Bible Study – Part 2 – Getting to know the books of the Bible

Written by Schalk_and_Elsa on. Posted in How to do Bible Study

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Introduction

Shelf of books to study the Bible withIn the previous installment of this series, we started our journey. As discussed in the preceding article, we will take a top-down approach. In the first article, we looked at what the Bible is. Now we will deep one level lower into the books of the Bible. Then in the next article we will study the phrases or passages that make up a book.

Last time we looked a bit into the history of the Bible texts. We also had a more detailed look at the different Bible translation and why we have these. Hopefully, you would now have become a bit more informed about the specific translation of Bible you use. You will also know what is the translation approach that was followed and who did the actual translation.

Now that we are acquainted with the Bible we are reading we also need to become a bit more familiar with the books that make up our Bible. We already mentioned the canon of the Bible in the previous article. Now we need to get to the individual books that make up the Bible.

Order of the books

The first, and most important, point regarding the canon of the Bible is the fact that these books are not arranged in a chronological sequence This implies that they should not read like a story book. You do not read from Genesis to Revelation as one sequential story line. Good example, we know that Ezra and Nehemiah returned to Jerusalem long after most of the minor prophets had lived. Thus, when studying the book of Nehemiah, it is important to know that a prophet like Joel had already lived and prophesied before Ezra returned to Jerusalem.

We need to know that the compilers of the Bible used some logic to sequence the books, but this was not chronology. When you look at the Epistles of Paul, note that they are not in the sequence that Paul wrote them. The epistles are currently sequenced in our Bibles mainly based on the size. This could lead to some serious confusion if you are trying to understand how Paul’s viewpoint on a specific topic matured over time. His works were written over a long span of time. We know that he did alter or expand some of his views over time.

Below you will see an attempt to place the books of the Bible in a chronological sequence. 5

01 – Genesis 21 – Jonah 40 – John
02 – Job 22 – Hosea 41 – Mark
03 – Exodus 23 – Amos 42 – Matthew
04 – Leviticus 24 – Isaiah 43 – Luke
05 – Numbers 25 – Micah 44 – Acts
06 – Deuteronomy 26 – Zepheniah 45 – Galatians
07 – Joshua 27 – Jeremiah 46 – James
08 – Judges 28 – Nahum 47 – 1 Thessalonian
09 – Ruth 29 – Habbakuk 48 – 2 Thessalonian
10 – 1 Samuel 30 – Daniel 49 – 1 Corinthians
11 – 1 Chronicles 31 – Ezekiel 50 – 2 Corinthians
12 – Psalms 32 – Lamentations 51 – Romans
13 – 2 Samuel 33 – Obediah 52 – Ephesians
14 – 1 Kings 34 – Ezra 53 – Colossians
15 – 2 Chronicles 35 – Haggai 54 – Phillipians
16 – Proverbs 36 – Zechariah 55 – Philemon
17 – Songs 37 – Esther 56 – 1 Timothy
18 – Ecclesiastes 38 – Nehemiah 57 – Titus
19 – 2 Kings 39 – Malachi 58 – 2 Timothy
20 – Joel 59 – 1 Peter
60 – Jude
61 – 2 Peter
62 – Hebrews
63 – 2 John
64 – 3 John
65 – 1 John
66 – Revelation

A Survey of the books of the Bible

In order for us to have a correct interpretation of any phrase of verse in the Bible, it is always vital to have the text within the right context – context is king! What does this mean? This means we need to know things about the text that is not part of the text itself. The context of the text has many dimensions we need to keep track of. These include:

  1. Who wrote it?
  2. Who was the intended recipient of the message?
  3. Why was it written?
  4. When was it written?

All these questions would give us a bit more background information. This background information helps us to interpret the text even more accurately. However, this means we have some pre-work to do before we start studying a specific verse. We need to know more about the book. In order for us to be able to do this, we can use a specific technique in Bible study. The technique is called “A Survey” of the book.

There is no fixed method for doing a survey, but most of the surveys that I have seen seem to overlap in content and approach. What is important from this technique is that it opens our eyes to sources of information. We will need this later when we start to interpret the  different dimensions of each text. In order to be able to understand all the relevant dimension we need to know about the background of the book.

Who wrote the book?

This is the question that has a very obvious answer in a lot of the cases. However, in some of the books, the author is not always that clear. Let us discuss some examples.

The Epistle to the Hebrews does not state the name of the author. Thus, we need to look at the content of the book to try to determine whose pen this book came from. Currently, we have a number of theories on the table for this answer. The first one is consistently that Paul is the author. The counter argument is always: “In all other books Paul mentions his name, why make the exception here?” If we look purely at the facts, we can only conclude that the author was somebody who lived within the same time period as Paul, and knew some of the people known to Paul. Anything more than that is interpretation. I personally do not think that Paul is the author of Hebrews, thus I do not try to link the theology of this book with the way that Paul thought.  Lots of people will differ from me on this point.

