The Bible’s many books, characters and pages can be daunting! Here are some basic Bible facts to know before reading the Bible—the world’s most important book.
7 things to know before reading the Bible
- The Bible was written by about 40 different authors.
- The Bible was originally written in ancient languages.
- The Bible is divided into two testaments with seven major divisions.
- The Bible is a family epic.
- The Bible doesn’t “whitewash” its characters.
- The Bible has history, but is not a history textbook.
- The Bible should be read to be applied.
According to the American Bible Society, only one in seven Americans reads the Bible on a daily basis. About half say they read it less than three times a year, and 28 percent say they never read it. Still 61 percent wish they read it more.
If you have very little knowledge about the Bible, what do you need to know to make any sense of it?
Here are seven things to know before reading the Bible.
The Bible is not a traditional book—written by a single author and divided into chapters. The Bible could be described as a compilation of books written by different men over about 1,500 years. The Bible is made up of 66 individual books—which, in turn, are divided into chapters and verses. (Note that chapter and verse divisions were added years later by men in an attempt to organize the Bible and make it easier to explore.)
Although about 40 men wrote the 66 books of the Bible, in another sense, there is only one author. Paul said in 2 Timothy 3:16 that “all Scripture is given by inspiration of God.”
The majority of the Old Testament (the first 39 books of the Bible) was written in ancient Hebrew. There are a few parts of the Old Testament (portions of Daniel and Ezra) that were written in Aramaic. These portions were written while the Jews were dominated by Babylon and later by Persia. Aramaic was a sort of “lingua franca” of the ancient world—a language that multiple cultures knew and understood.
The New Testament was originally written in Koine Greek, which had spread around the Mediterranean world as a result of Alexander the Great’s conquests. This Greek dialect allowed the New Testament to be read throughout the Roman Empire.
Since none of the original manuscripts (or autographs) exists today, every text we have is either a copy or a translation. However, the oldest manuscripts known today are quite ancient. The Dead Sea Scrolls, for example, are dated from around 200 B.C. to A.D. 68. Often times confusing passages or apparent contradictions can be cleared up by studying the words used in the original languages.
The most widely accepted way to organize the Bible is into Old and New Testaments (or covenants). The Old Testament is made up of the oldest books of the Bible and largely chronicles God’s interaction with the nations of Israel and Judah. The New Testament focuses on the New Covenant between God and the Church through Jesus Christ. To learn more about the two covenants, read “Biblical Covenants.”
Scholars further divide the books of the Bible into seven major groupings based on the general purpose and style of the books:
- The Law.
- The Prophets.
- The Writings.
- The Gospels and Acts.
- The Epistles of Paul.
- The General Epistles.
- The Book of Revelation.
The Bible mentions hundreds of people. But in some ways the Bible can be viewed primarily as the story of one family. The story begins in the book of Genesis. In Genesis 11:26 we are introduced to a man named Abraham (originally Abram). The book goes on to describe God developing a relationship with Abraham and promising to make his descendants “a great nation” (Genesis 12:2)—a nation that would have an impact on the entire world!
But Abraham and Sarah were old and had no children. Through a miracle, God eventually made it possible for them to conceive a son named Isaac. Isaac then had two sons, Esau and Jacob. Jacob had 12 sons who collectively became the nation of Israel. The rest of the Old Testament chronicles the trials, triumphs, rise and fall of Abraham’s descendants.
The New Testament continues this family epic in the life of Jesus Christ, who came to earth as a descendant of Abraham and made it possible for people outside of Abraham’s physical descendants to have a relationship with God—by becoming Abraham’s spiritual descendants (Galatians 3:28).
Many critics contend that the Bible is a book of myth written by men. But if the Bible had been devised by men, the writers of the Scriptures could have easily invented perfect people to fill its stories with.
But instead, the Bible presents its heroes with their flaws. Though it emphasizes the faith and spiritual triumphs of many men and women, it also gives a balanced look at their lives to show they also had struggles and weaknesses.
For example, Abraham is referred to as the father of the faithful (Galatians 3:7), but in his story we see some serious moments of weakness, such as telling lies or half-truths on certain occasions.
Only one individual is shown to be perfect—Jesus Christ, who was God in the flesh.
When we read the Bible, we should pay close attention to the mistakes and weaknesses of its characters—because the Bible intends us to learn lessons so we don’t make the same mistakes (1 Corinthians 10:6).
The Bible is filled with history, but it is not primarily a work of history. It does not attempt to present a comprehensive survey of Israel’s history.
Instead, you could say the Bible presents history on a need-to-know basis. In other words, history is included as the context to understand what and why God did what He did.
For example, the Gospels provide us very little detail about the events of Jesus’ life between His birth and the beginning of His public ministry, but they cover the last week of His physical life in great detail.
The Bible admits that it simply ignores much of history—for the reason that if everything that happened were recorded “even the world itself could not contain the books that would be written” (John 21:25).
