The Bible is not a book – it is a whole library, a collection of books, written over a period of nearly 1000 years. Probably many of the stories in the Old Testament are even older than this. Ancient cultures passed on knowledge through storytelling long before writing and reading became common.
Those who wrote the stories, poems and sayings in the Bible were trying to record their own experiences of meeting God. While we can recognize many of the situations they faced – joy and sorrow, hope and disappointment – they were living in a world very different from ours. The Bible is not meant to be a simple instruction manual. We cannot look to it for straightforward answers, though people often try. What we can find, though, are accounts of other people’s experience of life and what they believed were encounters with God. Christians believe that we can find God at work in their lives, and this helps us to see where he might be at work in our own.
All this may sound very exciting, but the Bible is a huge book and many parts of it seem baffling. Often we only hear short readings taken out of context. To understand any individual passage it is important to know where it comes in the overall sweep of the ‘story’. The following overview may help you to set an individual reading into the broader framework.
I suggest you find the ‘contents’ or ‘index’ page of your Bible and look at the list of books it contains.See the links below for online versions of the Bible.
First, you will find the Old Testament, which contains all that was written before the time of Christ, and then the New Testament – written by the early Christians. Some Bibles also include a section of books called the Apocrypha. These are regarded as useful, but have not traditionally had the same standing as the other books. Not every Bible includes them.
AN OVERVIEW OF THE BIBLE
THE OLD TESTAMENTThe Beginning: Genesis – Deuteronomy
These five books include the Creation, the Flood, and the stories of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Exodus tells of Moses and the journey from Egypt to the Promised Land. Several of these books (sometimes called the Pentateuch, which means ‘five books’!) consist almost entirely of the laws of the Jewish people. These first books tell of God creating a people in whom he delighted, and promising to be with them. When they were slaves in Egypt he did not forget his promise, but rescued them and brought them into the safety of a land of their own.
History: Joshua – Esther
These are called History books, although we are not at all sure of how accurate they are. Ancient writers were not worried about exact accounts of what happened in the way modern historians would be. What mattered was that the meaning of the stories was grasped. These books tell of the development of Israel, including the stories of the Judges – people like Gideon and Deborah; the Kings – Saul, David and Solomon; the prophets Samuel, Elijah and Elisha. The history is one of promises made and broken, of a people getting it wrong as often as they get it right. Ultimately it tells of the city of Jerusalem besieged and destroyed by the Babylonians, and its people taken into exile.
Wisdom: Job – Song of Songs
This group of books, which include the books of Proverbs and Psalms, are the ancient wisdom of the Hebrew people. Some of the books contain sayings, while others, like the book of Job, set their wisdom in the framework of a story. All human life is here; the hope and despair of the Psalms; the scepticism of Ecclesiastes; the beautiful erotic poetry of the Song of Songs.
Prophets: Isaiah – Malachi
Most of the books of prophecy which make up the last part of the Old Testament were written around the time of the exile in Babylon. The destruction of Jerusalem and its temple made people question why such a thing had happened. The prophets were people called to listen to God and to tell what they heard. Often this meant giving bad news – warnings which went unheeded – but it also meant retelling an ancient truth, that the God who had created them and rescued them once already from an earlier slavery in Egypt would not fail or forsake them now.
The Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John
THE NEW TESTAMENT
These are the accounts of the life of Jesus. They were probably written between 70 –100 AD, from collections of stories and sayings collected soon after Jesus’ ministry on earth, and from the accounts of those who had known him. Matthew, Mark and Luke share a lot of material, though they arrange it differently. They are sometimes called the Synoptic Gospels (from the Greek word which means “seeing with the same eye”). John’s Gospel has more of the character of an extended meditation on Christ’s words and actions, and is rather different from the others. The shortest Gospel is Mark, which is only sixteen chapters long. It is a good place to start if you haven’t read the Bible before.
The Acts of the Apostles
This was written by Luke and is the sequel to his Gospel. Its stories include the coming of the Holy Spirit, Paul on the road to Damascus, and the rapid spread of the Church around the Mediterranean and beyond.
