What is the Bible?


THE BIBLE. Love it or hate it, it has been possibly the most influential book in the history of civilisation, certainly so in the West, which for the past 2000 years has rested on a foundation created as much by the Bible as by Greek philosophy. You hear appeals to the Bible today, people swear by it in court, and the term "Bible-basher" is used to denote someone who harks on about the Bible overly much (in the speaker's opinion anyway). But what is it, exactly? And why do some people treat it as so important?

Religion and sacred books

It is true to say that every religion has its own sacred book or set of writings which are used to define it and on which its followers base their conduct and belief. Thus Muslims have the Koran, Mormons the Book of Mormon, and Hindus and Buddhists have various writings such as the Bhavagad Gita and the Upanishads. In one sense these books are the instruction manual of their religion: just as a PC manual tells you how the system works and how to make it work for you. However, while nobody ever claimed that the writers of a technical manual are infallible (although their authority, through experience and technical expertise, is usually acknowledged), most religions claim some sort of divine inspiration or authority for their writings. Each religion will normally also claim that its own sacred book is superior to the others where there is a conflict, although it should also be recognised that at least when it comes to morals, most if not all of them are in agreement: do not steal, do not commit adultery, etc.

The Bible

The Bible is the sacred book of Christianity, but its origins lay back in the start of the Jewish faith, nearly two thousand years before Christ. It consists of two parts, the largest being the Old Testament which was completed before the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, and the New Testament, which has to do with the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, his teachings and those of his closest followers, and the history of the church.

In reality the Bible is actually a collection of books, or writings, which include several different types of literature such as history, instruction, laws and poetry. These were written or collected by a large number of different authors, many of whom have left their names in their writings, and over a long period of time. This dynamic process came to an end in about 100 AD when John the apostle completed his Book of Revelation, which is a book to do with the triumph of good over evil and the end of history. Although Christian authorities have written other books since, none has suggested that they have the same weight as the books of the Bible, and indeed most draw their inspiration from the Bible.

The Old Testament

The Old Testament forms about three quarters of the Bible and is reckoned to be the more difficult of the two parts by the average person, although it was written not just for philosophers or religious professionals but for the man in the street (or the man in the field, as it would have probably been then!). There are a number of issues for the modern reader which have to be dealt with honestly, and we will look at these elsewhere.

The Old Testament starts with the Book of Genesis, an account of the creation of the universe and of mankind, and includes an important section of why humanity dropped from a state of Paradise to the moral struggle it finds itself in today. After a series of disasters the story switches to the Middle East to a man called Abram (later better known as Abraham) and how he became the father of the Hebrews, or Jewish people. After a rocky start the Jews become slaves in Egypt, only to be miraculously freed by God working through Moses and Aaron, after which they travel to the promised land which they settle. The history of Israel then becomes one of good and bad periods, but increasingly more of the bad until as punishment for wrongdoing the people are taken prisoner by other nations or exiled. Eventually they return from exile and rebuild their city Jerusalem and its temple, but there is a feeling that there is more to come. This feeling was encouraged by the prophets, a group of people who were not just futurologists but who told people what was right, what God expected of them, and what God was saying to a particular situation.

Apart from this history of the Jews, there is also a collection of poetry in the Old Testament (Book of Psalms, Song of Solomon), some philosophy and "wisdom literature" (Book of Job, Book of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes), a section of laws on how Jewish people were to live, and finally books written by or about some of the prophets and their sayings (about fifteen books in all, from Isaiah to Malachi, the last book of the Old Testament). Most of the Old Testament was written in Hebrew apart from a short section in Aramaic, a similar language of the time).

The New Testament

The New Testament is much shorter and somewhat different in form. It was written entirely in Greek in the 1st century AD, Greek being as common in the civilised world then as English is now. The writers of the New Testament were all men who had known either Jesus or one of his close followers.

The first part of the New Testament consists of the four gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. These are accounts of the life, teaching and death of Jesus Christ, and perhaps more controversially, his resurrection (return from the dead). In fact the death of Jesus and his resurrection are seen in the gospels as the main reason for his life on earth, something all the gospel writers stress. Luke then went on to write a history of the early church, the "Acts of the Apostles", which starts with Jesus' ascension into heaven and ends with Paul the apostle being taken to Rome as a prisoner, where he continues to teach the Christian message.

The remainder of the New Testament, and its greatest part, consists of letters written by various leaders within the church. These are mainly not personal letters but letters written to churches and outline Christian teaching and behaviour, as well as dealing with a number of issues arising. Most people do not realise that even the Book of Revelation is actually a letter to several churches, albeit written in rather an unusual form.

Well, why read the Bible?

All this may seem rather dry or academic to you, especially if you have never read the Bible as an adult. It is worth remembering, incidentally, that the Bible is a book written for adults, not just for Sunday school. I remember the first time I read it with an adult mindset: although some of the stories seemed familiar, a lot of it was not.

