Our English word “Bible” comes from an old Greek word meaning “book”. But the Bible is no ordinary book resulting merely from human imagination. Over and over, throughout its pages, it claims to be the word of God. (Not just what men imagined to be God’s message but God’s actual words communicated to human beings through the Holy Spirit.) Evidence for this lies in the detailed accuracy of the Bible’s contents and the continuing relevance of its teachings, principles, and moral values. (The matter of evidence has been discussed in other articles in this series.)
Instead of being just one book, the Bible is actually a collection of books (66 in all). These books are not arranged in chronological order and many of them overlap. They deal with a wide range of subjects and are written in a variety of styles such as religious and social law, history, poetry, moral and spiritual instruction, and prophecy. Not all of its contents are to be taken literally. Its poetry contains much figurative language, as do many of its prophetic sections.
We must also understand that various parts of the Bible relate to specific places and times. (Note Hebrews 1:1, 2.) The Bible is divided into two main sections: the Old and New Testaments. The Old Testament is the first section of the Bible, consisting of 39 books (from “Genesis” to “Malachi”). Much of this section relates to the people of Israel during what might be called the “Mosaic era”. Prior to that, from the time of creation, God communicated with people largely on an individual or family basis. He did not provide a written, national religious law. From the time of Moses though (c.1440 B.C.), God provided a written set of guidelines addressed specifically to the Israelites as a nation (though other people were not ignored). It would thus be a mistake simply to take religious laws from anywhere in the Old Testament and to assume that they automatically apply to us today. (However, there is much in the Old Testament which is relevant to us in regard to examples and warnings. The Old Testament also teaches us much about the nature of God and about human failings. It emphasises humanity’s need for God and salvation.) The Old Testament can be further subdivided into five sections (categories) of books: religious law (“Genesis” to “Deuteronomy”); history (“Joshua” to “Esther”); poetry (“Job” to “Song of Solomon”); the “major” prophets (“Isaiah” to “Daniel”); the “minor” prophets (“Hosea” to “Malachi”). However, these sections often overlap; the books of religious law also containing historical detail, some of the poetry (as in the “Psalms”) containing prophecy, and some books of prophecy being written in poetic form.
The second section of the Bible, consisting of 27 books (from “Matthew” to “Revelation”), begins by describing the identity, life, role and teachings of Jesus Christ. It goes on to give an account of the beginnings of Christianity and the Church. (Old Testament history and teaching led up to, and prepared the way for, Christ and Christianity.) The rest of the New Testament goes on to provide instructions on how to live as Christian individuals and how to function together in Christian congregations (churches). The final book of the New Testament (and of the Bible as a whole) is the book of “Revelation”, largely a book of prophecy. (It is a difficult book to understand and, because many ignore its figurative imagery, is often misinterpreted and misapplied. Basically, it encourages Christians with the message that as difficult as times may be, such as when Christians faced Roman persecution, God provides victory.) The books of the New Testament can be divided into four basic groups: biographies of Christ (“Matthew” to “John”); history of the early Church (“Acts”); instructional letters to Christian individuals and congregations (“Romans” to “Jude”); prophecy (“Revelation”). For suggestions on how to begin reading the Bible see our next article.