If you’re new to the Bible – or even if you’re familiar with it – it can be difficult to know really what we’re reading when we delve into one of its books.
The Bible is a collection of letters, poetry, teaching on Jewish law, songs, stories, prophecies, and eyewitness accounts. So who wrote which books, and how can we can get a flavour of each before we start reading?
The summaries below were prepared in 2011 by Bishop David Thomson for Ely Diocese, and are reproduced here with his permission. Visit his Round the Bible Blog for more resources and his challenge to read the whole Bible in 40 days.
Introducing the 66 books of the Bible
- The First Five Books
- The History Books
- The Psalms
- The Wisdom Writings
- The Prophets
- The Gospels
- The Acts of the Apostles
- The Epistles
- The Book of Revelation
The First Five Books
Sometimes called the Pentateuch (penta = five, teuchos = volume), the books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy are also the Jewish “Law” or Torah of “the Law and the Prophets” fame. Jewish tradition and some Bibles also call them the five “Books of Moses” because of what I take to be a pious fiction that they were dictated by Moses before he died. They do though include early material such as Israelite legal codes like the Ten Commandments, and many ritual regulations, especially in Leviticus; but “Law” also has the wider sense that these books give a foundational account of how God deals with his people, and so how they should deal with God.
Genesis means “beginning” and the book both has this as its first word in the Greek version, and is a collection of stories from the very beginning of Israel’s life. The accounts of pre-history are based on memories of the distant past, but have been told and re-told over the generations because they enshrine important theological truths about creation, the presence of sin and suffering in the world, the origin of the nation etc. These are followed by the early legends of Abraham and his descendants, which like the Greek and Norse legends depend more closely on historical circumstance, though often recast into a poetic and heroic mould. The stories of this period were very important for the self-identity of the Jewish people.
Exodus is Greek for “Way Out”, and records the historical events of the escape of the Israelite people from Egypt, where a sojourn to escape from famine turned into slavery. Some recent research suggests much of the detail has a sound historical basis. We are moving into the time of documented and recorded events, and it is in this book that the Ten Commandments, for instance, are set down.
Leviticus is a rather later, but still very early, accumulation of ritual and religious regulations, probably drawn up by the Levitical priesthood. It is important for our understanding of Jewish religious life in the Old Testament era, but makes difficult reading today. People who set out to read the Bible from cover to cover sometimes get stuck here!
Numbers is so named because it begins with lists enumerating the tribes of Israel, before picking up the story of the wanderings of Israel in the wilderness before they entered the Promised Land. It gives us fascinating insights into the nomadic life.
Finally, Deuteronomy is a later piece of writing organised (fictitiously I think) into a series of addresses given by Moses in the wilderness, before he died. It recaps the commandments and law of the first four books (Deuteronomy = second law in Greek), and those who wrote it were also responsible for a major revision of the Israelite religious records, so their touch appears sporadically all through the early part of the Old Testament.
The History Books
What we call the History books of the Bible, the Jews called the “Former Prophets”, because some of the key characters are prophets like Samuel, Elijah and Elisha.
Joshua leads the people of Israel across the Jordan into the Promised Land, and is a strange (to our ears) blend of devotion to God and general slaughter of the enemy. Was this really God’s command, to purify the land for his people, or was it the mindset of the times leading the Israelites astray? “After Joshua’s death” (the first words of Judges) Israel was led by a series of charismatic leaders called judges, often arising in response to peril as the tribes lived in the Promised Land alongside city-dwellers, other nomads like the Midianites, and emerging powers like the Philistines who already possessed iron age culture. Gideon and Samson are perhaps the best known, but Deborah’s presence shows that both women and men became leaders. The Book of Ruth is also a wonderful story of a woman living in those times who began life as a foreigner but became the ancestress of David and indeed in human terms Christ. Samuel, though, was far and away the greatest of these early leaders. His mother Hannah’s prayers for a child complete the female triptych of this part of the Bible, and Samuel once born is offered to God. Much of his story centres around the demand of the Israelites for a king “like other nations”, and the reflection of those who wrote up the story in later years that this was a bad mistake, in the light of how the kings actually treated their people. The two books of Samuel rapidly become, however, not the history of Samuel but of King David, from the romantic stories of his youth, through the chronicles of his court to the later times of rebellion and questions over the succession. History-making by now was a sophisticated art, and a historian of the first rank lies behind much of these books.
