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This topic is adapted from the Bible Project YouTube channel. This is part 1 in the How to Read the Bible series.

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The Bible is one of the most influential books in human history. It explores big questions, like “Why do we exist?” and “What is the meaning of life?” It has inspired countless people to do amazing things, and more than a few people have been confused by its foreign language and concepts. Most of us have one lying around our homes, but what is it, and how do we truly understand it?

What Is the Bible?

The Bible is a collection of books that emerged out of the history of the people of an ancient Middle-Eastern nation called “Israel.” These books chronicle the history of Israel, highlight the stories of important individuals, capture the emotional and intellectual struggles of the Israelites, and project the promises of God upon the future.

In one sense the Israelites were like any other ancient civilization, but they also had a long line of “prophets” who viewed Israel’s story as a central part of what God was doing for all humanity. These prophets were literary geniuses who helped hone the Hebrew language to expertly capture narratives, poetry, and other forms of literature. They leveraged language to address all sorts of questions about death, the meaning of life, and the human struggle.

What Is the Basic Outline of the Old Testament?

The Bible was written by many different authors over a period longer than a thousand years. It begins with the origin of humanity and later the origins of the people of Israel before their immigration to Egypt and later their Exodus from Egypt and the founding of their own kingdom in Canaan. Eventually, they were conquered by the Assyrian and Babylonian Empires, which took the people away into exile. Later, many Israelites returned to their land, built a new temple to worship God, and reformed their identity as God’s chosen people. This was when the Jewish scriptures – which had existed for centuries – began to be formed into the shape in which we have them today.

[Related: Bible Basics: Where Did We Get the Bible?]

What Are the Old Testament’s Contents?

The Jewish Old Testament (OT) is divided into three main subcategories that, together, form the acronym “Tanakh,” which is what many Jews call the OT. Jewish OT’s are organized differently than modern Protestant OT’s, even though they contain the same books.

The Torah (תּוֹרָה), meaning “law” or “teaching” contains Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. The Navi’im (נְבִיאִים; pronounced “navee-eem”) meaning “prophets,” contains the books of the Hebrew prophets and leaders. The Ketuv’im (כְּתוּבִים; pronounced “ketuv-eem”) meaning “writings,” contains the poetic books like Psalms, Proverbs, etc., and others. (Jewish Tanakhs are organized differently than Christian Bibles for this reason.)

The Israelites believed that through these writings and through the faithful prophets and leaders who wrote them, God spoke to his people.

[Related: What Is the Story of the Old Testament?]

Other Jewish Writings

The writings that would later be assembled into the Tanakh/OT were not the only Jewish religious writings. Other books written by Jews were important religious texts that rabbis and scholars debated about: were they God’s word, or simply valuable historical/religious writings?

Some of these books that later found their way into Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and other Bibles include Maccabees, Tobit, Judith, Sirach, and others. These are called the Apocryphal (meaning “hidden” or “obscure”) or Deuterocanonical (meaning “second canon”) books. Before the Tanakh was assembled into one book that we know today as the OT, the various writing were composed on scrolls and were stored together individually on these scrolls, not in one bound book. These ancient scrolls would have included the torah books we know today, but they also would have included all, some, or none of these apocryphal books in addition to other writings that may have been important to an individual Jewish synagogue or community. What books a Jewish community had at a given time varied greatly – Genesis existed long before Ezra!

Even in modern synagogues Jews read from a torah scroll – not a bound book – that is kept in a special cabinet. This is also why we have 1 and 2 Samuel and 1 and 2 Kings and Chronicles; originally these six books would have been just three books – Samuel, Kings, Chronicles – that fit neatly onto one long scroll each.

[External Resource: What Are the Apocrypha/Deuterocanonical books?]

All together, the contents of the Tanakh/OT tells an epic tale of how God used the fallible people of Israel to weave order and beauty out of the chaos of our world. The story builds up to a new leader (called “messiah” in Hebrew or “Christ” in Greek) who would come to restore creation to its original intent…but the Tanakh ends without this leader ever coming.

