Flip through a Bible for the first time and you may be overwhelmed, confused, or both. Its language and subject matter are cumbersome to read. It contains unusual chapter and verse numbers that other books do not. But perhaps most challenging, the Bible is not just one book; it’s a collection of sixty-six different books. To read it completely in a year would be like reading more than one book a week for an entire year!1
To make things even more complicated, all the books of the Bible were not written by the same author. Nor were they all written during the same time period. Nor were they put in perfect chronological order. Whew!
But as diverse and complex as the books of the Bible are, together they tell a sweeping story of a God who creates, loves, judges, teaches, and ultimately redeems the world. For thousands of years, billions of people all over the world have found comfort, purpose, and truth in the books of the Bible. Granted, there are also many who are skeptical about the Bible’s claims. But for all who are on a journey of faith, this collection of sixty-six books cannot be ignored.
So what are the books of the Bible? And what story do they tell?
The Old Testament
Let’s begin with the Old Testament, which comprises about three-quarters of the Bible. The Old Testament is largely concerned with the history, writings, and prophets of Israel.
The first five books are called the Pentateuch, which means “five scrolls.” These books—Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy—include stories about how God created the world and established the nation of Israel from Abraham’s descendants. They describe how God led the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt, gave them laws for their nation at Mount Sinai, and provided for them as they journeyed to the Promised Land. These books also contain the legal codes themselves, including the Ten Commandments.
The next section of the Old Testament is comprised of the historical books—an appropriate title, as you’ll see. Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings, 1 and 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther reveal the dramatic history of the nation of Israel. These books tell of the Israelites’ settlement in the Promised Land and their division into two different kingdoms. They also record Israel’s subsequent defeat, destruction, and exile at the hands of the Assyrians and Babylonians, as well as the return of a remnant of Israelites to rebuild their nation.
The next five books of the Old Testament are very different. Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs are not works of history per se. Rather, they consist primarily of poetry and wisdom literature. These books incorporate poems, songs, proverbs, and discourses on the way to live a righteous and wise life. These five books were composed and compiled during the same time period as the historical books.
Closing out the Old Testament are the books of the prophets. These books also coincide with Israel’s tumultuous history and consequently deal with themes related to the nation’s exile. Isaiah, Jeremiah (who also wrote the book of Lamentations), Ezekiel, and Daniel are often referred to as the major prophets, given their influence and the length of their books. The final twelve—Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habbakuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi—are often called the minor prophets. However, their writings were no less significant or jolting to the rebellious people of Israel.
In total, the Old Testament covers roughly 2000 BCE to 400 BCE.
The New Testament
The New Testament picks up four hundred years later with the birth of Jesus. The Gospels and the book of Acts record the events and teachings of Jesus’ life as well as the early years of the new movement he started.
The first four books of the New Testament—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—are given the name “gospel,” which means simply “good news.” They are essentially biographies—though not in a modern sense but an ancient one.2 Because they are drawn from some of the same sources, many of their stories about Jesus overlap. But each author includes different details and thus presents a unique perspective on Jesus as the long-awaited Messiah for Israel. A large portion of each biography focuses on Jesus’ death and resurrection and its significance for all people.
One of these biographers, Luke, also wrote a second book: the Acts of the Apostles. It relates how the news of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection launched a movement, beginning with the Jews in Jerusalem and extending to the heart of the Roman Empire.
Twenty-one smaller books known as letters follow the gospels and Acts. The order of the letters in the Bible is based on length—longest to shortest—not chronology. The content often addresses specific questions or problems each church or individual was facing.
The first thirteen letters—Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus, and Philemon—are attributed to an early Christian leader named Paul (his story is told in Acts). He wrote many letters to various churches and individuals about Jesus and his teachings; he was one of the most influential members of the early church.3 The next eight letters—Hebrews; James; 1 and 2 Peter; 1, 2 and 3 John; and Jude—were written by various other authors to early Christians explaining the nature of the Christian life while also addressing specific issues.
The final book of the New Testament may be the most famous and least understood: the Revelation of John. As a work of apocalyptic literature, it is unique in genre and perspective. It uses vivid imagery and a cosmic narrative to portray how God’s saving plan for all of creation will ultimately be realized.
A Grand Story
This very brief summary of the sixty-six books of the Bible barely scratches the surface.4 There are other issues to explore, such as how the Bible was formed, why some books were not included, and of course, how to read all these diverse books of the Bible. But scholars and Christians overwhelmingly agree: these sixty-six books are special. And they tell a grand story. Take a look and find out for yourself.
- If you are interested in reading the Bible in one year, visit YouVersion.com to see the various reading plans they offer.
- Richard A. Burridge, What Are the Gospels? A Comparison with Graeco-Roman Biography (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004).
- David B. Capes, et al., Rediscovering Paul: An Introduction to His World, Letters, and Theology (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2007).
- For a more comprehensive description of each book along with tips for how to read them, consult Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible Book by Book (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2002).
- Photo Credit: connel / Shutterstock.com.