The Bible is composed of 66 books written by over 40 authors over a period of 1500 years. Despite having many writers across different times and cultures, the Bible tells one unified story from Genesis to Revelation. As evangelical and charismatic Christians, it’s important we have a good understanding of how the Bible is organized so we can better comprehend God’s word.
- The Bible is divided into the Old Testament and New Testament with 39 and 27 books respectively.
- The Old Testament covers God’s interactions with humanity before Christ while the New Testament focuses on the life and teachings of Jesus.
- The Old Testament has five segments – the Pentateuch, Historical Books, Poetic Books, Major Prophets, and Minor Prophets.
- The New Testament contains the four Gospels, Acts, the Epistles, and Revelation.
- Chapters and verses were added later to allow for easier citation and cross-referencing.
- While the Bible contains many different literary forms, all Scripture is God-breathed and useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness (2 Timothy 3:16).
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Overview of the Old Testament
The Old Testament forms the first major division of the Christian Bible. It covers the history of the Jewish people and God’s revelations to them before the coming of Christ. In total, the Old Testament contains 39 books written between approximately 1400 BC and 400 BC.
The contents of the Old Testament originate from the Jewish Tanakh. The word Tanakh is an acronym made from the first Hebrew letter of each of the three major divisions – the Torah, Nevi’im, and Ketuvim. The Old Testament preserves much of this three-fold structure.
The 39 books of the Old Testament are typically grouped into five categories:
The Pentateuch – 5 Books
The Pentateuch, meaning ‘five scrolls’, contains the first five books of the Bible – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. These books are foundational to the rest of Scripture, establishing key theological concepts like creation, fall, redemption, covenant, law, sacrifice, holiness, and hope.
The Pentateuch provides an account of early human history from creation to the time of Moses. It includes stories about Adam and Eve, Noah’s ark, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, and the Israelites’ deliverance from Egypt and journey to the Promised Land.
These five books are traditionally said to have been written by Moses under divine inspiration. Many evangelical and charismatic Christians affirm Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch.
Historical Books – 12 Books
The 12 Historical Books detail the history of Israel from their entry into Canaan under Joshua to the rebuilding of Jerusalem after the Babylonian exile.
Key figures and events covered in these books include the judges (Deborah, Gideon, Samson), the rise of the monarchy with Saul, David and Solomon, the division of Israel and Judah, prophets like Elijah and Elisha, the Assyrian and Babylonian captivities, and the return from exile.
The Historical Books include Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1&2 Samuel, 1&2 Kings, 1&2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther.
Poetic Books – 5 Books
The five Poetic Books – Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs – contain Hebrew poetry and wise sayings.
Job grapples with the problem of human suffering. Psalms is a collection of songs, prayers, and poetry written to God. Proverbs gives wisdom and life lessons through short sayings. Ecclesiastes reflects philosophically on the meaning of life. Song of Songs celebrates romantic love between a man and woman – possibly Solomon and his bride.
These books provide inspiration, devotion, and reflection with beautiful poetic language. The book of Psalms is the most read and quoted Old Testament book in the New Testament.
Major Prophets – 5 Books
The five Major Prophets – Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel, and Daniel – are categorized based on the greater length of these prophetic books.
Isaiah spoke before the exile warning the people to turn from sin. Jeremiah prophesied closer to Judah’s fall, acting as a messenger, pastor, and weeping prophet. Lamentations mourns the destruction of Jerusalem at the hands of Babylon. Ezekiel encouraged Israel during the early part of the Babylonian exile. Daniel exemplified faith as an exile in Babylon, recording apocalyptic visions about the future.
Overall, the Major Prophets exposed Israel’s idolatry and unfaithfulness, warned of coming judgment, and called the people back to God. Their prophetic words centered around covenants, repentance, justice, and hopeful restoration.
Minor Prophets – 12 Books
The 12 Minor Prophets – Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi – are shorter prophetic books first grouped together by the early church father Jerome.
Like the Major Prophets, their messages rejected wickedness, warned of consequences, and urged repentance. But they also emphasized God’s compassion and promised future renewal.
Some of their prophecies have yet to be fulfilled and point ahead to the second coming of Christ. The Minor Prophets quoted frequently in the New Testament.