The two books of Kings carry the narrative on into the time of Solomon and his successors. The “court history” continues with the grandeur of the Solomonic era, but after that things obviously fell apart, the kingdom split, and the prophets Elijah and Elisha take centre stage in a long compaign against the wars and excesses of the petty kings who are increasingly caught up in the super-power politics of the day. The books of Chronicles go back over the same ground with much overlap, but with a strongly religious viewpoint so that all kings are evil and doomed who did not support the orthodox tradition.
Ezra is a continuation of Chronicles, but deals with the return of Israel from exile in Babylon. With the parallel book of Nehemiah it makes fascinating reading both about the political situation of the times and also what is needed to lead religious and social reform.
Finally, Esther is a later composition which recounts the saving of Israel from genocide in the time of King Xerxes, explaining the origin of the feast of Purim which celebrates that deliverance.
The 150 Psalms have been described as the “hymn books and prayer book of Ancient Israel”. Cast in a variety of poetic forms – songs, laments, acrostics, chants – they also reflect many purposes. There are hymns of praise and worship; prayers for help, protection and salvation; pleas for forgiveness; songs of thanksgiving for God’s blessings and petitions for the punishment of enemies.
The authorship of the Psalms is also varied. Some almost certainly do go back to David. Others carry titles which attribute them to the clan of Korah, Asaph or others.
Some again are personal poems or laments; others were written to be used in worship, perhaps at a coronation or harvest festival; while others again are songs for singing by pilgrims.
All the Psalms are special, but here are a few that might particularly repay attention:-
3 is set in the particular situation of David having to flee from his own son Absalom (2 Samuel 15). 22 with its remarkable honesty about feelings of rejection was used by Jesus on the Cross. 23 is perhaps the best known and loved of them all. 27 may help anyone whose rejection stems back to their own parents. 32 goes through a typical sequence of release from depression, in which bottled up feelings are relived. 37 is one of the many psalms written in the face of the success of evil. 40 speaks to the minister’s heart. 41 has been seen as the psalm of someone suffering attacks of paranoia(!).
42 has the beautiful line about a deer panting for streams of water, and speaks to the downcast soul, while 46 bids us “Be still and know that I am God”. 48 is one of a number of psalms which will be special to anyone who has made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. 55 speaks of someone let down by a friend; 58 of someone experiencing the dryness of the wilderness; 69 of another who feels everything is getting too much. 71 may be an older person’s prayer, while 73 wrestles with the problem of innocent suffering.
95 and 100 are the Venite and Jubilate of Matins and lead us into worship. 103 speaks of God’s forgiveness. 118 is the Easter Eve psalm of death giving way to life. 119 is a huge acrostic mediation on God’s Word in Scripture, each section beginning with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet. 120 to 134 are songs of ascents, sung by pilgrims climbing the hill to the Temple in Jerusalem. 131 speaks of our need to nestle as a child in God’s arms. 139 reminds us that God knows us inside out, and is both reassuring and a challenging start to self-examination. Finally, 145 to 150 round off the collection with praise.
The Wisdom Writings
“Wisdom” was an established category of literature in the ancient world, comprising proverbs and other sayings, as well as reflections and meditations of various sorts, designed to inculcate wisdom in the hearer.
The Proverbs are the most obvious piece of Wisdom writing in the Bible – a lengthy collection of moral and religious teaching, mostly to do with everyday, practical concerns, though beginning with the reminder that knowing God is the foundation of all human wisdom. The present book is built up of various shorter collections, the first of which shows strong Egyptian influence. It is not too fanciful to see the Court of Solomon, famed for his wisdom and with an Egyptian wife, as its setting, and it is likely that Solomon maintained a staff of professional “wise men”, as well as showing personal interest in the subject.
The Wisdom of Jesus ben Sirach or Ecclesiasticus is another collection of proverbs, found in the Apocrypha and dated much later to 180BC, though no doubt using much older material. The book entitled The Wisdom of Solomon is also in the Apocrypha, and despite its claim was probably written in Greek only shortly before Jesus’ time! (Titles in the ancient world were treated differently from today: to attribute something in this way might be a gesture of deference and respect rather than fraud.)