Jesus Christ and the New Testament

Centuries after the OT ended on a cliffhanger, a new Jewish prophet named Jesus of Nazareth came to the scene claiming that the old story of the Tanakh was going to be completed through him as the promised Messiah. Jesus performed many miracles, taught with boldness, and was a divisive figure in Israel, ultimately being killed by a coalition of Jewish and Roman leaders who thought he was trouble. Jesus’s followers claimed that even though he was killed, God had resurrected him from the dead and he was alive again. They claimed Jesus was the long-awaited Jewish Messiah who would restore creation to its intended order.

Jesus’s closest followers, called Apostles, composed new writings chronicling Jesus’s story called “gospel accounts” (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John). They formed a historical account called “The Acts of the Apostles” that narrated the spread of the Christian church across the Middle East and Mediterranean world. They wrote letters to different Christian communities across the Roman Empire called “epistles” that taught Christians how to live godly lives that would honor Jesus Christ and encourage their spiritual transformation as Christ-followers.

The Apostles viewed these writings as authoritative, accurate accounts of Jesus, his teachings, and how to live them out. They viewed them as the continuation of the Hebrew Tanakh. They believed and taught that God was speaking through these new texts alongside the Tanakh.

[External Resource: 5 ‘Fake News’ Stories People Believe About Early Christianity]

Christian Views of the Apocryphal Jewish Writings

Like the Jews, Christians knew about the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical writings that had been composed after the return to Jerusalem. Different groups within the Christian church had different views about some of these books. Some thought they were interesting, valuable accounts and nothing more, while others thought that they, too, should be considered scripture along with the Apostles’ writings and the Tanakh. The Roman Catholic Church did not formally adopt the Apocryphal writings as scripture until the the mid-1500s.

The Canon of Scripture Today

There were many Christian groups over the centuries that had strong regional leaders until the Roman Catholic Church gained supremacy in the western lands between the sixth and eighth centuries. Until then, different groups appealed to different leaders or took strong stances on issues they considered all-important. Various councils and meetings were convened for these leaders from across the Mediterranean world to meet up and come to agreement on which beliefs were essential and which were matters of legitimate differing interpretation.

Regardless, the Tanakh and the NT were always recognized as scripture by these different groups. For centuries, much of the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical work was read by Christians in different regions as part of the biblical tradition, but full consensus across the board on the authority of these books was not achieved until much later.

[Related: How We Got the New Testament]

During the Counter-Reformation, the Roman Catholic Church formally identified these additional Jewish writings as scripture within the Catholic Church at the Council of Trent, calling them the Apocryphal or Deuterocanonical books.

[Related: How Catholics Do Communion]

The Eastern Orthodox Church (which had formally severed relations with the Roman Catholic Church in 1054) considered even more of these additional Jewish writings to be scripture than the Catholic Church.

During the Protestant Reformation, the Reformers wanted to go back to the oldest verified scriptural traditions and rejected any writings outside of the Tanakh and the NT. Modern Protestant Bibles contain sixty-six books. If you have a Bible at home and are not Catholic or Orthodox, you probably have a Protestant Bible.

[Related: What Is the Story of the Bible? | How to Read the Bible #2]

Written content for this topic by Daniel Martin.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Watch the video together or invite someone to summarize the topic.
  2. What is your initial reaction to this video? Do you disagree with any of it? What jumped out at you?
  3. Have you ever been confused by something you read in the Bible or heard someone talking about from the Bible? Explain.
  4. How would you explain the role of Jesus in the basic story of the Bible?
  5. Why do you think we should or should not trust the Bible as an accurate account of God’s truth to us?
  6. What are some of the “big questions” about life the Bible has given you guidance in or caused you to reconsider? Explain.
  7. Read Deuteronomy 4:20. Throughout the Bible, God instructs his people to “write down” and “remember” the things he has done. Both in the Bible and your life, what are some things you remember God has done?
  8. Why is it important to “remember” what God has done in the Bible and in our lives?
  9. Write a personal action step based on this conversation.

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