Understanding the Bible

Chapter 1- The Book of books

The Book of books-

The English title "the Bible" comes from the Greek "o Biblios" meaning "the scroll" or "the book" (cp. usage in Luke 4:17). Other titles include: "the Scriptures" (lit. "the writings", see 2Timothy 3:16, Romans 3:2), and "the Word of God" (eg. John 10:35, Hebrews 4:12).

Countless believers, through the centuries, have regarded this Book as unique among all other books. There is no other book that speaks with equal power to all mankind regardless of their station of life: be they pauper or prince, child or scholar, at death's door or in life's prime. How can this one Book so strongly condemn sin, yet so tenderly comfort repentant sinners? How can it pronounce all men under the sentence of death, while inviting them to partake of eternal life? Why is this Book disregarded, despised and destroyed by some, while others value it above their own lives?

The Bible presents itself as the communication of the living God to His creatures. It's power and value rests on the truth of that claim. Yet, the Bible makes no attempt to prove itself to men. From the very first page, the existence of God and His ability to speak are presented as self-evident truths. "In the beginning, God... and God said..." (Genesis 1:1,3)

In this introductory study, it is not our purpose to prove what God has declared. We will observe some of the abundant evidence along the way. However, there are many available resources for the sincere sceptic. Many of these resources were written by former sceptics who set out to undermine the veracity of the Bible, but ended up cataloging the evidences that changed their minds. The Bible is the Book among books.

The Bible is also a Book of many books. In fact, it is a library of 66 books in two major sections: the Old Testament (39 books) & the New Testament (27 books). The individual books vary considerably in length and in literary style. The books of both testaments are broadly grouped together in our Bibles according to literature type. There are books of History, Poetry, and Prophecy. This grouping is not rigid. That is, prophetic books may contain a great deal of history, historic books often contain poetic passages. (See the lists of OT Books & NT Books. ) The Table of Contents, in printed Bibles, lists each book by title and page number. The titles may be arranged either alphabetically or in the order that they appear in the Bible. (Each book is divided into numbered chapters. Each chapter is divided into numbered verses. Any passage can be quickly found if you know its reference. Reference example: John 3:16 means John chapter 3, verse 16.)

Amazingly, the books of the Bible were written over a period of about 1600 years, by approximately 40 different men. The writers came from all walks of life, and include kings, priests, tax collectors, physicians, farmers and fishermen. Each man wrote from his own background of education and experience. Very few of the writers could have known one another. Yet, remarkably, the Book is not a jumble of disconnected & conflicting essays. Rather, from begining to end, it tells a continuous story with several interwoven themes. This will come as no surprise, if we understand that the eternal God Himself directed each of the human writers to compose a portion of His message, which He was compiling as history unfolded.

We should take note that the books are not arranged in strict chronological order in our Bibles. The books of "history" are arranged somewhat chronologically, but there is some overlap, with several books covering similar periods. The subject matter of the books of poetry & prophecy often relates to specific events recorded in the historical books. (See the OT Timeline & the NT Timeline to get a sense of when major Bible events and books appeared in history. (The OT and NT timelines will open in new browser windows.)

The Canon of Scripture-

The Canon of Scripture refers to the completed collection of books which compile the Bible. The term "canon" is from a Latin word meaning "rule, or measurement." Each book had to meet certain standards to be included.

Although men were involved in the process of including or excluding books from the canon, the authority of these books did not come from men. Rather, these books already possessed authority from God. Down through the ages, men recognised that certain books spoke with God's authority, truth, and power, while other books did not. Psa 119:89

The OT books were collected and established as God's Word long before the time of Christ. The first of these were the five books written by Moses (about 1500 B.C.), which are referred to as the Pentateuch, or the Law. The books which followed next were written by godly leaders, like Joshua and Samuel, who were recognized by Israel, as spokesmen for God. God instructed Israel to test purported prophets in specific ways:
False prophets were not to be tolerated. In fact, they were to be put to death. So, we see that distinguishing God's Word from other writings was regarded as serious business. The collection of the OT canon was completed by the end of Ezra's lifetime, about 400 B.C.

The NT books were all written within the lifetimes of the apostles (approx. 35-100 A.D.). The apostles were themselves eyewitnesses of Jesus' life, death and post-resurrection appearances. Their first-hand experience with these events was also shared by many of their contemporaries, who would have verified the apostolic record. (Luk 1:2; Acts 1:21,22; 1Cor 15:3-9) The NT writings were widely circulated from the earliest days of the church. However, some books enjoyed better circulation in certain regions. It was not until the Council of Carthage (397 AD) that all of the NT books were fully recognised. The following tests were applied to each book:
Although the 14 books of the Apocrypha are included in some printed Bibles, they fail the tests above, and are not to be regarded as part of the Canon of Scripture. Some of the Apocryphal books do have historical value (eg. the books of the Maccabees). Others are fictional in content.

The Character of Scripture-

The Bible is set apart from other literature in at least four ways. We will look at each more closely in the next chapter.

The Theme of Scripture-

In later chapters we will look at some of the major themes of the Bible as they are developed from the beginning to the end. For now, consider that the Bible's message is briefly summarized by John 3:16 (cp. Joh 5:39).

Go to Understanding the Bible, Lesson #2 - The Word of God

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