Figure 1: The Bible By Testament, category and books.
Few religious texts have been as influential in world history as the
Bible. For thousands of years people from all over the world have looked
to this book for an understanding of the origins of life and guidance
for how one should live. Today many people have heard of the Bible but
never read it themselves. The purpose of this article therefore is to
present an overview, devoid of interpretation, of the contents of the
The Bible is more a library than a book, comprising a total of 66 books
in two separate Testaments (Testament means ‘promise’).
Each of the Testaments subdivides into groups of books with recognizable
themes or commonalities (A full breakdown is given in Figure 1). The
first eighteen books focus on history, from the creation of man through
the captivity of the Israelite people in Egypt. The subsequent four
books contain poetic and philosophical writings. The last section of
the Old Testament is a series of seventeen books focusing on prophecies
concerning the nation of Israel, their surrounding neighbors, and God’s
plan for the future of the world. The New Testament can be divided
into three sections: the first four books, called the gospels, give
an account of the history of Jesus and the early apostles, the next
21 are letters written by the apostles regarding moral conduct, and
the last book, Revelation, is a prophecy of God’s future plan
for the end times.
THE OLD TESTAMENT
The Old Testament, made up of 39 books, is comprised of historical recounts
of the relationship between God and man; poetic reflections on God,
man and the world; and prophecy.
Old Testament History: The Beginning
These books focus on the ‘faithful’: those who, according
to the Bible, are listening to God and are doing what He asks them. Here
is a brief summary of the main contents of this section:
The opening chapters
of the Bible recount the creation of the earth and of man. God creates
life on Earth in six consecutive days and rests on the seventh concluding
His creation “very good.” God creates
Adam, the first man, from the clay of the Earth, and breathes into him
to give him life. Eve is created from a rib taken from Adam’s body,
and God pronounces the law of marriage, whereby Adam and Eve join as
Figure 2: “The Fall of Man,” 1512, Michelangelo
God also decrees man must not eat of the tree of knowledge of good
and evil. Despite this Eve is deceived by the serpent into taking the
fruit – which she shares with Adam. Consequently Adam and Eve are
consigned to death for their disobedience and exiled from Eden. God promises
hope of removal of this punishment from a descendant of the woman (Genesis
Figure 3: Noah's Ark
Adam and Eve have a son: Cain, who murders his brother Abel. Successive
generations of man degenerate further until God regrets creating man
(Genesis 6:6), and destroys all living things with a Flood. The one
faithful man, Noah, is directed to build an Ark, and takes on board
his family, some of every type of animal and provisions to survive
the Flood. Forty days of rainfall flood the Earth and the waters remain
above the mountaintops for 150 days. After the floodwaters have subsided
and Noah and his family have disembarked onto dry land Noah offers
sacrifice to God, and God introduces the rainbow as His promise that
flooding will never again destroy the Earth.
Abraham: Israel’s Faithful Father
In the generations after the flood mankind again turns away from God.
But the one faithful man, Abraham, is called to leave his home for
a new land. To him God promises:
“I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you I will
make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those
who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on
earth will be blessed through you.” (Genesis 12:2-3)
Abraham believes God and obeys Him. As a result, the first part of the
promise is completed when Abraham’s grandson, Jacob, fathers twelve
children. These children ultimately become the heads of the twelve families
that comprise the twelve tribes of Israel. Years later a severe famine
causes Jacob’s family to move down to Egypt, where, as foreigners,
they are enslaved.
Freedom from Slavery: Moses
Despite many years passing, God does not forget the Israelites in Egyptian
slavery (Exodus 3:7-10). In order to free them, God chooses a man named
Moses to lead the people. Moses petitions Pharaoh for the release of
the Israelites but Pharaoh refuses. Because of Pharaoh’s opposition
God brings ten successive plagues against Egypt, culminating in the
Angel of Death passing over and killing every firstborn human and animal.
