What is the Bible?
The Bible is a collection of books, accepted by Christians as sacred and inspired by God, and thus authoritative, providing the basis for beliefs about spiritual matters and providing guidelines for moral living. The Christian Bible has two main divisions: The Old Testament and the New Testament.
The Old Testament
The Old Testament contains the sacred writings of the Jews. It was written over the period of roughly 1000 B.C. to 100 B.C., but includes narration of events that occurred many centuries earlier and had been passed from generation to generation in oral form. The Old Testament was originally written in the Hebrew language with a few sections written in the Aramaic language.
There was no "official" list of accepted books of Jewish scripture until around 100 A.D. when Jewish rabbis revised their Scripture and established an official canon of Judaism, rejecting some books not found in Hebrew versions of the Scripture. This revision accounts for the fact that Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox Christians use slightly different versions of the Old Testament.
The first five Old Testament books (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy) are known as the books of the Law, or the Pentateuch or the Torah. The remainder of the Old Testament books are divided by the Jews into categories of Prophets and Writings. However, Christians organize it differently into sections of historical books, poetry, and prophecy.
The New Testament
The New Testament contains the sacred books that are unique to Christianity. All the New Testament books were written in Greek over the period of about 50 to 120 A.D., and were originally used in various early Christian churches. The earliest books are the letters of the apostle Paul to the early Christian communities he had founded. 1st Thessalonians, 1st and 2nd Corinthians, Galatians, Romans, Philipians, and Philemon are undisputed genuine letters of Paul. Four Gospels tell of the birth, life, ministry, teachings, death and resurrection of Jesus. The Gospel of Mark was written around 70 A.D., about 40 years after Jesus was crucified. Matthew and Luke were written between 80 and 90 A.D. Finally, The Gospel of John appeared in its final form around 95 A.D.
The collection of books we know as the New Testament emerged in the late second century, A.D. The church leaders included books they believed were written by eyewitnesses to the events narrated, while rejecting many other early Christian writings. Christianity first emerged as a Jewish sect, so it was natural for the new Christians to revere their sacred Jewish books as well as the new Christian books. Eventually, the 27 books which form the present New Testament, along with the Old Testament books, became the Christian Bible as we know it today. The New Testament canon was formally adopted by the Synod of Carthage in 397 A.D.
During the first centuries A.D., Latin replaced Greek as the language of the Roman Empire. In 405 a Latin translation of the Old and New Testaments was completed. This version, known as the Vulgate, became the standard Bible of Christianity for many centuries. The first English version of the full Bible was John Wycliffe's translation of the Vulgate in 1384. Several other English versions followed, and the beloved King James version was published in 1611.
None of the original texts of the Old Testament or New Testament are known to exist; the best available sources are hand-made copies of copies. However, developments in archaeology and Biblical scholarship have made possible a number of modern, more accurate English translations of the scriptures. These newer versions are translated from the best available ancient Hebrew and Greek manuscripts, rather than from the King James version or the Latin Vulgate.
Old Testament Synopsis
The Old Testament tells the story of God's chosen people, the Hebrews, who were later known as Israelites or Jews. Somewhere around 1800 B.C. God made a covenant with a man named Abraham to make of his descendants a great nation. The first few of these descendants migrated to Egypt to escape a famine in their own land. After many generations they had greatly increased their numbers, but had become enslaved to the Egyptians. God sent a great leader and prophet, Moses, to lead the Hebrews out of captivity and into the Promised Land of Israel. During this time God gave to Moses the Ten Commandments which are still considered the basis for a moral life by both Jews and Christians.
God intended for the Israelites to live according to His commandments and to show the truth of God to all the world (Genesis 12:1-3). However, time and again, the Israelites lost sight of their mission and lapsed into idolatry, sin or narrow-minded nationalism. On these occasions, God called prophets, such as Elijah, Samuel, Jonah, Isaiah and many others, to lead them back to the right path. The Old Testament writings make no attempt to hide the fact that the Israelites and their leaders had many failings and flaws. Yet, through these flawed people, God was able to accomplish his purposes in the world.
The later Hebrew prophets foresaw the coming of a Messiah (meaning "anointed one"), a king who would defeat Israel's enemies and usher in a golden era of peace and prosperity. More than any other nation, the Israelites looked to the future, to the coming of the Messiah, and to the fulfillment of God's promise to Abraham to make of his descendants a great nation.
New Testament Synopsis
The New Testament tells of Jesus' birth, life, ministry, death and resurrection, the growth of the early Christian Church, and predictions of the second coming of Jesus. Jesus was born somewhere between 6 and 4 B.C., and was destined from birth to fulfill the role of Messiah or Christ (the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew word "messiah"). He lived an ordinary life for 30 years, then began His ministry among the Jews. He traveled from town to town, healing the sick and preaching that the kingdom of God would be fulfilled in His coming. He taught obedience to God and love for all people, both Jew and Gentile. He said love of God and love of our fellow men were the two great principles that should totally guide our lives. He spoke of a wonderful eternal life after death for those who put their trust in God and obey His commandments.
Many of the Jews had expected the Messiah to be a great political and military leader who would defeat Israel's enemies. However, Jesus saw His kingdom as spiritual rather than earthly. For Him, the way to victory was not through force and violence, but through love, humility, and service to one's fellow man. Jesus was not the type of "Messiah" the Jews had expected, and many of them rejected Jesus and His teachings.
The religious establishment of Israel saw Jesus as a threat. His claims of divine authority and His refusal to follow some of their religious rules were usurping their authority over the people. This conflict ultimately led to Jesus' execution by crucifixion only three years after He had begun His ministry.
Three days after His death, Jesus' body was discovered missing from the tomb, and over the next 40 days He was seen alive again by many people and talked with His disciples. At the end of 40 days, he was seen to disappear into the clouds, returning to God, His Father in heaven.
Jesus' miraculous resurrection convinced many people that Jesus truly was the Christ, and their personal savior as well. Christianity was born, and Jesus' former disciples became its leaders. Throughout the New Testament, Jesus is portrayed as the Son of God, the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies of the Messiah, and as the means of our personal salvation from the power of sin and death.
The young Christian communities suffered much persecution from the Jewish religious establishment and from the Romans. Saul, a member of the Jewish religious establishment, was one of the fiercest persecutors of Christians. One day, while on the road to Damascus, Saul saw a blinding light and Jesus spoke to him saying, "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?" As a result of this overwhelming experience, Saul had a complete change of heart. Now known as Paul, he became a zealous Christian missionary and extended Christianity outside Judaism, founding many Christian communities in the Gentile world.
Paul wrote many letters to the people of the churches he had founded. He explained his beliefs about Jesus, instructed them in proper modes of worship, and sometimes chastised them for moral lapses. He taught that the way to salvation and eternal life is through faith in Jesus Christ. Many of Paul's letters have become part of the New Testament. Through these letters we know Paul as the most energetic and influential interpreter of Jesus' life and teachings.
Unity of the Bible
Despite the diversity of the Bible books and their separation in time, there are several unifying themes that run through both the Old and New Testaments:
Books of the Old Testament
Song of Songs
* Included in Catholic and Orthodox versions of the Bible, but not in most Protestant versions
Books of the New Testament