What is the Bible?
The Bible is not one book, but a collection of many different books written by many different authors over a period of many centuries under the divine inspiration of the Holy Spirit. In the Bible we find books of history, law, prophecy, poetry, song, prayer, instruction, and symbolic imagery, among other things.
Despite the varied content of the books, they all have one unified message: the love of God for mankind. Specifically, they deal with mankind’s falling away from God and their restoration back to him through the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.
We typically divide the Bible into two sections:
- The Old Testament, which contains all the books written before the coming of Christ.
- The New Testament, which contains all the books written after the coming of Christ.
Most of the books of the Old Testament are written in Hebrew, while the books of the New Testament were written in Greek, which was the common language in the eastern Mediterranean at the time of Jesus.
The books of the Bible
The Old Testament
The books of the Old Testament are traditionally divided into three groups — the Torah (Law), the Prophets, and the Writings (see Luke 24:44). Today, however, it is more common to divide them into four groups — the Torah, the Historical Books, the Writings (or Wisdom Books), and the Prophets.
1. Genesis, 2. Exodus, 3. Leviticus, 4. Numbers, 5. Deuteronomy
Genesis begins with the story of creation and the fall of mankind. It then continues with the stories of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Israel) with his twelve sons, and how God promises to make them a nation through which the entire world shall be restored by bringing forth the Woman who would give birth to the Saviour.
Exodus tells the story of the Passover — Moses delivering his people from slavery in Egypt, and their wandering through the desert in preparation to enter the Promised Land. This story of freedom from slavery points to the true Passover: Jesus Christ saving us from slavery to death and sin by his death and resurrection.
While wandering in the desert, the Israelites were given the 10 Commandments and the rest of the Law of Moses. This Law contained not only moral guidance, but also ritual prescriptions about things such as how to worship, how to dress, what to eat, etc. The purpose of these laws, which is a primary focus of the remaining books, was to give every aspect of life a prophetic meaning.
The Historical Books
6. Joshua (Jesus), 7. Judges, 8. Ruth, 9. I Kingdoms (1 Samuel), 10. II Kingdoms (2 Samuel), 11. III Kingdoms (1 Kings), 12. IV Kingdoms (2 Kings), 13. I Chronicles, 14. II Chronicles, 15. I Esdras, 16. II Esdras (Ezra), 17. Nehemiah, 18. Tobit, 19. Judith, 20. Esther, 21. I Maccabees, 22. II Maccabees, 23. III Maccabees
The historical books describe the entry of God’s people into the Promised Land, and the establishment of Jerusalem as the holy city and home to the Temple. They also describe later exiles and returns, detructions and restorations.
24. Psalms, 25. Job, 26. Proverbs, 27. Ecclesiastes, 28. Song of Songs, 29. Wisdom of Solomon, 30. Wisdom of Sirach
The Book of Psalms is the main prayer book of the Church, and forms the bedrock of all our services; Proverbs, Wisdom of Solomon, and Sirach are books of moral instructions; Job and Ecclesiastes are meditations on the human condition, vanity and suffering; while the Song of Songs is a symbolic expression of God’s love for the Church, told through the voice of two lovers.
31. Hosea, 32. Amos, 33. Micah, 34. Joel, 35. Obadiah, 36. Jonah, 37. Nahum, 38. Habakkuk, 39. Zephaniah, 40. Haggai, 41. Zechariah, 42. Malachi, 43. Isaiah, 44. Jeremiah, 45. Baruch, 46. Lamentations, 47. Epistle of Jeremiah, 48. Ezekiel, 49. Daniel
The word ‘prophet’ means someone who speaks on God’s behalf. The primary task of the prophet is to be the conscience of the Church, of God’s People, calling them back to the straight path whenever they have strayed. In so doing, they issue warnings and also offer hope (in this context revealing future events).
The books of the prophets speak both to their immediate context, with words of warning and comfort, but also point to the future, particularly to the coming of Christ.
