Copyright © by Cliff Leitch, The Christian Bible Reference Site,
Used by permission.
The Bible is a
collection of books, accepted by Christians as sacred and inspired by
God, providing the basis for beliefs about spiritual matters and
providing guidelines for moral living.
Many verses throughout
the Bible attest to its divine origin (Genesis 6:9-13, Exodus 20:1-17,
2 Timothy 3:16, 2 Peter 1:20-21, Revelation 1:1-2, etc.) But the Bible
was not simply dictated word-for-word by God; it is also the work of its
many different human authors. The different writing skills, writing
styles, personalities, world views, and cultural backgrounds of the
human authors can be seen in their works. Many of the New Testament
books were originally written as letters rather than as Scripture. Some
Bible writings include the authors' own research and recollection of
historical events (Luke 1:1-4) and their own opinions (1 Corinthians
The Old Testament
The Old Testament is the first of the two major sections of the
Christian Bible. The Old Testament contains the sacred writings of the
Jews. It was written over the period of roughly 1000 B.C. to 100 B.C.,
but it includes narration of events that occurred many centuries earlier
and had been passed from generation to generation in oral form. The Old
Testament was originally written in the Hebrew language with a few
sections written in the Aramaic language.
There was no
"official" list of accepted books of Jewish scripture until around 100
A.D. when Jewish rabbis revised their Scripture and established an
official canon of Judaism, rejecting some books not found in Hebrew
versions of the Scripture. This revision accounts for the fact that
Protestant, Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christians use slightly
different versions of the Old Testament.
Jesus Christ, the
central figure of Christianity, was born a Jew and practiced Judaism all
His earthly life. Christianity began as a sect of Judaism and only
emerged as a separate religion after large numbers of Gentiles had been
converted. The Jewish Scripture had predicted the coming of a savior,
the Messiah, and Jesus fulfilled that role. So it is natural that
Christians would retain the Jewish Scripture as part of their Bible.
The Old Testament tells the
story of God's chosen people, the Hebrews, who were later known as
Israelites or Jews. Sometime around 1800 B.C., God made a covenant with
a man named Abraham to make of his descendants a great nation. The first
few of these descendants migrated to Egypt to escape a famine in their
own land. After many generations they had greatly increased their
numbers but had become enslaved to the Egyptians. God sent a great
leader and prophet, Moses, to lead the Hebrews out of captivity and into
the Promised Land of Israel. During this time God gave Moses the Ten
Commandments which are still considered the basis for a moral life by
both Jews and Christians.
In addition to the Ten
Commandments, the Old Testament lists many other laws about
circumcision, dietary restrictions, blood sacrifices, Sabbath
observance, tithing, social welfare, crimes, social behavior, armies,
qualifications of leaders, etc. These laws regulated almost every aspect
of Hebrew life.
God intended for the
Israelites to live according to His commandments and to show the truth
of God to all the world (Genesis 12:1-3). However, time and again, the
Israelites lost sight of their mission and lapsed into idolatry, sin or
narrow-minded nationalism. On these occasions, God called prophets, such
as Elijah, Samuel, Jonah, Isaiah and many others, to lead them back to
the right path. The Old Testament writings make no attempt to hide the
fact that the Israelites and their leaders had many failings and flaws.
Yet, through these flawed people, God was able to accomplish His
purposes in the world.
The later Hebrew
prophets foresaw the coming of a Messiah (meaning "anointed one"), a
king who would usher in a golden era of peace and prosperity. More than
any other nation, the Israelites looked to the future, to the coming of
the Messiah, and to the fulfillment of God's promise to Abraham to make
of his descendants a great nation.
The New Testament
The New Testament contains the
sacred books that are unique to Christianity. All the New Testament
books were written in the Greek language over the period of about 50 to
120 A.D. None of the New Testament books were originally written as part
of a Christian Bible, but they were read at church services for
instruction in the faith.
The collection of
books we know as the New Testament emerged in the late second century,
A.D. The church leaders accepted books they believed were based on
eyewitness accounts of the events narrated, while rejecting many other
early Christian writings. Eventually, the 27 books which form the
present New Testament, along with the Old Testament books, became the
Christian Bible as we know it today. The New Testament canon was
formally adopted by the Synod of Carthage in 397 A.D.
