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Background to the Bible
Christians make the claim that the Bible, as we know it today, is actually God's word written to us. They also claim that it's God's only word to us. But how did the Bible we know today come to be?
Speaking the Same Language
This word comes from the Greek word Biblos, which means "book".
This word refers to an agreement made between two parties. A covenant can be unconditional or conditional. In the Old Testament, there were quite a few covenants made between God and people. The two most important were the covenant between God and Abraham, and the so-called "New Covenant", spoken of in the books of Jeremiah and Ezekiel. Both these covenants were unconditional. Early Christian writers correctly recognised that Jesus, as the promised Saviour, was the centre of the New Covenant. And so, the biblical writings before Jesus were termed the Old Testament. Naturally, those writings after Jesus were termed the New Testament. Today, a testament is the written will of someone. In early Christian times, a testament was interchangeable with a covenant.
The collection of 39 books written between about 1500 B.C. and 400 B.C.
The collection of 27 books written between about 45 A.D. and 95 A.D.
Seven books which were written during the same time as the Old Testament, but which 1st century Jews recognised were not part of God's word.
This word comes from a Greek word meaning "good news".
By this word, Christians mean "God-breathed". The idea is that rather than a piece of writing simply being the product of a human mind, an inspired piece of writing is the product of God writing through the conscious efforts of a human. This is how some writings can be seen as the inspired Word of God.
Old Testament Overview
Today, we tend to categorise the Old Testament into five sections:
However, the Jews simply categorised them into three sections:
Whichever way you view the books of the Old Testament, there are 39 in all. Here is a summary of each book in the Old Testament, under the five headings of law, history, psalms and wisdom writings, major prophets and minor prophets.
This word means "beginnings", and in many ways, Genesis sets the foundation for the rest of the Bible.
This word means "way out". The book describes the rescue of God's people from their slavery in the land of Egypt.
The name of this book comes from the Levite family, one of the 12 families of Israel. The Levites were the priests of the nation, and were responsible for the law between God and the people, as well as between the people themselves. This book contains detailed laws for the nation.
This book is, as it sounds, a book of numbers. There are some historical stories, but it is mainly records of the families of Israel.
This words comes from the words deutero, meaning "second", and nomos, meaning "law". The book is mainly an address from Moses to the people of Israel, outlining the law to them, before they entered the land of Canaan.
This book describes how Israel entered the "Promised Land", Canaan, under the leadership of Joshua. It includes those occasions when Israel didn't do what God told them to do - and the consequences of their actions.
Once Israel had entered the land of Canaan, their leaders were called Judges. This book describes the successes and failures of Israel, as they cycled through times of peace and war with neighbouring countries.
The book of Ruth is a short book, set in the time of the Judges. It shows how a woman from the country of Moab is welcomed into the family of Israel. It is a reminder of God's original command to Israel, that they should be a light to the rest of the world.
This book is thought to have been written by the prophet Samuel. It covers the time from Israel's first king, Saul, until Saul's suicidal death.
This book continues where 1 Samuel left off. It covers events from the installation of David as king, until David is old and close to dying.
This book begins by following the line of kings through David. When David's son Solomon dies, a power struggle takes place between Rehoboam, Solomon's son, and Jeroboam. The nation of Israel is then split into two separate nations. Two families, Judah and Benjamin form one nation, while the remaining families form another. The book follows the fortunes and failures of the kings of the northern kingdom (Israel) and the southern kingdom (Judah).
This book continues where 1 Kings left off. It covers the history until both the kingdoms of Israel and Judah have been taken into captivity, by Assyria and Babylon, respectively.
1 Chronicles and 2 Chronicles are quite similar to 1 Kings and 2 Kings. However, there are important differences. 1 Chronicles begins by tracing the line of David from Adam, through to David's descendants at the exile of Judah. It contains other historical records, and then focuses on the life of David, from the time he becomes king, until his death.
2 Chronicles selects historical material from the reign of Solomon, through to the last king of Judah before its exile. Whereas the two books of Kings swap between the northern and southern kingdoms, the books of Chronicles focus exclusively on the kingdom of Judah. (Jesus is a descendant of the family of Judah, so emphases like this are designed to prepare the reader for Jesus.)
This book describes the return of the Jews from exile. Persia had conquered the kingdom of Babylon while the Jews were in exile, and so it was the Persian king who allowed them to return. The book, with the priest Ezra as main figure, focuses on the temple being built.
This book focuses on the building of the wall of Jerusalem. It also provides various lists of people. Nehemiah was the cupbearer to the Persian king, and it is he who returns to Jerusalem to oversee the completion of the wall.
This book describes the "meteoric" rise to fame and power, of Esther, a Jew living in Persia during the exile. Esther becomes queen, and due to her influence, prevents the Jews from being destroyed. The word "God" is not found in the book of Esther, and this has caused some to wonder why it is in the Bible. Nevertheless, the book shows how God has always been protecting his people from complete destruction.
