when God would change his covenant with his people. This time it would be written on their hearts. In other words, he would change them inwardly, so that they would follow him from the heart.

While in captivity the people from the northern kingdom intermarried and lost their identity. Some people in this mixed group eventually became the Samaritans of Jesus’ day. The people of Judah, who became known as Jews, kept their identity even though they were exiled to Babylon. They were eventually allowed to return to their homeland through the graciousness of a Persian king named Cyrus. But their return from captivity was not what they hoped for. Except for a brief period they never became the independent, prosperous, and blessed nation that their prophets had predicted. Thus the Old Testament ends on a note of disappointment but with the hope for something better in the future.


[1] This is not exactly true. One of the tribes, the Levites, became the priestly tribe and was not counted among the twelve. The descendants of Joseph, one of Jacob’s sons, were split into two tribes named after his two sons, Manasseh and Ephraim.

[2] In the ancient world, kings were put into power by being “anointed” with sweet-smelling oil. This was poured over their heads and flowed down on to their clothes. This was supposed to signify God’s Holy Spirit coming into the life of this king to enable him to rule wisely and fairly. Of course, not every king took this seriously. Many were rebellious against God and his ways.

The Time Between the Two Testaments

The Old Testament ends at about 400 BC. That ended the period of Jewish sacred writings. There was some writing done between then and the beginning of the Christian era but they are not universally accepted on the same level as those that are common to all Christians.

Between then and the first century of this era the Jews did not have an independent country—except for one short time. They were often oppressed and sometimes persecuted bitterly. Their only bright spot was when a man named Judas Maccabees led a revolt and managed to defeat his Greek overlords, purify the Jerusalem temple from its heathen defilement, and establish an independent Jewish state for a brief time. Though this was a great relief, this kingdom still fell far short of the prophetic hopes. This left the Jews longing both for further future deliverance and for the establishment of what they called “the kingdom of God” promised by their prophets. The small progress under Judas Maccabees gave them some hope. If he could succeed, even briefly, then God was able to raise up the necessary deliverer to restore the nation back to independence and prosperity.


The New Testament

Jesus and the Gospels

The New TestaJesus teaching on mountainment was all written during the first century. By then the Romans had become masters of the Mediterranean world. However, the Greek language and culture were still its most powerful cultural influence. Like the Old Testament, the New Testament also has several divisions. Its central character is Jesus, whose story is told in its first four writings, called Gospels. After a short but remarkable life, filled with many powerful miracles and great teachings, and during which he intensively trained twelve followers, he was crucified.[1] But, in history’s most remarkable turnabout, he rose from the dead. For forty days after that he continued the preparation of his disciples for life after he left them. Then he ascended back into heaven where he continues to rule over his expanding kingdom.

Before he ascended, he promised his followers that he would return in power and glory to establish his reign in a visible way throughout the whole world. In the meantime, his followers were commanded to spread his message everywhere. They were specially filled with God’s Holy Spirit. The story of the early expansion of their work and the gatherings they established is contained in the New Testament’s one historical writing, called “Acts,” for short.

The Other New Testament Writings

Jesus’ followers did not call themselves Christians at first. This was originally a derogatory term used against them by their enemies. They originally called themselves “disciples” or followers of “the way.” But eventually the label was accepted and came into common use.

The rest of the NT writings, after Acts, consist mostly of letters written by Jesus’ closest followers. One group of them was written by a man named Paul, who became one of Christianity’s earliest and most well-known and thoughtful missionaries. He spread the Good News of Jesus through southern Turkey and on into Europe, especially Greece and Italy. His 13 surviving letters were written to Jesus’ followers to help guide them in how to live as his disciples. Through these followers, the Good News of Jesus and his kingdom spread throughout much of the Roman world.

There are several other letters written by other early and prominent followers of Jesus. The New Testament closes with a book of visions (the Apocalypse, which means Revelation) that foretell Jesus’ return. It tells how he will finally bring the whole world under his lordship and inaugurate the final and permanent manifestation of the kingdom of God.


[1] This was a very cruel way of killing people. They wee nailed to a wooden pole that also had a crosspiece for their arms to be spread out and hands nailed to. Then they were allowed slowly to suffocate and bleed to death.