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What is the Bible?

Welcome to the first in a new category of short explainer posts. This first series of short explainers provides an introductory survey of the Bible. In due course each short explainer post will be accompanied by a video summary.

What, exactly, is the Bible? You may believe you have a fairly good understanding of what it is, but this three-minute read may well offer some insight you’ve not considered before.

The Bible is a collection of 66 ancient writings, known as books (even though several  are very short, just a page or two in length). These books of the Bible were written by various authors over a long period of about 1500 years, according to traditional Christian scholarship. This was from around 1400 BC until the end of the first century AD.

The 66 books of the Bible are divided into two parts: the Old Testament, consisting of 39 books and the New Testament (27 books). 

The Jewish faith (Judaism) does not recognise the New Testament. So when Judaism refers to “the Bible” (also known as the Tanach) it is referring to what Christians call the Old Testament.

The Catholic Church includes in its Bible additional ancient writings written between the end of the Old and beginning of the New Testaments. This era is called the intertestamental period, roughly covering 400 BC to the beginning of the first century AD. These additional writings are known as the Apocrypha.

Almost all the Old Testament is written in Biblical Hebrew, with several short sections written in Aramaic. The New Testament is written in Greek, specifically common (koine) Greek, which was the lingua franca throughout much of the Roman era. It was the main language during New Testament times.

The Old Testament covers the period from Creation until about 400 years before Jesus was born. The New Testament covers the time from Jesus’ birth through to the end of the first century AD, when the book of Revelation (which describes the end times) was written.

The authors of the Bible books were a mixed bunch: prophets, kings, priestly figures, apostles, noblemen, and even a shepherd. Nonetheless, for Christians the overall author of the Bible is God Himself, who inspired and supervised the various human authors. We refer to this divine aspect as the inspiration of Scripture.

We have already mentioned the non-canonical intertestamental writings known as the Apocrypha. Following the New Testament era, various writings also appeared and were circulated, some claiming to have apostolic authorship. This extra-biblical material is known as the Apocryphal New Testament.

Over time the Early Church recognised the authenticity of the Bible books and dismissed these apocryphal writings as spurious and contrary to recognised Scripture. The final list of books recognised as authentic and inspired is known as the canon of Scripture, which is our present-day Bible. It is important to understand the Church did not arbitrarily decide what was canonical. Rather, factors such as proven apostolic authorship and content were important elements in the emergence of what was considered canonical and inspired. 

The Bible consists of various genres, or styles and methods of expression. These include narrative (for example Genesis, the books of Kings and Chronicles, Acts), legal literature (eg Numbers and much of Deuteronomy), Psalms (songs, hymns, prayers), wisdom writings, poetry, correspondence (epistles such as Romans, Galatians, Hebrews), and prophecies. Each genre requires a specific interpretative approach. For example, one cannot read and interpret poetry in the same way as biblical prophecy.

The Bible is a unique collection of writings that for Christians is nothing less than sacred Scripture authored by God Himself. Moreover, the Bible has a key role to play in the lives of all believers, as explained by the apostle Paul as follows…

All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. 2 Timothy 3:16-17 (ESV)

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