Psalms and Wisdom Writings
This book is one of the world's greatest writings on the subject of pain and suffering. Unbelievable tragedy afflicts Job, his family, and his possessions. After questioning God about what he has done, God asks Job a few pertinent questions. The book explodes the popular myth that good things always happen to good people, and bad things always happen to bad people.
This is a collection of 150 psalms. A psalm is basically a piece of poetry designed to be sung with music. The Psalms are often the favourite book of people, because they express the whole range of feelings towards God. The cry "How long O Lord? Will you forget me forever?" is heard with "I will sing to the Lord, for he has been good to me".
This is a collection of wise sayings, or proverbs. It has an emphasis on how life should be.
The title of this book means "Teacher". It has an emphasis on how life really is. The book is a poetical record of the exploits of King Solomon, who tried everything life could offer him, and concluded that "everything is meaningless!" The end of the book offers his perspective on how to live life successfully: Fear God and keep his commands, for this is the whole duty of people. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil.
Song of Solomon
This book is a poem concerning Solomon and his love for the woman who will soon be his wife. Due to the sometimes explicit nature of the writing, people have often seen this book as an allegory. However, the book should be taken literally. It shows the importance God places on real love, and on a continuing passion between husband and wife.
Isaiah's name means "God saves". Isaiah wrote to the nation of Judah before the exile. His purpose was to remind Judah of the special relationship they had with God as members of His covenant community.
Jeremiah's name means either "God establishes" or "whom God appoints". Jeremiah wrote to the nation of Judah before and just into the exile. He is often called the Weeping Prophet, due to him weeping for the fate of his people, and also because he is thought to have written Lamentations. His purpose was to expose the darkness of Judah's sin, along with the piercing brightness of God's word.
This book is a collection of poetry written after the fall of Judah. It has only five chapters, but was placed after Jeremiah, since Jeremiah was believed to be its author. His purpose was to show how the curses predicted in Deuteronomy 28 had come to pass.
Ezekiel's name means "God strengthens". Ezekiel wrote to the both the nation of Judah and Israel during the exile. His purpose was to show the glory and perfect character of God.
Daniel's name means "God is Prince". Daniel wrote to the nation of Judah, as well as to non-Jews in Babylon, during the exile. His purpose was to show that regardless of what happens in the world, God is completely in control.
Hosea's name means "salvation". Hosea wrote to the nation of Israel before the exile. His purpose was to show how the curses of Deuteronomy were coming to pass, as well as ultimate restoration to Israel.
Joel's name means "Yahweh is God". Joel wrote to the nation of Judah before the exile. His purpose was to focus attention to the Day of the Lord, when justice would be complete.
Amos' name means "burden-bearer". Amos wrote to the nation of Israel before the exile. His purpose was to show that although God would punish Israel for rebelling against him, he would preserve a small group of people who had not rebelled.
Obadiah's name means "servant of the Lord". Obadiah wrote to the nation of Edom. His purpose was to declare that Edom would be judged by God for its constant hatred towards Israel.
Jonah's name means "dove". Jonah wrote to the nation of Israel before the exile. His purpose was to remind Israel that they were to bless the nations of the world. If any nation turned away from evil and turned towards God, God would forgive and restore.
Micah's name means "who is like God?". Micah wrote to the nation of Judah before the exile. His purpose was to show that God was fair in disciplining Judah, since Judah had turned from God.
Nahum's name means "comforter". Nahum wrote to the nation of Assyria. His purpose was to announce the fall of Assyria, and to comfort Israel that God was in control.
Habakkuk's name means "embracer". Habakkuk wrote to the nation of Judah before the exile. His purpose was to show that God was always fair in dealing with evil, even if his ways were different to the ways of people.
Zephaniah's name means "protected by God". Zephaniah wrote to the nation of Judah before the exile. His purpose was to show the coming judgment on Judah because of its disobedience to God.
Haggai's name means "festive". Haggai wrote to the nation of Judah after the exile. His purpose was to arouse the leaders and people of Judah from their spiritual apathy, and encourage them to continue building the temple.
Zechariah's name means "God remembers". Zechariah wrote to the nation of Judah after the exile. His purpose was to motivate the people to spiritual renewal, and motivate them to rebuild the temple, by showing them God's plans for their future.
Malachi's name means "messenger of God". Malachi wrote to the nation of Judah after the exile. His purpose was to put the finger of judgment on the nation, and to motivate the people to return to God with all their beings.
How the Old Testament Became the Old Testament
There is an old saying that the Church does not decide what the Bible is; it discovers what the Bible is. This distinction is essential. The process of the Bible becoming the Bible, took place as the Church recognised that certain books and letters were "the Word of God", whereas other pieces of literature were not. However, the Old Testament became the Old Testament in a slightly different way.
The Jews never used the phrase "Old Testament", since they only had one collection of Scripture. This was called the TANAK. The TANAK derived its name from the first letters of the three types of writings. We referred to these writings above: the Law, the Prophets and the Writings.
