The Bible belongs to the whole world as no other book does. Phrases from its pages have become common idiom and illusions to its stories are widely understood. Yet relatively few people are familiar with it as a whole, and acquaintance for the most part is limited to a small selection of passages. Much is not easy to understand and not all is equally rewarding for all purposes. What every reader should first understand is the range and variety of the Bible, and what parts can best serve the purpose for which one turns to it.
The Briefest Summary of the Old Testament
The opening chapters of the OT deal with human origins. They are not to be read as history, but neither are they to be dismissed as myths. They teach that God created man to be obedient to him, and that in that obedience man’s well-being exists. By disobedience man turned from the true source of his life, so that before Adam and Eve were ejected from the garden, he hid himself from God. These chapters think of sin not as a theological abstraction, but as something real which recoils upon man. It broke up the first family, brought murder, strife and corruption, and ate into the heart of man.
These chapters are followed by the stories of the patriarchs, which preserve ancient tradition known to reflect the condition of the times, though they cannot be treated as strictly historical. It is for religion that they are preserved and the reader should be alert to understand not merely Gods dealing with the patriarchs, but what he is saying to us through these stories.
In a one illustration, the story of Abraham’s narrowly averted sacrifice of Isaac is more than a memory of times when human sacrifice was common, or of the first awakening of Israel’s ancestors to the recognition that God did not desire it. It is a story of a man who loved God more than all else and who was willing to surrender to God even the son in whose life his own was bound. There are sacrifices which God does not ask; there are none a man should be unwilling to make.
With the story of the exile and the settlement in Canaan we come nearer to the historical, though we are still dealing with idealized history. The main purpose of this narrative is to bring the reader to realize that God chose Israel to be His people and delivered her by His power, thus revealing His own character and laying on her the constraint of obedience. God’s election of Israel was to privilege but it was also to service.
Into this story the legal section of the OT has been fitted, and especially, all the provisions for the sacrificial rituals. Much bears the marks of the social and religious background of the times and not a little is without authority for the Christian. For the Christian, animal sacrifices are superseded by the sacrifice of Christ. The letter to the Hebrews links the death of Christ with the ritual of the Day of Atonement.
Other references in the New Testament (NT) allude rather to the suffering servant of Isaiah 53. This chapter contains the most remarkable thought on sacrifice found in the OT. The Servant was one who willingly gave himself to be sacrificed, a morally blameless man instead of a physically unblemished animal, and his sacrifice was wider in its efficacy than any sacrifice mentioned in the Pentateuch (first 5 books of the OT).
When we come to the books of Samuel and Kings, we have much very good history. The unsurpassed account of the reign of David probably comes from the time of Solomon, and it is without equal as historical writing in the literature of any country at so early an age. All these books, as also in the latter books of Chronicles, Ezra and Nehemiah, are concerned with the lessons of history as much as with the history itself.
The Prophetic books offer special difficulty to the modern reader. They contain utterances of the profits to their contemporaries exposing the political and social ills of Israel without mentioning the context. The reader should seek to penetrate beneath all that belongs to that age to that which is significant to his own life and times.
The prophetic oracles are mostly in poetry, but the poetic book of the OT par excellence is the book of Psalms. Here we have poems which were created for religious use, many of them probably to accompany the rituals of sacrifice and feast and they have continued to serve us, publicly and privately today. Not all the Psalms reach the same height, but as a whole, they still nourish our spirit of devotion.
Of the OT wisdom books I will mention two. The book of Proverbs is mainly a collection of poetic observations used for the instruction of youth. They are governed throughout by the conviction that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and that the way of wisdom is the way of integrity and of obedience to God’s will.
The book of Job carries one of the profoundest messages to be found in the OT. Its story is of a godly man who suffered grievous pain and loss, and who was tormented by his friends who came to comfort him until he was goaded into an appeal both to God and against God. God then answered him out of a whirlwind to remind him of the folly of passing judgment on God out of his ignorance. The author teaches that more important than discovering the reason for suffering is finding God in the suffering.
The Briefest Summary of the New Testament
When we pass from the OT to the new, we move to a different world. Yet the two testaments are bound together in a very real way. In the first three gospels we have stories of Jesus which are linked together by the use of common sources, while in the fourth gospel we have an independent account which is more concerned to interpret the significance of our Lord.
None of the gospels offers a biography of Jesus, yet by their study we may come to know him better than others are known from full and careful biographies. By the intimate study of the gospel we may know much about Jesus; but better than that, we may come to be infused with something of his spirit.