The next type of debate is around the book of Deuteronomy. As mentioned in my post about the Altar of Joshua, a lot of academics have put forward the theory that the book was written much later. This would imply that Moses was not the real author of the book. The alternative theory states that it was written by a historian / chronologist much later. One specific theory states that it was a forgery that was used in the time of King Josiah. The priests then discovered this scroll and presented it to the king (2 Kings 22:1) The arguments used to support this theory:

  • The book was written after the nation had crossed the Jordan

Deuteronomy 1:1
1 These are the words which Moses spoke to all Israel across the Jordan in the wilderness, in the Arabah opposite Suph, between Paran and Tophel and Laban and Hazeroth and Dizahab.

Deuteronomy 1:5
5 Across the Jordan in the land of Moab, Moses undertook to expound this law, saying,

  • How could Moses write about his own death?

Deuteronomy 34:5–6
5 So Moses the servant of the Lord died there in the land of Moab, according to the word of the Lord. 6 And He buried him in the valley in the land of Moab, opposite Beth-peor; but no man knows his burial place to this day.

We find in many books that the words and messages are from one person, but the physical composition of the text was done by a scribe (copywriter).  This is the same today, most marketing material is not written by an employee of the company that produces the product.  The content of the message still originates from within the company. We also have professional editors who will rewrite large parts of any manuscript before it is published.  These editors do not claim authorship of the works they edit. For me, this separation between authorship and penmanship does not detract from the value of the message.  The ideas and facts are still from the person we see as the “author.”

This information would enable you to understand the personality behind the writings better. If you understand the person better, it is always easier to grasp what they are trying to convey.

A note of warning – Higher Criticism

As you research this information regarding the authorship and history of the scriptural books, you may come across the concept of “Higher Criticism.” In principle, this is the study of the date and authorship of the Biblical books. This is typically where you will find the academic discussions regarding Moses as the author of the Pentateuch and Deuteronomy being a fake that was written in the time of King Josiah.  During my study on this topic, I found a really appropriate quote on the topic:
‎Higher criticism includes the study of the date and authorship of Bible books. Many higher critics hold that some or all of the books of the Bible were not written by the men that the books claim as authors, that the books were not written when they claim to be written, and that they were often not unified books but composed of several documents pieced together. ‎Today some orthodox scholars use the term higher criticism in a somewhat different sense. They admit there is a place for the right kind of higher criticism, something altogether different from the vicious, unbelieving higher criticism of the liberals. Orthodox higher critics study the authorship and background of Bible books. They use the techniques of higher criticism, but they do it reverently. The orthodox type of higher criticism is merely another name for what has been called “Bible introduction.” ‎The phrase “higher criticism” usually refers to the unbelieving type outlined above. It has been and is destructive of faith and is fatal to Christian endeavor. If the Bible is a mass of falsehood (as the liberal critics teach), why read it at home or preach it abroad? Why teach our children to keep the Ten Commandments if the commandments themselves bear false witness to Moses’ experience with God on Sinai? 3
From this quote, you can see that the author believes that there currently exists good and bad higher criticism. Anything that attempts to break down the credibility of the Bible would fall under bad higher criticism for me. Having the discussion about who actually wrote the book of Hebrews is thus fundamentally different than stating that Deuteronomy is a fake that was made up 600 years later. Please do not believe everything simply because it was written by an academic.

Who was the intended recipient of the message and why was it written?

Once we know who the author or owner of the ideas /messages are, we need to get to the objective of the writing.  Why was this written? In most cases, a big part of the answer lies in the intended receipts of the message. If we know who was going to read the document, we can also find out why they wrote it.

In some cases, especially the Epistles, we have the intended audience unmistakably indicated in the text. We also see in the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles the original intent of the document clearly indicated. I do not believe that anybody would have any doubt as to the objective of the books of Kings, Chronicles and Samuel.  They are clearly recording of the history of the nation of Israel.

When was it written – the historical context

If we know the author and the intended recipients, we need to start looking a bit wider for more context.  One of the areas we could use is the historical context of the book.  What was happening at that time that may influence what was written?  This implies that we also need to start looking outside the Bible for facts. We have a lot of material outside the Bible that can help us what was happening in the world at this time.

Please find below a table that gives a number of historical documents that you could use 2.

Author

Date

Title of Work

Herodotus

Ca. 484–425 B.C. 

The Histories

Thucydides

Ca. 460–400 B.C.

The History of the Peloponnesian Wars

Xenophon

Ca. 430–355 B.C.

Anabasis, Cyropaedia, Hellenica, Memorabilia

Polybius

Ca. 203–120 B.C.

Histories

Strabo

Ca. 64 B.C.–A.D. 24

Geography

Philo of Alexandria

30 B.C.–A.D. 40

Allegories of the Sacred Law

Flavius Josephus

37–97 A.D.

Antiquities of the Jews, Bellum Judaicum

Tacitus Ca.

 58–120 A.D.

Germania, Historiae, Annals

Suetonius

Ca.  69–140 A.D.

