The Bible is the best-selling book of all time. Historians agree that since the emergence of modern printing techniques in the fifteenth century, the Bible has been translated, printed, distributed, and sold more widely than any other book in history.1
But what is the Bible? How would you describe it?
Views on the Bible Today
Despite its past popularity, many today are skeptical of its reliability and relevance. They consider the Bible’s contents outdated, inconsequential, confining, and simply not worth reading. It’s an ancient document with superstitious tales that have nothing to do with modern life. Or it’s an archaic book of rules for religious fundamentalists—a list of black-and-white dos and don’ts that are arbitrary, old-fashioned, narrow, and just plain unreasonable. Much like Christianity itself.
No one wants to read a book like that.
These views are partly right: The Bible is indeed an ancient book with some strange and often downright unbelievable stories. And it certainly does contain some of what we might call “rules.”
Yet those descriptions are in danger of limiting the unique text that is the Bible, exchanging what it truly is for what people have made it to be. Is it possible that there’s more to the Bible than rules and tall tales? In order to answer that question honestly, we must first understand what the Bible truly is.
A Diverse Collection
First of all, the Bible is a collection of diverse books. Simply put, unlike most literature, the Bible is not one book written by one author during one time period. Rather, the Bible is a collection of sixty-six distinctive books composed by numerous writers over hundreds of years.
As you think of the Bible more as a collection or library of different books, recognize that each book was written under unique circumstances and for unique reasons. This means that the writing styles and types of literature included therein are extremely diverse. In fact, scholars categorize the different types of literature in the Bible into several genres2:
- Historical narrative: stories about historical people and events
- Poems or songs: lyrics, songs, and prayers that express emotions and ideas using distinctive language, literary styles, and rhythm
- Prophecy: poetic messages conveying divine blessing or judgment on people and calling for a response from them
- Letters: written by one or more individuals to others, often addressing specific issues
- Proverbs and wisdom literature: pithy sayings or discourses about living life well and making wise choices
- Legal codes: laws—both general and specific—for ordering a just society
- Parables: imaginative stories that relate to life and illustrate a point
- Apocalyptic literature: writings that have to do with end times, including vivid portrayal of the cosmic battle between good and evil
The Bible contains passages and whole books in each of these distinctive genres, which explains why some parts are boring (legal codes) and others beautiful (poetry). But how does it all go together?
On the surface, these collected documents tell us about the history of Israel from roughly 2000 BCE up to the life of Jesus and the movement he started in the first century CE. But a broader perspective reveals a second important aspect for understanding this bestseller.
A Grand Story about God
When looked at as a whole, the Bible tells a grand story about God and humanity. It begins with God’s creation of a good world and humanity in his image; it ends with God living with humanity for all eternity. In between, the Bible recounts the story of God’s redemption and restoration of a creation marred by sin and brokenness.
God’s plan for humanity includes in large part the nation of Israel, a group of people he rescued from slavery in Egypt to be an example to the world—a people now commonly known as the Jews. The entirety of the Old Testament—also known as the Hebrew Bible—is devoted to the story of the Israelites.
The legal codes order Israel’s society to be both gracious and prosperous. The historical narratives reveal their successes and failures in accomplishing God’s will. Sages offered their wisdom, while the songs of the nation were sung from one generation to another, displaying the raw emotions of both brokenness and redemption. Prophets called out to the people and predicted the consequences if their messages were ignored—consequences that the historical narratives do indeed record as having happened.
At the center of God’s plan for humanity stands the Messiah, God’s agent to restore his people and repair his world. The Old Testament is filled with prophecies predicting the Messiah’s coming, while the New Testament tells how Jesus came as the Messiah to be the way of salvation for Israel and all humanity.
The historical narratives of the New Testament—especially the four Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—tell us how Jesus accomplished this through his life, death, and resurrection. These and various letters also recount how an increasing number of people put their trust in Jesus and began to change the world through a movement that would come to be known as Christianity. Their letters to one another reflect their new understandings of God’s plan for humanity and how life should be lived. The final book of the Bible—Revelation—tells us how that plan will be consummated.
One thing the Bible doesn’t do is defend itself. It makes statements about the nature of the Scriptures—that they are God-breathed, eternal, and useful—but other than that, the Bible lets the text stand on its own. The Bible never really argues for the existence of God; it assumes it. Nor does it address questions of whether its stories are true or historically reliable; it assumes that too. Others have debated such questions and offered their own wisdom and opinions. But there is one more significant quality of the Bible to consider.
The Bible is indeed a grand story, but ultimately—and perhaps most importantly—the Bible is about you. It does not claim to be just about God’s activity in the world. It is more personal than that. The Bible is the story of God’s activity in the world to rescue you from your sin and brokenness.
This is why many people call the Bible God’s Word. “And when you read God’s Word,” suggested philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, “you must constantly be saying to yourself, ‘It is talking to me, and about me.’”
- For more on the popularity and legacy of the King James Version of the Bible specifically, see Leland Ryken, “How We Got the Best-Selling Book of All Time,” The Wall Street Journal, August 29, 2011, http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424053111903918104576502782310557332.
- For more comprehensive descriptions of these genres, consult Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, 3rd. ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2003).
- Photo Credit: I. Grasbergs / Shutterstock.com.