A Crash Course on the Bible

A Satan worshipper once told me that the Bible said that it wasn’t the word of God. Though there are probably better responses, I handed him my Bible and said: “show me where.” I’ve often thought of that conversation and the puzzled expression on the guy’s face as he gently thumbed through my Bible’s soft pages, and wondered what non-believers think about the Bible. Not long after that conversation, I entered the ministry. After a few years of working with people associated with the local church, both believers and non-believers, I’ve realized that biblical illiteracy is as real as it is common.

In my experience as a pastor, a fair amount of people understand Scripture’s basic concepts; however, the recondite areas of God’s word—such as the majority of the Old Testament, the refined theology in the Gospel of John, and portions of the book of Romans—throw many people for a loop. As a Baptist, my theology tells me that everyone, clergymen and laymen alike, have both the ability and the right to grapple with the deep things of God’s word. Thus, biblical illiteracy kills me because I know that a lot of people are missing the deeper things of Scripture: They read their Bible but miss the sublime metanarrative that runs throughout the entirety of Scripture.

Though fixing the modern epidemic of biblical illiteracy is more than a blog post can accomplish, what follows is information that will help you understand what the Bible is, what’s happening in each section, and how the different parts of the Bible relate to one another.

What Is the Bible, and Where Did It Come From?

One of the ways that you can start to understand the Bible is understanding what exactly the Bible is and where it came from. The Bible is an anthology of ancient writings which are inspired by God. What this means is that different people wrote what we now call the books of the Bible. So, according to traditional ways of understanding biblical authorship, Moses wrote Exodus, Jeremiah wrote Lamentations, Paul wrote 2 Corinthians, and Matthew wrote The Gospel According to Matthew. These books aren’t like other books, however; for various reason, people began to realize that these books stood out as different. Believers came to realize that these books were inspired by God and thus began to use them in worship for instructional purposes. Then, in the second century AD, in an effort to refute heretics, the church began to compile lists of what they considered to be the inspired books of the New Testament.[1]

The Table of Contents

If you grab a Bible and turn to its table of contents, you’ll immediately see that the most fundamental division of the Bible is between the Old Testament and the New Testament. This division is absolutely essential to understanding the Bible and Christian theology (click here for why); if you don’t grasp this distinction, you’ll be very confused when reading the Bible!

The Old Testament is made up of the writings of men that lived under the Old Covenant. That means that they were Jews who obeyed the Old Testament Law about not eating crawfish and bacon. The Old Testament was written by prophets almost entirely in Hebrew. The thirty-nine books of the Old Testament are concerned with various issues involving ancient Israel such as the origin of the Jewish people, the entrance to the Promised Land, the building of the Temple, God’s reasons for allowing the Babylonians to ransack Jerusalem, and the promises of the coming of the Messiah, whom you probably know as Jesus. You’ll also notice that the Old Testament is significantly longer than the New Testament.

The New Testament is made up of the writings of men that lived at the same time as and shortly after the life of Jesus. So, these men lived under the New Covenant just like you do! This is one of the reasons why Christians typically find it much easier to relate to the New Testament. The authors of the New Testament, which was written in Greek, who were either apostles—meaning they physically walked with Jesus and were eyewitnesses to His resurrection—or by men who had close ties to the apostles. The New Testament is focused on issues like Jesus’s life, the spread of the Gospel, and issues that confronted the early Church.

Understanding the Old Testament

Though there are a variety of ways to divide the Old Testament, one way is to see four sections. The first section goes by three, interchangeable names: It’s either the Law, the Torah, or the Pentateuch. The next section is the historical section. Third is the wisdom section. The writings of the prophets comprise the fourth and final section.

The Law

The first five books of the Old Testament form the Law. These books begin with the creation of the world in Genesis and recount the calling of Abraham—a major biblical figure—to leave his native city of Ur to become the father of a nation. Through some serious twists and turns, Abraham’s children—known today as the Jews, but known then as the Israelites—end up as slaves in Egypt. The Torah then recounts their exodus from Egypt in the book of Exodus. The Torah then recounts the 613 laws God gave to the Israelites. The Torah ends with the death of Moses at the end of the book of Deuteronomy.

The Historical Section

The historical division begins with Joshua and runs through Esther—one of the two books of the Bible that never mentions God’s name. This section covers the history of the Hebrew people from the death of Moses until the end of the Old Testament. In this section, you’ll find the story of the Israelites crossing the Jordan River and taking control of the land marked “Israel” on your world map. The narrative then recounts Israel living under judges for a period of time before deciding that they wanted a king. After warning them that it was a bad decision, God finally allows them to have a king whose name is Saul. Saul, however, turns out to be a bad choice for king; God then chooses David to be the next king, and David is a smashing success. Eventually, David’s grandson Rehoboam becomes king and the nation soon divides into the northern and southern kingdoms. The two kingdoms then follow different paths: The Assyrians conquer the northern kingdom, and we never hear from them again. Eventually, the Babylonians conquer the southern kingdom and cart the Hebrews off for seventy years of exile. After this long stay in Babylon, a portion of the children of Israel return to rebuild the land and await Alexander the Great.

The end of the historical section is the chronological end of the Old Testament. All the Old Testament writings that follow the historical section in your Bible take place during the events described in the historical section. So, when the prophets—who come later in your Bible—prophesy about the Babylonians coming and destroying the nation of Israel, you can turn back in your Bible to this section and read about those events actually happening.

