A Crash Course on the Bible

A Crash Course on the Bible

A Crash Course on the Bible

Why You Should Read This

A guy once told me that the Bible said that it wasn’t the word of God. Image my shock as a naïve, young believer! Though a better response would have been to direct him to 2 Timothy 3.16-17, I instead handed him my Bible and said “show me where.” I’ve often thought of that conversation, and the puzzled expression on the guy’s face as he gently thumbed through my Bible’s soft pages, and wondered what non-believers think about the Bible. Not long after that conversation, I entered the ministry. After a few years of working with people associated with the local church, both believers and non-believers, I’ve realized that there is a ubiquitous lack of knowledge about the Bible. For the most part, people understand Scripture’s basic concepts. However, there are other things, such as the majority of the Old Testament, the refined theology in the Gospel of John, and portions of the book of Romans, that throw people for a loop. What kills me about this state of affairs is that a lot of people miss the deep things of Scripture. They read their Bible, but miss the sublime narrative that runs through the entirety of Scripture. As a pastor, I never want any members of my congregation to miss out on truths from the Bible that could potentially enrich their walk with Christ. As a believer, I never want non-believers to misunderstand our faith and our God, because a distorted view of Christianity will only lead them away from the cross.

Christians believe that the Bible is a gift from the one and only God and is the primary method through which He has revealed Himself to sinful humanity. Now, if the Bible is God’s self-revelation to the world, then you should do everything you can to understand it, whether you’re a Christian or not. If you’re not a Christian, you owe it to yourself to at least check out what Jesus has to say, because if He’s correct, then the Bible will be the most important book you have ever read. If you are a Christian, then you should do everything you can to learn more about your Bible because it is God’s ultimate revelation of Himself to you.

What Is the Bible and Where Did It Come From?

One of the ways that you can start to understand the Bible is understanding what exactly the Bible is and where it came from. The Bible is an anthology of ancient writings which are inspired by God. What this means is that different men[1] wrote what we now call the books of the Bible. So, Moses wrote Exodus, Jeremiah wrote Lamentations, Paul wrote 2 Corinthians, and Matthew wrote The Gospel According to Matthew. But these books[2] aren’t like any other books. For various reason, people began to realize that these books stood out as different. Believers came to realize that these books were inspired by God and thus began to use them in worship for instructional purposes. Then, in the second century AD, in an effort to refute heretics, the church began to compile lists of what they considered to be the inspired books of the New Testament.[3] Once you understand this, you can begin to understand why the Bible is organized like it is.[4]

The Table of Contents

If you grab a Bible and turn to its table of contents, you’ll immediately see that the most fundamental division of the Bible is between the Old Testament and the New Testament. If you don’t grasp this distinction, you’ll be very confused when reading the Bible!

The Old Testament is made up of the writings of men that lived under the Old Covenant. That means that they were Jews who obeyed the Old Testament Law about not eating crawfish and bacon. The Old Testament was written by prophets almost entirely[5] in Hebrew. The thirty-nine books[6] of the Old Testament are concerned with various issues involving ancient Israel such as the origin of the Jewish people, the entrance to the Promised Land, the building of the Temple, God’s reasons for allowing the Babylonians to ransack Jerusalem, and the promises of the coming of the Messiah, who you probably know as Jesus. You’ll also notice that the Old Testament is significantly longer than the New Testament.

The New Testament is made up of the writings of men that lived at the same time as and shortly after the life of Jesus. So, these men lived under the New Covenant just like you do! This is one of the reasons why Christians typically find it much easier to relate to the New Testament. The New Testament, written in Greek, was authored by men who were either apostles—meaning they physically walked with Jesus and were eyewitnesses to His resurrection—or by men who had close ties to the apostles. The New Testament is focused upon issues like Jesus’s life, the spread of the Gospel, and issues that confronted the early Church.

