What is the Bible?
Part 1 of 6 Answering Big Questions About the Old Testament
Like many kids, I grew up with a few bits of Bible trivia, such as the shepherd boy David defeating the giant warrior Goliath, and a vague awareness that people such as Abraham and Moses were important, although I was uncertain exactly why. My attendance at a Catholic church was spotty as I grew up until I essentially stopped going to church in my early teen years. Church seemed completely irrelevant to my life. I considered the Bible an outdated book that was more suitable for old scholars than young simpletons like me. I never stopped believing there was a God, but frankly I had no real idea who God was or how my daily life in any way related to him. I lived as many people do and simply tried to be a moral and spiritual person, hoping that God would think I was a good person who lived a good life.
All of that changed following my graduation from high school. As a graduation present, a young Christian woman I was close to named Grace gave me a very nice leather Bible with my name stamped on the cover in gold lettering. It was the first nice Bible I had ever owned. I thumbed through it a few times during the following summer, but considered it to be more of a good luck charm than a source of instruction.
I was living in a fraternity the first weeks of my freshman year of college when I came to the deep realization that the drunken, girl-crazy frat guy life was not for me. I found God calling me to himself through a growing appetite for Scripture. It seemed that nearly all of my classes included pejorative comments and conversations about Christianity, and I decided that I needed to determine for myself what my personal beliefs were about Jesus, Scripture, and Christianity. In reading and studying the Bible for myself, my life was forever changed. Today, I love to study and teach the Bible to help others meet the loving and good God who is the hero and author of the greatest book ever written. I also love to help people find answers to their questions about the Bible. For the next seven weeks, I will be seeking to do just that in a blog series answering seven big questions about the Old Testament.
Question #1 – What is the Bible?
The New Testament speaks of the Old Testament as Scripture, for which the Greek word is graphe, meaning “writing.” The word bible comes from the Greek word for book. Holy Bible, therefore, means “Holy Book.”
Our Bible, like history, is divided into the period prior to Jesus’ coming (BC or “before Christ”) and the period following his coming (AD or anno Domini, which is a Latin phrase meaning “in the year of our Lord”). The Bible actually contains sixty-six separate books. Thirty-nine books are in the Old Testament, which is a record of time from God creating the world and our first parents Adam and Eve, up until the coming of Jesus Christ into human history. The twenty-seven books of the New Testament begin with the four Gospels, which record the life, death, burial, resurrection, and re- turn to heaven of Jesus, and then proceed to instructions to various Christians and Christian churches about how to think and live in light of who Jesus is and what he has done. In this way, the Bible is really more of a library of books rather than a single book. However, there is unity and continuity between the various books of the Bible and their Old Testament and New Testament groupings. This point is illustrated by the fact that the New Testament has roughly three hundred explicit Old Testament quotations, as well as upward of four thousand Old Testament allusions. In many ways, the Old Testament is a series of promises that God makes, and the New Testament is the record of the fulfillment of those promises.
The Bible was originally written over a period of roughly fifteen hundred years by more than forty authors in three languages (the Old Testament in Hebrew, with a bit of Aramaic in Ezra and Daniel, and the New Testament in Greek). Authors of the Old Testament include kings, peasants, philosophers, fishermen, poets, statesmen, scholars, and more. Some books of the Bible clearly state their author (e.g., Josh. 24:26 says that Joshua wrote the book bearing his name). Other books of the Bible do not reveal to us who wrote them (e.g., 1 and 2 Kings). Some books of the Bible are deeply personal, so they require knowledge of the author to be fully appreciated (e.g., Lamentations and Nehemiah 1–7 are essentially journal entries). Meanwhile, other books are historical and literary works that do not necessitate an awareness of who penned them.
Regarding its style, the Bible includes historical records, sermons, letters, a hymnbook, love songs, geographical surveys, architectural specifications, travel diaries, population statistics, family trees, inventories, and numerous legal documents. The Bible is very multicultural, as people from varying continents (Asia, Africa, and Europe), periods of history, backgrounds, incomes, and cultures contributed to the writing of its books.
When first reading through the Old Testament, some people are understandably confused because they simply read through the books of the Bible in the order that they appear, only to find that they are not in chronological order and therefore are difficult to interrelate. This is because our Bible is organized by literary type, much like the books on the shelf at your local library. Therefore, if you would like to read the Old Testament in chronological order, you may want to purchase a chronological Bible so that you can see the timing and relationship between people and events.