To escape this judgment God instructs the Israelites to prepare a meal
from a lamb “without blemish” and the blood of the Lamb
to be painted on the house. This is the institution of Passover.
Figure 4: “Parting of the Red Sea,” ©1999, Friberg.
Pharaoh’s resistance is broken by Passover. Moses leads the Israelites
out of Egypt across the Red Sea - which God parts for them - into the
wilderness towards the land promised to Abraham. During this journey
God gives Moses the Law by which the Israelites must live, including
the Ten Commandments, engraved on two stone tablets that are placed in
the Ark of the Covenant. (This Mosaic Law is referred to as “The
In the Promised Land Israel undergoes successive cycles of freedom and
oppression: forgetting God during peacetime, being invaded and oppressed,
turning to God for help, and being delivered by a “judge” from
Israel: From Nation to Monarchy
After being ruled by divinely appointed priests and judges, Israel
wants to copy the other (unfaithful) nations and institute a king.
God is angered by their decision, but grants their wish when they persist.
Their first king, Saul, is a failure: the Israelites suffer increasing
oppression from invading Philistines. God promises a second King, a
man after His own heart: David, a shepherd boy, who kills the Philistine
giant Goliath in a duel that saved the Israelites from Philistine enslavement
(1 Samuel 17).
David is a good king, serving God during his reign. The Ark is returned
to Jerusalem, and plans for a Temple are laid. God is pleased and blesses
David’s son, promising to establish his throne forever (2 Samuel
7:16). David’s immediate descendant is Solomon, and God causes
Solomon’s reign to be the most prosperous time of Israel’s
history because of David’s faithfulness.
Old Testament Poetry and Philosophy
A significant proportion of the Old Testament is dedicated to poetry
and philosophy. King David wrote many of the Psalms and his son Solomon
recorded the Proverbs, the Song of Songs, and (probably) Ecclesiastes.
Here they reflect upon the blessings and wisdom God has provided.
Yea though I walk in death’s dark vale
yet will I fear no ill,
For thou art with me and thy rod and staff me comfort still. (Psalm 23:4, adaptation, KJV)
Your word is a lamp unto my feet, and a
light unto my path. (Psalm 119:105, KJV)
A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding
of the hands to rest,
And the poverty will come on you like a bandit, and scarcity like an
armed man. (Proverbs 6:10-11)
Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting; but
a woman who fears the LORD is to be praised. (Proverbs 31:30)
Figure 5: ‘The Thinker,’ 1840-1917, Rodin
Be not rash with thy mouth, and let not thine
heart be hasty to utter any thing before God: for God is in heaven,
and thou upon earth: therefore let thy words be few. For a dream cometh
through the multitude of business; and a fool’s voice is known
by multitude of words. (Ecclesiastes 5:2-3, KJV)
I returned and saw under the sun that the race
is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the
wise, nor riches to men of understanding, nor favor to men of skill;
but time and chance happen to them all. (Ecclesiastes 9:11,
Old Testament Prophecy
The last series of books in the Old Testament are focused on prophecy.
The prophets are faithful men whom God uses to transmit His message
to the people. Prophecy itself consists of speaking the words of God,
and a common element is predicting the future. Generally God allows
that each prophet will have at least one prophecy come true in his
lifetime to demonstrate his credibility to the people. By now Israel
has split into two separate kingdoms: Israel (10 tribes) and Judah
(2 tribes): both have their prophets.
The three largest prophetic books of the Bible are Isaiah, Jeremiah
and Ezekiel, all of whom prophesied to the southern kingdom of Judah
after Israel was invaded by Babylon and the people removed to exile.