Significantly, there are copies of some of the New Testament books that date to within a century of Jesus’s life. Though one hundred years may sound like a long time, this is actually a very short time-span. For example, while there are copies of some New Testament books that even liberal scholars date to within one hundred years of Christ’s life, there is a massive gap of one thousand two hundred years between Plato’s life and the oldest copy of his writings. So, you can be extremely confident that the New Testament in your Bible is what the men who walked with Jesus wrote about Jesus![7] Now that is a reason to study your New Testament!

Understanding the Old Testament

Your Old Testament is divided into five sections. The first section is called either the Law, the Torah, or the Pentateuch. The next section is often referred to as the historical section. The third section is the wisdom section. The fourth section is comprised of the writings of the prophets.

The Law

The first section is made up of the first five books of the Old Testament, or the books of Moses. These books begin with the creation of the world in Genesis and recount the calling of Abraham to leave his native city of Ur to become the father of a nation. Through some serious twists and turns, Abraham’s children, known today as the Jews, begin to be called Israelites and end up slaves in Egypt. The Torah then recounts their exodus from Egypt in, that’s right you guess it, Exodus. The Torah then recounts the 613 laws God gave to the Israelites. These commands are referred to as the Law. The Torah ends with the death of Moses at the end of the book of Deuteronomy.

The Historical Section

The historical division begins with Joshua and runs through Esther—one of the two books of the Bible that never mentions God’s name. This section covers all of the history of the Hebrew people from the death of Moses until the end of the Old Testament. In this section you’ll find the story of the Israelites crossing the Jordan River and taking control of the land marked “Israel” on your world map. The narrative then recounts Israel living under judges for a period of time before deciding that they wanted a king. So, God allows them to have king Saul who turns out to be a bust. So, David is chosen and groomed for the role of king. Eventually, David’s grandson Rehoboam—a great name for your next child I might add—becomes king and the nation soon divides into the northern and southern kingdoms. The two kingdoms then follow different paths with the northern kingdom being conquered by the Assyrians, and is never heard from again. Eventually, the southern kingdom is conquered by the Babylonians and the Hebrews are carted off for seventy years of exile. After this long stay in Babylon, a portion of the children of Israel return to rebuild the land and await Alexander the Great.

The end of the historical section is the chronological end of the Old Testament. All the Old Testament writings that follow the historical section in your Bible are written during the events described in this section. So, when the prophets—who come later in your Bible—prophesy about the Babylonians coming and destroying the nation of Israel, you can turn back in your Bible to this section and read about those events actually happening.

The Wisdom Books

The next division of the Old Testament begins with Job and ends with Song of Songs—the other book of the Bible that never mentions God’s name. The book of Job recounts the struggles of the man named Job who, though a righteous man, loses everything. Psalms is comprised of Hebrew poetry, while Proverbs offers pithy sayings full of wisdom. Ecclesiastes is a lament about the pointlessness of life apart from serving God. Finally, Song of Songs is a poetic dialogue of sorts about an intimate conversation between a man—possibly king David’s son Solomon—and his lover.

The Prophets

This section can be divided into two subsections. The first section is the major prophets. Beginning with Isaiah and ending Daniel, the major prophets are called major because of the length of the books. These prophets rebuke their kinsmen for their sins and call them to repentance. The major prophets also warn of an invasion by Babylon if God’s Law is not observed. This invasion, which does occur, was already described in the historical section. The major prophets are also famous for predicting details of Jesus’s life—remember that everything in the Old Testament is at least four hundred years before Jesus’s birth—with remarkable accuracy. Finally, they also attempt to point the people of Israel past mere observance of the Law—described early in the first section of the Old Testament—to deeper issues such as loving God, loving people, and carrying for the poor.

The second section is known as the minor prophets. The main difference between the major and minor prophets is that the books written by the minor prophets are significantly shorter. The minor prophets also call their kinsmen to repentance, predict the coming of the Messiah, and point to the weightier matters of the Law.

Understanding the New Testament

The New Testament is divided into four sections. The first section is made up of the four Gospels. The second section is history and is just the book of Acts. After that follows the letters or the epistles. Finally, the fourth and final section is the book of Revelation.

