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Our Guide to Lent

The Bible can be an intimidating book to begin reading at first. An ancient collection of books with varying genres, it spans thousands of years and contains varying aims as a sacred text. Knowing what to read begins with knowing about the overall story of how the Bible fits together.

The Bible comprises 66 books, 39 in the Old Testament and 27 in the New Testament. Each book is a varied collection of experiences of humanity’s encounter with God. Some of it records who God revealed himself to be and what people did as they worked out life in light of their faith.

The Bible offers wisdom, insight, guidance, cultural experience, history, revelation and spiritual nourishment. It also tells the bigger story of God’s creation and humanity’s place.

So, should you begin at the beginning and work your way through? It might surprise you that the book is not written chronologically but in collections of topical categories. For instance, the first five books of the Bible are Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. These are known as ‘The Law’, or ‘The Pentateuch’ meaning 5 law books or ‘The Torah’, Hebrew for ‘Law’ or ‘Instruction’.

The oldest, and therefore first written, book in the Bible is the Book of Job, which is 18 books into the Bible. Galatians is the earliest book in the New Testament, even though the Gospels appear before it.

So, where to begin?

First, let’s look at the Bible’s make-up, then discuss the overall big picture, and that will help us decide the best place to begin reading the Bible for the first time.

 

How Is The Bible Ordered?

The Bible is broadly organised into topical genres within two large bodies of work known as the Testaments. The Old Testament comprises the books of Law, Prophets, Wisdom, Poetry, Apocalyptic, and NarrativeThe New Testament consists of the Gospels, Acts of the Apostles, Letters (known as Epistles), and further apocalyptic writings.

Consequently, there is no correct order to read the Bible. I would recommend beginning with the Gospels as this is the heart of God’s bigger story. First, look at the tables below to get an idea of the big picture; after that, I’ll guide you on where to start and what to expect.

Below is a handy table to help you see how it is broken down across the Bible. You can then see how it fits together and what genre each book roughly fits into, guiding you in what to expect from reading each book. As you can see, it is not a simple thing to understand. And yet, if you jump further down in this article, there are some straightforward things you can do to begin understanding the Bible for yourself.

The Order Of The Old Testament

Pentateuch (Torah):

# Book Theme Approximate Date of Authorship
1 Genesis Creation, Patriarchs, Origins 10th century BCE
2 Exodus Liberation, Covenant, Law 10th century BCE
3 Leviticus Holy Living, Rituals, Worship 06th century BCE
4 Numbers Wilderness Journey, Laws, Census 05th century BCE
5 Deuteronomy Covenant Renewal, Final Instructions 05th century BCE

Historical Books:

# Book Theme Approximate Date of Authorship
6 Joshua Conquest of Canaan 07th century BCE
7 Judges Leadership, Cycles of Apostasy 10th century BCE
8 Ruth Loyalty, Redemption 10th century BCE
9 1 Samuel Samuel, Saul, David 10th century BCE
10 2 Samuel Reign of David 10th century BCE
11 1 Kings Solomon, Division of the Kingdom 6th-5th century BCE
12 2 Kings Israel, Judah’s Kings 6th-5th century BCE
13 1 Chronicles Genealogies, David’s Reign 4th century BCE
14 2 Chronicles Judah’s Kings, Exile, Return 4th century BCE
15 Ezra Return from Exile, Rebuilding 5th-4th century BCE
16 Nehemiah Rebuilding Jerusalem’s Walls 5th-4th century BCE
17 Esther Persian Queen, Deliverance 5th-4th century BCE

Wisdom Literature:

# Book Theme Approximate Date of Authorship
18 Job Suffering, God’s Sovereignty 10th century BCE
19 Psalms Poetry, Worship, Praise 10th-5th century BCE
20 Proverbs Wisdom, Practical Advice 10th-6th century BCE
21 Ecclesiastes Vanity of Life, Wisdom Reflections 3rd century BCE
22 Song of Solomon Love Poems 10th-6th century BCE

Major Prophets:

