What is the Bible?

From Bible Reading - a beginner's guide by Michael Green

Not a book, but a library

The word 'Bible' comes from a Greek word meaning 'books', and that gives us a clue to start off with. We are not dealing with a single book but with a library. The Bible, in fact, consists of no fewer than 66 books. Some are long, some short. They were written over a period of more than a thousand years in three languages - Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic. They had an astonishing variety of authors, from shepherds to kings, poets to historians, prophets to warriors, mystics to fishermen.

Its unity

If you got a bunch of people as various as that into a room and asked them their views on God and humanity, lifestyle and destiny, you would get as many answers as there were people. But the truly remarkable thing about the Bible, which justifies us in naming it as a single book, is that you find a common understanding, a unified teaching running right through it.

Always you get the same picture of God. He is the one and only author of life, the only proper object of worship. He is personal, but beyond personality. The male and female together represent something of this being. He is the source of all morality, perfect and pure and just. He is full of love for the world he has created and the people he has brought into being. The true God whom the Bible brings before us is the utterly loving but utterly incorruptible Creator.

We find, to our amazement, that we get a common understanding of human nature running through all the books of the Bible. Human beings are not gods, as some New Agers would have it. We are not just sophisticated animals, as some of the biologists maintain, or chemical constructs in motion, as some behaviourists believe. We are neither naked apes nor little angels, but are made in his image, with the ability to speak, to pray and to know the difference between right and wrong. God intended us to live in families and enjoy his company, but almost every page of the Bible reflects the fact that, down the ages, human beings have rejected that ideal. We have gone our own way, not God's way. We have pleased ourselves, not God. We have left God out of our lives and paddled our own canoe - and the chaos in human affairs all springs from that basic attitude of rebellion and disobedience. It is not just the times that are out of joint: we are. Now that is a very radical understanding of human nature and very unfashionable (although every edition of the Sunday papers underlines its truth). But it is the view on which the biblical writers are unanimous.

There is another major theme, consequent upon these two, which binds the whole Bible together. It is rescue - restoration. The Bible writers often call it 'salvation'. 'Save' is not a word we use much nowadays, but think of someone being saved from drowning or from a burning building and you will get the idea. Both drowning and burning suggest mortal danger. That is how the Bible understands the consequences of our human rebellion. Our predicament is serious. God might well have washed his hands of us and started again, as D.H. Lawrence advised him to! But no - the Bible writers all maintain that God cares about us so much that he has found a costly way to restore us to his company and rescue us from the mess into which our self-centredness has plunged us. This is a remarkable insight. In other faiths you find a God who is a stern judge, or who does not really care about human beings, or who is simply impersonal. The Bible tells us that God loves us so much that he was determined to do something to rescue us from the guilt our actions and attitudes bring upon us and from the grip in which our failures imprison us (Colossians 1:22).

In a word, the great theme of the Bible is 'God to the rescue' (that, in fact, is the meaning of the name 'Jesus'). God is Saviour, the one who comes to restore the situation that we have messed up. The centrepiece of the whole story is the mindboggling claim that God came in person to this earth as Jesus. He lived a matchless life and offered that life up voluntarily on the cross as the incredibly costly way of removing our guilt, breaking our chains and making possible a way back to companionship with God. This is no mere journey 'from the alone to the Alone'. It involves human beings in a new community who love and seek to advance the claims of God in this world.

As if that was not enough, the Bible writers are confident that there is a future awaiting the people of God. He cares for us so much that he will not scrap us when we get old and die. He offers us a welcome in his home in heaven (Psalm 23:6). Our destiny is not to go out like a light, or to be condemned to a ceaseless round of reincarnation, but to know and enjoy for ever the God who loved us and gave himself for us, and to do so in the company of all who love him and have looked to him for rescue.

That is the kernel of what the Bible is about. It would have been amazing if one person had had such improbable insights. There is no example of any single person ever coming up with anything comparable. But when all the 40 or so authors of the Bible agree in this view of God, humankind, evil, restoration, the new community and human destiny, it is simply staggering. No wonder the Bible writers claimed, and Christians have always recognized, that they were inspired. We shall look at this more closely in a later chapter. God himself gave these insights to the writers. They could never have come up with the same answers all by themselves.

So despite the many centuries over which the library of the Bible was written, despite its many authors and different languages, there is a remarkable unity that holds it all together. We have every right to see it as 'the book' rather than a random collection of books embodying merely human ideas.

The library with two shelves

This library of the Bible has two main parts, called the Old Testament and the New Testament. The word 'testament' means 'covenant' or 'agreement', and the first part of the Bible enshrines the old covenant that God established with his people before he came to our world in Jesus Christ. The new covenant is the story of that coming and its significance. It brings to a climax God's self-disclosure.

To put it another way, the Old Testament is all about promise, and the New is all about fulfilment. If the Old Testament records what God spoke 'in the past… to our ancestors through the prophets', the New tells us how God has 'spoken to us by his Son', in whom all the older revelation is summed up, confirmed and transcended (Hebrews 1:1–2).

Just a further word of explanation to help us find our way around this large book. The Old Testament falls into three main sections, called the Law, the Prophets and the Writings. The Law comprises the first five 'books of Moses'. The Prophets fall into two divisions: the 'former prophets', made up of Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings, and the 'latter prophets', comprising Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel and a collection of twelve shorter prophecies. The Writings contain the rest of the Old Testament, and were generally written later than the Law and the Prophets.

If you think it is a bit odd to find historical books like Kings included in the Prophets, the answer is rather interesting. God reveals himself throughout the Old Testament period in two main ways - by mighty works (like the exodus from Egypt) and by prophetic words. The two belong together. God's mighty deeds of rescue and judgment would not have been intelligible unless they were interpreted by the prophets, God's 'spokesmen' who received and passed on his message. This interplay of mighty deeds and prophetic word in the Old Testament explains why history and prophecy are so intermingled in its pages, and why the historical books can be seen as prophetic.

The New Testament falls naturally into four sections. First of all, there are the four Gospels, recording the story of Jesus, whose life is not only God's crowning revelation to humankind, but also humankind's perfect response to God. His coming, life, teaching, death and resurrection are brought powerfully before us in the Gospels, which were themselves an entirely new form of literature.

Then comes the Acts of the Apostles, the story of how the first Christians spread across the known world within 30 years. It makes thrilling reading. It is followed by the epistles or letters from the first Christian leaders, some to individuals and some to the churches. These letters reflect on the significance of Jesus and the implications he has for the Christian community. Finally there is a highly pictorial book, Revelation, lifting our hearts to grasp something of God's future.

So the Old Testament records the witness of those who were, consciously or unconsciously, reaching forward to God's full revelation in Jesus Christ, while the New Testament records the witness of those who saw and heard him when he was on earth, and who proclaimed far and wide the good news of who he was and what he had done for humankind. That is what the Bible is about. It's a library with a single great theme.


Find out more about Bible Reading - a beginner's guideTaken from Bible Reading - a beginner's guide by Michael Green

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What is the Bible?
How about a Bible study group?
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Wake up to the Bible