The Twelve Caesars

Eusebius

Ca. 263–340 A.D.

The Life of Constantine, Ecclesiastical History

Most of these documents can be found on the internet and can be downloaded free of charge.
By reading through these documents as well as the apocrypha and pseudoagraphia, we can understand the historical happenings that shaped the world and minds of the authors. It also gives us some more insights into the customs and practices of the time and lets us get closer to the world these people lived in. Another source that is very controversial is the Talmud.   For those who do not know, the Talmud is a commentary on the Jewish Oral law (Talmud). While I do not subscribe to the Oral law, I still think that we can use the Talmud to give us some insights into the historical practises and traditions that were followed. If we treat it the same way as we treat, for example the writings of Josephus, it can give us a bit more insight where appropriate.

Other contextual elements

Once you have a bit of a view of the history, it is also a good idea to get a bit more understanding of geography.  Where was the author when he wrote? Where was his intended audience? When doing a survey of a book, it is worth the while to make some notes of all the names of places, rivers and mountains that you encounter. One of the resources that would greatly enhance your Bible study is a Biblical Atlas.  Lots of Bibles do have some maps at the back, but this really is not enough.  We have lots of Biblical atlases on the market. Simply do a search on Amazon for “Biblical atlas” to find a list of resources.  We use a number of these, but if I had to recommend one to start with, it would be the Holman Bible Atlas.
Another interesting but optional study is to look at the plants, and the animals mentioned.  Too often we simply skip over these without really getting to know more.  Especially if you have young kids in the house, try to read up a bit about these.  They also make really nice Bible Trivia questions!

The type of literature

While reading and interpreting a specific book of the Bible, we also need to take note of the genre of the book.  Basically, what this means is that different books take on distinct forms of literature.  Today we have novels, autobiographies, science fiction and a lot of other.  If you read a science fiction book believing that it is an autobiography, you may end up really confused.  The same principle applies to reading the books of the Bible.

We have different styles of literature, called genre.  Let me explain a couple of the more common ones:

  • Narratives – this genre includes chronicle, list, saga, and novelette. These are normally used to describe historical aspects of a story. Example – Genesis, Deuteronomy, Ezra and Nehemiah
  • Biography – this genre can be defined as “a discrete prose narrative devoted exclusively to the portrayal of the whole life of a particular individual perceived as historical.”4 Example – Job
  • Wisdom Literature – Here we include items like psalms, hymns, proverbs, saying  and disputation.  Examples – Psalms, Proverbs and Song of Songs
  • Prophecy – these include the oracle and judgment speech of a specific prophet or seer. Examples – Amos, Jona, Jeremiah, and Zechariah.
  • Gospel – A gospel can be categorized as a subset of biography, but its uniqueness consists in being teaching regarding the salvation by Y’Shua or preached biography. Examples – Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
  • Epistles – The letters or communications sent to a specific community of believers to address one or more topics relevant to the target audience.  These letters were normally circulated to other communities as well. examples – the books of Paul, Epistle to the Hebrews.
  • Apocalyptical – These are books that describe the end of times. These are normally very symbolic and revelatory in nature. Examples –  Daniel 7-12, Ezekiel 37-48, Zechariah 9 –14 and The Revelation of John.

As you can see from my examples, one book may contain a number of genres.  The first five books (the Pentateuch) are mainly narratives including long chronicles and many lists of census, places visited, etc. Yet within these books we find wisdom literature – Deut 32 as well as prophecy Deut 33.

As you become more familiar with these topics, you should later look a bit deeper to understand more of the literary construct being used within these forms, eg. Parables within Gospels.

Where to start

All of this may sound like a lot of work.  Where do you fit this into your hectic schedule? Luckily, there are some resources available that could help you with this.  Please note that the resources should not replace your own studies, they should assist you in getting it done.
One of the resources I would highly recommend is the Survey notes from J.K McKee of TNN Online. His A Survey of the Apostolic Scriptures for the Practical Messianic and A Survey of the Tanach for the Practical Messianic is a really great help to get you going with doing your own survey. You could also use more academic publications like A Survey of Old Testament Introduction by Gleason Archer Jr., published by Moody Press (ISBN: 0–8024-8200–7). The latter is not easy reading, but a resource that you add to your library as a reference resource for when you need it.
Next time we will  delve into the phrases and words that make up our Bible.
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References

  1. Smith, James E. The Pentateuch. 2nd ed. Old Testament Survey Series. Joplin, MO: College Press Pub. Co., 1993.
  2. Archer, G., Jr. (1994). A survey of Old Testament introduction (3rd. ed.) (25). Chicago: Moody Press.
  3. Harris, R. Laird. Exploring the Basics of the Bible. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2002.
  4. David E. Aune, The New Testament in Its Literary Environment (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1987), p. 29.
  5. Elder T W. Exploring Creation [Internet]. Livingston (TX): 2011 Apr. 6. Accessed 11-11-2012. Available from: http://www.exploringcreation.info/scripture/books.htm
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