# Book Theme Approximate Date of Authorship
23 Isaiah Prophecy, Messiah 8th-6th century BCE
24 Jeremiah Prophecy, Judah’s Exile 7th-6th century BCE
25 Lamentations Mourning, Jerusalem’s Destruction 6th century BCE
26 Ezekiel Prophecy, Visionary Experiences 6th-5th century BCE
27 Daniel Prophecy, Exile, Apocalyptic Visions 6th-2nd century BCE

Minor Prophets:

# Book Theme Approximate Date of Authorship
28 Hosea Prophecy, Israel’s Unfaithfulness 8th century BCE
29 Joel Prophecy, Day of the Lord 8th-5th century BCE
30 Amos Prophecy, Social Justice 8th century BCE
31 Obadiah Prophecy, Judgment on Edom 6th-5th century BCE
32 Jonah Prophecy, God’s Mercy to Nineveh 8th century BCE
33 Micah Prophecy, Social Justice 8th century BCE
34 Nahum Prophecy, Judgment on Nineveh 7th century BCE
35 Habakkuk Prophecy, Questions to God 7th century BCE
36 Zephaniah Prophecy, Day of the Lord 7th century BCE
37 Haggai Prophecy, Temple Reconstruction 6th century BCE
38 Zechariah Prophecy, Messianic Visions 6th-5th century BCE
39 Malachi Prophecy, Covenant Renewal 5th century BCE

The Order Of The New Testament

Gospels:

# Book Theme Approximate Date of Authorship
40 Matthew Gospel, Life of Jesus 1st century CE
41 Mark Gospel, Jesus’ Ministry 1st century CE
42 Luke Gospel, Jesus’ Compassion 1st century CE
43 John Gospel, Jesus’ Divinity 1st century CE

Historical Book:

# Book Theme Approximate Date of Authorship
44 Acts Early Church History 1st century CE

Pauline Epistles:

# Book Theme Approximate Date of Authorship
45 Romans Epistle, Justification by Faith 56-58 CE
46 1 Corinthians Epistle, Church Correction 55 CE
47 2 Corinthians Epistle, Paul’s Defense 55-56 CE
48 Galatians Epistle, Justification by Faith 49-55 CE
49 Ephesians Epistle, Unity in Christ 60-62 CE
50 Philippians Epistle, Joy in Christ 60-62 CE
51 Colossians Epistle, Supremacy of Christ 60-62 CE
52 1 Thessalonians Epistle, Encouragement 51 CE
53 2 Thessalonians Epistle, Second Coming of Christ 51-52 CE
54 1 Timothy Epistle, Pastoral Advice 62-64 CE
55 2 Timothy Epistle, Encouragement 64 CE
56 Titus Epistle, Instructions for Leaders 62-64 CE
57 Philemon Epistle, Paul’s Appeal for Onesimus 60-62 CE

General Epistles:

# Book Theme Approximate Date of Authorship
58 Hebrews Epistle, Christ’s Superiority 60-70 CE
59 James Epistle, Faith and Works 45-50 CE
60 1 Peter Epistle, Perseverance in Suffering 60-64 CE
61 2 Peter Epistle, Warning Against Falsehood 60-68 CE
62 1 John Epistle, Love and Assurance 85-95 CE
63 2 John Epistle, Warning Against Deceivers 85-95 CE
64 3 John Epistle, Commendation and Warning 85-95 CE
65 Jude Epistle, Warning Against Apostasy 70-90 CE

Apocalyptic Book:

# Book Theme Approximate Date of Authorship
66 Revelation Apocalyptic, End Times Visions 90-95 CE

What Is The Bible About?

Knowing something about how each genre fits into the Bible will help you better understand your faith and the God of the bible.

The Bible is the collective writings of God’s love for humanity, the problem of sin, redemption of humanity’s failing and restoration to a close relationship with God. It captures the joy and pain of human experience in love, loss, longing, wisdom, foolishness and forgiveness.

The Law

Genesis shows humanity’s state of being and God’s relationship to us. The books of law establish God’s standard for the people he chose first to reveal himself to ⎯the Hebrews.

History

The historical books capture the times when God’s people continually fell short of his perfect standard, and they covered their struggle for survival as they repeatedly turned away and back to God across the generations.