50. IV Maccabees
The eleven books listed in italics are known as the deuterocanonical books (‘books of the secondary canon’). The Orthodox Church considers these books sacred Scripture, which may be read liturgically in church, but affords them a lesser status than the other 39 books. In many modern English editions of the Bible, most of which are Protestant publications, these books are either omitted or placed in an appendix titled Apocrypha.
The New Testament
The New Testament contains 27 books (most of which are actually letters), also typically divided into four sections:
1. According to Matthew, 2. According to Mark, 3. According to Luke, 4. According to John.
Gospel (Evangélion) means ‘Good news’. Strictly speaking, these four books are not ‘four Gospels’, but four different records of the one Gospel, the one message, of salvation in Jesus Christ. They describe the earthly life and teachings of our Lord..
History of the early Church
5. The Acts of the Apostles
Also a book of St Luke, Acts continues the story told in Luke’s Gospel. It begins with the Lord’s Ascension into heaven and his sending down the Holy Spirit on the Apostles. It then follows them on their missionary journeys, recording the first three decades of Church history.
The Pauline Epistles
6. Romans, 7. I Corinthians, 8. II Corinthians, 9. Galatians, 10. Ephesians, 11. Philippians, 12. Colossians, 13. I Thessalonians, 14. II Thessalonians, 15. I Timothy, 16. II Timothy, 17. Titus, 18. Philemon, 19. Hebrews
These are a number of letters written by the Apostle Paul to the various church communities he had founded. They deal with issues of theology and morals, and provide words of correction and encouragements.
The Catholic Epistles
20. James (Jacob), 21. I Peter, 22. II Peter, 23. I John, 24. II John, 25. III John, 26. Jude
We call these the Catholic Epistles because they are addressed to the whole Church (the word katholikē means ‘whole’ or ‘complete’) rather than specific communities.
27. Revelation of John
This book describes a vision revealed to St John the Apostle (the word apokalypsis means revelation). It is a series of symbolic visions relating to the past, present, and future of the Christian Church. In particular, it deals with the renewal of the world and the ultimate triumph of good over evil. Due to its complex content, it is not read liturgically in the church, but much of our liturgical symbolism is drawn from it.
How to read the Bible
Since the books of the Bible are so different in form, content, and context, they cannot all be read in the same manner — for example, it would be wrong to read the symbolic visions in Daniel and Revelation in the same way one reads the eye-witness accounts of the Gospel.
More broadly, we identify three primary levels of interpretation:
- The literal — the plain meaning of the text. For example, Moses leading the people out of Egypt as a historical event.
- The allegorical / typological — the symbolic or prophetic significance of the text. For example, Moses leading the people out of Egypt as a type of Jesus Christ freeing humanity from slavery to the devil.
- The spiritual — the personal meaning of the text. For example, Moses leading the people out of Egypt, wandering in the desert, and into the Holy Land, is a symbol of the three stages of spiritual life: the initial grace, the withdrawal of grace, and the return of grace. This third level of interpretation can only truly be understood experientially.
Scripture and Tradition
The word tradition (parádosis) means that which has been handed down. In his second Epistle to the Thessalonians, St Paul says: ‘Therefore, brethren, stand fast, and hold the traditions (paradóseis) which ye have been taught, whether by word, or our epistle’ (2:15).
The books of the Bible form part of a wider Sacred Tradition, which includes other things that the Apostles and Fathers have handed down to us, such as the celebration of the Eucharist or the making of the Sign of the Cross. This Holy Tradition is different from the ‘traditions of men’ — human inventions that obscure rather than uphold the revelation of God — that Jesus tells us to reject (Mark 7:8).
While the Church encourages us all to read the books of Scripture as often as possible, we must interpret them in the light of the wider Tradition of which they are a part to ensure that we understand them correctly. The Church did not come out of the Bible, the Bible came out of the Church.