Firstly, if you are not a Christian or do not consider yourself one, I would suggest trying to read it anyway. At the very least it is one of the cornerstones of world literature, and the very least you will get out of it is a knowledge of one of the most influential books in mankind's history. Also, you can go to the source of Christianity instead of having to take it second-hand from the mouth of a vicar, a TV evangelist or anyone else - and these people make mistakes as much as anyone else! One thing that has often impressed me about the nineteenth century atheists, agnostics and religious sceptics is that at least they knew the Bible well enough to know what they disagreed with. One problem nowadays is that so few people know the Bible is that they don't know the subject they claim to be talking about. A good place to start is the Gospel of Mark or the Gospel of Luke, followed by the Book of Genesis. After that the Letter to the Romans, although more difficult to the reader coming to it for the first time, is a good place to understand more about the meaning of the death and resurrection of Jesus, and the motivation for Christian behaviour. If you find any of these difficult or raising questions, there are normally books in the local public library written by experts that help shed light on some of the terms that may not be familiar to a modern reader.

If you are a Christian, then again, the Bible is instruction manual of the Christian faith. It is there not just to teach us, but to remind us (and most of us need reminding of things once taught, whether to do with reptiles, computers or faith). But it isn't just dry teaching: reading a psalm, which is like a prayer or a hymn, may help you in your daily life. Similarly, reading something from the Book of Proverbs may give you an insight into how to live or to deal with a situation. In reading the historical books of the Old Testament, you may find, apart from reading how God has interacted with humankind, that there are examples to copy or examples to avoid. In reading the New Testament you can be reminded again of the significance of Jesus' life, death and resurrection, as well as how to live from day to day.

Some practical advice

Everyone has their own way of reading any book, be it a reptile book, a PC manual or the Bible. I can only offer a few observations or suggestions which I think may help you. If they don't help, feel free to junk them and find your own method.

Big Book

The Bible is a fairly large book with a lot of different subject matter, and it would be impractical to suggest it can be read in an evening or even a week. On the other hand, certain sections, such as the Gospels, can be read chapter by chapter in a few days. Certainly this is one reason for recommending the Gospel of Mark: being just sixteen chapters long, it can be read in about a fortnight. In fact the Gospels and some of the books in the Old Testament can be read as straightforward narrative. Some of the other books, such as the New Testament letters or Old Testament books of the law, are best read in convenient chunks, bit by bit, and digested and understood. Just as with trying to learn programming, attempting too much too quickly only leads to frustration and discouragement. "Slowly but surely" is a good guide.

Cover to Cover

If however you do want to read it cover to cover to get the "big picture", then it's not impossible. Six months after I became a Christian myself I decided to give it a try, and started off reading three chapters of the Old Testament and one of the New Testament a night last thing before lights out. If you read it this way you can just about get through the entire Bible in a year (but see next paragraph).

Small Print

There are some sections of the Bible which are difficult to modern readers, simply because they appear to be very obscure. I am not thinking so much of the miraculous or supernatural elements (those bits are normally pretty straightforward!) but of parts like the genealogies (who was the father of whom) and laws that apparently have more to do with diet than with straightforward moral issues. Some Bible versions have these parts printed in small print so that the reader can skip them if he or she wishes. I would suggest that if you are reading for the first time and you come across such a section you do the same if you find it dry or difficult. In particular a lot of people attempting to read the Bible for the first time get bogged down in some of the later sections of Exodus and the Book of Leviticus. These bits are still important to the Bible as a whole, but they are sections that you can return to later. Feel free to skip over them for now.

Which translation?

Over the past few years there has been a rash of different Bible translations, some admittedly better than others. Unless you can read Shakespeare without too much difficulty I would suggest you avoid the King James version since it is written in the English of circa 1600 and appears rather offputting to a modern reader, as well as containing words whose meanings have since changed! The Revised Standard Version (RSV) is easier to understand but still retains words like "thou" in the prayers and psalms. The New International Version (NIV) is perhaps the most straightforward for most people, since it uses modern English without "dumbing it down".


Sooner or later everyone comes to a bit in the Bible which they need to discuss with somebody else. This is perfectly healthy and shows an enquiring mind! There are two good sources of help: local religious ministers and your local library. Ministers are not people who are somewhat holier than everyone else but simply men and women who have had a certain training to deal with these sorts of questions, in much the same way as a computer engineer isn't necessarily brainier than the secretary, he has just had the right sort of training for the job. They should be available to deal with your questions (if not, try a different one). The library usually has a good stock of books in the religious section that deals with the Bible and its different books, or issues that arise from them.

It may surprise you, but I am actually reluctant to recommend going online (on the Web) to find help. Why? Because a lot of people who have sites on the Web are there to promote their own point of view. That is fine - I'm doing the same, after all - but many of them go too far or have an unhealthy axe to grind. Some get things out of proportion, others preach a somewhat strange version of Christianity that has actually little to do with it, and some (I hate to say) say the right things but with such hatred and lack of Christian love that they make their faith utterly unattractive to the honest seeker. Having said that, there are probably some good online chat rooms where you can meet and discuss things with other like-minded people. If I find one, I'll list it here - and if you find one, please let me know.

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