Everything that Christians believe and do is shaped by a collection of documents written two to three thousand years ago. The Bible tells the story of the life of Jesus and his first followers. It also recounts the history of the Jewish people in the centuries that came before Jesus, and has writings about what it means in practice to be faithful to God. In every century since it was compiled, the Bible has been studied and interpreted so that Christians can work out its changing relevance to each new generation.
The Bible is a book of 66 documents in two sections. 27 of the documents were written during the decades after Jesus. They contain his biography, and also recount what his first followers did in response to his extraordinary life. 39 of them were written before the time of Jesus and describe the history of the Jewish people. Jesus (who was a Jew) knew these writings well and quoted them as if they referred to him. There are other documents which are regarded as part of the Bible by some Christians but not others.
The New Testament is the shorter of two sections. In today’s published editions it appears as the final third of the Bible. The documents in it (usually known as ‘books’) were written in Greek between 20 and 60 years after Jesus’ resurrection. None of the original manuscripts have survived, but they were copied and copied with painstaking accuracy. The earliest handwritten fragments of the Bible date back to about 90 years after Jesus.
During the second century the books of the New Testament circulated among Christians. Alongside them were other books whose value was questioned. Over the course of time it became increasingly clear that the 27 published in Bibles today were authentic and had authority. At an international conference of Christian leaders held in North Africa at the end of the fourth century it was decided that these could be trusted as being inspired by God. They are:
These are four biographies of Jesus. They are named after Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, although it is not straightforward to work out who wrote them. Gospel means ‘good news’.
The Acts of the Apostles
Known as ‘Acts’ for short, this was composed by the writer of Luke’s gospel as a sequel. It relates how the followers of Jesus banded together as a church, and then became a movement that expanded rapidly through the known world.
These are sometimes called ‘epistles’. Thirteen of them are attributed to a Christian leader named Paul, who energetically spread the news of Jesus. They were written to churches he founded on the north coast of the Mediterranean Sea, or to their leaders. Another eight were written by other significant leaders.
The final book of the Bible is the Revelation to John – a collection of letters, visions and flamboyant symbolism.
The Old Testament
The Old Testament (otherwise known as the Hebrew Scriptures) occupies the first two-thirds of the Bible. Not only Christians, but also Jews, regard it as sacred. The books in it were written in Hebrew 200 to 500 years before the birth of Jesus. Parts of it existed many years before that, but were brought together by editors during those centuries.
The books of the Old Testament include histories, songs (or ‘psalms’), prophecies, ancient laws (which include those known as ‘the ten commandments’), poetry, wise sayings and timeless stories (or ‘myths’).
The list of Old Testament books regarded as authentic has always fluctuated more than those of the New Testament. They were translated into Greek two centuries before Jesus. At that point, about 20 were translated in addition to those already mentioned. These are known as the Apocrypha. They appear in some Bibles but not in others. Some Christian groups regard these as part of their Scripture. Others regard them as helpful and interesting, but not having the same authority as the rest of the Bible.
What the Bible says about it
An extract from the Bible:
The word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.
Where to find it:
About these words:
From a letter to Jews who had converted to Christianity, perhaps thirty years after the life of Jesus. ‘The word of God’ is used at various times to describe the Bible, Jesus himself, and the whole of God’s revelation to the world.
And they said…
Lee Mack, comedian:
I think it’s quite odd that people like myself, in their forties, are quite happy to dismiss the Bible but have never read it.
Daniel Sturridge, Liverpool and England footballer:
[My most prized possession] is probably my Bible. It’s important to me because I am very religious. I believe that you have to pray, as well as work hard, in order to get what you want in life. When I was growing up I prayed every morning and night – and I still do that today.
Melvyn Bragg, writer and broadcaster:
[The Bible is] a poetic way of attempting to understand what may be for ever incomprehensible.
Euan Murray, Worcester Warriors and Scotland rugby union player:
I believe the Bible is the Word of God, so who am I to ignore something from it? I might as well tear out that page, and then keep tearing out pages as and when it suits me. If I started out like that there would soon be nothing left.
Elton John, singer and songwriter:
I love the idea of the teachings of Jesus Christ and the beautiful stories about it, which I loved in Sunday school. I collected all the little stickers and put them in my book. But the reality is that organised religion doesn’t seem to work. It turns people into hateful lemmings.
Vincent van Gogh, 1853-1890, artist:
It is a very good thing that you read the Bible. The Bible is Christ … principal certainty, eternal life, the infinity of time, the nothingness of death, the necessity and the raison d’être of serenity and devotion. He lived serenely, as a greater artist than all other artists, despising marble and clay as well as colour, working in living flesh.