Welcome to part one in a four-part series on how to read, understand, and study the Bible. Before digging into the nitty-gritty of how to do so, let’s take one step back and examine the question: What is the Bible?
When I ask confirmation students, I get a mixed bag of answers typical of the varied experiences each student represents. Some answer that it’s a collection of books and stories; others, an old boring book we read in church. The number one answer though is that it is God’s Word. While true, that answer’s simplicity leaves out what needs stating: the Bible is God’s Word to us about himself. It is what he uses, especially in our age, to most assuredly reveal himself to us.
Apologetic discussions regarding the authorship of specific books, reliability, and canonization aside, here, we’ll look at what I call the mechanical elements of the Bible: how it’s organized and divided; who wrote it, generally speaking; what language it was written in; and how it tells one story centered around a first-century Jewish man who claimed to be God-in-the-flesh come to reconcile the world to himself through his death and resurrection.
The Bible contains histories, letters, collections of prophetic utterances, poetry and songs, wisdom literature, biographies, and teachings spread across two testaments. The Old Testament contains 39 books; the New Testament has 27. Each book is divided into chapters (those big numbers interspersed throughout the text) and verses (the little numbers interspersed throughout the text), with several exceptions: Obadiah, Philemon, 2 and 3 John, and Jude all have a single chapter.
It’s worth noting that chapter and verse divisions are not original to the text of Scripture and so lack authority in any real sense, though they are extremely helpful. In 1205, Cardinal Stephen Langton created the chapter divisions that publishers generally use today. Likewise, subheadings or chapter headings are also not original to Scripture, but a tool translation committees and publishers provide for readers. However, this author finds them immensely less helpful than chapter and verse divisions.
The Old Testament (in Protestant Bibles) contains the same content as the Hebrew Bible, albeit organized differently. The Hebrew Bible is divided into three major parts, the Torah, Nevi’im, and Ketuvim—the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings—often referred to as the TaNaK for short. Jesus himself recognized this division in Luke 24:44. At other times, he referred to the Old Testament as the Law and the Prophets (Matt 5:17-18). He also referred to it simply as the Scriptures (John 5:39, 46). The Christian Old Testament, while similarly divided into three major sections, is organized more by book type: histories, poetry/wisdom literature, and prophetic writings.
The Bible contains histories, letters, collections of prophetic utterances, poetry and songs, wisdom literature, biographies, and teachings spread across two testaments.
The first five books of the Hebrew Bible and the Christian Old Testament are identical. The Torah (the Pentateuch) holds the five books Moses authored. The second section of the Hebrew Bible, the Prophets contains two subsections, the Earlier (Former) prophets and the Latter Prophets. The Earlier Prophets are made up of the major post-Mosaic histories of the nation of Israel. Joshua, Judges, Samuel (1-2), and Kings (1-2). The Christian Old Testament includes Ruth, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, and Chronicles (1-2) in this section, organizing them as histories.
The Latter Prophets are composed of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the Twelve. The Twelve shorter prophetic books (Hosea through Malachi) were kept together on one scroll. These are found at the end of the Christian Old Testament and are often called the Minor Prophets. The Christian Old Testament includes Lamentations, authored by Jeremiah, and Daniel with Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, classifying them as the Major Prophets. Together, the Major and Minor Prophets make up the third major section of the Christian Old Testament.
The third section of the Hebrew Bible, the Writings, has three subsections of its own. Poetry, which includes Psalms, Proverbs, and Job. Histories, which include Daniel, Ezra-Nehemiah (together in one scroll), and Chronicles (1-2). And, the Five Megillot or Five Little Scrolls (Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, and Esther), each read on a major festival day in Israel’s calendar. The second major section of the Christian Old Testament is made up of books from the third section of the Hebrew Bible and is often labeled Poetry and Wisdom (Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs).
The New Testament starts with the four Gospels or biographies of Jesus. Those are followed by a history of the early church, the Acts of the Apostles (or just Acts). Then there are 21 letters (epistles) to churches or individuals, 13 from Paul, and eight general epistles, two from Peter, three from John, one each from James and Jude (the brothers of Jesus), and the book of Hebrews whose author remains unknown. Lastly, the New Testament ends with the book of Revelation, a letter from the Apostle John to seven churches in Asia Minor written in the apocalyptic style (we’ll say more on apocalyptic literature in a later part of this series).
The Old Testament was primarily written by the prophets. The New Testament was written primarily by the Apostles or those directly in their circles (think Mark with Peter and Luke with Paul). Neither group were random observers of these events and sayings. The prophets and apostles were people with vested interest and authority to accurately recount what happened. With the exception of Moses’ authorship of Genesis, they witnessed or spoke to the witnesses of God’s activity in the world. Likewise, other witnesses could correct and corroborate the details.
The Old Testament was originally written in Hebrew with some Aramaic. It was eventually translated into Greek (referred to as the Septuagint or abbreviated LXX). Many of the Apostles and even Jesus himself quoted from this translation. The New Testament was written in Greek.
It is worth noting that both testaments were recorded in languages common to the people. It was not written in a secret special language only a few were privileged to know. It was written for everyone to understand, whether read or heard.
But how are we to understand these two testaments made up of 66 documents together in one book? How do they relate to one another? Do they tell 66 individual stories? Two large stories? Or do they together tell one story? And if so, what story does the Bible tell?
Jesus’ words on the matter go a long way in answering the question. In John’s Gospel, Jesus disputes with the Pharisees about who he is and his own authority. At one point he says, “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me” (John 5:39). In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus says even more, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Matt 5:17).
These two would certainly suffice to tell us the Old Testament was about Jesus, but in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus drives the point home even farther to two despondent disciples on the road to Emmaus. “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” (Luke 24:26). Then Luke explains, “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:27). And if this wasn’t enough, Jesus appeared again, this time to the twelve and said, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled” (Luke 24:44).
From the opening words of creation in Genesis to the closing promises of Revelation and in between, the Bible points to Jesus and his work for us. In the Old Testament, covenant promises are made and prophecies are foretold about him. Everywhere you look, the Old Testament winks at and foreshadows Jesus’ death and resurrection in the lives of the people we encounter. In the New Testament, these promises come to life in the incarnate Word. Jesus fulfills the promises and prophecies of the Old Testament. And his Apostles and disciples bear witness to this and its implication in our lives.
From the opening words of creation in Genesis to the closing promises of Revelation and in between, the Bible points to Jesus and his work for us.
A famous saying of Augustine (echoing Jesus in Luke 24:44) perhaps puts it best, “The New Testament lies concealed in the Old, the Old lies revealed in the New.” Neither can be understood without the other; neither is complete without the other. Together they tell the story of a God who created the world and then became that which he created in order to bring it, including us, back to him.
In part two, we’ll draw some distinctions between reading, understanding, and studying the Bible and then examine how to read it.