Understanding the Bible
English-speaking Christians use three major titles to refer to their holy book. We call it the Bible (or the Holy Bible), the Scriptures (or Holy Scripture), and the Word (or the Word of God). We refer to its two major parts as the Old Testament and the New Testament. We will look at the origin and meaning of each of these terms. [excerpted from the Holman Bible Handbook]
The Name of the Bible
The English word Bible is from a Greek word, biblia, which means books or scrolls. Paul used the word biblia when he wrote to Timothy and asked him to bring the books (2 Tim 4:13), by which he probably meant some scrolls containing the Hebrew Scriptures (the Old Testament). Although the Greek word is plural, we today think of the English word Bible as singular. But our Bible actually is a collection of sixty-six books, so it is appropriate to use as a title for it a word that originally meant books. We often refer to the “Holy Bible” because we regard the Bible as a sacred book.
The word Scripture is from a Latin word, scriptura, which means writing. In 2 Timothy 3:15, Paul referred to the “Holy Scriptures” Timothy had known since he was a child.
Word is a translation of the Hebrew word dabar and of the Greek word logos. These are usually used in the Bible to refer to something that is spoken rather than something that is written. Occasionally what is written is called the “word,” as in Psalm 119:105. But in English we customarily use the term word to refer both to that which is spoken and that which is written. So Christians naturally refer to the written text of the Bible as “the Word of God.” We use the singular rather than the plural probably because the phrase is usually found in the singular in the Bible itself.
Within the Christian community we use the phrases Holy Bible, Holy Scripture, and the Word of God interchangeably. When we are speaking to someone who is not a Christian, however, the phrase “the Word of God” may not be either clear or convincing. Therefore we may find it more effective simply to refer to “The Bible.” For example, in listing books in print, it is much more effective to list Bibles in print under the heading of “The Bible” rather than under the heading “The Word of God.”
You may wonder why one Book can have three different titles. We are able to use these three different phrases as titles for our holy Book because the Book itself does not indicate what title we should use. There is therefore the possibility that someone will decide to use some other title for the Bible. In fact, in recent years the Bible has been published with titles such as The Book and Good News for Modern Man.
What the Jewish people call the Hebrew Scriptures, Christians usually refer to as the Old Testament. And we distinguish it from the other, later part of the Bible, the New Testament. The origin of the phrases Old Testament and New Testament is interesting because it is deeply embedded in the history of God’s people.
A major theological theme in the life of the nation of Israel was God’s covenant with Israel. God made a covenant with Israel that is summarized in the words “I will be your God, and you will be my people” (Lev 26:12). God first made the covenant with Abraham and his descendants. Over the centuries He reaffirmed it to Moses, David, and others. When the holy city, Jerusalem, was conquered by its enemies, many people in Israel felt that God must have canceled His covenant with Israel. But the prophet Jeremiah reassured the people that in the future God would make a new covenant with the house of Israel, a covenant written on their hearts rather than on stone as the Ten Commandments had been (see Jer 31:31-34).
Jesus Christ spoke of His blood as the blood of the new covenant (see 1 Cor 11:25). So it was natural for the early Christians to refer to what God had done before Christ as being under the old covenant and to what He had done in Christ and since Christ as being under the new covenant. From this it was an easy move for Christians to refer to the parts of the Bible that were written before Christ came as the old covenant and to the parts written after Christ came as the new covenant.
The Hebrew word for covenant (berith) and the Greek word for covenant (diatheke) were both translated into Latin as testamentum, from which we have the English testament. The Hebrew Bible therefore is the Old Testament, and the texts written by the early Christians are the New Testament. Christians traditionally think of the Old Testament as promise and of the New Testament as the fulfillment of promise.
The Contents of the Bible
The two major parts of the Bible are the Old Testament and the New Testament. The Old Testament consists of thirty-nine books that were written before Jesus Christ was born. The New Testament consists of twenty-seven books that were written by the early followers of Jesus Christ.
Most of the Old Testament was written in Hebrew. A few chapters were written in a related language, Aramaic. The Old Testament is the Holy Scriptures of the Jewish people, who customarily divide it into three large sections which they call the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings. Christians frequently speak of the Bible as containing books of the law, of history, of wisdom, and of prophecy.