As one reads the Bible, especially the Old Testament, it quickly becomes clear that it includes many records of people, places, and events explained in their historical contexts. The settings of the Bible range from ancient Egypt under king Pharaoh to Rome under the rule of Augustus. The Bible reveals to us that God is sovereign over history and works in history for individuals, family lines, and nations. What makes the biblical account of history unique is that it does not merely tell us of people, events, and ideas, but it also explains their theological meaning in relation to God. Therefore, the historical record of the Bible is written with the primary purpose of revealing who God is through his work in history so that we can see our lives as inextricably connected to him in every way and only meaningful when understood in light of him.
For these and innumerable other reasons, the Bible is the best- selling book of all time and is available in nearly three thousand languages. However, when you pick up a Bible, while its content will be the same as the ancient version, there are a few differences. The Old Testament was written on papyrus—a form of paper made out of reeds; the New Testament was written on parchments (prepared animal skins). A lecturer at the University of Paris created the Bible’s chapter divisions in the early 1200s, which accounts for our current 1,189 chapter divisions. The Bible’s 31,173 verse divisions were fully developed by 1551, in an effort to provide addresses (not unlike those on our homes) that would help us find particular sections.
Roughly three-quarters of the Christian Bible is the Old Testament. The Old Testament has 929 chapters and 23,214 verses. The New Testament has 260 chapters and 7,959 verses. In the Old Testament, the longest book is Psalms and the shortest book is Obadiah. In the New Testament, the longest book is Acts and the shortest book is 3 John.
With this brief introduction to the Bible in general, we are prepared to examine the Old Testament in particular. For many, the Old Testament is particularly difficult to comprehend and navigate because of its sheer size and cultural distance from our present age. To make matters worse, theological giants like Martin Luther and John Calvin never produced a single volume dedicated to Old Testament theology. Meanwhile, the majority of Old Testament “scholarship” during the past few hundred years has greatly undermined the message of the Old Testament; such “scholarship” critiques the Old Testament as a very primitive and naïve spirituality that we should evolve beyond, which only further distances Christians from the majority of their Bible.
Some of the devaluation of the Old Testament may be caused by its very title. The term “old” seems to denote information that is archaic, dated, and irrelevant in comparison to the New Testament. It was the early church father Origen (185–254) who first coined the phrases Old and New Testaments. Prior to this designation, the Jews and early church would have only known what we call the Old Testament as the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings, or the Scriptures. Origen’s confusion came from misunderstanding Jeremiah’s use of the old and new covenants in Jeremiah 31:31. By “new,” Jeremiah did not mean something detached from the prior works of God but something renewed or fulfilled. Therefore, the new covenant is the renewal or fulfillment of the old.
Likewise, the New Testament is inextricably linked to the Old Testament as its renewed fulfillment. By way of example, God’s people in the Old Testament received saving grace from God in the same way that Christians in the New Testament do, simply by having faith in God’s promises that Jesus would pay the penalty for sin through the cross and empty tomb.1 In an amazing illustration of just how the New Testament is the renewed fulfillment of the promises of the Old Testament, Paul says that Abraham believed by faith that his seed (Jesus) would save him—and this is the gospel or good news about Jesus Christ that Christians today still trust.2
Additionally, the Old Testament was the Bible that Jesus read, believed, and taught because the New Testament had not yet been written. Furthermore, the Bible says that because of studying the Old Testament, “Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man.”3
In the pages of the Bible you will read brutally honest accounts of the pain and joy of human life. Most importantly, you will meet One God who reveals himself as “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.”4 It is this Lord, also known as the Lord Jesus Christ, who is the great hero of the Old Testament. It is he who crushes false gods, heals the sick, redeems the enslaved, lifts up the downcast, cares for the poor, disciplines his people, and powerfully rules over human history with a perfect blend of love and justice.
Finally, as we read the Old Testament we must remember that our position in history is not entirely unlike the Old Testament Christians. They read the Old Testament in faith, anticipating the first coming of Jesus to fulfill the promises of the Old Testament. We now read both the Old and New Testaments in faith, eagerly awaiting the second coming of Jesus to fulfill the remaining promises of Scripture given to his people.
Having examined the Bible in general and the Old Testament in particular, in the next post we will begin answering some of the most common questions about the Old Testament.
1 For example, see Hebrews 11.
2 Gal. 3:8, 14.
3 Luke 2:52.
The content for this post was originally published in the book “On the Old Testament” that is out of print until it is revised and rereleased.