This collection of writings was written between about 1500 B.C. and 400 B.C. Around 200 B.C., a group of 70 Jewish scholars translated the TANAK into Greek, since Greek was the language of the day. This effort took 70 days, and the resulting Greek translation of the TANAK was called the Septuagint (meaning "70"). However, the Septuagint included seven books that were not part of the TANAK. These books are known today as the Apocrypha.
Around 90 A.D., another group of Jewish scholars met at the Council of Jamniah, and decided to include only the 39 books found in the original Hebrew collection. They excluded the books of the Apocrypha, which were entirely written in Greek. The collection of the Old Testament was now closed and finalised.
New Testament Overview
The Gospel of Matthew
Written by Matthew, one of Jesus' followers, this book emphasises that Jesus was indeed the long-awaited King of the Jews.
The Gospel of Mark
Written by Mark, one of Jesus' followers, this book emphasises that Jesus came to serve people, not to be served by them.
The Gospel of Luke
Written by Luke, a travelling companion of Paul, this book emphasises the humanity of Jesus, as well as his compassion for "outsiders".
The Gospel of John
Written by John, one of Jesus' followers, this book was designed to give people evidence to believe that Jesus is the Son of God, so they might have eternal life.
The Acts of the Apostles
Written by Luke, this book is part two of his gospel. It shows how the early Church spread rapidly throughout the known world.
Written by Paul to the church at Rome, this is a legal document explaining how the death and resurrection of Jesus makes available new life to all.
Written by Paul to the church at Corinth, this letter outlines some guidelines for church worship.
Written by Paul to the church at Corinth, this letter is an encouragement to that church to help other churches by giving and praying.
Written by Paul to the church at Galatia, this letter is a sharp rebuke to those who were saying that people had to keep the law in order to hold on to their salvation.
Written by Paul to the church at Ephesus, this letter describes what God has done for people, and how people should act toward God.
Written by Paul to the church at Philippi, this letter is a thankyou letter to that church for their gracious financial gift to the poor in Jerusalem.
Written by Paul to the church at Colosse, this letter is a rebuke to those who were saying that was not God.
Written by Paul to the church at Thessalonika, this letter is an encouragement to Christians that death is not the end.
Written by Paul to the church at Thessalonika, this letter is an instruction to the church to continue doing what is right, and not be lazy.
Written by Paul to Timothy, this letter outlines instructions for running a local church.
Written by Paul to Timothy, this letter is Paul's last letter before he dies. He encourages Timothy to carry on where he left off.
Written by Paul to Titus, this letter is similar to 1 Timothy, and is an encouragement for Christians not to give up doing good.
Written by Paul to Philemon, this letter is a request to Philemon to welcome back a runaway slave, and to forgive him.
Written by an unknown author, this letter is an appeal to Jewish Christians, to leave behind the old ways of Judaism, and press on with Christianity.
Written by James the half-brother of Jesus, primarily to Jewish Christians throughout the Roman Empire, this letter is a call to practical Christianity.
Written by Peter, one of Jesus' followers, this letter is a call to Christians to follow Jesus no matter the cost to their own lives.
Written by Peter, this letter is a warning of false teachers in the Church, and a call to be ready for Jesus' return at any time.
Written by John, the author of the gospel, this letter is written to Christians, so they can be sure they have eternal life.
Written by John to "the chosen lady and her children", this letter is an appeal not to welcome false teachers into her home.
Written by John to Gaius, this letter is an appeal to show hospitality to those who work hard in spreading the good news of Jesus.
Written by Jude, the half-brother of Jesus, this letter is an appeal to Christians everywhere to contend for the true faith, and not to let false teachings creep in.
Written by John to the churches in the province of Asia (present day Turkey), this letter is largely a vision of what is to take place in the future. It outlines, often in symbolic form, how Jesus will ultimately return to earth, and how in the end, death will be gone and justice will be complete.
How the New Testament Became the New Testament
During the first and second centuries A.D., the only "Scriptures" available to the Church, were those books we know today as the Old Testament. Gradually, certain letters and books became circulated throughout the known world. It began to be evident which of these were inspired by God.
Over the next few centuries, certain books were gradually accepted, while others were rejected. The following progression should be seen as an overview of the making of the New Testament. Once a book has been accepted, it is shown in yellow. Until then, it is shown in white.
Why Do Some Groups Have Different Books?
The main group which has a different set of books is the Roman Catholic Church. As a result of decrees by the pope in the 16th century, the Catholic Church takes the Apocrypha to be inspired also. They believe that these writings are just as much the Word of God as the standard books.
Protestant Christians don't agree with this, and hold to the 39 Old Testament and 27 New Testament books mentioned above.
Chapter and Verse
It is interesting to note that the chapters and verses we see in the Bible today were not in the original writings. In fact, chapters and verses were not added to the Bible until around the 13th century A.D. Usually, these divisions capture the thought of what was written. However, sometimes the divisions seem strange. Chapters and verses were added simply to help us find our way around the Bible.
This page © Rupert Lineage
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