The Bible is about God’s self-revelation, in which He shares with us, in all our enfeebled understanding, what we can grasp about Himself.
The Bible as we have it today is divided into two sections: the Old Testament, which has 39 different documents, and the New Testament with 27. These 66 documents are traditionally called “books,” even though they are almost never published as separately bound volumes. This canon of Scripture has been generally accepted by Christians as the inspired Word of God since the third century A.D.
The 39 documents that comprise the Old Testament were originally written in Hebrew from about 2,000 B.C. until about 450 B.C. Jews also accept this collection as Scripture, and Muslims accept the first five books.
The 27 documents of the New Testament written in ancient Greek are seen as additional Scriptures by Christians. They were written from about 45 to 70 A.D., with perhaps one or two being written as late as 90 A.D. These documents are not uniform in character. The shortest is only one page; the longest is more than 100 pages. They are of various literary types, including history, narrative, poetry, prophecy, and letters. Within these genres, there are numerous clear examples of fiction: parables, dreams, and so forth. Sometimes, it is not easy to decide exactly what a passage is intended to be: history, poetry, fiction, nonfiction.
These 66 books of the Bible were originally written in three languages: Hebrew (most of the Old Testament), Aramaic (a sister language to Hebrew used in parts of two Old Testament books), and Greek (all of the New Testament). These documents were authored and compiled by diverse individuals—poets, kings, prophets, priests, shepherds, farmers, fishermen, a tax collector, a physician, scribes—from the very common to the elite, the intellectual to the uneducated. These very different people wrote over the course of 1,000 years and came from different nations and cultures.
In spite of this amazing diversity, there are common themes that run through seemingly disparate documents; stories about God and God’s dealing with people, haunting stories, and amazing stories of success and failure, passion, and persistence. And not only stories about God but also about humanity—the formation of human civilization, a movement, a heritage—stories with our own fingerprints all over them, showing us not only God but also ourselves in relationship with God and one another.
These stories are not delivered in a linear logic. They do not constitute a textbook or manual or encyclopedia of philosophy, theology, or morality. In a sense, they are messy, chaotic, jumping back and forth with imagination, passion, fury, and hope. They’re about encountering God in the middle of feast and famine, good and bad governments, changing economies, disappointing marriages and dysfunctional families, poignant moments and exhilarating victories, deep friendships and bitter betrayals.
Another thing that may seem strange to someone first reading the Bible is that it uses an ancient system for finding things instead of the page numbers that are so familiar in books today. This is because the Bible existed as a written document long before the invention of the printing press, and with the hand-copied versions, there was no way to make sure that every page was precisely the same. So, over the centuries, chapters and verses have been added to the Bible. These are not part of the original text, but they provide a common system for finding a particular passage. They continue to be used because there are so many different translations of the Bible into many modern languages and various printings and editions. Page numbers are impossible to keep uniform.
Most of all, the Bible is about God’s self-revelation, in which He shares with us, in all our enfeebled understanding, what we can grasp about Himself. Mostly, we see a loving Father, who loved us too much to let us go.*