The Bible. It’s literally the number one bestseller of books for all of human history. It is the grounding text of our Catholic faith. We believe and profess that it is the very Word of God.
But it’s also an enormously large book running for thousands of pages with a whole collection of different styles and genres, often with small print and markings for chapters and verses, not to mention all kinds of notes on the bottom of every page. In other words, it can be a bit overwhelming.
The goal of this article is to make the Bible feel a little less intimidating by providing answers to some overarching questions. Keep in mind that you could take entire graduate courses on just one book of the Bible and each of the questions below would require a lot more to answer in full. This article is simply meant to be a starting point to help you feel more familiar with the basics of the Bible and more comfortable picking it up.
What’s in the Bible?
Let’s start by understanding what’s included in the Bible. We refer to the Bible like it is a single book, but it’s probably more helpful to think about it as a library. The Bible is actually a collection of various “books” written over several centuries by many different authors.
There is a great diversity among the books of the Bible. The creation story in Genesis is a form of mythology. Sections of Deuteronomy read like legal code. The book of Chronicles is basically a historical record. The Psalms are poetic songs. The Gospels tell us the story of Jesus and his life. St. Paul’s letter to the Romans is packed with dense theology. The last book of the Bible, Revelation, is an example of apocalyptic literature. Whew! Think about how many different literary genres that encompasses. And that’s just to name a handful of the books of the Bible!
So, when you read a passage from the Bible, or if you hear something from Scripture that catches your attention, a good first question to ask is “where is this coming from?” Which book of the Bible? And what literary form or genre characterizes that book? That can help set the context for what you are reading.
When was the Bible written?
This is not an easy question! The oldest books of the Bible might have been written anywhere from 1400 to 1000 BC, a huge span of time and long before the life of Jesus. And the most recent books of the Bible (like the Gospels and Paul’s letters) were written in the first seventy years after Jesus’s death (50-100 AD). Scripture scholars have lots of debates over the dating of when the different books of the Bible were written, so there’s not always agreement on these points. But it’s worth noting that the Bible we know today was slowly written and accumulated over time, literally over more than a thousand years.
Many of the stories that are included in the Bible began first as oral tradition: stories that are told and retold within a community. The actual writing down of the stories often occurred years, or even centuries after the events took place. For example, Abraham, who first made a covenant with God as recounted in the book of Genesis, probably lived sometime between 2000-1700 BC. And the stories of his life were told over and over again across generations. But the earliest books in the Bible that include these stories in writing were probably first written down in script hundreds of years later.
When we hear that the stories of the Bible began as oral tradition, our temptation can be to doubt their accuracy. “If they were written down so many years later, what if people wrote the story down wrong?” But oral tradition deserves more credit than that. When stories are told over and over again, they become extremely familiar. So familiar, that people would stop you if you started to get the details wrong.
Think about the story of the Three Little Pigs. If I started that story and said, “A big bad Bear came looking for the three little pigs,” you would stop me right away. “It’s the big bad Wolf!” And if I said that the last pig made his house out of plastic, you’d give me a funny look. “He made it out of bricks!” See how reliable oral tradition can be!
After first being passed down as oral tradition, the books of the Bible were eventually written down, but this took place over the course of many centuries.
So who actually wrote the Bible?
As you can imagine, since the books of the Bible were written over more than a thousand years, there is not just one single author of the Bible. Or is there?
The Church has always asserted that the contents of Scripture have been committed to writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, and thus they have God as their author.1 That’s your one author of the Bible! This is why we profess the Scriptures as the Word of God.
But the Church also acknowledges that God chose human authors to physically write down the words of Scripture. It was actual people, after all, who put pen to paper and wrote this all down. While they were inspired by the Holy Spirit, they were true authors who wrote in their own language and style. And not just one person: dozens of authors from across the centuries.
In fact, many of the authors are not clearly known. Tradition used to hold that the first five books of the Bible were written by Moses, but modern scholarship has moved away from that belief. (After all, the end of the book of Deuteronomy includes the story of Moses’ death!2) Among the dozen or so letters attributed to St. Paul in the New Testament, there is much scholarly disagreement over which ones were definitely written by Paul, and which ones were likely written by his close followers and attributed to him.
