Introduction to the Bible

For some time now, I have thought it would be useful to have a simple introduction to the Bible handy. I have had a number of conversations with people who have had little exposure to the Bible and don’t know where to start. This is that guide. (I am sure there are other guides, and probably better ones, out there—but as I do not know of them, I hope this will be helpful to someone!)

Note: This is currently a work-in-progress. I am updating it daily as I fill out the various sections.

Overview

The Bible is a single volume, but it is composed of many different books. Most English versions have 66 different books within them.[1] The Bible is broken down into two major sections, the Old Testament and the New Testament. The Old Testament comprises about 75% of the material in the Bible, and spans the period from the creation of the world up until just about 400 B.C. It focuses on the doings of the Jewish people from ancient times.[2] The New Testament, which makes up the remaining 25% or so of the book, focuses on Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, and then the birth of Christianity out of Judaism, all within the first century A.D.

The books in the Bible start with Genesis and end with Revelation (see below for a full list). Each book is further divided into chapters and verses to make it easier to find one’s place. (Technically, all books are divided into at least verses, and almost all of them are also divided into chapters, but a few are only a single chapter long.) So if someone tells you to turn to Genesis 1:1, they mean to look at the first verse of the first chapter in the first book of the Bible. Likewise, Romans 8:31 is the thirty-first verse in the eigth chapter of the book of Romans, which is the sixth book in the New Testament and the forty-fifth in the Bible. The chapter and verse markings are not always at sensible places—they were added long after the books were written as a navigation tool.

Both Testaments contain a wide variety of kinds of writing (see the section below on genres). Further, both were composed by a wide array of authors, at different times, in different places, with different aims for their own books. The content of the Bible thus ranges from ancient Hebrew liturgical poetry—not as boring as it sounds; the Psalms are many people’s favorite parts of the Bible!—to personal letters from one Christian to another, and from historical narratives to theological treatises. Although the Bible varies widely in terms of authorship, style, genre, and even when it was written (from ~1,400 B.C. to about A.D. 100), it nonetheless presents a coherent picture of who God is and what he is doing in history.[3]

The Books

The books of the English Bible are organized by basic type. In the Old Testament, they are grouped by history, wisdom literature, and prophecy. In the New Testament, they are grouped into “gospels” (which describe the teaching and life of Jesus), letters, and prophecy. Here is a basic outline of the books of the Bible.[4] I have noted where there are well-known groupings within the major groupings.

  • Old Testament
    • History
      • Genesis
      • Exodus
      • Leviticus
      • Numbers
      • Deuteronomy
      • Joshua
      • Judges
      • Ruth
      • 1 and 2 Samuel
      • 1 and 2 Kings
      • 1 and 2 Chronicles
      • Ezra
      • Nehemiah
    • Wisdom
      • Psalms
      • Proverbs
      • Ecclesiastes
      • Song of Solomon
    • Prophecy
      • Isaiah
      • Jeremiah
      • Lamentations[5]
      • Ezekiel
      • Daniel
      • Hosea
      • Joel
      • Amos
      • Obadiah
      • Jonah
      • Micah
      • Nahum
      • Habakkuk
      • Zephaniah
      • Haggai
      • Zechariah
      • Malachi
  • New Testament
    • Gospels: treatments of the life of Jesus by different authors (after whom each book is named)
      • Matthew
      • Mark
      • Luke
      • John
    • Acts: a history
    • Epistles (letters!)
      • Romans
      • 1 and 2 Corinthians
      • Galatians
      • Ephesians
      • Philippians
      • Colossians
      • 1 and 2 Thessalonians
      • 1 and 2 Timothy
      • Titus
      • Philemon
      • Hebrews
      • James
      • 1 and 2 Peter
      • 1, 2, and 3 John
    • Revelation: prophecies, especially about Jesus’ return

Genres

There are about ____ different basic genres in the Bible, along with some variations on these. Knowing what the genres are and what to expect from them makes reading the Bible much easier. The main genres are historical narratives, laws, prophecy, wisdom literature, poetry, genealogies (yes, genealogies!), letters (or “epistles”), and apocalyptic literature. Some books contain a mix of these, and some of the genres sort of blend into each other.

Historical narratives

Much of both the Old and New Testament is comprised of historical narratives. These narratives sometimes round numbers, skip details we might consider important, and otherwise differ from the way modern Westerners write history, but nonetheless are written as true recordings of real historical proceedings.

In the Old Testament, the books of Genesis, Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings, 1 and 2 Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah are primarily composed of historical narratives. Exodus, Jeremiah, and Isaiah also contain sections of history, mingled with other genres.

