As an experienced pastor, and teacher of the Bible in venues on several continents, I have found that even long-time Christians often have an incomplete understanding of the Bible. People with little or no background in Christian faith usually have much less understanding of this incredible book. In the 21st century many people are mystified as to why Christians honor this book so deeply. So let’s look at some basic facts about the Bible.
Who Uses the Bible?
The Bible is revered by both Christians and Jews. Jews accept and use on the portion that Christians call the Old Testament, while Christians accept both Old and New Testaments.
While Protestants, Roman Catholics, and Eastern Orthodox Christians accept the same 27 New Testament books, they have different collections of the Old Testament. Protestants accept a total of 39 Old Testament books; Catholics accept seven additional books called the Apocrypha, and Eastern Orthodox churches accept an expanded Apocryphal collection. Jews have a 35-book collection that corresponds directly with the Protestant canon of the Old Testament. The numbers between Protestant and Jewish collections are different because Christians separate the books of Samuel, Kings, Chronicles, and Ezra-Nehemiah (which are single books in the Jewish collection) into two books each.
How was the Bible Written?
The books of the Bible were written by around 40 different authors, over a span of approximately 1300 to 1500 years (perhaps 1400 B.C. to 100 A.D.). The books were written in three original languages. The Old Testament was originally composed in Hebrew and Aramaic, while the New Testament was written in ancient Greek. The Bible contains a variety of genres (writing styles), including poetry, historical works, logical arguments, narrative stories, prophetic material, wisdom literature, lyrics to ancient music, etc.
The Old and New Testaments
The Old Testament outlines God’s redemptive work in the world before the time of Jesus, and focuses specifically on his work with the people of Israel. The New Testament describes God’s expanded redemptive beginning with Jesus’ birth, and focuses on the creation of a new, multi-ethnic people of God, known as the Church.
Because the Bible was written in ancient languages that most modern people cannot read, it has been translated into all of the major languages of the world, as well as into many languages of smaller groups of people. English has a wealth of Bible translations that allow us to read and accurately understand the sense of the ancient texts.
Though each of the books of the Bible has a unique purpose and setting, a common theme joins each of the books into a whole, revealing God’s holy character, his plans for human redemption and his great love for us, which he demonstrated in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. If you want to get a first-hand idea of what’s in the Bible, here are some suggestions for getting a grasp on the overall message of this amazing book:
- Read Genesis for an understanding of early human history and the background of the nation of Israel.
- Read Exodus to see how God’s covenant with Israel set the stage for his dealings with the Jewish people and his later work with the entire world by outlining standards of right and wrong, good and evil.
- Read Psalms and Proverbs to find comfort, wisdom and help in the issues of life and in worshipping God.
- Read Mark and John for a basic grasp of the life and identity of Jesus Christ.
- Read Acts and Ephesians to see how God has implemented a new covenant through the Church to include people from all nations.
- Read Romans to get a panorama of God’s entire plan of redemption.
- Read Revelation to be assured that God’s plan will be fulfilled and his people ultimately given eternal joy.
Understanding the Bible
If you are a beginner to the Bible, you may encounter parts of it that may seem puzzling, boring or hard to understand. If that happens, the main thing is to hang in there. You may want to temporarily skip over those parts in your reading, making a note to come back later when you have more knowledge and experience with the Bible. Remember: the Bible is not written in code. The human authors (and the God who inspired them) intended us to understand the basic message. Part of the task is to learn some basic things about the times and culture in which the Bible was written, and to develop the ability to separate pre-conceptions from what is actually in the text. And don’t forget to simply ask God to give you insight as you read and ponder its message.