The Gospels

The books of the first section are called Gospel because the word Gospel means good news. These books—the first New Testament books accepted by the Church as inspired by God[8]—contain eye-witness accounts of the good news about Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection. So, the apostle Matthew wrote down what he remembered about Jesus and we call that the book of Matthew. According to Papias of Hierapolis,[9] the information for the Mark’s Gospel—widely assumed to be the first Gospel written—came from the apostle Peter. Luke, who also wrote the book of Acts, wrote the Gospel of Luke. Luke begins his Gospel by writing that he himself “carefully investigated everything from the beginning,” and “decided to write an orderly account” of Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection.[10]

The first three Gospels together form what is known as the Synoptic Gospels. They are known as the Synoptic Gospels because they are so similar to each other. This is possibly because the men who wrote each of these Gospels may have been familiar with the other Gospels. So, Luke may have read Mark’s Gospel before writing the book of Luke. Notice, that in the first verse of Luke’s Gospel, Luke explicitly mentions having knowledge of other accounts of Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection.

The last Gospel written, and the one that stands out from the others as being different, is the Gospel of John.

The Historical Section

The next section is the historical section comprised only of the book of Acts. The book of Acts is likely volume two of Luke’s Gospel. While Luke’s Gospel is concerned with “all that Jesus began to do and to teach until the day he was taken up to heaven,”[11] the book of Acts is concerned with what Jesus continues to do in His Church.

Acts 1.8 is like a summary of the entire book. So, the Gospel begins by spreading among the Jews in Jerusalem. However, persecution runs some of the Jews out of Jerusalem. As they flee the area, they share the Gospel with the people they meet. Then an amazing thing happens, Gentiles—a Gentile is a person who is not a Jew, so that’s probably you—hear the Gospel and get saved! Thank God for that! The Church struggles with this because they kind of assumed that the Gospel was for Jews only. Eventually they get it worked out and the Gospel goes past the residents of Judea and “to the ends of the earth.”[12] Acts ends with Paul preaching in Rome “with all boldness and without hindrance!”[13] So, Acts is primarily about the way that the risen Jesus worked in His Church to bring the Gospel to the ends of the earth.

The Epistles

The next section is the letters or the epistles. These letters were written by church leaders to churches or individuals. They contain instructions about how to handle specific issues that the early church was facing. This section can be divided into two subsections.

The first subsection is composed of the Pauline epistles. These letters, written by the apostle Paul (hence the name Pauline epistles), begin with Romans and go all the way to the short book of Philemon. The first nine letters were written to churches, while the last four are written to individuals.

The second subsection is the general, or catholic—remember that the word catholic means universal—epistles. These epistles, ranging from Hebrews to Jude, were written by leaders in the church. Interestingly, the authors of James and Jude were Jesus’s little brothers.[14]

The Apocalypse

The final section is often called the Apocalypse and is made up of only one book. This book—which is often referred to simply as Revelation—is titled “The Revelation of Jesus Christ.” Though this is probably the most controversial book in the New Testament, its message is that Jesus Christ will be revealed to the world.

Conclusion

The reason we study the Bible is to learn more about God. If you ever read the Bible and come away only with what Abraham did, to whom Moses spoke, what Paul wrote, or anything that is not focused on God, then you’ve missed the point. The Bible is all about revealing God to sinful people so that we can know Him. With this in mind, the reason that we study the Bible is not to know the most, win a debate, or have the best Bible studies. The reason we study the Bible, though it can be hard-work, is so that we can know God personally and make Him known to a world that is unaware.

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Notes & Sources

[1] I say men because, to the best of my knowledge, only men have been proven to have written a book of the Bible. However, some have argued that Priscilla and Aquila (a man and a woman) wrote the book of Hebrews. See D.A. Carson and Douglas J. Moo, An Introduction to the New Testament, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005), 604 for more information about whether or not Priscilla and Aquila authored the book of Hebrews.