The New Testament was written in Greek. Jesus and His first followers apparently spoke Aramaic, and a few Aramaic words are scattered throughout the New Testament, such as Abba (Mark 14:36), talitha koum (Mark 5:41), Maranatha (1 Cor 16:22, KJV), and Golgotha (Matt 27:33). But Greek was a more widely used language than Aramaic, and it was the language employed by the writers of the books of the New Testament. These books are often placed in four groups: the Gospels, the Acts, the Epistles, and the Revelation.
Although we have spoken of sixty-six books of the Bible, many of these texts were not written to be “books” in the modern sense, that is, as fairly long texts written for publication and for distribution to the public. Among other things, several of them are too short to be called books in this sense; 2 John, for example, has only thirteen verses. Many were written as letters (the Epistles) rather than as books for publication. But they have been collected (see the articles on the inspiration, authority, and canonicity of the Bible) and now are published, so referring to them as the “books” of the Bible is appropriate.
In addition to the divisions already mentioned, the Bible contains several kinds of literature, sometimes called “literary genres.” Included are histories, parables, songs, proverbs, genealogies, laws, gospels, letters, apocalypses, ethical teachings, narratives, hymns, doctrines, thank-you notes, prophecies, confessions of faith, and sermons, among others.
The Characteristics of the Bible
The Bible is characterized by variety and unity. We have referred to its three diverse original languages and to the diverse books and kinds of literature. In addition, it was written over more than a thousand years by several dozen people living in different societies and in different geographical locations. The purposes of these authors also were diverse. For example, those who composed and collected the psalms intended to provide a book of hymns for public worship of the Lord, and John intended to help his readers put their faith in Christ (see John 20:31).
We can easily experience the variety of the Bible simply by reading a few verses from each of several different books. For example, we might read verses from Genesis 1; Exodus 2; Leviticus 20; 1 Kings 4; Job 3; Psalm 23; Proverbs 15; Ecclesiastes 1; Isaiah 40; Ezekiel 37; Matthew 5; John 1; Acts 2; Romans 8; 1 Corinthians 13; Philippians 2; 1 Timothy 3; Hebrews 9; James 1; 1 John 1; and Revelation 5. It is not difficult to see that the Bible contains a great deal of variety.
But the Bible is also a unified Book, although not all readers have observed this. What unifies it is that it presents to the reader a message about God. It tells us that the God who is the Creator of the universe is working to create a people to be His own. The Bible contains diverse presentations about God, but through all the diversity the same wonderful God is seen to be carrying out the same great purpose.
The Bible also may be characterized as both historical and contemporary. It is a Book that is embedded in ancient cultures, languages, and traditions. Yet it is also a Book with power to touch contemporary readers. Imagine, for example, that a Christian has died. His family and friends have gathered for a funeral service to worship God, to remember their loved one, and to seek comfort. The minister stands and reads aloud to them, and they listen to his words as God’s people have listened for thousands of years. He reads: “The Lord is my shepherd…. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil…. I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever” (Ps 23:1, 4, 6, KJV). Can you imagine that anyone would complain: “Those words are too old. They come from an ancient book. We don’t need them today”? On the contrary, these words written three thousand years ago in another language are as beautiful and as powerful and as true and as indispensable today as any words known to human beings. They are the most relevant words a contemporary person can hear when a loved one has died.
The Bible is both a simple Book and a profound Book. Children may begin early to learn the Bible and to love it, and millions of children do. But some of the world’s finest scholars have spent their lifetimes studying the Bible and can still confess they have only scratched the surface of this great Book. The Bible is the most studied Book in the world, as well as the most published, and it is almost certainly the most loved Book in the world.
The Bible is both a human Book and a divine Book. Christians do not attempt to conceal the humanity of the Bible. We know that it was written by men, not dropped out of heaven on golden plates. But we also believe that the men who wrote the Bible did so under the inspiration of God (2 Tim 3:16), guided by the Spirit of God (2 Pet 1:21). The Word of God is given to us in, with, and under the words of these human authors.
The Bible is the unique, indispensable resource Book for the Christian and the church. It is light for our paths (see Ps 119:105). To read it aloud is like tasting honey in one’s mouth (Ps 119:103). It is a weapon in the fight for a strong faith (Eph 6:17). The life of the Christian is formed by the Bible, which is read, taught, preached, sung, believed, and loved in the church. The Bible provides Christians with a world view. It provides them with a set of moral values. It is an occasion for their experiences with God. It binds them together as a family of God. It tells them the meaning of their lives. Every Christian can say with the psalmist: “Oh, how I love your law! I meditate on it all the day” (Ps 119:97).