Christian Essentials -101: The Bible – History and Structure

The Bible

I. History and Structure

What is the Bible? It is often referred to as the good book. Yet, it is not a book in any modern sense. The Bible is more akin to an encyclopedia or anthology, a volume within which a number of quite separate entries sit side by side. Their common theme is our human experience of God’s invitation to enter into faithful relationship together, and the struggles this entails. Although this is the common theme throughout the Bible, the way human beings and human communities understand and respond to God is dictated by context, i.e. time period, social values, and contemporary challenges.

The Old Testament

Otherwise known as the Hebrew Scriptures, the Old Testament is the textual record of the relationship between the God Yahweh and the Hebrew-Jewish people. The first five books: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy are known in Judaism as the Torah and believed to be from the original hand of Moses. The Torah comprises a Hebrew history of creation and the development of the nation out of the covenant God makes with Abraham, who becomes the father of the nation. It traces events through the lives of Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph, collectively known as the Patriarchs. The relationship between the Patriarchs is pictured as son, grandson, and great grandson of Abraham. The second half of Genesis is concerned with the great story cycles of the lives of the Patriarchs and ends with that of Joseph. Joseph was Jacob’s favorite son. Because of this, his brothers envied him and into slavery in Egypt. This is the story at the center of the well-known folk opera Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.  Being a resourceful man Joseph eventually rises to the position of Prime Minister to Pharaoh. To save them from famine he later invites his family and kin to come and live with him in Egypt. This brings us to end of the Book of Genesis.

The first chapter of Exodus opens with a genealogy of the descendants of Jacob. Then the ominous words in verse 7 – A new king arose in Egypt, who did not know Joseph. The Hebrews become enslaved because their numbers threaten the Egyptians. Many generations pass and the next great figure to emerge is Moses. So begins the Moses story cycle. Moses becomes the liberator of the people leading them from slavery in Egypt into the Promised Land. This is not a direct journey. Between leaving Egypt and arriving in Canaan the Israelites wander for 40 years in Sinai. It is on Mount Sinai that God renews his covenant with the people by instructing Moses in the Law. The Law was transcribed on tablets of stone, which we know as The Ten Commandments. The books of Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy are concerned with the development of religion and society founded on the application of the Ten Commandments. They are books of legal regulations, commentary, and sermon on how the Israelites are to worship God and structure their lives in community. Scholars believe that although the Torah was traditionally attributed to Moses, the texts are the later written form of earlier oral traditions, compiled organized, and edited between 1000 – 800BC.

The Torah comprises only a small section of the Old Testament as we have it in the Bible. In addition there are books recording the history of the Jewish people: Joshua, Judges, 1 & 2 Samuel, 1 & 2 Kings 1 & 2 Chronicles. Each book is an interpretation of the central stories concerning Moses and the emergence of the Hebrews as a unified people, living in the land of Canaan. The third category of writing concerns the books of the Prophets. Though not part of the Torah they represent what in Jesus’ day was known as the oral tradition, which chronicles the struggle God and the people have in staying in relationship together.  Two other major categories of literature make up the rest of the Old Testament. The Wisdom books of the Proverbs, Ecclesiasticus, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs represent a form of philosophical writing popular throughout the ancient Middle East and not original to Israel. In Wisdom, God takes on a feminine characteristic as a personification of wisdom. The Book of Psalms, is technically Wisdom literature, but is better thought of as the hymn book of the court of King David. The last type of literature is found in the apocalyptic books such as Esther and Daniel, although apocalyptic material can be found in several of the major prophets. Apocalypse means revelation and these are books that feature dreams and mystical events. The New Testament book of Revelation is part of this literary tradition. See my later comment on the Apocrypha in the section on the New Testament.

A major characteristic of Hebrew Scripture was the way the books were edited over and over again through the passage of time. Each editing reflects a need to update the themes of the writing in the light of a new national crisis. In this way the Hebrews understood Scripture to be a living and evolving tradition in contrast to some Christian approaches which see Scripture as a static and timeless tradition. The difference between these two forms of tradition is that where static timeless tradition requires contemporary society to conform to it. Living and evolving tradition conforms to meet contemporary needs. In this sense the Hebrews understood that their Scripture could speak directly to the needs of the time. Consistency, historical or literal accuracy were not important concepts for the ancients. The books of the Old Testament not only contradict one another but some books preserve parallel and often incompatible narratives, for instance in chapters 1 and 2 of Genesis and the stories of Noah and the flood – again, there are two of them.

Why do we need the Old Testament?

Christians from the outset have argued over the relevance and importance to be accorded the Hebrew Scriptures. Christian fundamentalists claim that everything in the Old and New Testaments is the divinely dictated Word of God and so everything carries equal importance. Yet, not even fundamentalists can seriously operate on this basis. The more consistent position of historic Christianity towards the Old Testament’s authority distinguishes between the over arching themes, through which God communicates God’s longing for a faithful relationship with humanity, and culturally embedded texts that reflect the attitudes and structures of a particular society, or a particular stage in the evolution of Hebrew Society. Therefore, to take instructions offered in Leviticus as applicable to our contemporary social context is highly inappropriate and ineffectual. An example of this is where fundamentalists see the sexual injunctions in Leviticus 18 as relating to the modern experience of homosexuality, yet disregard the other injunctions that dictate the stoning of wives and daughters who stray from confinement during menstruation.

