The Old Testament
The Old Testament is the first of the two major sections of the Christian Bible. The Old Testament contains the sacred writings of the Jews. It was written over the period of roughly 1000 B.C. to 100 B.C., but it includes arration of events that occurred many centuries earlier and had been passed from generation to generation in oral form. The Old Testament was originally written in the Hebrew language with a few sections written in the Aramaic language.
There was no “official” list of accepted books of Jewish scripture until around 100 A.D. when Jewish rabbis revised their Scripture and established an official canon of Judaism, rejecting some books not found in Hebrew versions of the Scripture. This revision accounts for the fact that Protestant, Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christians use slightly different versions of the Old Testament.
Jesus Christ, the central figure of Christianity, was born a Jew and practiced Judaism all His earthly life. Christianity began as a sect of Judaism and only emerged as a separate religion after large numbers of Gentiles had been converted. The Jewish Scripture had predicted the coming of a savior, the Messiah, and Jesus fulfilled that role. So it is natural that Christians would retain the Jewish Scripture as part of their Bible.
For more details: What is the difference between Protestant and Catholic Bibles?
The Old Testament tells the story of God’s chosen people, the Hebrews, who were later known as Israelites or Jews. Sometime around 1800 B.C., God made a covenant with a man named Abraham to make of his descendants a great nation. The first few of these descendants migrated to Egypt to escape a famine in their own land. After many generations they had greatly increased their numbers but had become enslaved to the Egyptians. God sent a great leader and prophet, Moses, to lead the Hebrews out of captivity and into the Promised Land of Israel. During this time God gave Moses the Ten Commandments which are still considered the basis for a moral life by both Jews and Christians.
In addition to the Ten Commandments, the Old Testament lists many other laws about circumcision, dietary restrictions, blood sacrifices, Sabbath observance, tithing, social welfare, crimes, social behavior, armies, qualifications of leaders, etc. These laws regulated almost every aspect of Hebrew life.
God intended for the Israelites to live according to His commandments and to show the truth of God to all the world (Genesis 12:1-3). However, time and again, the Israelites lost sight of their mission and lapsed into idolatry, sin or narrow-minded nationalism. On these occasions, God called prophets, such as Elijah, Samuel, Jonah, Isaiah and many others, to lead them back to the right path. The Old Testament writings make no attempt to hide the fact that the Israelites and their leaders had many failings and flaws. Yet, through these flawed people, God was able to accomplish His purposes in the world.
The later Hebrew prophets foresaw the coming of a Messiah (meaning “anointed one”), a king who would usher in a golden era of peace and prosperity. More than any other nation, the Israelites looked to the future, to the coming of the Messiah, and to the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham to make of his descendants a great nation.
The New Testament contains the sacred books that are unique to Christianity. All the New Testament books were written in the Greek language over the period of about 50 to 120 A.D. None of the New Testament books were originally written as part of a Christian Bible, but they were read at church services for instruction in the faith.
The collection of books we know as the New Testament emerged in the late second century, A.D. The church leaders accepted books they believed were based on eyewitness accounts of the events narrated, while rejecting many other early Christian writings. Eventually, the 27 books which form the present New Testament, along with the Old Testament books, became the Christian Bible as we know it today. The New Testament canon was formally adopted by the Synod of Carthage in 397 A.D.
The New Testament tells of Jesus’ birth, life, ministry, death and resurrection, the growth of the early Christian Church, and predictions of the second coming of Jesus. Jesus was born sometime between 6 and 4 B.C. in the city of Bethlehem, and He was destined from birth to fulfill the role of Messiah or Christ (the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew word “messiah”). He lived an ordinary life for 30 years, and then He began His ministry among the Jews.
