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 Bible.

General Introduction
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, 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 one.

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 3:15).

Figure 3: Noah's Ark
The Flood
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 Old Testament/Covenant.”)

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 God.

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, KJV)

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 (Jeremiah 51).

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 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 (Colossians 1:15).

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 Timothy:

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 Corinthians 14:33-40).

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 21).

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 22:1-4)

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?