The Epistles: Romans - Jude
These are the letters written by early Christian leaders, like Paul and Peter. As new Churches sprang up they needed guidance and support, which often came by letter, since these Churches were spread far afield. In them we see people wrestling with the problems of exploring their new faith, coping with persecution, and learning to love and welcome each other.
The End: Revelation
This mysterious book has been widely misunderstood through Christian history. Its dramatic descriptions of the end of the world are not meant to be taken literally or to be plundered for obscure secret messages. It was written by a Christian leader – traditionally thought to be St John – who had been exiled by the Romans on the hot dry island of Patmos. Concerned for the Churches in his care he writes down visions he has had, which promise that God will, in the end, defeat evil and lead us into a new world of love.
FINDING A BIBLE REFERENCE
Bible references are given in the following form e.g. John 1: 1 .
John is the book of the Bible in which the reference is to be found. Your Bible will have a table of contents, usually at the front, which will give you a page number . John 1 indicates the chapter , usually marked in the text by a number in large type in the margin or at the top of the page . The rest of the reference , after the colon , gives the verse number , usually in small type either in the margin , or embedded in the text .
Look up John 1 : 1 . You should find the famous words “ In the beginning was the Word , and the Word was with God and the word was God."
READING THE BIBLE REFLECTIVELY
Reading the Bible, is not like reading any other kind of book. Whatever you believe yourself, this is a text within which, over several millennia and in every corner of the world, people have found wisdom which has changed their lives. While it is good to read it like a novel sometimes, to get the broad sweep of the story, it repays deeper pondering. To understand why it has such influence we need to read it reflectively. Christians believe that, if they let these words sink in, they will discover God within these stories, speaking across the ages to their own situations. This is not the same as taking a verse out of context to justify a contemporary ethical decision, though there are plenty of people who will try to do this. It is rather, a belief that God will use the situations of the past to remind us of his presence in today’s world, and his continuing love and commitment to us in our very different circumstances. Below you will find some suggestions to help you read the Bible reflectively. All these techniques repay practice – it doesn’t come at once! You may find that one technique suits your personality better than the others – we are all different and these tehniques have been developed to recognise that fact.
1. Reading with the Head, Heart and Hands.
It is important to read with the whole of yourself. Having read a Bible passage, in prayer we can ask;
What do I think about this? (Head)
What do I feel about this? (Heart)
What should I do about this? (Hands).
In this way, our prayer can help us to grow personally and to build God’s kingdom as well. You may like to reflect on these questions as you pray and jot down your answers in a notebook.
This technique is often called Lectio Divina, which means Holy Reading. It is a fancy name for a simple technique. Its origins are in the earliest monastic communities and it was further developed by St. Benedict. Read the Bible passage through several times. You will probably find that after a while one phrase or word stands out for you. Repeat the word or phrase to yourself again and again. The monks called this ‘ruminating’, like a cow chewing the cud.
As you repeat the phrase or word to yourself, be aware of anything that comes into your mind. Perhaps you will see a picture, or make an association with something in your life. Perhaps you will be reminded of something that has happened to you, perhaps you will be left with something to think about further.
Imagination is a gift. It is one of the things which make us truly human. Imagining is something children naturally do, but of which adults are often suspicious, having been told to 'stop daydreaming' once too often In their own childhood. The techniques taught by Ignatius Loyola in the 16th century developed this ‘Holy Daydreaming’ into a technique for prayer.
Read the Bible passage through several times and then put the Bible down. Imagine the place in which the story is happening.
Ask yourself questions about it to help you imagine it.
Try to use all your senses. What can you see? Hear? Smell? Feel? Taste? Look all around you… What is straight in front of you?
What is around you?
Are you inside or outside?
What is the weather like?
Are you on your own or is anyone with you?
Imagine that the story you have read takes place around you.
Follow the action.
Listen to people talking.
Be aware of where you are and what you do to take part in what happens.
Talk to the other people there and be aware of what you think and feel, as you become part of the story.
Afterwards be aware of the impact the story has had on you. Are you left with a challenge or a reassurance? What will you take away with you from your reading?
Links on this site
Versions of the Bible
Bible Reference resources
Textweek.comBible study resources, including art links and discussion of movies with Biblical resonances
Bible Gateway - online Bibles