Jesus traveled from town to town, healing the sick and preaching about the coming kingdom of God. He taught that God’s kingdom is a spiritual kingdom that is now growing among the faithful, and it will find its fulfillment in the eventual sovereign rule of God and defeat of all evil. Jesus said He will come again someday to bring God’s kingdom to fulfillment. He promised a wonderful eternal life after death for those who put their trust in God and obey His commandments.
The Jews of the time believed that holiness could be achieved by obeying the Ten Commandments and many other rules stated in the Old Testament Law. But Jesus taught that love of God and love of our fellow men are the two “Greatest Commandments” that should totally guide our lives. He taught obedience to God and love for all people, both Jews and Gentiles, and even for enemies! Jesus did not abolish the moral and ethical laws that had been in effect from the time of Moses. He affirmed and expanded upon those principles, but He said obedience must be from the heart (attitudes and intentions) rather than just technical observance of the letter of the law.
Many of the Jews had expected the Messiah to be a great political and military leader who would defeat Israel’s enemies, but Jesus saw His kingdom as spiritual rather than worldly. He taught the way to victory is not through force and violence, but through love, humility, and service to one’s fellow man. Jesus was not the type of “Messiah” the Jews had expected, and many of them rejected Jesus and His teachings.
The religious establishment of Israel saw Jesus as a threat. His claims of divine authority and His refusal to follow some of their religious rules were usurping their authority over the people. This conflict ultimately led to Jesus’ execution by crucifixion only three years after He had begun His ministry.
Three days after His death, Jesus’ body was discovered missing from the tomb, and over the next 40 days Many people saw Him alive again, and He talked with His disciples. At the end of 40 days, He ascended to heaven, returning to God, His Father.
Jesus’ miraculous resurrection convinced many people that He truly was the Christ and their personal savior as well. Christianity was born, and Jesus’ former disciples became its leaders. Throughout the New Testament, Jesus is portrayed as the Son of God, the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies of the Messiah, and as the means of our personal salvation from the power of sin and death.
The young Christian communities suffered much persecution from the Jewish religious establishment and from the Roman Empire. Saul, a member of the Jewish religious establishment, was one of the fiercest persecutors of Christians. One day, while on the road to Damascus, Saul saw a blinding light and Jesus spoke to him saying, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” As a result of this overwhelming experience, Saul had a complete change of heart. Now known as Paul, he became a zealous Christian missionary and extended Christianity outside Judaism, founding many Christian communities in the Gentile world.
Paul wrote many letters to the people of the churches he had founded. He explained his beliefs about Jesus, instructed them in proper modes of worship, and sometimes chastised them for moral lapses. He taught that the way to salvation and eternal life is through faith in Jesus Christ and high moral standards, not through obedience to the Old Testament Law. Many of Paul’s letters have become part of the New Testament. Through these letters we know Paul as the most energetic and influential interpreter of Jesus’ life and teachings.
From the teachings of Jesus and Paul, we see that the Old Testament Laws – circumcision, dietary restrictions, blood sacrifices, Sabbath observance and the many other rules – are no longer binding. Jesus and His apostles gave us a radically new understanding of the true intent of the Old Testament Law; they brought a new era of the rule of love for all people and spiritual truth instead of rule by law.
For more details: The Birth of Jesus, Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, The Greatest Commandment and the Parable of the Good Samaritan, What Does the Bible Say About the Old Testament Law?, Good Friday – The Crucifixion of Jesus, Easter – The Resurrection of Jesus, What does the Bible Say about Love?, What Does the Bible Say about Eternal Life and the Resurrection of the Body?, What Does the Bible Say about Salvation?.
Despite the diversity of the Bible books and their separation in time, there are several unifying themes that run through both the Old and New Testaments:
- There is only one true God. He created all that is the universe and takes an active, ongoing and loving role in its maintenance.
- God loves His people of all races, nationalities and religions, and seeks their love in return.
- God created men and women with the power to choose between good and evil. We are called to do good by serving God and respecting our fellow human beings of the world. Evil is a constant temptation that we must do our best to resist.