Wisdom & Poetry

The Wisdom Literature brings powerful insight into God’s nature and how people understood Him. They reveal truth, struggle, joy, and sorrow as the writers experience all levels of human emotion. This is then captured in praise, worship and reflection on meaning and purpose. These books are highly poetic and extenssential.

Major & Minor Prophets

The prophets are God’s warnings, promises and explanations of future events as God’s people are urged to keep in line with His standards. The foretell and foreshadow what will happen in the New Testament and beyond.

The Gospels

There are four Gospels, each showing you a perspective on those who were with Jesus and captured much of the ministry within his life. They largely revered, and accurately so, as eyewitness accounts of the life of Jesus.

The Book of Acts

Also known as ‘The Acts of The Apostles’, Acts chronicles the events in the life of the apostles of Jesus after he had died and ascended into heaven. They are filled with stories of the early church and how it began to develop. They contain miracles, historical occurrences and insights into early church life.

Epistles

The largest section of the New Testament, the various letters known as the epistles, were written to the early church in varying locations to offer instruction, guidance and theology to early Christians. They contain great value in understanding cultural challenges as the church grew in the melting pot of Greek and Roman societies. Many life issues are addressed, and the letters still hold wisdom for many of us today.

Apocalyptic

Along with Daniel from the Old Testament, the New Testament book of Revelation is to be understood as a narrative depicting the completion of God’s plan as the world is restored from sin and everything is made right. There are many ways to understand these highly. descriptive and sometimes figurative writings and arguably should be the last books to tackle.

What Should I Read in The Bible First?

The Gospel of Mark is the best place to begin. The Gospels cover the central purpose of the Bible and how Jesus is most significant in the Bible. Mark is the shortest Gospel, and it was written to people who did not quickly grasp religious subtleties but were everyday people.

The Psalms are also a great place to begin, as they describe the character of God and how He is often worshipped through song and poetry. Psalms are often read interchangeably with Proverbs for a balance of life wisdom as well as poetic reflections.

After that, I would encourage people to read Genesis to get an understanding of some of the bigger themes at play. This will help make sense of why Jesus needed to come to humanity, as depicted in Mark.

After those three books, it’s time to explore a reading plan and brave other parts of the Bible while being mindful of the cultural challenges of understanding texts that are thousands of years old.

Begin reading today, and let us know how you get on.

Leave a comment and share your first experience of reading the Bible.


FOOTNOTES

1 Alexander, T.D. (2012) From Paradise to the Promised Land: An Introduction to the Pentateuch. Third Edition. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, p. 45.
2 Dozeman, T.B. (2000) “Exodus, Book of,” Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible. Edited by D.N. Freedman, A.C. Myers, and A.B. Beck. Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans.
3 Wegner, J.R. (2000) “Leviticus, Book of,” Eerdmans dictionary of the Bible. Edited by D.N. Freedman, A.C. Myers, and A.B. Beck. Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans.
4 Wenham, G.J. (1981) Numbers: an introduction and commentary. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press (Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries), p. 25.
5 Deuteronomy: Although most likely later, the book’s final form is thought to have settled by the 7 century BCE. Thompson, J.A. (1974) Deuteronomy: An Introduction and Commentary. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press (Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries), p. 67.
6 Hess, R.S. (1996) Joshua: An Introduction and Commentary. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press (Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries), p. 63.
7 Harris, J.G. (2012) “Joshua,” in Gasque, W.W., Hubbard, R.L., Jr., and Johnston, R.K. (eds.) Joshua, Judges, Ruth. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books (Understanding the Bible Commentary Series), p. 6.
8 Hubbard, R.L. (1988) The Book of Ruth. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. (The New International Commentary on the Old Testament), p. 34.
9 Easley, K.H. (2002) Holman QuickSource guide to understanding the Bible. Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, p. 44.
Likely to have been one of the oldest stories passed down, there is evidence that Job was told as early as 10th century BCE. The story probably predates Genesis and may be one of the oldest stories known. Brown, W.P. (2000) “Job, Book of,” Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible. Edited by D.N. Freedman, A.C. Myers, and A.B. Beck. Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans.
Bible references are taken from the NIV
Feature photo Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

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