Back in the main part of the Bible Ecclesiastes is a more meditative essay, largely taken up with philosophic reflection on how short, contradictory, unjust and frustrating life is. It can be helpful to know that a Biblical faith can nevertheless include these moments of depression and bleakness.
The Song of Songs is not really part of the wisdom tradition, but can fit here as its other name is the “Song of Solomon”, attributed to him in the Hebrew. Like Ecclesiastes but for a different reason it can seem a strange volume to find in the Bible library, since it is a highly erotic love poem! Commentators have interpreted the love as allegory standing for the love between God and his people, or the church, or Christ or…. But it surely began life as just a wonderful celebration of love, and we can take heart that this too has its place in the Bible!
Finally Job plumbs the depths of questioning and theology in its fictional but powerful exploration of a good man’s suffering. Job’s comforters offer traditional religious “advice”, which tends to assume that since no evil comes from God, it must be Job’s sin that is the problem. Job himself maintains a robust attitude which does not lose faith but which also refuses to simply say it is all his own fault, and demands an explanation from God. Finally God himself speaks, not to explain his actions, but to challenge Job with the majesty of his divine power and wisdom and invite a response of worship and trust, before restoring him to his former condition.
The Prophets divide up into 4 major prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah with Lamentations, Ezekiel and Daniel) and twelve minor prophets (Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habbakuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi).
Isaiah was perhaps the greatest of them all. In this long book it may be that prophecy from more than one person is recorded. Its core lies in the work of a historical Isaiah who lived in Jerusalem in the latter part of the eighth century BC. Chapters 1 – 39 come from a time when Judah was under threat from Assyria, though the prophet saw the real enemy as Israel’s own sin. Chapters 40 – 55 seem to have been written in the Babylonian exile and include the “Suffering Servant” songs which look ahead to a Saviour who will redeem his people by suffering for them as Jesus did. Finally Chapters 56 – 66 are addressed to a nation returned again to Jerusalem which needs reassurance as well as a call to high religious and moral standards. Jeremiah lived in the late seventh century and early sixth and had a long ministry, much of which was warning Jerusalem of its coming destruction. He was not popular! As well as his own oracles, the book contains memoirs written by his secretary Baruch.
Ezekiel lived during the same period, but wrote in Babylon rather than Jerusalem. Once again there is prophecy warning of Jerusalem’s fall, but also comfort and advice for the exiles and a moving picture of a restored Temple and nation. Daniel is a book of visions rather than prophecy. It may have been written quite a lot later than the events it describes in the Babylonian exile, perhaps as encouragement in a later period of repression. It includes highly poetic visions of the future, depicting the successive rule and overthrow of empires and the ultimate vindication of God’s people.
Among the minor prophets, Hosea wrote in the northern kingdom of Israel in the troubled times before the fall of Samaria in 721 BC. He powerfully uses his own experience to describe Israel as an unfaithful wife to God. Joel was probably written in the Persian era, much later, and looks to a time when God’s spirit will be poured out on all. Amos is another northern prophet, perhaps a shepherd, who condemned the comfortable living of the rich and spoke up for justice. Jonah is more of a mini-novel than a prophetic book.
Micah was a contemporary of Isaiah and has similar themes. Nahum celebrates the fall of the Assyrian capital Nineveh, seen as God’s judgement. Habbakuk wrote in the Babylonian era and was deeply distressed by their violence, which led him to question God’s purpose. Zephaniah has the familiar themes of doom and destruction if the nation does not repent. Haggai is a collection of brief prophecies dated to 520BC when Israel had returned from exile but not rebuilt the Temple. Zechariah was his close contemporary and also speaks of the need to rebuild the Temple. Finally Malachi writes after the rebuilding in the fifth century, calling the priest and people back to faithfulness.
The four Gospels obviously stand at the heart of the Christian Bible. It is widely agreed that Mark was the first to be written, and that Matthew and Luke independently wrote their Gospels bringing together Mark’s work, a shared second source of Jesus’ sayings (often called Q which is simply the first letter of the German Quelle = “source”), plus other material of their own. The three together are called the Synoptic Gospels, since they can be laid out easily in columns and seen in one glance or synopsis.
Mark is written in a straightforward, vigorous, even abrupt way, which wins no prizes for its Greek style. It may well draw on the reminiscences of St Peter, dictated to Mark in his later life, although Mark himself was probably an eye witness as the young man who ran away naked from the arrest of Jesus.
