What is the Bible?

SpacerThe Bible, also called the Scriptures or the Sacred Scriptures, is a collection of books written by human authors inspired by God. They are an account of God's revelation and plan of salvation for the human race. The Bible is made up of seventy-three books and is divided into two sections: the Old Testament and the New Testament.

SpacerThe books of the Bible are written in several different literary forms. It is as important to recognize different literary forms when reading the Bible as it is to recognize different forms of writing in a newspaper. For example, when reading the paper, we have to know if we are reading an editorial or news story or an advertisement.

What is the Old Testament?

SpacerThe Old Testament, or Hebrew Scriptures, is a record of God's relationship with the Israelites, the "Chosen People." Written between 900 B.C. and 160 B.C. the forty-six books of the Old Testament can be divided into four sections: the Pentateuch, the Historical Books, the Wisdom Books, and the Prophetic Books.

SpacerMuch of the Old Testament is influenced by the literature of Israel's neighbors in the Middle East. To tell their own story, the Israelites borrowed from the cultures of the surrounding peoples and imitated the forms of their literature.

What is the Pentateuch?

SpacerThe Pentateuch is the first five books of the Old Testament, namely:

  • Genesis
  • Exodus
  • Leviticus
  • Numbers
  • Deuteronomy

SpacerMany well known Bible stories are found in these books including the stories of Creation, Adam and Eve, Noah's Ark as well as other stories which tell of the origins of the Israelite people and their escape under the leadership of Moses from slavery in Egypt .

SpacerThe Ten Commandments and other laws governing the life and worship of the Israelite people are also found in the Pentateuch. Hence, the other name for this section of the Old Testament is the Law or the Torah.

What are the Historical Books?

SpacerThe Historical Books are exactly what you would expect them to be, a history of the Israelite people and of God's intervention in their history. They include:

  • Joshua
  • Judges
  • 1 Samuel
  • 2 Samuel
  • 1 Kings
  • 2 Kings
  • 1 Chronicles
  • 2 Chronicles
  • Ruth
  • Ezra
  • Nehemiah
  • Tobit
  • Judith
  • Esther
  • 1 Maccabees
  • 2 Maccabees

SpacerStories of many well known men and women from Israelite history can be found in these books, including King David and King Solomon as well as Deborah, Judith and Queen Esther. The Historical Books reveal an interesting pattern in the relationship between God and his Chosen People. When the people are faithful to God and the law they are prosperous and God protects them from their enemies. When the people worship false gods and live immorally, in effect, saying to God, "We don't need you," disaster in one form or another overtakes them.

What are the Wisdom Books?

SpacerThere are seven Wisdom books that are quite diverse in literary style and content. They include the Psalms, which are prayers written in poetic form. There are books about how to lead a successful life, like Proverbs and Sirach. The Song of Songs, one of the most sensual love poems ever written, gives us a sense of God's great love for his people. The Wisdom Books are:

  • Job
  • Psalms
  • Proverbs
  • Ecclesiastes
  • Song of Songs
  • Wisdom
  • Sirach

What are the Prophetic Books?

SpacerThe Prophetic Books contain the writings of Israel's great prophets. The role of the prophets was to keep the Chosen People faithful to the covenant they had made with God and to call them back when they strayed. These powerful writings richly describe the rewards of faithfulness and the punishments of betrayal. Additionally and mysteriously, the prophetic books foretell the coming of the Messiah and give information about him. Jesus' birth in Bethlehem to a virgin, his ministry to the poor, the downtrodden and the sick, and his violent death are all foretold in the prophetic books. The Prophetic Books include:

  • Isaiah
  • Jeremiah
  • Ezechial
  • Lamentations
  • Baruch
  • Daniel
  • Hosea
  • Joel
  • Amos
  • Obediah
  • Jonah
  • Micah
  • Nahum
  • Habakkuk
  • Zephaniah
  • Haggai
  • Zechariah
  • Malachi

What is the New Testament?

SpacerThe New Testament is composed of twenty-seven books which were written in Greek between 50 A.D. and 140 A.D. It consists of the Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, the Epistles or Letters and the Book of Revelation. The central theme of the New Testament, or Christian Scriptures, is Jesus Christ; his person, his message, his passion, death and resurrection, his identity as the promised Messiah and his relationship to us as Lord and brother.

Why was the New Testament written in Greek?

SpacerThe New Testament was written in Greek because it was the most commonly spoken language of the Mediterranean world.

What are the Gospels?

SpacerThe word gospel comes from the Old English word god-spel which means good news. There are four Gospels. Each Gospel is an account of the life, teachings, suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The Gospels are:

  • Matthew
  • Mark
  • Luke
  • John

SpacerThe gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke together are referred to as the synoptic gospels. "Synoptic" is derived from a Greek word meaning "one eye,' because these gospels look alike in structure and content. The Gospel of John, while not in conflict with the synoptic gospels, differs in structure and contains some stories and sayings of Jesus that are not found in them.

SpacerMany familiar Bible stories about Jesus can be found in the gospels, including the story of his birth in Bethlehem, the many stories about his healing of the sick, and parables like the story of the Prodigal Son.

What is the Acts of the Apostles?

SpacerThe Acts of the Apostles was written by St. Luke about 70 A.D. to 75 A.D. It describes the faith, growth and way of life of early Christianity. The story of the Ascension of Jesus into heaven, the coming of the Holy Spirit to the church at Pentecost, the martyrdom of St. Stephen and the conversion of St. Paul can all be found in this book.

What are the Epistles?

SpacerThe Epistles or Letters make up the largest part of the New Testament. They are usually divided into two categories: the Pauline Letters and other Apostolic Letters. All the letters follow the format of letter writing in the ancient world. Each letter usually begins with a greeting and an identification of the sender and the recipients. This is followed by a prayer, usually in the form of a thanksgiving. The body of the letter is an exposition of Christian teaching, usually responding to the circumstances of the recipients. It may be followed by a discussion of the author's future travel plans and conclude with practical advice and a farewell.

SpacerThe Pauline Letters were written by St. Paul or one of his disciples; not long after the death and resurrection of Jesus, between 54 A.D. and 80 A.D. They indicate early developments of Christian theology and practice. Included in the Pauline Letters are:

  • Romans
  • 1 & 2 Corinthians
  • Galatians
  • Ephesians
  • Philipppians
  • Colossians
  • 1 & 2 Thessalonians
  • 1 & 2 Timothy
  • Titus
  • Philemon

SpacerThe Apostolic Letters are thought to be addressed, not so much to a particular community or individual, but to a more universal audience. They were written by various authors between 65 A.D. and 95 A.D. The Apostolic Letters are:

  • James
  • 1 & 2 Peter
  • 1, 2 & 3 John
  • Jude

What is the Book of Revelation?

SpacerThe final book of the New Testament , the Book of Revelation, was written sometime after 90 A.D. In highly symbolic terms it presents the struggle between the church and the forces of evil and the eventual triumph of Jesus Although it contains some dreadful warnings about the future, it is essentially a message of hope to the church.

This "Ask a Catholic" response written by Mary Ann Strain, C.P

Go back to the Main Page of Ask a Catholic
Email us at

Copyright 1996 - 2004 - all rights reserved - Passionist Missionaries of Union City, NJ, USA