- God seeks the salvation of all people, individually and collectively, from the power of sin and evil. God has intervened directly in human affairs and has also sent the prophets and, finally, His Son Jesus, the Messiah or Christ, to help us with that salvation.
The Bible never tells the details of exactly how God inspired the human authors of the Bible, and this has led to much debate and differences of opinion about interpretation.
Throughout most of the Christian era, Bible reading and Bible interpretation were confined to religious professionals. Until the fifteenth century, the Bible was available only in Latin. Even when the Bible was translated into other languages, the scarcity and high cost of Bibles kept them out of the hands of ordinary people. During this era, the Bible was interpreted according to church beliefs and traditions. There was little or no attempt made to determine the original meanings of the Scripture. Difficult passages “were interpreted as having a figurative meaning, so that they convey, through a kind of code, deeper truths about God, the spiritual life, or the church1.”
Scientific discoveries, beginning in the seventeenth century, seemed to contradict some parts of the Bible. Galileo’s study of the universe, Darwin’s theories about evolution of species and fossil evidence of the age of the earth were particularly troubling. At the same time, the Bible was often being studied and critiqued as ordinary literature rather than as the Word of God. Some Christians felt their faith was threatened by these apparent challenges to the authority of the Bible. In reaction, the fundamentalist movement asserted the inerrancy of Scripture: Everything in the Bible must be absolutely, literally, scientifically and historically true. Anything less would be unworthy of God. Any apparent conflict between the Bible and another source (science, history, etc.) should be resolved in favor of the Bible because of its divine origin.
The mainstream of Bible interpretation today is based on hermeneutics [her meh NEWT icks], the science and art of Bible interpretation. Hermeneutics attempts to determine what message the author intended to convey and how it would have been understood in its original historical and cultural setting. This involves a lot of specialized knowledge of the original Bible languages, literary styles and figures of speech, as well as the history, culture, and current events and issues of the time and place where it was written. Rather than forcing Bible interpretation to fit into a particular theological framework, such as church doctrine or strict literalism, hermeneutics attempts to draw out the true meaning as it was originally intended. Once we know what a Bible passage originally meant, we can prayerfully apply that knowledge to our lives in the modern world.
During the first centuries A.D., Latin replaced Greek as the language of the Roman Empire. In 405 a Latin translation of the Old and New Testaments was completed. This version, known as the Vulgate, became the standard Bible of Christianity for many centuries. The first English version of the full Bible was John Wycliffe’s translation of the Vulgate in 1384. Several other English versions followed, and the beloved King James Version was published in 1611.
None of the original manuscripts of the Old Testament or New Testament are known to exist; the best available sources are hand-made copies of copies. However, developments in archaeology and Biblical scholarship have made possible a number of modern, more accurate English translations of the scriptures. These newer versions are translated from the best available ancient Hebrew and Greek manuscripts, rather than from the King James Version or the Latin Vulgate.
|The first five Old Testament books are known as the books of the Law, or the Pentateuch or the Torah.The first 11 chapters of
Genesis tell about God. Unlike the pagans of the ancient world, the Hebrew people (later known as Israelites or Jews) believed in only one true God. Through the stories of Creation, The Great Flood and The Tower of Babel we see that God created everything, and He loves and actively sustains all His creation.The remainder of Genesis tells the history of the patriarchs. The Jews trace their ancestry to a man named Abraham through his son Isaac and grandson Jacob. The Muslim Arabs also trace their ancestry to Abraham, through his son Ishmael.
Exodus and Numbers tell the story of Moses, who led the Hebrews out of captivity in Egypt around 1300 B.C. They wandered for forty years in the desert before arriving at their Promised Land. During the time in the desert, God gave the Ten Commandments to Moses.
