This week Tanner McCarty starts a two-part series on the makeup of the Bible. If you’re curious what is in the Bible and how to make sense of it, the best place to start is here!
If you are a new Christian or a non-Christian who is open to reading the Bible, one of the hardest parts can be figuring out what to read or where to start. You may think to start at the very beginning, the first chapter of Genesis, or you’ve heard that Jesus story starts in the book of Matthew. Maybe you’ve tried both of those or other books in the past. You may have hit a snag because you got confused, bored, or felt like what you were reading lacked context. Starting at the beginning of the Bible or the beginning of Jesus story are good options, but you may find a more broad way of reading to be beneficial.
If you want to start reading the Bible, or if you are even just curious about it, it’s helpful to understand that the books of the Bible fit fairly neatly into groups of books. The books can all be grouped by content or style. So reading a little bit from each group of books offers a variety of insight and experiences. You’ll get a history lesson on how God established his people. You’ll soak up poems and songs that describe God’s character. You’ll see how Jesus lived, what he said and did and why that matters. Lastly, among many other things, you’ll learn practical ways to live in the way God desires.
A Professor named Grant Horner is one person who specifically stated these groupings, which are: The Gospels, The Pentateuch/Torah (pronounced Pent-a-two-k and Tore-ah), The Major Epistles/Letters, The Minor Epistles/Letters, The Books of Wisdom/Poetry, The Psalms, The Proverbs, The Books of Old Testament History, The Books of Prophecy, and the Book of Acts.
Reading from each of these groups of books gives you the story of God, his creation, his character, and his people from the very beginning of time. You’ll see the establishment of Israel as God’s people, the life of Jesus, and the spread of the early Christian church based on Jesus’s teachings. What’s so great about reading from all parts of the Bible is that you get to see the many ways that God worked, spoke, and guided his people throughout time. You’ll see a lot of people who hear from God and follow his instructions, and many other people (or often the same ones!) ignoring God and going against what he wanted.
Besides giving you the broad view of God’s work, reading from a variety of books also keeps you engaged and active. It helps keep you from feeling bogged down in weightier passages. You can see events unfold in Exodus, then be reflected on by Jesus in Matthew. You’ll read Isaiah prophesying about events that unfold in Jesus life. You’ll see David’s words in the Psalms, which are then echoed by later writers like Paul. From start to finish, the Bible is more like a blanket woven together into intertwining connections than it is like a single piece of string stretched out straight. You gain a lot by reading the Bible in a way that notices and enhances these connections.
Before you jump in, take a look at what each group of books includes and what type of reading experience you’ll have with them. These are purely my thoughts or descriptions of the groups, so don’t take them as necessarily an authoritative summary.
These are the four books that tell the story of Jesus’s life. Through Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, you’ll see the span of Jesus’s birth, his life and ministry, his death, and his resurrection. It may seem redundant to read four books about one person’s life, but each book was written by a different person, so you’ll see variations in their perspective and how they tell the stories. You will read many of the same stories in some or all of the books, but you’ll also read stories or versions of stories that are really only told in one of the books. You could start reading the Bible with just these books, but you gain so much by also reading the historical context leading up to Jesus. What did it mean for Jesus to come as he did and say and do what he did. Since Jesus quotes from a variety of scriptures that his audience was familiar with, it will also help you to be reading some of those same scriptures for yourself in the books they come from.
The name of this group may sound more complicated than it is. Torah is essentially the Hebrew (Jewish) word for law, so these are the five books of law that God gave to Moses. “Pentateuch” is, then, just a Greek word meaning “five books.” This group is Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. Genesis is the story of the beginning of the world, man, and the Israelites who were God’s first people. Exodus has some more history and then the beginning of the law. The last three books expand the law and help the Israelites establish themselves as a nation of God. Some of this group may seem hard to understand in our modern world, but it is the origin of what Christians believe, and reading it will help you learn about how everything started. Much of what Jesus speaks of comes from these books, so reading them alongside the Gospels adds that layer of context. There are also a lot of interesting and important stories about times when people listened or didn’t listen to God and what consequences that had for them. If you like to learn from stories rather than outright teaching, much of the Torah is a great group for that.
The Major Epistles/Letters
Again, don’t let the uncommon or archaic word “epistle” trip you up. It literally just means a letter. In this case, it means a handful of letters that the leaders of the early church of Jesus wrote to the people they were leading. The books are Romans, 1st and 2nd Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Hebrews. There are more letters in another group, but these are the longer, more formal, or more theologically weighty letters. Don’t forget, this is just a made up method for reading through the bible, so don’t look at it as definitive of what is most important. This is just a grouping. These letters were written to tell Jesus’s story to people who may not have heard it before, and in some cases to remind members of the church who seem to have forgotten some of it. Another point of the letters was to explain parts of Jesus teaching that may have confused earlier believers. The letters also sometimes address specific problems each church or group of people may have been having, to the goal of helping them fix those problems. These books will give you a lot of theology, and sometimes it is confusing. But stick with it. There is a lot of good practical teaching and explanation within the letters.
These first three groups of Bible books lay the foundation for a lot of the rest of the books. In the second part of this guide, you’ll look at the rest of the groups and learn more about how they all relate. Be sure to check out part two!