The New Testament tells of
Jesus' birth, life, ministry, death and resurrection, the growth of the
early Christian Church, and predictions of the second coming of Jesus.
Jesus was born sometime between 6 and 4 B.C. in the city of Bethlehem,
and He was destined from birth to fulfill the role of Messiah or Christ
(the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew word "messiah"). He lived an
ordinary life for 30 years, and then He began His ministry among the
Jesus traveled from
town to town, healing the sick and preaching about the coming kingdom of
God. He taught that God's kingdom is a spiritual kingdom that is now
growing among the faithful, and it will find its fulfillment in the
eventual sovereign rule of God and defeat of all evil. Jesus said He
will come again someday to bring God's kingdom to fulfillment. He
promised a wonderful eternal life after death for those who put their
trust in God and obey His commandments.
The Jews of the time
believed that holiness could be achieved by obeying the Ten Commandments
and many other rules stated in the Old Testament Law. But Jesus taught
that love of God and love of our fellow men are the two "Greatest
Commandments" that should totally guide our lives. He taught obedience
to God and love for all people, both Jews and Gentiles, and even for
enemies! Jesus did not abolish the moral and ethical laws that had been
in effect from the time of Moses. He affirmed and expanded upon those
principles, but He said obedience must be from the heart (attitudes and
intentions) rather than just technical observance of the letter of the
Many of the Jews had
expected the Messiah to be a great political and military leader who
would defeat Israel's enemies, but Jesus saw His kingdom as spiritual
rather than worldly. He taught the way to victory is not through force
and violence, but through love, humility, and service to one's fellow
man. Jesus was not the type of "Messiah" the Jews had expected, and many
of them rejected Jesus and His teachings.
establishment of Israel saw Jesus as a threat. His claims of divine
authority and His refusal to follow some of their religious rules were
usurping their authority over the people. This conflict ultimately led
to Jesus' execution by crucifixion only three years after He had begun
Three days after His
death, Jesus' body was discovered missing from the tomb, and over the
next 40 days Many people saw Him alive again, and He talked with His
disciples. At the end of 40 days, He ascended to heaven, returning to
God, His Father.
resurrection convinced many people that He truly was the Christ and
their personal savior as well. Christianity was born, and Jesus' former
disciples became its leaders. Throughout the New Testament, Jesus is
portrayed as the Son of God, the fulfillment of the Old Testament
prophecies of the Messiah, and as the means of our personal salvation
from the power of sin and death.
The young Christian
communities suffered much persecution from the Jewish religious
establishment and from the Roman Empire. Saul, a member of the Jewish
religious establishment, was one of the fiercest persecutors of
Christians. One day, while on the road to Damascus, Saul saw a blinding
light and Jesus spoke to him saying, "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute
me?" As a result of this overwhelming experience, Saul had a complete
change of heart. Now known as Paul, he became a zealous Christian
missionary and extended Christianity outside Judaism, founding many
Christian communities in the Gentile world.
Paul wrote many
letters to the people of the churches he had founded. He explained his
beliefs about Jesus, instructed them in proper modes of worship, and
sometimes chastised them for moral lapses. He taught that the way to
salvation and eternal life is through faith in Jesus Christ and high
moral standards, not through obedience to the Old Testament Law. Many of
Paul's letters have become part of the New Testament. Through these
letters we know Paul as the most energetic and influential interpreter
of Jesus' life and teachings.
From the teachings of
Jesus and Paul, we see that the Old Testament Laws - circumcision,
dietary restrictions, blood sacrifices, Sabbath observance and the many
other rules - are no longer binding. Jesus and His apostles gave us a
radically new understanding of the true intent of the Old Testament Law;
they brought a new era of the rule of love for all people and spiritual
truth instead of rule by law.
Unity of the Bible
Despite the diversity
of the Bible books and their separation in time, there are several
unifying themes that run through both the Old and New Testaments:
There is only one
true God. He created all that is the universe and takes an active,
ongoing and loving role in its maintenance.