Matthew places Jesus’ ministry in its Jewish context, seeing Jesus as a great teacher like Moses and carefully arranging his sayings to reflect this. For him, Jesus is the Jewish Messiah and the fulfilment of the Old Testament’s prophecy. It is unlikely that Matthew himself compiled the gospel in its present form, though he may have made one of the collections of material that underlie it.
Luke’s Gospel is the first of a two-part account (with Acts) of the birth of the Christian faith and church. He is writing for a Gentile audience and explains the significance of Jewish words and events which they might not understand. Jesus’ mission is seen as extending to all humanity, and as having a particular relevance to those in need (reflecting Luke’s background in medicine?). The longest of the gospels, it preserves many favourite stories told by Jesus which are lost elsewhere (e.g. the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son). Luke also has material on Jesus’ birth and childhood not known to the other evangelists, and scholars speculate that Mary, Jesus’ mother, might have told these to Luke.
St John’s Gospel is more “theological” in that it records fewer events and tells them at greater length, including lengthy discourses as well as pithy sayings on the lips of Jesus. Some see John as a late composition, written at some distance from the events and with little concern (as Luke had) to get things “in order”, but more concerned to show what they meant. Others point to some clear cases where John’s account is actually more historically likely than the synoptic one. The particular importance of John’s Gospel is to approach an understanding and not just a description of the uniqueness of Jesus. Life, light and love come into the world through Jesus, and he offers a way for us to share in them through faith. Everyday images such as water, bread, sheep and their shepherd, a vine and its dresser become the vehicles by which heavenly truth is conveyed to human hearts.
The Acts of the Apostles
The opening of the book makes it clear that is the second part of St Luke’s double-barrelled composition, following on from his Gospel. It traces the growth and development of the early church from the moment when Jesus leaves the disciples to ascend to heaven to the time when the Gospel reaches Rome, the centre of the world and the springboard for what will follow.
St Luke continues to show that the Good News is not just for the Jewish people but for all the nations, and he makes a particular effort to show that it is compatible with the Roman Empire’s laws and customs.
The Holy Spirit is on some ways the principal actor of the Acts, continually inspiring, leading, guiding and gifting. Among the human actors Peter and all Paul stand out above the rest, although Stephen, Philip, Barnabas and others play important parts too.
Luke worked hard as a serious historian to gather his sources together and arrange them properly. Sometimes the differing voices of the church at Antioch or Jerusalem can be heard speaking through his words. An official letter from the apostles is quoted verbatim in Chapter 15, and it is interesting to see the shift from third to first person in Chapter 16 as in all probability Luke himself joins the missionary party. Recent scholarship has investigated Luke’s work and found its historicity to be of a high standard. The various rulers and magistrates of the towns Paul evangelises are, for instance, given their varied and proper titles.
The early chapters challenge us with an exciting picture of the young church in Jerusalem. As time passes problems are faced; persecution leads to dispersal, and the focus shifts to the new churches being founded throughout Asia Minor. Here Acts provides a parallel source to Paul’s epistles, and it is an interesting task to try and resolve them into a single narrative.
In an age where evangelisation is again becoming important, the spread of the Gospel to the various towns and cities, each very different in character, gives us a whole series of cameos or models of how the Good News can be presented and received. The variety of practice, problems which emerge, and the motive power of the Spirit are all helpful themes too for today’s church.
Finally, Acts leads us to Paul’s testimonies before the courts – again models of their sort, perhaps deliberately so – and the exciting and circumstantial sea voyage to Roman, obviously told first-hand and with nautical understanding.
The epistles are Letters, and there are 21 of them:
Romans, 1 & 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians and 1 & 2 Thessalonians are letters from Paul to the young churches of those places. They are of course just one side of the correspondence, sometimes answering specific questions now lost to us, as well as addressing specific situations that have arisen. They are the most significant of the epistles, Romans in particular (despite its complexity) being as developed a theology of salvation as we find in the New Testament. The Corinthian epistles are a compilation of more than two letters and are part of what must have been a large correspondence between Paul and one of the churches to which he was closest. The letters respond to many problems in church life which (hearteningly or depressingly?) are still around today. Galatians has been called the ‘Magna Carta of Christian liberty’ and responded to the challenge that Gentiles must become Jews before they become Christians. It has a substantial autobiographical section. Ephesians is written in a more sublime mood, talking about God’s purpose in the universal church. It was probably written from prison as a circular letter to churches in Asia Minor, and shares many passages with Colossians. Philippians is more cordial and affectionate in tone, and the church in Philippi (Macedonia) was the first to be planted on European soil and a particular favourite of Paul’s. Finally, the Thessalonian letters are probably the earliest of all the epistles and reflect a time when a quick return of Christ in the Second Coming was still thought likely.
