Overview of the BibleIncludes Summary of Time between the Testaments
The Bible is not just a bunch of books written by various authors over the span of about 1500 years. It is God's story, His revelation of Himself to us. The purpose of this page is to give the reader an overall sense of how the books fit into the whole of this story.
Table of Contents
- Central Message
- Old Testament (OT) Summary
- Intertestamental and New Testament History Summary
- New Testament (NT) Summary
The Bible is a single volume consisting of 66 books divided into two sections known as the Old Testament (OT) and New Testament (NT). These testaments are interrelated in that, as the old saying goes, "the NT is concealed within the OT and the OT is revealed within the NT", thus you can’t properly understand one without the other.
The Bible was written over a period of about 1500 years, by approximately 40 different writers from various backgrounds in several different countries. Yet all the writer’s messages, because they wrote under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, are in total harmony with each other.
The Bible’s Central Message is God working out His purpose with man. God created man, then when man rejected God, God enacted His plan through His Son, Jesus Christ, to provide a way of salvation to those who believe. We see this plan was devised from the beginning in the OT and fulfilled by Jesus in the NT. In short, the Bible is about Jesus, the coming Messiah of the OT and our Savior in the NT. The OT people looked forward by faith to His coming. Today, by faith, we can look back at the Cross for our salvation, and look forward with assurance to the future.
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Old Testament (Hebrew Scriptures) Summary
The books of the Old Testament (OT) can be categorized as follows. See our OT at a Glance and more detailed Book by Book Summary for more information.
The Books of Moses aka Books of the Law
The first book, Genesis, covers over 2000 years and begins with the creation. It also covers man’s original sin, the flood and the election of the nation of Israel as God’s chosen people. The next four books tell of the Israelites exodus from Egypt, wanderings in the desert, giving of the law, the sacrificial system (which foreshadowed the once-for-all atonement by Christ), and preparations for entering the promised land (~1400 BC).
The Historical Books
These book (Joshua to Esther), provide a historical record of the Israelites (Hebrews or Jews) with emphasis on God’s dealings with them. These books include the conquest of the promised land (Israel), the period of the judges, the monarchy, the division of Judah and Israel, banishment from the land (the exile), and the return (~1400 - 500 BC). We'll notice a continuing cycle of rebellion by the people, judgment from God, repentance by the people, and blessing from God.
The Poetic Books aka Books of Wisdom
The books, written primarily in poetic form, offer much important teaching and insights into the character of God. We'll find songs, prayers, and many principles for leading a Godly life.
The Books of the Prophets
Most people think of a prophet is one who has insight or visions of future events. While this was one of the prophet’s functions, their main duty was to call the people back into compliance with God’s requirements (the law). The prophets also foretold of the coming Messiah (anointed one), who would bring a golden era of peace to Israel and ultimately, the entire world. These books cover the time period before, during and after the exile (~875 - 430BC). The prophets were classified as either major or minor prophets, not by importance, but by the length of their writing. The Minor Prophets were originally one book called "Book of the Twelve", and still are in the Jewish Bible.
These books were mostly written in the Intertestamental Period (see next section). The Roman Catholic Church and Eastern Orthodox Church include some of these writings in their canon of scripture. Although the Apocrypha contains valuable historical information, both Protestants and Jews deny the inspiration of these writings. While the OT is quoted frequently by Jesus and the NT authors, neither quoted from the Apocrypha. The church fathers seem to be split, some included these writings while others rejected them.
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Intertestamental and New Testament History Summary
Intertestamental history is generally accepted as the period between the conquests of Alexander the Great (334 BC) and the first recorded events of the New Testament. NT era history often extends past the last events of the NT to the end of the Bar Kochba Revolt (135 AD). In Biblical timeline, this would correspond from 100 years after the close of the OT to about 40 years after the last NT book was written. Many of the events in this section are a fulfillment of the prophecies found in the OT book of Daniel.
At the close of the OT, the Jews were living in Palestine (aka Israel, aka Judea) under the rule of the Persian Empire. In 332 BC, the Greeks assumed power through the military exploits of Alexander the Great. Alexander’s conquests spread the Greek Culture (Hellenism), and Koine (common) Greek became the language of the land (later becoming the language of the NT). Hellenism emphasized education, athletics, art and philosophy. Upon Alexander’s sudden death in 323 BC, his kingdoms were divided among his four generals. After twenty years of constant wars, the Ptolemies gained control of Palestine from 301 BC to 198 BC. During this time, the Jews experienced a relatively peaceful period of freedom of government and religion.