History is represented in the NT by the book of Acts. Yet here again history is not recorded merely for its own sake. The reader is told of the spread of Christianity until, in the person of Paul, it is carried to Rome, so a great deal of what we would like to know is left unrecorded. Yet we see the spirit of the early church and can understand its message. More importantly, we can realize that from the beginning it was perceived that the Christian faith was not something to be enjoyed alone, but was given to the church so that it may be communicated to all men.
In the letters of the NT are reflected some of the churches which were founded by the apostles, and – more importantly – we see the unfolding significance of the Christian message. The death and resurrection of Jesus are seen not simply as the facts of history but are charged with meaning for us.
When the cross of Christ becomes the means of our surrender by faith to him, in a profound sense, we die with him and are born anew in him. His resurrection becomes the means of our renewed life, whose essential character lies in the union of our life with him, so that he lives in us, and we are linked with his character and purpose and live no longer unto ourselves but become extensions of his personality in the world. The son of God lifts us to become the sons of God, in whom our Father is seen, and heirs of God, whose heritage is to share His spirit and purpose.
The final book of the NT came at a time of suffering and persecution, like the book of Daniel in the OT, whose character it so much shares. Neither scripture should be read as a cryptic plan of the ages, but as the expression of an underlying hope in God and a great faith that humble loyalty to him transforms suffering for him into a privilege. The wise reader is less concerned with the intricate symbolism then with the spirit which penetrates it.
The Unity of the Bible
There is a place for the study of every detail of the Bible considering the situation in which it arose with all the illumination of science, archaeology and history. But more important is the recognition that this is a book of the living oracles of God, which may speak to us and nourish our spirit when we approach them in devotion and humility. We should always remember the variety of literary form found in the Bible and should read a passage in the light of its own literary character. Legend should be read as legend, and poetry as poetry, and not with a dull prosaic and literalistic mind.
There are themes throughout the Bible which impart unity despite its diversity. Throughout, God is One and reveals Himself to humanity and who desires their fellowship. He reveals Himself in history and through persons, until He finally revealed Himself in One who is both God and man. In both testaments it is the same God who is revealed, and this above all else gives unity to the Bible.
At the same time, it must be recognized that much of the OT is superseded in the New, and there are ideas of God in the OT which are not to be approved. For though both testaments bring us revelation of God, the revelation came through men who could not always understand it in its fullness. Just as light is modified by the glass through which it passes, while none derives from the glass itself, so revelation whose sole origin is God, is modified and often marred by the personalities through which it comes. That is why the perfect revelation could come only through the perfect Man.
In both testaments God is revealed as compassionate and saving. He had compassion on Israel in her Egyptian bondage, and on those who were in the deeper bondage of sin. Throughout the Bible God is concerned to save humanity from sin, but in the NT we have the supreme expression of that concern when God, in Christ, takes upon Himself the curse of sin, that by the sacrifice on the cross deliverance might be complete. The saving character of God was revealed in bringing Israel out of Egypt; but it was revealed on a new level at Golgotha.
Again, in both testaments, religion is seen in terms of covenant, and the covenant is the response in gratitude for the deliverance that has been accomplished. When Israel was saved from Egypt she went to the sacred mount and there pledged herself in covenant to the God who had saved her. The new covenant in Christ calls for the cherishing of the larger revelation of God given to us in the life, death and resurrection of Christ.
Yet another theme that runs through the Bible and demonstrates its unity is faith. Faith is something more than a belief about God. When the Israelites stepped onto the sand left by the receding Red Sea, they showed more than their belief about God. And Christian faith is more than an intellectual persuasion; it is the abandonment of ourselves to Christ so that henceforth we live in him and he in us.
In both testaments the theme of judgment figures. When Adam sinned and isolated himself from God, his self-judgment lead to the judgment of exclusion from the garden. The prophets announced the coming judgment when Israel, by her disobedience, cut herself off from God. All judgment begins in self-judgment. So, too, in the NT: “he who does not believe is condemned already “ (John 3:18). This is the flip side of the teaching that man’s well-being consists in walking in obedience to God.
Yet the judgment of God is ever tempered with mercy. His mercy is shown in his patience and in sending his servants, the prophets, to warn and to reclaim. It is shown, too, in the sparing of the remnant. Sometimes it is a righteous remnant, spared for its own loyalty, and sometimes it is a remnant spared to preserve for another generation the revelation it so lightly regards.