Studying the authorship of the books of the Bible is important work for Scripture scholars, because understanding the authors helps to better understand the work itself. But we know and profess through our faith that the Holy Spirit has inspired the entirety of Scripture, with its varied cast of human authors, as a means of revealing God to us.
Everything in the Bible is true, right?
Yes! And…not exactly?
First and foremost, the Church upholds that the Bible is accurate when it concerns matters of faith. The key document from Vatican II on Scriptures, Dei Verbum, summarizes it this way:
“Since everything asserted by the inspired authors or sacred writers must be held to be asserted by the Holy Spirit, it follows that the books of Scripture must be acknowledged as teaching solidly, faithfully and without error that truth which God wanted put into sacred writings for the sake of salvation.”3
So yes, everything in the Bible is without error in what God wants us to have for the sake of our salvation.
Still, that doesn’t mean we have to adopt a fundamentalist approach to the Bible by taking every part literally. When the first chapter of Genesis says that God created the world in seven days, it’s important to treat this story as a creation myth. It reveals truth about God and the act of creation. It is not an historical account of the creation of the universe. This is why acknowledging the literary genre can be so important for Scriptural interpretation.
And it’s also important to remember that the Bible is not fundamentally a history book. It’s more about communicating stories than providing precise dates and details. Now, there is historical and archeological evidence for some of the events of the Bible. For example, a stone slab acknowledges the “House of David,” an ancient seal attests to the existence of the prophet Isaiah, and the Roman-Jewish historian Josephus refers to Jesus.4 For other events, there are no other ancient texts that correspond. It could be that things weren’t written down, or that the writings have been lost to time. So, it’s quite complicated, which is why there are many Biblical scholars who dedicate their work to the historical analysis of the Bible.
Ultimately, the reason we read the Bible in our life of faith is not to learn about world history anyway. The Bible is revelatory: it reveals God to us. The reason we read the Bible is to know and have an experience of God. So, let that guide your reading. Instead of asking, “did this event happen exactly the way it’s told in this story,” ask yourself, “what does this story tell me about God?” And, “What does this story say to me and my life of faith today?” Those questions are more helpful for developing your relationship with God through the Word of God that is the Bible.
How is the Bible organized?
We have already covered the fact that the Bible is more like a library than a single book. So how are those books organized?
The most basic division to understand in the Bible is the split between what Christians call the “Old Testament” and the “New Testament.”
The Old Testament is also referred to as the “Hebrew Scriptures,” because it is the principal text of the Jewish faith. It is the Scripture that Jesus would have known and read in his life. The Old Testament is about three-quarters of the content of the Bible: there’s a lot there. And the books within it were written over about a thousand years.
Let’s do a quick run-through of the categories of books in the Old Testament:
- Pentateuch: these are the first five books of the Bible beginning with Genesis. The Pentateuch starts with the creation stories, tells the story of Abraham and his covenant with God, the descent into Egypt, and the life of Moses. The Pentateuch ends with Moses’ death at the end of the book of Deuteronomy.
- Historical Books: the Pentateuch is followed by the historical books that recount the return of the people of Israel to the promised land and their subsequent history, like the reign of King David.
- Poetical Books or Wisdom Literature: these books are less narrative in their content, like Psalms and Proverbs.
- Prophetic Books: these feature the major prophets that you might be familiar with (Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, Isaiah- whose first letters spell out “Jedi”…coincidence??) and a group of a dozen minor prophets that are certainly less well known (anyone familiar with Obadiah, Nahum, or Habakkuk??).
As you can see, that’s a lot of books!
The New Testament is significantly shorter, and it was written in a much smaller window of time (a span of around fifty years). Let’s run through the categories of books in the New Testament:
- Gospels: the first four books are the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John… “hold the horse while I get on” (a helpful rhyme used to remember the order). The Gospels tell the story of Jesus. There is lots of overlap between them, but some stories are only captured in one or two (only Matthew and Luke tell stories about Jesus’ birth; only John has the washing of the disciples’ feet at the Last Supper). So it helps us to have all four of them to paint a broader picture of Jesus’ life. Just one Gospel isn’t enough!
- Acts of the Apostles: this book was written by the same author as the Gospel of Luke. Acts tells the story of the early church after Jesus’ ascension into heaven. It is the story of Peter, Paul, and other early disciples spreading the message of Jesus around the world.