What is important is that the history recorded in the Bible, time and time again, has been proven to be accurate and reliable. To learn more, read “Is the Bible True? Proof 3: What History Tells Us” and “Is the Bible True? Archaeology.”
This is the most important point. You cannot read the Bible like any other book. It shouldn’t be read as you would read a novel or how you would read a history textbook. The Bible was designed to be read as a living book with laws, principles, truths and examples that are to be applied to your life today.
Notice how Hebrews 4:12 puts it: “For the word of God is living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, and of joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.”
Even though the Bible was written thousands of years ago, its contents are timeless. You can pick it up today, in the 21st century, read it, apply it and reap the benefits.
In 2 Timothy 3:16 we read that the Bible was written to give us doctrine, correction and instruction on how to be righteous. We study the biblical laws and instructions to learn how to apply them in our life (Proverbs 6:23). We study the historical accounts to learn lessons about how to live (and how not to live) based on the examples of others (1 Corinthians 10:6). We study the life of Christ to learn how to model our lives on His example (1 Peter 2:21). We study the doctrines of the Bible to learn what we should believe—and how those beliefs should be applied to our lives (1 Timothy 4:6).
We hope these principles will be helpful if you are just starting to read God’s Word. You may also want to read our related article “Where to Start Reading the Bible.”
Why Is the Bible So Hard to Understand?
- It is long and varied. Getting an overview can help. (See the articles under the Life, Hope & Truth “Holy Bible” section.)
- It was written long ago by people of different cultures and backgrounds. Studying Bible history, timelines and cultures can make it seem less foreign.
- It was written in different languages and with unfamiliar idioms. Try comparing good modern translations.
- It can be hard to find things in the Bible. Knowing how to search it and becoming more familiar with it will give you a head start (see “How to Find Answers to Your Bible Questions”).
- It was written from God’s perspective. For example, Jesus Christ said His parables were given so only His followers—called by the Father—could understand (Matthew 13:10-17). Praying for understanding and following God’s process of conversion to receive the Holy Spirit can help. Our free booklet Change Your Life! shows how.
How to Do a Topical Bible Study
There are many ways to study the Bible. Here is one way to consider.
- A Bible (print, electronic or online).
- A place and time you can concentrate. (It’s best to find a regular time and place.)
- A concordance or searchable electronic or online Bible (for example, BlueLetterBible.org). For more on this, see our articles on “Bible Study Tools” and “Bible Software.”
Basic study steps:
- Pray for guidance.
- Pick a topic (see our article “Bible Study Topics”).
- Search for related scriptures. Let’s say you picked the topic “Communication,” with a desire to make your conversations better and more pleasing to God. Brainstorm words and phrases to search for in the Bible on this topic: speaking, talking, listening, hearing. Don’t forget words like tongue, mouth, lips—all of which are biblical terms for communication.
Tip: You might find it useful to do a search on Life, Hope & Truth for helpful articles that contain many of the key scriptures.
- Take notes:
- On what you have looked at (so you can come back to where you were).
- Key action points—what you will put into practice.
- Questions for future study.
- Next time, quickly review your notes and repeat.
How to Do a Deeper Dive Into the Bible
When you want to go beyond the basics, how can you gain deeper knowledge and understanding of a passage in the Bible?
- Read the context. Get an overview—where does it fit into this chapter, this book and the overall message of the Bible?
- Read an overview of the book or section. Check a study Bible, Bible handbook, Bible dictionary or the many articles under the Life, Hope & Truth “Holy Bible” section.
- Look up specific words in different translations and in the original Hebrew and Greek, noting the shades of meanings.
- Ask questions: Who, what, when, where, why and how?
- Is it quoting another passage (or is it quoted elsewhere)? Dive into that passage too.
- Ask, Why is this in the Bible? Also ask, What does God want me to do with this?
- There will always be more questions. Give priority to the ones that will be most helpful to your spiritual growth.
- Learn more about resources you can use in digging deeper into the Bible in our articles in the “Bible Study” section.
Deeper dive example (condensed from the article “Christ Is the End of the Law? How?”):
“For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes” (Romans 10:4). What does “end of the law” mean?
Check a concordance: “End” is from the Greek word telos.
Check Bible dictionaries and study Bibles: The word telos can be translated differently depending on the context. It can mean “end result or ultimate fate” (Mounce’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words, 2006, “End”). It can also mean “‘the aim or purpose’ of a thing” (Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words, 1985, “End, Ending”). The NKJV Study Bible says, “End can mean ‘fulfillment’; that is, Christ fulfilled all the requirements of the law. It can also mean ‘goal,’ to say that Christ was the object to which the law led” (2007, comments on Romans 10:4).
Check the use of the word in other scriptures and translations: Telos is also used in 1 Timothy 1:5: “Now the purpose [telos] of the commandment is love” (emphasis added). Other translations render it as “aim” (New Revised Standard Version) and “goal” (New International Version, Holman Christian Standard Bible).
If you write down your conclusions and other questions that come up in your research, you will have an inexhaustible supply of ideas for deeper study!