The Bible is the most essential book in the world. And it will eventually become your most prized possession as you continue to grow as a Jesus follower. As a new or young adult believer, you may be relatively new and excited to dive in. But before jumping into the deep end of the swimming pool, let’s briefly survey this giant book: including where it got its name, how it’s laid out, and if it all fits together.
“Bible” = Greek for "Book"
The word “Bible” was first used in c. A.D. 150 and comes from the Greek word for “books" (biblia). The earliest manuscripts were written on "paper-like" papyrus and various animal skins (leather, parchment, and vellum).
Many people think of the Bible as a single book. But it is a library of sixty-six books that make up the “canon” or complete collection of the Word of God. The word “canon” means the “standard” or “rule of authority” for Christians. Because there will never be any additional books added to the current sixty-six books, the Bible is considered a “closed” canon.
Forty different human authors wrote these books of the Bible over 1,500 years (c.1400 B.C. to c. A.D. 90). The authors came from various socio-economic backgrounds--including kings, fishermen, priests, government officials, farmers, shepherds, and doctors. Yet despite all the diversity, the absolute unity from beginning to end focuses on Jesus Christ.
How is Such Unity Possible?
It is impossible to believe that any collection of writings covering so many subjects, written by such diverse authors over that many years (and in three languages on three continents) is as unified in its message as the Bible. The best explanation for this is that one ultimate author (God), superintended the writers of Scripture.
Christians believe that the Bible is “inspired” by God or “God-breathed” (2 Tim. 3:16): which is the process of human authors writing each book precisely as God wanted it. That process involved the Holy Spirit “carrying along” each human, using their language, skills, and experience resulting in the perfect and holy Word of God (2 Pet. 1:21).
Making My Way Around
Navigating the Bible is relatively simple. There are two “testaments” in the Bible. The Old Testament (OT) contains thirty-nine books, and the New Testament (NT) has twenty-seven books.
Bible references include the book, followed by the chapter and the verse (for example: “Romans 8:28”). These chapter and verse divisions are the same in all translations but were not in the original writings. The chapter divisions were introduced in 1228, and the New Testament verses in 1551.
There is also no specific sequence of biblical books. The current arrangement of the sixty-six books of the Bible dates back to the Latin Vulgate (Latin translation of the Bible) in A.D. 383–405.
Finally, several different English translations of the Bible (for example, the English Standard Version and New International Version) are reliable and popular English translations).
What is the Old Testament?
The thirty-nine books of the Old Testament are sacred to both Jews and Christians. These were the Scriptures used by Jesus, the apostles, and the early Church.
They were written over 1,000 years, beginning with Moses’ writings around c. 1400 B.C. to the last book written by the prophet Malachi c. 400 B.C. The approximately thirty writers were Jews and included prophets, judges, kings, and other Israel leaders.
The Old Testament was written primarily in Hebrew, with some portions of Ezra-Nehemiah and Daniel in Aramaic.
How is the OT Organized?
The Hebrew Bible has three divisions
- The Law
- The Prophets
- The Writings
And the Hebrew Bible traditionally has twenty-four books that correspond precisely to the thirty-nine books of the Old Testament because the Hebrew Bible combines many books into one that Christians list separately (for example: “Samuel” instead of “1 & 2 Samuel;” keeping Ezra and Nehemiah in one book; etc.).
The Hebrew Bible is divided into four parts:
- Pentateuch (Genesis-Deuteronomy)
- History (Joshua-Esther)
- Poetry (Job-Song of Solomon)
- Prophecy (Isaiah-Malachi)
In this schema, the books correspond roughly to the subject-matter and chronological sequence. The Greek translation of the Old Testament is called the Septuagint (c. 280-100 B.C.).
The OT covers many broad-ranging topics. But the overriding theme of the OT is God’s dealing with his chosen people in anticipation of the coming of the Messiah (the Hebrew equivalent of the Greek word “Christ”: meaning “anointed one”).
Who Wrote the New Testament?
The New Testament authors wrote the NT over fifty years from the early A.D. 40s (about a decade after Jesus’ resurrection) to around A.D. 95. All the writers (probably nine) were Jews, except for the Greek physician Luke, Paul's companion (writer of Luke and Acts). The authors came from various walks of life, including fishermen, a doctor, a tax collector, and religious leaders. The language of the original NT books is Greek.
How is the NT Set Up?
The order of the twenty-seven books is both logically and roughly chronological so far as the subject matter:
- The first four books or “Gospels” (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) describe the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus and his training of disciples to carry on his work after his return to heaven (ascension)
- The Book of Acts is a sequel to the Gospels (specifically Luke) continuing the narrative from Christ’s ascension back to heaven, the coming of the Holy Spirit, and the thirty-year story of the Church from Jerusalem throughout the Mediterranean region.
- Next are thirteen letters (or “epistles”) written by Paul to churches he founded and young ministers he tried to encourage. The remaining eight epistles called the “General Epistles,” were written by Peter, John James, Jude, and the writer of the Hebrews (who is unknown). All the epistles interpret Christ’s life and how we should respond to all that he has done.
- The last book, Revelation, is an apocalyptic work that portrays the ultimate triumph of Christ through visions and symbolic language.
How They Fit Together
From the moment of creation to the end of time, the subject of the entire Bible is about Jesus Christ. The OT is about Israel’s anticipation of a Messiah who would rescue men and women from God’s condemnation. The NT reveals that Messiah and Savior to be Jesus. As Augustine wrote more than 1,500 years ago, “The New (Testament) is in the Old (Testament) contained; the Old is in the New explained.”