An atheist once told me:
Don’t quote the Bible by numbers, I don’t have a bible and wouldn’t know how to use the numbers if I did.
This is a very introductory primer on the Bible for folks who know virtually nothing about it.
What “bible” means
By derivation, the word bible means “library.” The Bible is a collection of books written over a period of over 1000 years by many authors in three languages. At least some parts of the Bible are sacred to Christians, Jews and Muslims. The books in the Bible differ widely in their literary form and historical context. There are laws, biography, history, poetry, short stories, parables, proverbs, songs, letters, prophecy, and more.
What’s the Bible about?
The Bible is about God, the creator of the earth and sky and humankind. The one God reveals himself to a Middle-Eastern man named Abraham to whom a promise is made. God’s self-revelation and the promise unfold through the story of Abraham’s descendants. The Bible then tells of God’s Son, Jesus, who came into the world to save it from sin and death and the early history of the “called out” followers of Jesus, the Christians.
Major divisions of the Bible
The first major division of the Bible divides the part that was written in the Hebrew language (primarily) before the time of Jesus, from the part written in Greek after the time of Jesus. That first division is called the “Hebrew Bible”, “Tanak” or “Old Testament” and the second the “New Testament”. (Testament means “promise”). Outside a Christian context, “Hebrew Bible” is the preferred term for the first part. There is a third division that appears in some Bibles, written in a time between the other two. This third part is called the “deuterocanonical books” or “the Apocrypha”. The word “canon” is used to denote the authoritative content of a Bible. “Deuterocanonical” then means literally “second canon” to indicate its somewhat later addition to the list.
So, not all Bibles have the same books! For Jews, only the Hebrew Bible is sacred. For Christians, the Old Testament and New Testaments are sacred. For some Christians (notably the Catholic and Orthodox), the Apocrypha are also sacred (although the precise content differs slightly between Catholic and Orthodox). Protestant Bibles have 66 books, while Catholic and Orthodox Christians have more. For more information on those various kinds of Christians, check out my article on How Christians Differ.
The Hebrew Bible itself is divided into three large sections: The Law (“Torah”), the Prophets (“Nevi’im”) and the Writings (“Ketubim”). The acronym TNK is where the name “Tanak” comes from. Most of the Hebrew Bible was written in the Hebrew language with short portions in Aramaic.
The Bible is made up of the Torah — the 5 books of the Bible starting with Genesis, the Prophets containing the works of historians and prophets of Israel, and the writings containing a mixture of various texts including religious songs (Psalms), stories and wisdom literature (Proverbs). The Prophets are then subdivided into the Major Prophets (the three who wrote long books) and the Minor Prophets (the twelve who wrote short books).
The Apocrypha describes the Jewish revolts against Greek occupation a couple hundred years before Jesus and contains other material. Manuscripts of the Apocrypha, generally, are in the Greek language.
The New Testament consists of 4 books on the actions and sayings of Jesus (called the “Gospels” – literally “good news”), an account of the early Church (book called “Acts”), letters (epistles) from the early followers of Jesus to various Churches and a highly-symbolic narrative called “the Apocalypse” or “Revelation”. The New Testament is written in Greek.
Finding Stuff in the Bible
Now what do those numbers mean, and how can you find something in the Bible?
First, for best results, get a Bible with all the books in it. Practically speaking, look for a Bible that says “with the Apocrypha”. Don’t get one labeled “New Testament” only unless you’re sure that’s only where you want to look.
Each book in the Bible has a name 1. In some cases there is more than one book with the same name, so those books are prefixed with a number (with the exception of John 2.) Citations appear in the form of: book chapter: verse. For example, if someone cited 2 Timothy 3:16, you would look at the book named 2 Timothy (pronounced “Second Timothy”). This is really pretty simple–just go to the table of contents in the front of virtually all Bibles and look for “2 Timothy”. Now within each book there are numbered chapters. Bibles generally have clearly marked chapter headings. So for our citation from 2 Timothy, we would look for the Chapter 3 heading. (Unlike most books, Bible chapters don’t start on a new page.) Now within each chapter parts of the text are numbered 3 starting with 1, and these numbered parts are called verses. So once you have located the book (2 Timothy) and the Chapter (3), scan down the verses until you reach number 16, which says:
(2 Tim 3:16 NRSV) All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness,
In the citation, notice that Timothy is abbreviated “Tim”. This is common. A table of Bible books and their abbreviations appears at the end of this article.