[2] The books of the Bible are often called books, but that’s not always the most accurate term. For example, a fair amount of the New Testament books are actually letters.

[3] Justo L. Gonzalez, The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation, The Story of Christianity: Vol. 1, Revised and Updated. (New York, NY: Harper One, 2010), 75.

[4] See Gregg R. Allison, Historical Theology; An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 37-58 for more information about how the Church realized which books were inspired and then put them together to form the Bible.

[5] There are portions of the book of Daniel written in Aramaic.

[6] Catholics have more books in the Old Testament known collectively as the Apocrypha; however, the ancient Church did not view the Apocrypha as inspired. The Apocrypha came to be viewed as inspired when Augustine convinced Jerome to include the Apocrypha in his Latin translation of the Bible. Known as the Latin Vulgate, this translation became the standard Bible in the early Catholic Church. See Allison, 46-50 for more information.

[7] There are countless books about the historical reliability of the New Testament. A detailed and scholarly discussion of the topic can be found throughout Carson and Moo’s Introduction to the New Testament. A shorter version, complete with charts and quotes from scholars on the subject, can be found in John McDowell, Evidence for Christianity: Historical Evidence for the Christian Faith, (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2006), 59-101. An engaging, popular-level discussion can be found in Norman L. Geisler and Frank Turek, I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist, (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2004), 221-249.

[8]Gonzales, 75.

[9] Papias supposedly studied with the apostle John. Papias wrote: “Mark having become the interpreter of Peter, wrote down accurately whatsoever he remembered. It was not, however, in exact order that he related the sayings or deeds of Christ. For he neither heard the Lord nor accompanied Him. But afterwards, as I said, he accompanied Peter.” See the Fragments of Papias in The Apostolic Fathers, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, The Ante-Nicene Fathers; Vol. 1, (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2012), 154-5.

[10] Luke 1.3.

[11] Acts 1.1-2.

[12] Acts 1.8.

[13] Acts 1.31.

[14] Technically they were half-brothers since Scripture teaches that Joseph wasn’t Jesus’s biological father. Remember that Mary was a virgin when Jesus was born, but then went on to have a few more children. See Matthew 13.55-56 for more information on Jesus’s siblings.

3 Comments

    Brad Johnston

    In regards to the Bible containing an overarching narrative, the proof is definitely there. Whether a person reads the Law, Old Testament Prophets, or Christ’s teachings (and apostles’), it is clear that they are more alike than they are different. The Law shows us God is the ultimate moral arbiter and that He has set standards, the Prophets delivered a message of repentance not only for Israel, but for the world, while Christ’s teachings were a fulfillment and refinement of teachings from the Old Testament. All of these things taken in total reveal that God has created humanity to know Him, His efforts to reveal Himself, and what He did to make salvation available to us.
    The Law may seem foreign at first and there are elements of the Law that have been fulfilled and are antiquated. But rather than getting caught up in the minutiae of every aspect of the Law, we should look at the overall point of the Law which was to point peoples’ attention to God while also establishing law, order, and justice in an ancient society.
    Take Leviticus 19 for example. The passage deals with a broad range of topics such as personal devotion to God (19:1-8), caring for the helpless (19:9-10), and living with respect to the people we encounter (19:13-16). These verses tell us that God is concerned with our personal conduct and living righteously as God Himself is righteous.
    One of the best summaries of the purpose of the Law was written by Micah, “He has shown you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8)
    Although it’s a brief summary of the Law, Christ taught an even simpler summary of the Law, “Therefore, whatever you want men to do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.” (Matt 7:12).
    Of course, salvation isn’t dependent on obedience to the Law as Christ also taught He came to fulfill it on our behalf (Matt 5: 17-20). This teaching of salvation through Him is no teaching alien to scripture as written in Isaiah, “It is too small a thing that You should be My Servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob, and to restore the preserved ones of Israel; I will also give You as a light to the Gentiles, that You should be My salvation to the ends of the earth.” (Isaiah 49:6).