Isaiah concentrates on the coming Messiah: Jesus Christ. The Messiah
will be rejected by mankind and killed, bear the punishment of the sins
of all men in his death after leading a blameless life (Isaiah 53). Isaiah
explains that Christ will be a descendant of David who will ultimately
rule the world in a kingdom on Earth devoid of harm:
He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes,
or decide by what he hears with his ears but with righteousness he
will judge the needy, with justice he will give decisions for the poor
of the earth… The
wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat,
the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will
lead them… They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy
mountain, for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as
the waters cover the sea. (Isaiah 11:3-9)
Jeremiah’s prophecy proclaims that a pending Babylonian invasion
comes as God’s punishment for Israel’s continual disobedience
(Jeremiah 7:30-34). This prophecy is unpopular with Zedekiah the king,
who imprisons Jeremiah in a mud filled dungeon (Jeremiah 38). A final
message of hope for Israel comes in the prophecy of Babylon’s destruction
Ezekiel’s prophesies that all things God performs, in blessing
and destruction, will be done so all will know He is Lord and in absolute
control. Ezekiel’s famous prophecy is that Israel would be returned
to its own land after being scattered and seeming dead (Ezekiel 37).
THE NEW TESTAMENT
The New Testament is written in a wholly different style from the Old
Testament. Its 27 books communicate strongly the moral imperative of
the reader to respond to God’s teaching. The chronology and teaching
of Jesus Christ comprises the opening four gospels, followed by the
continuing ministry of his disciples in the Acts of the Apostles, and
letters concerning moral guidance to the faithful. The last book, the
Revelation of Jesus Christ, concerns prophecy of events between Jesus’ ascension
into heaven and return to Earth.
Figure 6: Jesus Christ, (Rio de Janeiro, Brazil), 1931, Landowski
New Testament Gospels
The four gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) present the life and
ministry of Jesus Christ, not as historical accounts, but as the message
of Good News of salvation from the Son of God. Jesus is born by the
direct operation of God’s Holy Spirit on his human mother, Mary.
He is identified with Old Testament scriptures, explaining him as Eve’s
descendant who would destroy the power of death (Hebrews 2), the blessing
all nations receive in Abraham (Galatians 3) and the son of David who
would reign forever (Isaiah 9). He is the explicit realization of God’s
Word (John 1:14), the premier element in all of God’s creation
Jesus explains his purpose is to fulfill (complete) the Law: providing
a new and better covenant between God and the faithful. Jesus feels compassion
towards the people because they have no spiritual leader; this provokes
him to teach them how to live a godly life (Mark 6:34) so that God will
not reject them (Matthew 25). He teaches it is essential for believers
to act in humility and purity, seeking after God’s kingdom, and
serving others (Matthew 5-7). Many of Jesus’ teachings are told
in parable form, where a moral lesson is encapsulated within a hypothetical
story. Jesus’ compassion also moves him to frequently use the Spirit
of God to heal the sick and dying (Luke 6:19), and even raise to life
those already dead (John 11).
Nevertheless spiritual sickness amongst the religious leaders of the
day, the Pharisees, earns Jesus’ condemnation. He powerfully denounces
their hypocrisy (Matthew 23), and drives out those using the temple courts
for fraudulent commerce (Luke 19:45-46).
The New Covenant
The new covenant (testament) between God and His people is established
in Jesus Christ sacrificing his perfectly obedient life on the cross
so that the power of sin (death) can be destroyed. The Gospel of John
explains this, stating:
For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes
in him should not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16, RSV)
Figure 7: ‘The Last Supper,’ 1498, da Vinci
Jesus institutes the sharing of bread and wine amongst his disciples
to be repeated as a reminder of his sacrifice (1 Corinthians 11:23-26).
He commands that his disciples should love God and love each other, as
this is the manner in which their discipleship is demonstrated:
“A new commandment I give to you, that you
love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one
another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you
have love for one another.”