God loves His
people of all races, nationalities and religions, and seeks their
love in return.
God created men
and women with the power to choose between good and evil. We are
called to do good by serving God and respecting our fellow human
beings of the world. Evil is a constant temptation that we must do
our best to resist.
God seeks the
salvation of all people, individually and collectively, from the
power of sin and evil. God has intervened directly in human affairs
and has also sent the prophets and, finally, His Son Jesus, the
Messiah or Christ, to help us with that salvation.
The Bible never tells the details of
exactly how God inspired the human authors of the Bible, and this has
led to much debate and differences of opinion about interpretation.
Throughout most of the Christian era, Bible reading and Bible
interpretation were confined to religious professionals. Until the
fifteenth century, the Bible was available only in Latin. Even when the
Bible was translated into other languages, the scarcity and high cost of
Bibles kept them out of the hands of ordinary people. During this era,
the Bible was interpreted according to church beliefs and traditions.
There was little or no attempt made to determine the original meanings
of the Scripture. Difficult passages "were interpreted as having a
figurative meaning, so that they convey, through a kind of code, deeper
truths about God, the spiritual life, or the church1."
Scientific discoveries, beginning in the seventeenth century, seemed to
contradict some parts of the Bible. Galileo's study of the universe,
Darwin's theories about evolution of species and fossil evidence of the
age of the earth were particularly troubling. At the same time, the
Bible was often being studied and critiqued as ordinary literature
rather than as the Word of God. Some Christians felt their faith was
threatened by these apparent challenges to the authority of the Bible.
In reaction, the fundamentalist movement asserted the inerrancy of
Scripture: Everything in the Bible must be absolutely, literally,
scientifically and historically true. Anything less would be unworthy of
God. Any apparent conflict between the Bible and another source
(science, history, etc.) should be resolved in favor of the Bible
because of its divine origin.
The mainstream of Bible interpretation today is based on
[her meh NEWT icks], the science and art of Bible interpretation.
Hermeneutics attempts to determine what message the author intended to
convey and how it would have been understood in its original historical
and cultural setting. This involves a lot of specialized knowledge of
the original Bible languages, literary styles and figures of speech, as
well as the history, culture, and current events and issues of the time
and place where it was written. Rather than forcing Bible interpretation
to fit into a particular theological framework, such as church doctrine
or strict literalism, hermeneutics attempts to draw out the true meaning
as it was originally intended. Once we know what a Bible passage
originally meant, we can prayerfully apply that knowledge to our lives
in the modern world.
During the first
centuries A.D., Latin replaced Greek as the language of the Roman
Empire. In 405 a Latin translation of the Old and New Testaments was
completed. This version, known as the Vulgate, became the standard Bible
of Christianity for many centuries. The first English version of the
full Bible was John Wycliffe's translation of the Vulgate in 1384.
Several other English versions followed, and the beloved King James
Version was published in 1611.
None of the original
manuscripts of the Old Testament or New Testament are known to exist;
the best available sources are hand-made copies of copies. However,
developments in archaeology and Biblical scholarship have made possible
a number of modern, more accurate English translations of the
scriptures. These newer versions are translated from the best available
ancient Hebrew and Greek manuscripts, rather than from the King James
Version or the Latin Vulgate.
Books of the Old Testament
*Included in Roman Catholic and
Orthodox Bibles but not in most Protestant editions.
first five Old Testament books are known as the books of the
Law, or the Pentateuch
or the Torah.
The first 11 chapters of
tell about God. Unlike the pagans of the ancient world, the
Hebrew people (later known as Israelites or Jews) believed in
only one true God. Through the stories of Creation, The Great
Flood and The Tower of Babel we see that God created everything,
and He loves and actively sustains all His creation.
The remainder of Genesis tells the history of the patriarchs.
The Jews trace their ancestry to a man named Abraham through his
son Isaac and grandson Jacob. The Muslim Arabs also trace their
ancestry to Abraham, through his son Ishmael.
tell the story of Moses, who led the Hebrews out of captivity in
Egypt around 1300 B.C. They wandered for forty years in the
desert before arriving at their Promised Land. During the time
in the desert, God gave the Ten Commandments to Moses.
discuss the relationship between God and His chosen people, the
Hebrews. They also give details of the Law that regulated almost
every aspect of Hebrew life.
