The Bible is a big book that was written thousands of years ago. Where do I begin to read it? And, what does it mean for a reader today? Here’s a simple outline of the Bible’s structure. It can be divided into two sections. The portion written before the 400 years of silence is called the Old Testament and portion written afterwards the New Testament.
The books of Psalms to Song of Songs are Israelite wisdom and poetry. Most were written 1000 – 700 BC.
Where do I begin?
A history book or a story book is usually read from the beginning to the end. Stories usually begin with an introduction and then suspense builds up to a climax. The climax is the turning point of the story when the main problem is addressed. After the climax there is relief and it ends with a conclusion.
It’s probably best to begin by reading the introduction and the climax of the Bible.
The introduction of the Bible is a foundation for the rest of the Bible. So start with Genesis chapters 1 to 11. It begins with God creating a perfect universe (Gen. 1-2). But then the first couple, Adam and Eve, disobey God (Gen. 3), which brings conflict and evil into the world. This sinful pattern of behavior and its impact is demonstrated by the events described in the rest of the Old Testament. It is a characteristic of humanity that doesn’t change.
Because of their disobedience and wickedness, God punished mankind with a global flood (Gen. 6-9) and by dispersing people across the earth into different languages and nations (Gen. 10-11).
The climax is when God solves the problem of people’s sinfulness. He does this by coming to the earth and taking the punishment that we all deserve. There are four separate accounts of the life of Jesus Christ: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. It’s a good idea to read Mark first because it is the shortest.
The Bible’s climax has two plot twists. Firstly, Jesus’ followers believe He is the Messiah, but their hopes are dashed when instead of setting up His kingdom on earth, He is executed as a criminal. So their great expectations are replaced by grief and loss. Secondly, a few days after His burial Jesus miraculously resurrects back to life and the grief and loss is replaced with joy! What a dramatic fluctuation in emotions!
What’s the main theme?
The Bible is all about God’s solution to the problem of people’s sinfulness. This is God’s promise or God’s rescue plan. It is fulfilled in the history of Israel, from Abraham, Isaac and Jacob to king David and to Jesus Christ, the promised Messiah. It is now fulfilled in the Christian church, which includes all nations. In the future it will be fulfilled in the resurrection of God’s people and the restoration of creation back to its original state.
What does it mean?
In order to understand the original meaning of a passage of Scripture it’s good to know who it was written to. For example, the Old Testament was written to Jews living in Palestine, whereas Paul’s letters were written to Christians living around the Mediterranean Sea. It also helps to know where it occurs in the sequence of events shown in the table. For example, was it written before or after Jesus was on earth? The context is also important – what happens before and afterward the passage?
Other questions can be asked, such as – What does it say about God? What does it say about humanity?
What’s its conclusion?
Choose-your-own-path adventure story books and video games have multiple endings. At the end of each chapter/episode, there is a choice between various options, which determines the path taken and the eventual ending of the story.
The Bible has two conclusions. They are heaven (Rev. 21:9 – 22:5) or the lake of fire (hell) (Rev. 20:15). Which one will you choose as your destiny?
Written, January 2015
Apart from flashbacks, it’s best to watch a video or read a story in chronological order from the beginning to the end. Did you know that some of the books of the Bible are not listed in chronological order? The message of the Bible was revealed progressively over a period of about 1,500 years. Some time ago I prepared a calendar to help read the whole Bible in one year, the “Bible in one year calendar”, which was based on the order of the books in our Bibles. Let’s look at the events described in the Bible in the sequence they occurred historically.
The books of most Bibles are arranged according to categories:
- Pentateuch (is also history) – Genesis to Deuteronomy
- History – Joshua to Esther
- Poetry – Job to Song of Songs
- Prophetic – Isaiah to Malachi
- Gospel – Matthew to John
- History – Acts
- Letters (Revelation is also prophetic) – Romans to Revelation
As the poets, prophets and letter writers wrote at particular times in history, the events they relate to may be recorded elsewhere in the Bible. A chronological Bible moves these writings nearer to their place in the historical account.
When were they written?
The Old Testament took about 1,000 years to write (1400 BC to 400 BC), whereas the New Testament took about 50 years to write (50AD to 100 AD). The chronological order of the books of the Bible according to when they were written is given below. These estimated dates of writing are based on current scholarship and because of uncertainties, they are often rounded. They give a general indication of when each book was written; it’s impossible to be more precise. Of course some books may have been written over a period of several years.
Biblical events in historical order
The Biblical writers describe events both before and after they occurred historically. Sometimes an event is predicted (like in the prophets) and sometimes an event is described afterwards or the record may be edited some time afterwards.
Three approaches have been used in chronological Bibles to place the recorded events in the order they actually occurred. These are based on the size of the portion of Scripture that is moved:
- “Whole books”, which has the advantage of preserving the context of the writings within each book. This is the simplest approach.
- “Whole chapters”, which enables the chapters to be placed more accurately in time order. For example, Job is within Genesis, individual psalms are placed within historical books, events in the gospels are cross-referenced and Paul’s letters are integrated within Acts.
- “Subdivided chapters”, which enables portions within chapters to be placed more accurately in time order. This is the most complex approach. For example see the “One year Chronological Bible” by Tyndale House Publishers. “Cover to cover complete” (CWR, 2012) is a more complicated version, which is based on “The Reese Chronological Bible” (1977).
A chronological Bible reading calendar
I have edited my “Bible in one year calendar” by placing the books in chronological order according to the events they describe. It is based on “whole books”, except the book of Job is placed between Genesis 12 and 13. This enables you to read the events in the general order they occurred historically. As this is based on current scholarship, the order differs slightly from the other chronological Bibles available on the internet. Another difference is that two passages are given each day, one from the Old Testament and one from the New Testament–Otherwise you would only be reading from the Old Testament for at least 70% of the year.
This enables the prophetic books to be read in historical order. The main distinction between these is: those written before the Babylonian exile; those written during the Babylonian exile; and those written after the Babylonian exile.
Written, January 2014
Bible Timeline image – 720 pixels.
(Drawn by MJ of Scotland, UK, 2009)
Written, January 2014
Also see: A new Bible timeline