Put simply, the Bible is the greatest book ever written. It’s impact on history and culture is unparalleled. To this day, it sells millions of copies each year. It continues to change the lives of those who seek a deeper meaning and purpose in life. But if you’ve never read it before, perhaps an introduction to the Bible is in order.
It’s important to understand how the Bible is put together. This will help to keep things in perspective as you read. So we have put together a brief overview of its structure and major topics.
Big Picture Overview
The Bible is a collection of 66 individual books. Around 40 authors wrote its contents. These individuals were inspired by God to write the content contained in the Bible (see II Timothy 3:16-17).
The individual books divide into two testaments (or covenants) – the Old Testament and the New Testament. The Old Testament contains 39 books and is written in the Hebrew language. The New Testament has 27 books and is written in Greek.
The Old Testament
The Old Testament begins with the Creation story and the fall of mankind into sin in Genesis 1-3. God would soon judge mankind for their sin (see Gen. 6-9). But then he would choose one man (Abraham) to create a new nation called Israel.
Overall, we see this general flow in the Old Testament as we learn about biblical history:
- Abraham, Isaac and Jacob – the fathers of the nation of Israel
- Israel exiled into the land of Egypt – 430 years
- The exodus from Egypt and wilderness wanderings under the leadership of Moses – 40 years
- Joshua’s conquest of Canaan – 7 years
- The era of the judges that led Israel – 430 years
- A United Kingdom period of kings – the reigns of Saul, David and Solomon – 110 years
- The Divided (or split) Kingdom period (nation of Judah in the south and Israel in the north) – 350 years
- Conquest by Babylon and exile of the Jewish people (Daniel) – 70 years
- The return and rebuilding of the land (under Ezra and Nehemiah) – 140 years
The 39 Old Testament books are divided into 5 general categories as they explain this history. These categories are:
- The Law – 5 books (Genesis – Deuteronomy)
- History – 12 books (Joshua – Esther)
- Wisdom Literature – 5 books (Job – Song of Solomon)
- The Major Prophets – 5 books (Isaiah – Daniel)
- The Minor Prophets – 12 books (Hosea – Malachi)
Why Understanding Organization Helps
The organization of the Bible gives us perspective into what we are reading. For example, you might love reading the history of Genesis. But then you get slowed down with and confused by the ancient Hebrew law and priestly requirements (Exodus, Leviticus, Deuteronomy). Similarly, what the prophets told the people can only be understood in light of their historical context. We must read them understanding the type of relationship God wanted to have with these people back then.
We certainly can learn about God in the Old Testament. Additionally, we can draw encouragement and inspiration for our lives by seeing how he was working in the lives of people during this time period. You will find, however, that some passages have little practical application to contemporary culture and daily living. It’s still valuable content though. Like all other portions of the Bible, it was inspired by God. Keep this in mind as you read the Old Testament.
In Between Testaments
After the closing book of the Old Testament (Malachi), we find 400 years of silence. During this time, God did not speak through any prophets. He did not inspire any individuals to write Scripture. But a lot happened historically which you can read about here.
John the Baptist would be the person to break this period of silence. God used John the Baptist to stir up the hearts of the people again towards spiritual matters. John the Baptist proclaimed their long awaited Messiah (Jesus) was about to come (see John 1). Furthermore, he said they should be prepared for a new kind of relationship with God (foretold by the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah –see Jeremiah 31:31-34).
The New Testament
The New Testament documents the life of Jesus and the start and growth of the early church. It also contains the writings of Jesus’ followers and prophecy about the end times.
Like the Old Testament, the New Testament is divided into categories. Its 27 books are generally outlined this way:
- The Gospels – 4 books (Matthew – John)
- Church History – 1 book (Acts)
- Paul’s Epistles – 14 books (Romans – Hebrews)
- General Epistles – 7 books (James – III John)
- Prophecy – 1 book (Revelation)
The Gospels should be considered as the most important books in the Bible. That may sound odd to some because all the Bible has value. However, the life of Jesus and his teachings, is what the entire Old Testament writings were pointing the people towards.
The Gospels give us the details about Jesus’ life. More importantly, they introduce us to the foundation of the Christian faith – Jesus’ death and resurrection from the dead. Without that signature moment, there is no Christian faith as we know it. This miracle essentially launched a new movement (the church) whose beginnings we read about in the book of Acts.
The Essence of Christian Doctrine and Living
The New Testament letters of Jesus’ followers build on and explain the teachings of Jesus. They lay the foundation for contemporary understanding of faith and daily living. For the most part, we have the Apostle Paul to thank.
Paul was a religious teacher who initially opposed the new church movement. However, through a dramatic conversion to faith (see Acts 9), he became a Jesus follower. He traveled the Mediterranean area as a missionary, establishing churches wherever he preached. His books are mostly written to those churches and are dedicated to explaining Christian doctrine in detail.
The New Testament concludes with John’s revelation (from Jesus) about end time events. One must read that book understanding that the events John describes are yet to come. Additionally, he was not given a complete picture of when or how all end time events would unfold. Therefore, they are open to various interpretations from scholars as to how those events will actually play out in future history.
We hope this introduction to the Bible helped put things in perspective. To begin reading, visit our Bible reading plans.
Leave a Comment Below: What is your favorite portion of the Bible? What Bible characters stand out to you? Did you find this introduction to the Bible helpful?