1 & 2 Timothy, Titus and Philemon are written as if by Paul to younger Christian leaders. They are sometimes called the “Pastoral Epistles”, because they are about the pastoral leadership of congregations, and contain some very direct moral teaching. They also contain descriptions of the proper character of the Christian minister.
The author of Hebrews is not known. An interesting speculation is that it was Apollos. The ‘Hebrews’ are Jewish Christians, and the epistle is the longest we have, full echoes of Jewish theology (sacrifice, angels and the rest) as the writer tries to show how superior Christianity is to Judaism.
James, 1 & 2 Peter, 1,2 &3 John and Jude are supposedly written by rather than to the apostles named. James is really a sermon in disguise, full of imperatives, and famously (infamously?) concerned with works rather than faith. More positively, it can be seen as a sustained development of the ethical teaching found in the Sermon on the Mount. 1 Peter may be ‘from Peter’s office’ if not his own work, and was written to encourage Christians in northern Asia Minor who were being persecuted, while 2 Peter is a later work. The letters of John are close in wording and spirit to the opening parts of John’s Gospel, and must come from the same writer. They are poetic in their spirituality, more like a musical masterpiece with intertwining themes than letters as we normally know them. Finally Jude is a warning against false teachers probably genuinely from the pen of Jesus’ natural brother.
The Book of Revelation
Also known as The Apocalypse, the Book of the Revelation to St John is the account of the author’s visions and picturing of the struggle between good and evil going on behind the world and church life of his day. Its style and language draw heavily on the apocalyptic tradition (compare Ezekiel and Daniel) with symbolic figures, mysterious numbers, strange beasts etc. The ‘key’ to the meaning of these would have been clearer then than now, and it’s sometimes hard to be sure of the writer’s exact meaning. A major underlying theme, though, is the perception of the Roman Empire as a force for evil rather than good, but one which is not so mighty that God’s plan will not be worked out.
The ‘John’ who wrote the book and been exiled to the island of Patmos, which is in the Aegean Sea. He writes probably in the 80s or 90s AD, and is unlikely to be the same John that wrote the Gospel. (He is sometimes called ‘St John the Divine’ as opposed to ‘St John the Evangelist.) Scholars have plenty of scope for arguing as to which if either of the Johns is the son of Zebedee!
The first part of Revelation takes the form, after prefatory material setting the visionary scene, of letters as from Jesus to the seven churches of Asia Minor. John must have known them well: the letters cut to the bone, beginning with such phrases as ‘I know your works’. They make salutary reading today, and it can be an interesting exercise for a church to ask which of the seven letters it would be most likely to have received itself…
After this comes a vision of heaven, with its circles of elders, saints, martyrs, living creatures and the rest, and in the centre the Lamb (Christ) on the throne. This passage has been an important source of imagery for songs/hymns and paintings/stained glass over the years.
The Lamb opens a scroll sealed with seven seals, and seven trumpets are blown, and during this process judgement and destruction come on the earth, and the temple of heaven is opened. Portents then follow and a symbolic account of the final struggle between good and evil, during which seven bowls of the wrath of God are poured onto the earth. Finally evil is defeated and the old earth and heaven pass away to be replaced by new, and we see the famous vision of the new Jerusalem.
The book ends with the reminder (warning?) that Christ will come again soon.
|Nota Bene (from Bishop David Thomson) Inevitably this brief account of the Bible gives one person’s view of it, and cuts a swathe through fields of debate and discussion. It will almost certainly be wrong-headed at times, if not just plain wrong. But it is written by someone who wants to take both the divine and the human authorship of the Bible seriously, and to respond to it with both head and heart. Read like that, this book of books can indeed be a book of life for all people.
And if you would like to put things differently, then do by all means have a go at writing your own and post it up on the Round the Bible Blog for others to read.