Moses is traditionally considered to be the author of the
Pentateuch, but as with many other books of the Bible, the
author and date written are not known for certain.
The Historical Books
remainder of the Old Testament books are divided by the Jews
into categories of
However, Christians organize it differently into sections of
and books of prophecy.
The historical books tell the history of Israel from the time of
Moses until several hundred years before the time of Jesus.
After 40 years in the desert, the Hebrews conquered their
Promised Land of Canaan. For a time, the tribes of Israel were
ruled by a series of judges. Then, in the eleventh century B.C.,
came the monarchy with Kings Saul, David, Solomon and several
other kings. Israel suffered a number of military defeats.
Jerusalem was destroyed in 586 B.C. and many captives were taken
away to Babylon. Eventually, the people were allowed to return
and rebuild Jerusalem and their civilization.
The Wisdom Books
Song of Solomon
Psalms, Proverbs, Wisdom and Sirach contain many sayings of
practical wisdom to help live a happy, successful and holy life.
Job and Ecclesiastes deal with the weightier issues of the
meaning of life, the existence of evil and our relationship to
God. Song of Solomon is a love song glorifying romantic love
between a man and woman, although it is sometimes interpreted
allegorically as a story about the love of God for Israel or the
The Books of Prophecy
Prophecy means speaking the mind of God. Some prophecies predict
the future. Others are special messages of instruction or
warning from God. The prophets were called by God to give these
predictions, messages and warnings to kings, other leaders and
Except for Lamentations and Baruch, Each of these books is named
for one of the well-known Hebrew prophets, but there were many
minor prophets also.
Books of the New Testament
four Gospels tell of the birth, life, ministry, teachings, death
and resurrection of Jesus. The Gospel of Mark was written around
70 A.D., about 40 years after Jesus was crucified. Matthew and
Luke were written between 80 and 90 A.D. Finally, the Gospel of
John appeared in its final form around 95 A.D.
Matthew, Mark and Luke are very similar. It is commonly believed
that Matthew and Luke incorporated much of the material in Mark
and another common source that is now lost. Each author then
added some unique material.
The Gospel of John is quite different. It is much more of a
spiritual and theological work, although it relates many of the
same events as the other three Gospels.
Acts of the Apostles
of the Apostles is a sequel to the Gospel of Luke, written by
the same author. It tells the history of the first 30 years of
the Christian Church. The story is mostly centered on the
apostles Peter and Paul who were the preeminent leaders of early
The Letters of Paul
of the New Testament letters (also known as
are traditionally attributed to the apostle Paul. 1st
Thessalonians, 1st and 2nd Corinthians, Galatians, Romans,
Philippians, and Philemon are undisputed genuine letters of
Paul. There is less certainty about the authorship of 2nd
Thessalonians, Colossians, Hebrews, Ephesians, 1st and 2nd
Timothy and Titus. Paul probably wrote 1st Thessalonians and
Galatians around 50 A.D., and they are the oldest books in the
Paul wrote his letters to various Christian communities to
instruct and encourage them in the faith and to address specific
problems and disputes that had arisen in those communities. Many
of the beliefs and practices of Christianity originated from
Paul's teachings in these letters.
The catholic letters
letters were also written to encourage, instruct and correct the
early Christians. The catholic (meaning
letters were circulated among the various Christian communities
and read at their meetings. Throughout the letters we see the
need to put our faith and trust in Christ and to put that faith
into action through Christian love (kindness and respect) for
Revelation is also a letter, but it is in the form of
apocalyptic literature, which tells a story through symbols,
images and numbers. Revelation offers comfort and encouragement
to Christians of all ages that God is firmly in control. When
the time is right, the forces of evil that seem to dominate our
world will be utterly destroyed, and God's eternal kingdom will
come into its fulfillment.
L. Mays, ed., Harper's Bible Commentary, Harper, 1988, pp. 8-9.
Copyright © by Cliff Leitch, The Christian Bible Reference Site,
Used by permission.