Looking at the development of the God’s identity and image over-time, from the wrathful and jealous God of Moses, to the compassionate God of Jesus, we might be led to suppose that God evolves with time. We grappled with this question in our first session when we looked at the question: Who is God? Perhaps the answer is maybe God evolves, maybe not, how can we know? What the scriptural record does show is that human understandings of who God is do evolve over time, as human society evolves in its complexity.

The common view to the authority of the Old Testament held by mainline Christians today recognizes its integrity as a narrative record of the relationship between God and the Children of Israel down through the ages to the birth of Jesus. With the birth of Jesus the Old Testament loses its authority as binding law for Christians. For instance the Ten Commandments have been incorporated and superseded by Jesus teaching on the two Great Commandments: to love God and love our neighbor as one self. Christians revere the Old Testament as the longer-range historical context out of which Christianity evolves. It’s our back-story! Into this back-story we read the lines of the development that emerge in Christianity. Jesus’ identity is revealed for the first Christians in the prophecies of Isaiah and the promises God makes and remakes with the Hebrews throughout the record of his covenant in the Old Testament. The meaning of terms fundamental to Christianity, for instance resurrection, is dependent on understanding the Jewish concept of resurrection. Today we are tempted to view resurrection as a kind of spiritual life after death. Yet, the early Christians being rooted in the religious concepts of Judaism would not have used the word resurrection to describe their belief in spiritual life after death. Resurrection for them, and for the Jews, meant one thing only: the return to physical life after death. The Anglican Biblical Scholar N.T. Wright notes that in Second Temple Judaism, the name used to refer to the form of Judaism at the time of Jesus, resurrection did not mean life after death, but life, after life after death.

The New Testament

Otherwise known as the Christian Scriptures, the New Testament is the textual record of the revelation of God in Jesus Christ. Episcopalians do not refer to the New Testament as the Word of God. Jesus is the Word of God, as we discussed in our second session: Who is Jesus? For us the New Testament is the textual word of God. It is the historical and literary witness to the revelation of God in Jesus Christ.

There is an interesting comparison to be made between the Bible and Quran here concerning the role of word and witness. The Quran is the sacred Word of God, dictated to the Prophet Mohammed. It is to be treated with great reverence, hence Muslim anger when it is desecrated. Mohammed is the Quran’s witness. In historic Christianity, Jesus is the Word of God and the Bible is his witness. Therefore, the Bible is not the sacred Word of God but the textual word of God. As an object it is not revered and even those who believe it is God’s divine Word, nevertheless feel free to underline text and write in its margins, something a Muslim would never dream of doing to the Quran.

The New Testament is composed of two main types of writing, known as Gospels and Epistles. The Gospels record the life, sayings, and teaching of Jesus during his earthly ministry. The Epistles are Letters written by the Apostles to the fledgling church communities during the first 150 years of Christianity. During this period there was a profusion of Gospels and Epistles. There was a Gospel of Thomas and one of Mary Magdalene. There were many more Letters, each written in the name of an apostle. Most of these did not find there way into the Canon of the New Testament.

By the mid 300’s the New Testament Canon of 27 books was fairly universally recognized. After the finalization of the Canon no new books could be added, although Christians continued to debate the value of some texts up to the 16th Century. Therefore, there are some small differences between Protestant and Roman Catholic New Testaments. The differences relate not to the major books but to a section of apocalyptic writings. This is the dream inspired mysterious apocalyptic genre occurring in both Old and New Testaments. Protestant Bibles leave these books out. Catholic Bibles include them, and Anglican Bibles separate them into a section known as the Apocrypha, which is placed between the Old and New Testament sections. For further information go to

The Gospels

Matthew, Mark, and Luke are known as the Synoptic Gospels because they offer a chronological synopsis of the life of Jesus. Mark is the first to be written between 60 and 70 AD. Matthew follows and Luke is written last around the end of the First Century. Matthew and Luke draw heavily on Mark’s core structure and material but add additional material from a source known as Q, comprising oral sayings of Jesus. The Gospel of John is the last of the four Gospels to be written, probably around 100- 120 AD. John has a completely different structure and so is not included with the other three Synoptic Gospels. John’s Gospel is a theology of Jesus’ ministry, and the writer does not feel he has to repeat the familiar chronological  structure of events originating with Mark. John builds his theology of Jesus’ ministry  around seven signs of the Kingdom of God. Some of these are very familiar to us such as the first sign of changing water into wine at the wedding in Cana, and the last sign, raising of Lazarus from the dead.

