The Structure of the Bible
The word “Bible” has many meanings. The Jewish Bible contains scriptures, written over a considerable expanse of time, originally in Hebrew (with some sections in Aramaic). Christian Bibles contain in addition other scriptures known as the “New Testament,” originally written in Greek. Catholic Bibles include still other books, called the “Apocrypha,” not found in most Protestant Bibles. Christian Bibles incorporate all of the books found in Jewish Bibles but in a different order, and call them the “Old Testament.” So the word “Bible” signifies many things and must be defined if the following discussion is to make sense.
Since Judeochristianity draws its inspiration from both Jewish and Christian tradition, this must be reflected in its approach to the Bible. The Jewish Bible and the Christian “Old Testament” are not the same. The main difference is the order of the books, but this difference is significant. Here are the two orders side-by-side:
|The Hebrew Bible||The “Old Testament”|
Song of Songs
Ezra & Nehemiah
Song of Solomon
In the Hebrew Bible the first group of books (from Genesis to Deuteronomy) is called “Torah.” The root of the word means “to shoot (an arrow),” and has the sense of pointing one in the right direction. Thus the word torah has come to mean “teaching” or “instruction” (it is often misleadingly translated “law”).
The second group of books (from Joshua through Malachi) is called the “Prophets.” These are subdivided into the “Early Prophets” (Joshua through Kings) and the “Later Prophets” (Isaiah through Malachi). The last twelve (Hosea through Malachi) are very short and are traditionally considered together as one single book.
The books in the third group (Psalms through Chronicles) are of later origin and are called the “Writings.” This group is the most varied, containing works of poetry, “wisdom literature,” as well as some historical material.
The order of the Christian “Old Testament” follows a different logic. For example the book of Ruth, although written much later, comes right after Judges, since the events it describes take place during the same period. But the most significant change is in how the books are ordered at the end.
The Hebrew Bible is a complete, closed cycle. God’s promise to Abraham is fulfilled when Abraham’s descendants come to dwell in the new land. They build a strong society, including a magnificent Temple for God’s worship, but afterwards this society declines until the people are conquered and exiled. The cycle ends with the call to return from exile and to rebuild the Temple. The grand form of the Hebrew Bible is: Promise > Fulfillment > Exile > Restoration. The promise is restored, as the final verse of the Hebrew Bible states: “Thus says King Cyrus of Persia: The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and he has charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Whoever is among you of all his people, may the Lord his God be with him! Let him go up” (2 Chronicles 36:23).
In the Christian “Old Testament” the books of Chronicles appear much earlier and are grouped with Kings. There is much overlap of material between Kings and Chronicles, but the placement still makes insignificant the account in Chronicles of the call to return to the land. Additionally, Ezra and Nehemiah, which also deal with the return, are placed much earlier. The “Old Testament” ends instead with the twelve “lesser” prophets. The last of these, Malachi, concludes with this verse: “Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents, so that I will not come and strike the land with a curse” (Malachi 4:5-6).
Therefore unlike the Hebrew Bible, the Christian “Old Testament” does not form a complete cycle but instead exists as a prelude to something else. The Hebrew Bible ends with the fulfillment of the divine promise. The “Old Testament” points elsewhere: to the coming of the prophet Elijah, later identified as John the Baptist, the announcer of salvation. The “Old” Testament is really a preparation and introduction to the “New̶"1; one. It does not have its own meaning but derives its only meaning from something outside itself. It represents an “old” covenant that is superseded by a different one. However, according to one of the principles of Judeochristianity (no. 5), there is only one Covenant, which applies equally to the Jew, the Christian, and all other people in the world.
For these reasons we will be using the order of the Hebrew Bible rather than the Old Testament. The latter is a reworking of the Hebrew Bible to fit a certain theological bias. In this discussion we are more interested in understanding the meaning of the Hebrew Bible in its own terms.
While the Hebrew Bible has meaning and standing in its own right, the New Testament is also an intregal part of the Bible as here understood. In summary: The Hebrew Bible is the record of one nation’s evolving consciousness of the covenantal relationship with God. The New Testament describes the expansion of this relationhisp to all of humanity. To state it even more simply: In the Hebrew Bible we read about how the Hebrew people discovered that God is involved in their everyday lives. In the New Testament we see this discovery given to everyone. That is the “good news” that gives the “Gospels” their name.
The books of the New Testament are as follows:
|The New Testament|
These books contain Gospels (accounts of Jesus’ life and ministry), letters from apostles to various young churches, a historical account of the early church (Acts), and finally an apocalyptic work describing ultimate redemption at the close of the age (Revelation).
We will see how all of the Bible’s major sections fit together to tell the story of God’s involvement in our lives. What follows is not a summary of the Bible, nor a description that is in any way exhaustive. It is admittedly an interpretation, focusing on events of special significance. Hopefully it will provide a road map through the Bible for those who are not familiar with it, as well as a clarification of its deeper spiritual message.