In the New Testament, the Gospels all contain a good bit of history of Jesus’ life, mingled with sections of Jesus’ teaching. They all spend the last few chapters focused on the details of his trial, crucifixion, and resurrection from the dead. Acts is a purely historical book, written by Luke, the author of the gospel by that name. The book traces out some of the history of the early church, focusing on the activities of the apostles Peter and Paul.

Laws

There are a number of laws explained in the first part of the Bible, including parts of Exodus, all of Leviticus, parts of Numbers, and nearly all of Deuteronomy. These laws governed the religious, economic, and social life of the Israelites. Though these are often rather dry reading from a modern Western perspective, they are actually incredibly important to understanding the rest of Scripture. There are a few important things to understand about these laws.

  1. Some of the laws focus on moral issues, whereas others focus on ceremonial issues. All of these were important for ancient Israel, but not in exactly the same ways. Both were designed to mark the Israelites as separate and distinct from the nations around, as a reminder to them that God was separate in important ways from humans and—just as importantly—that he was not like the gods the surrounding nations worshipped. Christians understand the moral laws (against murder, for example) still binding, but the ceremonial laws not, for reasons that become clear in the course of the New Testament.
  2. Many of these laws focus on sacrifices, and especially on sacrifices of “atonement.” These were the ways that God established to deal with sin in the Old Testament. Christians believe all of these sacrifices ultimately point to the sacrifice of Jesus in the New Testament. In any case, understanding them at least a little helps make sense out of what is going on in the rest of the Bible, since the Jewish religious system is in the background of nearly everything else that happens and that is written in both the Old and New Testaments.

Prophecy

[TBD]

Wisdom Literature

[TBD]

Genealogies

You will find a number of genealogies scattered throughout the books of the Bible in both Testaments. These often serve as a way of showing how the current section relates to previous sections or to connect important figures. For example, there are genealogies in Genesis that run from the first man, Adam, to Jacob and his children—who were the heads of the various tribes of Israel. Further genealogies in 1 Samuel and then in the openings of Luke’s and Matthew’s gospels connect first King David and his descendants and then Jesus himself to these earlier figures in history.

Poetry

The book of Psalms is a collection of poems (most or all of them originally songs, but the music is lost). The Psalms range from songs praising God for his character to songs expressing pain, sorrow, and frustration with life and begging God for aid. Among many other topics are thanksgiving, lament, impatience, and hope. Some Psalms express personal interactions with God; others are written as if from a whole group of people. They also include poetic recountings of various parts of the Old Testament and prophecies. Other books include poetry, including some of the historical books, and much of the content of the prophetic books is also poetic in form, though usually with a different focus from the Psalms.

Letters/Epistles

[TBD]

Apocalyptic Literature

[TBD]


  1. Bibles in the Catholic tradition have a few more—I’m a Protestant, so I’ll just stick to the 66 we affirm. The history of these extra books, the “Apocrypha” is complicated and involves a great deal of debate throughout history, so I will leave it aside for now. It is interesting, but not necessary for this post.  ↩

  2. Thus, the Old Testament is the same as the Hebrew Bible, though it is organized somewhat differently.  ↩

  3. This is not to say that there are no areas where Scripture is difficult to understand, or that there are no places with apparent contradictions—only that when such places appear, some time studying the passages more carefully usually (I would say always) reveals a solution.  ↩

  4. I have left out more detailed groupings to keep things relatively simple. There is enough going on in this list as it is!  ↩

  5. Lamentations is not a particularly long book, but it was written by Jeremiah and so is grouped with that book.  ↩

Discussion

  • Anne Wanicka thought to say:

    ADN follower

    Yes, yes! Nicely done. I was hoping for an overview that would be readable and easy for newcomers to understand. I’m currently teaching an overview of the Bible to my 10 year old homeschooled grandkids and so I’d just been organizing the same information. Couldn’t have done it better myself than you have.

  • Eric Dorbin thought to say:

    Great idea, this could be an amazing resource! Some recommendations for you:

    I think you should also make a point to mention a little more why each bit and why the Bible as a whole is significant to us, how it is God’s word to us and teaches us about Him and how to live. You did a little of this, but I think you could use more (like that the history is important to see God’s overarching narrative accross time and to learn more about His character among other things). The way it is so far you spend most of the time talking about format and while that is quite valuable and informative for what you’re doing, it doesn’t really make me excited to dive in. Also, when you mentioned that it is written by many authors, it may be worth mentioning how incredible it is that such a diverse work can be so flawlessly cohesive since it is extremely difficult for a single author to not contradict himself or mess up in some way, much less 40+ authors across hundereds of years.

Discussion is closed at this time.