From the earliest pages of the Bible the thought of the remnant appears. Noah and his family are the remnants spared at the flood, and throughout the prophetic words of judgment there appear promises of the remnant that shall remain – the remnant to whom alone the heritage of the covenant belongs, and through whom it is to be shared with those who do not belong to Israel according to heritage. And in the NT the church consists first of a remnant of Israel. The first disciples were all Jews, who inherited the revelation of the old covenant and the new revelation from the same God given in Christ. They brought the response of faith and obedience, and then shared their heritage with Gentiles who brought the same response.
A rich diversity of types of literature marks the Bible. There is progress in revelation; part of the OT was outgrown before the OT was itself complete, and more was superseded in the NT. Yet amidst the diversity runs a unity, and in all the progress there is the thread of a true continuity which derives from the God who speaks through it all. The goal of true study of the Bible is to hear His voice, and all who have ears to hear may hear it. The wise student of the Bible will welcome every aid to understand its background and meaning, for his supreme need is one no other book can supply: it is a humble desire to find God in His word and hear His word that you may find repose in gratitude and obedience.
Basic Q&A about the Bible
Why is it called the Bible?
By about the 5th century the Greek Church Fathers applied the term biblia – ‘books’- to the whole Christian scripture. Later the word passed into the western church and in Latin became ‘book’. The names ‘Old’ and ‘New Testament’ have been used since the close of the 2nd century to distinguish the Jewish and Christian scriptures. The word ‘testament’ is the Latin translation of the Hebrew word ‘berith’, which meant ‘covenant’ and referenced the covenants God made with His people.
What languages were the Bible originally written in?
The OT was originally written in Hebrew before the Babylonian Captivity. After it, Aramaic was used as it was the language acquired in Babylon. The NT was composed in Greek the common language used in that area of the world at the time.
Why are the Protestant and Catholic Bibles different?
The Protestant Bible consists of 39 OT books and 27 NT books. The 39 books of the OT are the same as those recognized by Palestinian Jews in NT times. The Greek speaking Jews of that period recognized the 39 plus 7 more and additions to Esther and Daniel. These became the Catholic Bible.
The Hebrew Bible and Protestant OT contain the same material, although they are organized a little differently. In the Greek (now Catholic) OT, the number of books and their arrangement is different than the Hebrew Bible. It is evident that the NT writers were familiar with the Apocrypha (the additional material in the Greek/Catholic OT) but there is no quotation from it in their pages. The books of the Apocrypha are all late in date, confirmed by the fact that they were originally written mostly in Greek. The more scholarly of the Catholic Church Fathers did not regard the Apocrypha as canonical although they permitted its use for edification.
All branches of the Christian Church agree on the NT canon.
Is the text in our current Bible the same as the original?
The Bible was written over a period of approximately 1400 years ending during the 1st century AD. Until the invention of the printing press in the middle of the 15th century all copies of the Scriptures were made by hand, which resulted in some errors by the scribes. However, the Bible has come to us in a remarkable state of preservation. There is evidence that ancient Jewish scribes copied the books of the OT with extreme care. The evidence for the reliability of the NT is large and includes about 4500 Greek manuscripts dating back to about 125 AD as well as quotes taken from the NT material by Church Fathers in their writings beginning at the end of the 1st century.
How did chapters and verses come about?
The books of the Bible originally had no chapters and verses. For convenience of reference, Jews of pre-Talmudic times divided the OT into sections and these correspond to our current Bible. The chapter divisions we use today were made by the Archbishop of Canterbury who died in 1228. The division of the NT into its present verses is found for the first time in an edition of the Greek NT printed in 1551 in Paris. In 1555 the first version to include both chapters and verses as we see today was published by the same printer in Paris. The first English Bible with these divisions was printed in 1560.
When were the first translations of the Bible?
The OT was first translated into Greek between 250-150 BC. Parts of the OT were rendered into to Syriac in the early 1st century and a Coptic translation appeared probably in the 3rd century. The NT was translated into Latin and Syriac c. 150 and into Coptic c. 200.
According to Wikipedia “As of October 2019 the full Bible has been translated into 698 languages, the NT has been translated into an additional 1,548 languages and Bible portions or stories into 1,138 other languages. Thus at least some portions of the Bible have been translated into 3,385 languages.”
What is the Bible’s overall message?
The Bible is a collection of books recognized and used by the Christian church as the inspired record of God’s revelation of Himself and His will to mankind. Although the Bible was written over a long period of time by a great variety of writers, most of the authors of the Old Testament (OT) did not know each other. It has an organic unity that can be explained only by assuming, as the book itself claims, that its writers were inspired by the Holy Spirit to give God’s message to humanity. The theme of the message is the same in both testaments; the redemption of man.