The Wisdom Books

The next division of the Old Testament begins with Job and ends with Song of Songs—the other book of the Bible that never mentions God’s name. The book of Job recounts the struggles of the man named Job who, though a righteous man, loses everything. Psalms is comprised of Hebrew poetry, while Proverbs offers pithy sayings full of wisdom. Ecclesiastes is a lament about the pointlessness of life apart from serving God. Finally, Song of Songs is a poetic dialogue of sorts about an intimate, somewhat explicit, conversation between a man—possibly king David’s son Solomon—and his lover.

The Prophets

This section can be divided into two subsections. The first section is the major prophets. Beginning with Isaiah and ending Daniel, the major prophets are major because of the length of the books. These prophets rebuke their kinsmen for their sins and call them to repentance. The major prophets also warn of an invasion by Babylon if God’s Law is not observed. This invasion, which does occur, was already described in the historical section. The major prophets are also famous for predicting details of Jesus’s life—remember that everything in the Old Testament is at least four hundred years before Jesus’s birth—with remarkable accuracy. Finally, they also attempt to point the people of Israel past mere observance of the Law—described early in the first section of the Old Testament—to deeper issues such as loving God, loving people, and caring for the poor.

The second section is the minor prophets. The main difference between the major and minor prophets is that the books written by the minor prophets are significantly shorter. The minor prophets also call their kinsmen to repentance, predict the coming of the Messiah, and point to the weightier matters of the Law.

Understanding the New Testament

The New Testament is divided into four sections. The first section is the four Gospels. The second section is history and is just the book of Acts. After that follows the letters or the epistles. Finally, the fourth and final section is the book of Revelation.

The Gospels

The books of the first section are the Gospels and are all about the life and times of Jesus of Nazareth. These books contain eye-witness accounts of the good news about Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection. So, the apostle Matthew wrote down what he remembered about Jesus and we call that the book of Matthew. According to Papias of Hierapolis,[2] the information for the Mark’s Gospel—widely assumed to be the first Gospel written—came from the apostle Peter. Luke, who also wrote the book of Acts, wrote the Gospel of Luke. Luke begins his Gospel by writing that he himself “carefully investigated everything from the beginning,” and “decided to write an orderly account” of Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection.[3] Finally, the apostle John wrote the Gospel of John.

The first three Gospels together form what is known as the Synoptic Gospels. These Gospels are very similar to one another in content. The similarity may mean that the men who wrote each of these Gospels were familiar with the other Gospels. So, Luke may have read Mark’s Gospel before writing the book of Luke. Notice, that in the first verse of Luke’s Gospel, Luke explicitly mentions having knowledge of other accounts of Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection.

The last Gospel—and the one that stands out from the others as being different—is the Gospel of John. John’s Gospel is much more refined in its theology than the Synoptic Gospels and centers around things that Jesus said and did that prove his divinity.

The Historical Section

The next section is the historical section comprised of one long book: the book of Acts. Written by Luke, the book of Acts has a lot of parallels with Luke’s Gospel. While Luke’s Gospel is concerned with “all that Jesus began to do and to teach until the day he was taken up to heaven,”[4] the book of Acts is concerned with what Jesus continues to do in His Church.

Acts 1.8 is like a summary of the entire book. So, the Gospel begins by spreading among the Jews in Jerusalem. However, persecution runs some of the Jews out of Jerusalem. As they flee the area, they share the Gospel with the people they meet. Then an amazing thing happens, Gentiles—a Gentile is a person who is not a Jew, so that’s probably you—hear the Gospel and get saved! Thank God for that! The Church struggles with this because they had kind of assumed that the Gospel was for Jews only. Eventually, they get it worked out and the Gospel goes past the residents of Judea and “to the ends of the earth.”[5] Acts ends with Paul preaching in Rome “with all boldness and without hindrance!”[6] So, Acts is primarily about the way that the risen Jesus worked in His Church to bring the Gospel to the ends of the earth.

The Epistles

The next section is the epistles. This is a collection of letters written by various church leaders to other church leaders or to entire churches. Most of the things that are going on in these letters took place during the same time period that the book of Acts covers. While the Gospels cover Jesus’s work on earth and while Acts covers Jesus’s ministry through the early church, the epistles show how God used church leaders to correct and guide the early church’s theology and practice. This section can be divided into two subsections.

The first subsection is composed of the Pauline epistles. These letters, written by the apostle Paul (hence the name Pauline epistles), begin with Romans and go all the way to the short book of Philemon. Paul wrote the first nine letters to churches while writing the last four to individuals.

The second subsection is the general, or catholic (remember that the word catholic mean universal), epistles. Church leaders wrote each of these letters to various churches or groups throughout the world. Interestingly, the authors of James and Jude were Jesus’s little brothers.

The Apocalypse

The final section is the Apocalypse and is comprised of only one book. This book’s title is “The Revelation of Jesus Christ,” though we usually call it Revelation. Though this is probably the most controversial book in the New Testament, its message is that Jesus Christ will reveal himself to the world.

That’s a lot of information! Once you understand it, you’ll be much better equipped to know what’s going on when you read your Bible, listen to a sermon, or write a Bible study.

Notes & Sources

[1] Justo L. Gonzalez, The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation, The Story of Christianity: Vol. 1, Revised and Updated. (New York, NY: Harper One, 2010), 75.

[2] Papias supposedly studied with the apostle John. Papias wrote: “Mark having become the interpreter of Peter, wrote down accurately whatsoever he remembered. It was not, however, in exact order that he related the sayings or deeds of Christ. For he neither heard the Lord nor accompanied Him. But afterwards, as I said, he accompanied Peter.” See the Fragments of Papias in The Apostolic Fathers, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, The Ante-Nicene Fathers; Vol. 1, (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2012), 154-5.

[3] Luke 1.3, all scripture quotations are from the NIV.

[4] Acts 1.1-2.

[5] Acts 1.8.

[6] Acts 28.31.

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