Because the Bible was originally written in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek, most readers require a translation in their own language. There are many, many translations of the Bible. The “NRSV” in the quotation above stands for the “New Revised Standard Version”, one contemporary translation in English. Individuals sometimes prefer one translation over another; I have written about this in my article on The King James Only Movement. Most translations are good, and most are fairly similar in most respects. There are a few translations to avoid, and in particular avoid those that are not really translations, but paraphrases. I will list a few “safe” contemporary English translations:
- The Revised Standard Version
- The New Revised Standard Version with the Apocrypha
- The New English Bible with the Apocrypha
- The New Jerusalem Bible with the Apocrypha
- The New American Bible with the Apocrypha
- The New American Standard Bible
- The English Standard Version
If all you have to work with is a King James Version (also called the “Authorized Version”) just keep in mind that this translation was prepared in the early 17th century. It uses some archaic words and words that have changed meaning since 1611. Additional ancient manuscripts have been discovered and advances have been made in our understanding of ancient languages since that time. Unless you grew up with the KJV, you will find it difficult reading in places. This web site contains additional comments on Bible Translations.
How to Interpret the Bible
Interpreting the Bible is a topic far too extensive to cover in this humble essay.
The Bible was written in another language by people of another culture and with different literary conventions 2000-3000 years ago. Just translating the Bible into English doesn’t bridge all those differences.
The Bible contains many literary forms, and how you read a particular passage must depend on the literary form. For example, is the story of Jonah being swallowed by a great fish a comic novella or a historical narrative? It makes a difference. Watch out for is hyperbole. Sometimes the Bible will say “love x and hate y” when it should be understood to say “love x ever so much more than y”.
If you want to get serious about the Bible, get a Bible Commentary is a must. The Interpreters One-Volume Commentary on the Bible is one excellent choice.
There are Bibles on the Internet. Here are some:
- Bible Gateway (select the NASB translation)
- Crosswalk (several good translations)
- The Unbound Bible (includes Spanish, French and Russian texts)
There are also free Bible apps.
If you have a question about the Bible and think I can get you started on an answer, you may email me through the site’s contact form. I don’t claim to know everything, but I’ll try to give you a fair and balanced answer if I can.
1. The original manuscripts of the books of the Bible generally had no titles. The names of the books we use today come from tradition. A few books go by more than one name; for example the “Song of Solomon” is also called the “Song of Songs” and “Canticles”.
2. There is one exception to the book numbering rule. John’s Gospel (called John) is placed separately from the letters called John. The former is referred to without an initial number, just “John” while the others are numbered, “1 John”, “2 John”, “3 John”.
3. Some editions of the Bible omit some or all verse numbers. The original manuscripts of Bible books had no chapter or verse numbers, but most modern translations use a standard numbering scheme to help the reader to find things. A translation without verse numbers can help give the reader a closer sense of the original language which also lacks verse numbers. Two New Testament translations without verse numbers are The Unvarnished New Testament (Andy Gaus, tr.) and The New Testament in Modern English (J. B. Phillips, tr.).
|Gen||Genesis||2 Chr||2 Chronicles||Dan||Daniel|
|1 Sam||1 Samuel||Song||Song of Solomon||Hab||Habakkuk|
|2 Sam||2 Samuel||Isa||Isaiah||Zeph||Zephaniah|
|1 Kings||1 Kings||Jer||Jeremiah||Hag||Haggai|
|2 Kings||2 Kings||Lam||Lamentations||Zech||Zechariah|
|1 Chr||1 Chronicles||Ezek||Ezekiel||Mal||Malachi|
Apocryphal / Deuterocanonical Books
|Tob||Tobit||Song of Thr||Prayer of Azariah and the Song of the Three Jews|
|Add Esth||Additions to Esther (Gk)||Bel||Bel and the Dragon|
|Wis||Wisdom||1 Macc||1 Maccabees|
|Bar||Baruch||2 Macc||2 Maccabees|
|1 Esd||1 Esdras||3 Macc||3 Maccabees|
|2 Esd||2 Esdras||4 Macc||4 Maccabees|
|Let Jer||Letter of Jeremiah||pr Man||Prayer of Manasseh|
|Mt||Matthew||Acts||Acts of the Apostles||Gal||Galatians|
|Lk||Luke||1 Cor||1 Corinthians||Phil||Philippians|
|Jn||John||2 Cor||2 Corinthians||Col||Colossians|
|1 Thess||1 Thessalonians||Philem||Philemon||1 Jn||1 John|
|2 Thess||2 Thessalonians||Heb||Hebrews||2 Jn||2 John|
|1 Tim||1 Timothy||Jas||James||3 Jn||3 John|
|2 Tim||2 Timothy||1 Pet||1 Peter||Jude||Jude|
|Titus||Titus||2 Pet||2 Peter||Rev||Revelation|