- Epistles: next comes a series of epistles (or letters). Most of them are letters written by St. Paul to a particular community (his letters to the Thessalonians, Corinthians, Romans, etc.). Scholars debate the authors of many of the epistles, as mentioned previously, so some of the ones that are attributed to Paul might have been written by other early disciples. Plus we have a handful of epistles written in other names, like the letters of James, Peter, and John.
- Revelation: the final book of the Bible is the book of Revelation. It belongs to a specific genre of writing called apocalyptic literature, in which an author details visions of the end times or the end of an age. These visions are often based on historical events, like the persecution of Roman emperors against the church at the time the book of Revelation was written.
There’s only one Bible, right?
It’s the all-time best seller, so you might assume there’s only one version of the Bible, right? Unfortunately, that is not the case. There are two differences between Bibles. First, which books are included. Second, which translation is used.
First, let’s talk about which books are in the Bible. “Canon” is a fancy word we use for this. The Christian Bible ranges from 73 books in the Roman Catholic canon to 66 books in most Protestant Bibles. All Christians, Protestant and Catholic, include the same 27 books in the New Testament. So why the difference?
The Catholic Bible includes some books that were not in the Hebrew Scriptures (the Old Testament), because they were written after the prophets and before Jesus. This includes books like Wisdom and Maccabees. The Catholic Church includes seven of these books as part of its canon (called the “deuterocanonical books”). Many Protestant churches place fourteen of these books in a separate section called the “Apocrypha”, which are considered outside of the official canon of 66 books, but are still considered helpful for instruction in the faith.
The second question is the issue of translation. If you pick up any Bible, you will scroll through the passages and see everything in the same language. But it wasn’t written that way. Three languages are recognized as the original biblical languages: Hebrew, Aramaic, and ancient Greek.
So to get the Bible into English, for example, you have to translate all the books from ancient languages. And thank goodness for the people who do that! (I’m not sure how your Hebrew is, but mine is nonexistent.) There is a lot of work and debate that goes into translation.
Some translations take a more word-for-word literal approach. Others try to take a more dynamic approach that captures the sentiment in one language and attempts to capture it in the translated language. For example, the New American Bible translates 1 Peter 1:13 literally from the Greek: “Therefore, gird up the loins of your mind.” But wait: our minds don’t have loins! Turns out this is an ancient expression that means to prepare yourself. A literal translation remains true to the original text, but it leaves it up to the reader to correctly interpret the expression. In contrast, the New Revised Standard Version translates that same passage: “Therefore prepare your minds for action.” This more dynamic approach is not an exact translation of the original, but it attempts to give the modern reader a faithful interpretation of what was intended by the author. As you can see, there are advantages and disadvantages to both approaches.
The Catholic Church has a list of approved translations into English. The readings that you hear at Mass are taken from the New American Bible, which is one of the approved English-language Bibles.
Can we add to the Bible?
The simple answer is no. The Catholic canon is closed, which is to say that no books will be added to it. The books that are included have been read, prayed, and accepted by the Church for centuries as revelatory of God’s activity in our world.
It’s true that other epistles/letters were written in ancient time, along with other Gospels. But the early Church never embraced them as revelatory in the way that it embraced the books that are included in the canon.
Thankfully, a closed canon doesn’t mean that God’s activity and revelation in the world has ceased. As Catholics, we place great value in the complementary role of tradition and Church teaching, which also comes from the guidance and inspiration of the Holy Spirit. “Sacred tradition, Sacred Scripture, and the teaching authority of the Church, in accord with God’s most wise design, are so linked and joined together that one cannot stand without the others.”5
So while the Bible will never be added to, there are still important church teachings that have emerged in subsequent centuries. For example, Catholic Social Teaching is the collection of teachings on social issues that have emerged over the past 130 years. Much of the teaching is recent, but it relies heavily on Scripture along with teachings that cover the centuries of Church tradition. Scripture, tradition, and church teaching never stand alone.
There you go! Those are some basics of the Bible. It might be intimidating to first dive into the Bible. But as the Word of God, it’s worth exploring, reading, and taking to prayer.
The Bible can help facilitate an encounter with God for you, as it has for countless others over the centuries. Give it a chance.
- Dei Verbum, 11 ↩
- Deut 34:1-12 ↩
- Dei Verbum, 11 ↩
- See other examples of evidence that supports events in the Bible. ↩
- Dei Verbum, 9 ↩