(John 13:34-35, RSV)
Figure 8: Paul, from ‘Peter and Paul,’ 1592, El Greco
Jesus died on the cross so that God’s will – not his own – would
be perfected. After three days, God raised Jesus back to life, showing
He will not permit the sinless to suffer destruction (Acts 2:27 quoting
Psalm 16:10), and that Jesus is the source of resurrection and life (John
11:21-25). Jesus revealed himself to his disciples and ascended into
heaven to sit at the right hand of God, awaiting the appointed time of
his return to the Earth as King (Acts 1:11).
New Testament Letters: Preaching and Correcting
The Early Church is pioneered by faithful apostles and other key converts
such as the apostle Paul (Acts 9). The New Testament letters are from
these men (mainly Paul) to the new believers in different cities throughout
the Mediterranean region. They record the preaching of the Good News
about Jesus Christ, the victory that he won on the cross and, via Jesus’ teachings,
how to conduct one’s life so that at Jesus’ return one
might be rewarded with a place in his kingdom rather than death. One
example of this teaching is in Paul’s letter to the disciple
Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading
of Scripture, to preaching and to teaching. Do not neglect your gift… Be
diligent in these matters; give yourself wholly to them, so that everyone
may see your progress. Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere
in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers.
(1 Timothy 4:13-16)
Paul explains to the believers that the promises made to Abraham are
available to all because Abraham was chosen because of his faithfulness,
and not his nationality. Thus those who are faithful qualify for God’s
promises along with Abraham (Galatians 3:7-8). Unity between all nations
and social classes is found in identification with Jesus Christ (Galatians
3:28-29). Paul gives practical advice to the churches on how the disciple
should conduct himself: blamelessly and with purity, doing everything
without complaining or arguing (Philippians 2:14-15); eliminating from
his mind the selfish desires of the flesh (Romans 6, Colossians 4:5-9)
and focusing instead on things good and profitable, always rejoicing
in God’s blessings (Philippians 4:4-8). The faithful are instructed
to come together as a loving family community (the Church), working together
(Hebrews 10:25) with God (1 Corinthians 3:9) in an orderly fashion (1
Peter adds the description of the church as a spiritual house built
of living stones offering spiritual sacrifice to God through Jesus (1
Peter 2:5), and James stresses that faith is dead unless it is realized
in works (James 2:14-26); recommending simple, yet fundamental practices:
Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this:
to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself
from being polluted by the world. (James 1:27)
Paul complements James’ instruction revealing that faithful works,
though essential, do not themselves bring salvation. Salvation is only
received as a gift of God’s grace, which He chooses to give to
the faithful (Ephesians 2:8, Hebrews 11:6). John expands on the command
to love, exhorting that if a man love God he must also love his brother
(1 John 4:20-21).
New Testament Prophecy: Revelation
The final book of the Bible is the Revelation of Jesus Christ to John.
Through a series of graphic visions (some expanding earlier visions
to Ezekiel, Daniel and Zechariah) the future plan of God is revealed.
All nations ultimately rise in war against Jesus Christ (Armageddon)
and are defeated as Jesus sets up God’s Kingdom over all the
Earth (Revelation 19). Christ’s reign culminates in a final Judgment
Day when sin, wicked men, and death itself are permanently destroyed
(Revelation 20), and God’s eternal peace reigns on Earth (Revelation
Figure 9: River of life
And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Now the dwelling
of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people,
and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every
tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying
or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” He who was
seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then
he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and
true.” (Revelation 21:3-5)
Then the angel showed me the river of the water
of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of
the Lamb…On each
side of the river stood the tree of life…No longer will there
be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the City,
and his servants will serve him. They will see his face… (Revelation
Some Responses You May Have to the Above Article
Some Bible accounts, like the Flood, seem beyond what I can reasonably believe.
I have trouble believing 66 books written across many centuries and cultures can be the “Word of God”.
Surely modern science has demonstrated that the Biblical account of creation is not literally true?
Where can I find concrete evidence that any of this Bible is true?
What is meant by the phrase: “The Kingdom of God”?
But doesn’t the Bible teach that Jesus is God as well as being born of Mary?