    Kyp Normand

    The Gospel of Judas is a Gnostic gospel whose content consists of conversations between Jesus and Judas Iscariot.

    Why wasn’t the Gospel of Judas chosen to be one of the books of the Bible?

      Nicholas Maricle (Author)

      That’s a good question. In light of the recent release of books such as Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code and some things you may have seen on The History Channel, people are certainly interested in these Gnostic gospels, such as the Gospel of Judas, or of Mary, or of Philip, or of Thomas. But, contrary to what some would lead you to believe, things like the Gospel of Judas simply aren’t in the same category as the books in the New Testament canon. I’ll explain why by showing what exactly the Gospel of Judas is, and by describing the process by which the Church realized what books were inspired.

      The Gospel of Judas is, as you say, a Gnostic gospel. What this means is that it was written by a Gnostic and contains the teachings of Gnosticism. Now the Gnostics weren’t Christians, in fact they were one of the first heresies (a heresy is something that you cannot believe and be a Christian). So, that should instantly set off a red flag in your head. Christianity teaches that we’re all created by the one and only God, that we’re all sinners, and that Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection achieves our salvation. If you don’t believe these things, then you have no right to call yourself a Christian, because this is the core message of Christianity. The Gnostics weren’t Christians because they taught that all matter is evil whereas the spirit is good. Therefore, to attain salvation one needs to leave behind matter. The way that you attain salvation and leave matter behind is by having a special form of knowledge. What the Gnostic gospels teach is that Jesus gave this Gnostic notion of “special knowledge” to one of his disciples, and not to the others. That’s why the Gospel of Judas begins with this line: “The secret account of the revelation that Jesus spoke in conversation with Judas Iscariot” (http://www.nationalgeographic.com/lostgospel/_pdf/GospelofJudas.pdf). Thus, Gnosticism is not Christianity because it denies the goodness of God’s physical creation and thus repeatedly contradicts Genesis 1. More importantly, Gnosticism is not Christianity because it teaches that salvation comes through a special knowledge, not through the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ.

      Now, it’s not strictly correct to say that the New Testament books were chosen. A popular idea is that the Council of Nicea called by Constantine in the year 325 decided what books went in the New Testament, and which didn’t. This however is completely inaccurate. The Council of Nicea was a response to the Arian heresy—the ancient version of the Jehovah’s Witnesses theology—and was thus concerned primarily with the nature of Christ and of the Trinity. A better way to say it is to say that the Church realized which writings were inspired. Then, they begin to put those into what we now call the New Testament.

      I feel as if I’m running a little long, so I’ll close as quickly as possible. The books in the New Testament share three important qualities. First, they are all apostolic. This means that they were written by an apostle, or by someone with very close connections to an apostle. Mark, Luke, Acts, possibly Hebrews, James, and Jude are the only books not written by an apostle. For each of these books except Hebrews, we are certain that the man who wrote it had close ties to the apostles. The Gospel of Judas is left out because it wasn’t written for at least two hundred years after the apostles were all dead. So, it not only doesn’t have a connection to the apostles, it doesn’t even have a connection to Judas Iscariot! Second, all the New Testament books are orthodox. What this means is that they all teach Christianity. Thus, the Gospel of Judas is ruled out because it doesn’t teach Christianity. Third, the books were widely used in the churches. There simply was no council that told the churches what to use. It was more along the lines of they all simply came to a consensus. The inclusion of some New Testament books, such as Hebrews and Jude, were debated. Also, some books, such as 1 Clement, were used for awhile in churches before Christians realized the book wasn’t inspired. While there were discussions and debates, there was much more agreement than disagreement.

      In the end, the Gospel of Judas isn’t in the New Testament because it was written a long time after Jesus had risen and Judas had committed suicide. It was one of the earlier attempts by a heretical group to use Jesus and Christianity as an avenue to get an audience. Similar things have been done by groups such as the Mormons who, though not Christians because they teach things that are diametrically opposed to Christianity, have attempted to tack themselves to Jesus.

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