The writers of the Gospels have the same names as the disciples of Jesus. Yet, it is unlikely that the actual disciples wrote them. Rather the writers, whom we call Evangelists, are clearly connected to the schools that are associated with the Apostles Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John. The other point to note is that each Evangelist constructs his Gospel to reflect the issues and needs of his particular community. Because each community has a different history and context, the Evangelists differ in theological emphasis and in their understanding of who Jesus is: Mark’s Son Of Man – Suffering Servant, Matthew’s Son Of God -New Moses, Luke’s Son of God -reconciling healer, and John’s God the Son – second person of the Trinity. We see here the process, evident in the Old Testament, of Scripture as a living and evolving tradition tailoring to the needs of particular societies.

Luke’s Acts of the Apostles

This is neither a Gospel nor an epistle although it might be described as the Gospel of the Church. It forms a companion to the Gospel of Luke because it continues the story after Jesus’ Ascension. Only Luke continues the story of the ministry Jesus initiates in this way. Acts begins with the Day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit descends on the disciples and as we discussed in our session on the Church, empowered them in such a way that transformed them from disciples (followers) into apostles (messengers). Thus the Church is born. The rest of the book chronicles the apostolic ministries of spreading the good news of the Gospel. Acts should be read as a continuation of Luke’s Gospel, however it is placed in the NT following John’s Gospel, which obscures the connection to Luke and breaks-up the narrative of salvation history he records.

The Epistles or Letters

These are the Letters written by the Apostles or written in their name by someone else to the fledgling churches that began to form around of the Mediterranean World of the Roman Empire. Although the Epistles come after the Gospels in order, the Letters written by Paul are earlier and predate the writing of the Gospels.

Most of the Letters are written by Paul or ascribed to his name. The convention in the ancient world was for disciples or followers of prominent teachers to write is the teacher’s name. Traditionally the first 13 Letters were ascribed to Paul. Modern scholarship has raised doubts about this because of the huge variation in themes addressed and theologies espoused. Paul has a radical message: the Kingdom of God has come and through the cross and resurrection of Jesus the whole world order has been turned upside down. Paul proclaims that Jesus is Lord! For us this is not a provocative statement. Yet, in Paul’s world to say this is to deny that Caesar is Lord, a treasonous act punishable by crucifixion. Paul’s theology of the cross and resurrection sounds strongly in Romans, 1 & 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians and Philemon. Borg and Crossan, two prominent N.T. theologians, identify this as the Apostle Paul as tag him Radical Paul. They doubt that Paul is the author of Ephesians, Colossians, and 2 Thessalonians and they identify this Paul as Conservative Paul. The issues here are more to do with the living of a pious and good Christian life and reflect the issues of communities that are more established and settled than the ones Radical Paul is writing to. Tradition ascribed Hebrews, 1 & 2 Timothy, and Titus to Paul. Borg and Crossan call this author Reactionary Paul whose theology can’t be squared with that of the Apostle (radical) Paul. No one seriously thinks Paul wrote these Letters anymore. They reflect a very conservative theology, which addresses issues of church order, i.e. women must cover their heads and not speak in Church, and the hierarchy of authority, i.e. only men and apostolic men may preach and teach and husbands are the head of the family. These were not issues for the fragile Pauline communities in the middle decades of the 1st Century. The preoccupations of these Letters reflect strong established church communities where order and authority become issues and clearly date from a much later period of time

Letters not ascribed to Paul are Hebrews and James (possibly authored by James of Jerusalem, the brother of Jesus), 1 & 2 Peter, 1,2 & 3 John, (clearly the same author as John’s Gospel or a close follower), and Jude. Revelation is not a Letter, but another example of apocalyptic writing in the form of a dream and its interpretation and seems to be connected to the Johannine Community.

N.T. Wright uses the analogy of sitting at a table and hearing only one side of a phone conversation to capture the flavor and dilemma posed by the Epistles. We hear the writer’s answer to questions and problems raised, but we are not privy to the questions and issues raised, except in very general terms.

Spiritual Practice

Over the coming week try, to spend some time each day reflecting on the following questions. The way to do this is to find somewhere to sit quietly at home or elsewhere and bring your attention to the rising and falling of your breath. Imagine the breath as deep within your belly rather than in your chest and simply observe yourself breathing. Through observing our breath we come easily into the presence of God who is the breath that brings life. We also become aware of something we do all the yet, usually are not ware of doing it. Breathing offers an image of the presence of God, here all the time usually not noticed by us. 

After a few minutes of settling begin to contemplate the questions. You don’t have to do all of them at one time. Let the question percolate in your thoughts and notice images or connections that seem to arise naturally for you. At the end of your time, end with an expression of gratitude for your life, your loves, and for your desire to come to know God more deeply. 

Questions to consider

  1. Why has Christianity preserved the Hebrew Scriptures in the Old Testament?
  2. Why has Christianity preserved the Hebrew Scriptures in the Old Testament?
  3. What is the difference between a gospel and an epistle?
  4.  How many Synoptic Gospels are there?
  5.  Why do modern scholars challenge the tradition that Paul wrote all the epistles that mention his name?
  6.  How do the Quran and Bible differ in the role they have within their respective religions, and Why?

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