Overview of the New Testament
The New Testament contains 27 books composed between approximately AD 45-100. It recounts the life and teachings of Jesus, the growth of the early church, and instructive letters to early Christian communities. There are four main segments:
The Gospels – 4 Books
The four canonical gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – provide historical narratives about the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The word “gospel” literally means “good news.”
Matthew was one of the 12 apostles who quotes the Old Testament more than any other New Testament writer. Mark traveled with Paul and likely recorded Peter’s testimony about Jesus. Luke was a physician who aimed to write accurately and orderly. John the apostle provides a theological portrait of Jesus as the divine Son of God.
While each gospel has its own themes and purpose, together they testify to the incarnation, perfect life, atoning sacrifice, victorious resurrection and saving gospel of Jesus Christ.
Book of Acts – 1 Book
Acts chronicles the early history of the church after Christ’s ascension, focusing heavily on the missionary activities of the Apostles Peter and Paul. Some key events described in Acts include Pentecost and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, Stephen’s martyrdom, Paul’s conversion, the Jerusalem council, and Paul’s three missionary journeys.
Acts serves as an important historical record of the early church and the spread of Christianity in the 1st century. It demonstrates principles like Christian community, evangelism, discipleship and church planting that remain relevant today.
The Epistles – 21 Books
The New Testament contains 21 epistles or letters addressed to individuals and various churches. These letters contained instruction, encouragement, correction, and pastoral guidance to believers in the 1st century AD.
The Epistles are typically broken down into two categories – the 13 Pauline Epistles written by Paul and the 8 General Epistles written by other apostles.
Paul’s letters addressed pressing theological issues and provided practical wisdom for Christians living in a Greco-Roman culture. The general epistles dealt with problems like false teaching, perseverance through trials, patience in suffering, and the identification of genuine faith.
For modern readers, the New Testament Epistles directly apply to Christian living and church life today. They reveal invaluable inspired truth about salvation, sanctification, ethics, leadership, giving, and ministry.
Revelation – 1 Book
Revelation, sometimes called the Apocalypse, is the final book of the Bible written by the apostle John during his exile on the island of Patmos.
Revelation contains apocalyptic prophetic visions about the end times, future judgment, the second coming of Christ, the millennial kingdom, and the establishment of a new heaven and new earth. It provides hope to suffering Christians and warns about God’s coming wrath toward those who refuse to repent.
Some evangelical and charismatic Christians interpret parts of Revelation literally while others understand it symbolically. But all agree it promises the ultimate triumph of Jesus and assures that God will ultimately judge evil and rule over a renewed creation.
Later Organization and Structure
While the books of the Old and New Testament were written over centuries, additional structure was gradually added over time.
The division into chapters that we see today first appeared in Latin Bibles around AD 1200. Stephen Langton, a professor at the University of Paris, is attributed with chapter divisions which made citing and cross-referencing passages easier. These same chapter divisions were later added to Wycliffe’s English translation in 1388.
Individual verses as we know them emerged in 1551 from the work of Robert Estienne, a Parisian printer and scholar. Verses aided memorization, quotation, and finding small passages. Chapter and verse divisions were formally integrated into the 16th century Geneva Bible and became standard in virtually all Bible versions.
The practice of dividing the canon into the Old and New Testament also took place in second century. The church father Tertullian around AD 200 was the first to use the term New Testament in his writings. By the second and third century, Christians were using the phrase “Old Testament” to refer to Hebrew scriptures.
While there are natural divisions and groupings of content within the Bible, the separation into discrete books is not original. Individual biblical books often circulated separately before being compiled into collections. Their form was sometimes fluid and content could shift. Canonical lists of accepted books also varied in Judaism and the early church. The final 66 book canon largely came together during the patristic period and ecumenical councils of the fourth century.
Despite being composed by many authors across thousands of years, the Bible tells one grand narrative of God’s love and faithfulness to humanity. Its books are remarkably unified in theme, theology and purpose. As evangelical and charismatic Christians, we believe the full canon of Scripture is the inspired and authoritative word of God.
While chapters, verses, and other structures were added later, they help us to systematically study and apply the Bible. But we should keep in mind that the books of the Bible were intended to be read as whole literary units in community rather than fragmented pieces.
By understanding the overall composition of the Old and New Testament, we can gain better insight into the message and meaning of God’s word. The Bible stands forever as a testimony to God’s redemptive mission and His desire to draw all nations to Himself through Christ. May we marvel at its beauty and life-changing power.