In 198 BC, at the Battle of Panium, the Seleucids, under the leadership of Antiochus III, came into power. This began a power struggle for the Jew’s loyalty, and in 188 BC, Antiochus was forced to sign a peace treaty with the Romans, which required giving up land and paying an annual tribute, thus basically reducing him to the role of tax collector for Rome. Later, his son, Antiochus IV Epiphanes came to the throne and led an campaign into Egypt in 169 BC, but was forced to retreat by the Romans. Defeated and behind on payments to Rome, he plundered the Jerusalem temple on at least one occasion (possibly twice), greatly outraging the Jews. He then erected alters in the temple and sacrificed a pig to the god Zeus.
This desecration of the temple led to the Maccabean Revolt, by which the Jews, led by Judas the Maccabee (the hammer) reclaimed power and cleansed the temple. The rededication of the temple in 164 BC is annually commemorated by the Jews in the celebration of Hanukkah, the festival of lights (also Feast of Dedication). The Maccabean rule was characterized by religious and political freedom and the emergence of the Hasidim, the probable spiritual ancestors of the Pharisees (and possibly the Essenes, likely authors of the Dead Sea Scrolls).
In 142 BC, the Hasmoneans rule began and Judea became an independent state. According to Josephus, the Hasmonean family name originated with the great-great-grandfather of Judas the Maccabee. The Hasmonean rule was characterized by wars and internal strife, including a civil war that killed over fifty thousand Jews. In 63BC, the Roman general Pompey imposed Roman control over Judea, ending the Hasmonean Dynasty.
In 37 BC, Herod, governor of Galilee, with Roman support, invaded Judea and captured Jerusalem. Herod, who became known as Herod the Great, conducted massive building projects, including a grand new temple which began in 20 BC and was completed in 64 AD. Herod is most famous for his efforts to kill the Christ child. Herod died in 4 BC, which brings us to the NT era.
So, we now see that from the close of the OT, God, in His perfect timing, took approximately 400 years to prepare the world for the coming of Jesus, the Messiah. The Middle East was now in a time of relative peace, open trade (the Romans had built a great network of roads and cleared the sea of pirates), religious freedom, and the majority spoke a common language (Greek). The people were also spiritually hungry. The Greek and Eastern philosophies left little hope of an afterlife, and fatalism and low morality (Romans 1) was rampant. It was under these conditions that God, in the fullness of time (Gal 4:4), sent his Son with the message of peace, forgiveness and the gift of eternal life.
After the events of the NT except Revelation, relations between the Jews and Romans grew progressively worse. Matters finally boiled over in 66 AD, when the Zealots (Jews opposed to any foreign rule) took Masada and drove the Romans from Jerusalem. In response, the Roman general Titus brutally recaptured Jerusalem and burned the Temple. During mop up operations, when the walls at Masada were breached, the Romans found only a handful of women and children alive. The remainder had chosen death over defeat.
After the war, the Pharisees became the dominate religious group, Synagogues sprang up, and the separation of the Christians from Judaism became complete.
One final revolt, the Bar Kochba Revolt, broke out in 132 AD. This was led by Simon bar Kochba, whom many Jews at the time thought to be the Jewish Messiah. The Romans retook Judah in 135 AD at a great cost to both sides (estimated one million dead). The result of the revolt was even more damaging for the Jews. They were forbidden to enter Jerusalem and many of their religious observances were outlawed in Judea. The Jews were dispersed throughout the Roman territories, and would not return to their homeland until 1948.
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New Testament Summary
The books of the New Testament (NT) can be categorized as follows. See our NT at a Glance and more detailed Book by Book Summary for more information.
The Books of the Gospel
These four books focus primarily on the birth, life, teachings, death and resurrection of Jesus (~4 BC to 30 AD). Matthew, Mark and Luke take different approaches, but share much overlapping information. John’s gospel is centered around eight miracles emphasizing the divinity of Christ.
The Historical Book
The book, Acts of the Apostles, records the birth of the Church (~30 AD) and its succeeding growth and trials. It also follows the life of Paul and his missionary journeys to take the message of the gospel to the Gentiles. Acts ends with Paul’s imprisonment in Rome about 62 AD.
These books are letters written by Paul to various churches which he began during his missionary journeys. These letters were written to correct false teachings, provide encouragement in the face of persecution, and further instruct church leaders and laity. There’s also much didactic teaching which explains much of the narratives of the gospels. Note that Hebrews may have been written by someone other than Paul (possibly Luke, Barnabas or Apollos).
These books are letters written by Apostles or their students to specific churches or groups of people. They offer timeless advice on subjects such as faith and works, love, suffering, false teachers, and salvation.
This is a book of prophecy written by the Apostle John about 95 AD. This book is highly symbolic and full of visions. Some scholars apply its fulfillment to the first century (an eschatological view known as "Preterism"), while others interpret it to refer to the end times (events surrounding the second coming of Jesus). Still others (including us) see a foreshadowing of some events at the end of the Jewish times (70 AD) with additional fulfillments at the end of the Church age (Jesus' second advent).
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