Leviticus and Deuteronomy discuss the relationship between God and His chosen people, the Hebrews. They also give details of the Law that regulated almost every aspect of Hebrew life.Moses is traditionally considered to be the author of the Pentateuch, but as with many other books of the Bible, the author and date written are not known for certain.
|The Historical Books
|The remainder of the Old Testament books are divided by the Jews into categories of prophets and writings. However, Christians organize it differently into sections of historical books, wisdom books, and books of prophecy.The historical books tell the history of Israel from the time of Moses until several hundred years before the time of Jesus. After 40 years in the desert, the Hebrews conquered their Promised Land of Canaan. For a time, the tribes of Israel were ruled by a series of judges. Then, in the eleventh century B.C., came the monarchy with Kings Saul, David, Solomon and several other kings. Israel suffered a number of military defeats. Jerusalem was destroyed in 586 B.C. and many captives were taken away to Babylon. Eventually, the people were allowed to return and rebuild Jerusalem and their civilization.|
|The Wisdom Books
Song of Solomon
|Psalms, Proverbs, Wisdom and Sirach contain many sayings of practical wisdom to help live a happy, successful and holy life. Job and Ecclesiastes deal with the weightier issues of the meaning of life, the existence of evil and our relationship to God. Song of Solomon is a love song glorifying romantic love between a man and woman, although it is sometimes interpreted allegorically as a story about the love of God for Israel or the Church.For more details: Wisdom of the Bible|
|The Books of Prophecy
|Prophecy means speaking the mind of God. Some prophecies predict the future. Others are special messages of instruction or warning from God. The prophets were called by God to give these predictions, messages and warnings to kings, other leaders and the people.Except for Lamentations and Baruch, Each of these books is named for one of the well-known Hebrew prophets, but there were many minor prophets also.|
*Included in Roman Catholic and Orthodox Bibles but not in most Protestant editions.
|The four Gospels tell of the birth, life, ministry, teachings, death and resurrection of Jesus. The Gospel of Mark was written around 70 A.D., about 40 years after Jesus was crucified. Matthew and Luke were written between 80 and 90 A.D. Finally, the Gospel of John appeared in its final form around 95 A.D.Matthew, Mark and Luke are very similar. It is commonly believed that Matthew and Luke incorporated much of the material in Mark and another common source that is now lost. Each author then added some unique material.
The Gospel of John is quite different. It is much more of a spiritual and theological work, although it relates many of the same events as the other three Gospels.
|Acts of the Apostles||Acts of the Apostles is a sequel to the Gospel of Luke, written by the same author. It tells the history of the first 30 years of the Christian Church. The story is mostly centered on the apostles Peter and Paul who were the preeminent leaders of early Christianity.|
|The Letters of Paul
|Many of the New Testament letters (also known as epistles) are traditionally attributed to the apostle Paul. 1st Thessalonians, 1st and 2nd Corinthians, Galatians, Romans, Philippians, and Philemon are undisputed genuine letters of Paul. There is less certainty about the authorship of 2nd Thessalonians, Colossians, Hebrews, Ephesians, 1st and 2nd Timothy and Titus. Paul probably wrote 1st Thessalonians and Galatians around 50 A.D., and they are the oldest books in the New Testament.Paul wrote his letters to various Christian communities to instruct and encourage them in the faith and to address specific problems and disputes that had arisen in those communities. Many of the beliefs and practices of Christianity originated from Paul’s teachings in these letters.|
The catholic letters
|These letters were also written to encourage, instruct and correct the early Christians. The catholic (meaning universal) letters were circulated among the various Christian communities and read at their meetings. Throughout the letters we see the need to put our faith and trust in Christ and to put that faith into action through Christian love (kindness and respect) for all people.Revelation is also a letter, but it is in the form of apocalyptic literature, which tells a story through symbols, images and numbers. Revelation offers comfort and encouragement to Christians of all ages that God is firmly in control. When the time is right, the forces of evil that seem to dominate our world will be utterly destroyed, and God’s eternal kingdom will come into its fulfillment.|