"The Bible... sets out God's rescue plan for humanity"
The Bible is a fundamental part of the Christian faith. Christians believe it is inspired by God himself – it is His message to all people. At first sight, the Bible is a complex book but finding your way around is easier once you know how it fits together. The Bible is actually a collection of 66 books written by about 40 different authors over 1,500 years. Together, they set out God’s rescue plan for humanity.
All but the very shortest books are divided into chapters and verses. The writers include kings, peasants, philosophers, fishermen, poets and scholars. Although the authors were human, Christians believe God was the inspiration. The Bible is relevant for modern-day life but readers need to interpret it carefully and understand the context of what they are reading.
There is a variety of styles within the books: many are historical accounts of events and people, others are letters. There are also books of laws and regulations, songs, poetry and wise sayings. Many Bible phrases and sayings crop up in our everyday language, for example: ‘Good Samaritan’; ‘scapegoat’; ‘bite the dust’; ‘heart’s desire’ and ‘from strength to strength’.
The Bible is divided into two parts called the Old Testament and the New Testament. They are closely linked: teaching in the New Testament often links back to the Old Testament whereas events in the Old Testament often foreshadow or point ahead to the New Testament. For example, there are many prophetic writings in the Old Testament which refer to a coming Messiah who will rescue the Jewish people. These are references to Jesus Christ, the founder of Christianity, also known as the Son of God.
Jesus regularly referred to Old Testament writings. In the book of Matthew at the start of the New Testament he is quoted saying ‘I have not come to abolish (the law and prophets of the Old Testament) but to fulfil them’.
The Old Testament
The Old Testament comprises the first 39 of the 66 books. Most of it is the story of the Hebrews or Jewish people from around 2000 BC to around 400 BC. The first five books are the foundation of the Jewish faith and have a special name – the Torah.
The Old Testament is regarded as sacred by the Jewish people. It was originally written in Hebrew. For generations, the Jews painstakingly made copies of the texts to hand on, destroying the old manuscripts. The earliest surviving manuscripts, the Dead Sea Scrolls, date back to the first century BC.
The New Testament
The New Testament, which follows on, is made up of 27 books. It starts with the birth of Jesus Christ, the founder of Christianity, in around 5BC. It tells the story of Jesus’ life, his death by crucifixion and his resurrection, or coming back to life. The rest of the New Testament tells about the early days of the Christian Church. The final book of the New Testament, Revelation, was written around 90AD. It is very different in style, using apocalyptic imagery.
The New Testament was written in Greek. None of the original manuscripts have survived. The earliest handwritten fragments date back to about 130AD and the first full manuscripts to 350AD.
Can we be sure of the New Testament’s authenticity?
Scholars have great confidence in the accuracy and authenticity of the New Testament because of a science called textural criticism which looks at the age and number of documents. Put simply, the smaller the gap between the date of the original documents and the date of copies we have, the more likely they are to be accurate. Another factor is the number of copies – more copies increases the likelihood of authenticity.
Compare the New Testament with a classic historical work like Caesar’s ‘Gallic War’. The earliest copy of ‘Gallic War’ dates from 950 years after the original – and only about 10 copies exist. The earliest New Testament manuscripts we have were written 350 years after the original – and we have over 24,000 copies.
The Bible is not the only source of evidence about the existence of Jesus Christ. He was also written about by the Roman historians Tacitus and Suetonius and also by Josephus, a Jewish historian.
Agreeing the structure of the Bible
During the second century, the 27 books we now know as the New Testament circulated among Christians. Alongside them were other books whose value was questioned. An international gathering of Christian leaders held in North Africa at the end of the fourth century settled which books were authentic and could be trusted as inspired by God.
The Old Testament as we know it now was brought together by editors up to 500 years before Jesus was born, although much of it was far older.
Some additional writings, called the Apocrypha, date from the Old Testament era to the time of Jesus and are included in some Bibles. Some Christians regard them as part of the Bible. Others believe these writings are helpful and interesting but don’t have the same authority as the rest of the Bible.