First Lesson – The Books of the Bible

The Bible is a collection of 73 books; it is thus a small library in a single book. This is why it is called “Bible”, of the Greek “To Biblio” which means “the Book”. This word comes from “Byblos”, the ancient Lebanese port where, for the first time, the manuscripts were gathered, no longer in scrolls, but in books. Hence “the Bible” means the Book. The Jews and Christians are known in the Arab world as “the People of the Book” (Ahl el Kitab), those who follow the Bible.

Of the 73 books contained in the Bible, 46 form the books of the Old Covenant (or Old Testament) and 27 of those, the New Covenant. The Jews only recognize the books of the Old Covenant and refuse to consider it “old”, believing that their alliance with God remains valid, in spite of their many treasons denounced by the prophets in the Bible and their refusal to recognize Jesus as the Messiah. The prophets, however, had declared this covenant broken already eight centuries before the arrival of Jesus (Isaiah 24,5 / Jeremiah 11,10 & 31,32), proclaiming that God will establish a “New Covenant” (Jeremiah 31,31), revealed in the books of this New Covenant, the Gospels (see Matthew 26,28 and Luke 22,20). The Christians believe in the 46 books of the Old Testament (a Covenant they consider outdated) and in the 27 books of the New Testament, established by the martyrdom of Jesus.

The Bible is thus divided into two large parts: the books of the Old Testament and those of the New Testament. It is important to understand the books of the Old Testament to realize the importance and the need for the New Testament, new in its Spirit and the revelation of the true face of God.

The Old Testament
The 46 books of the Old Testament are divided into 3 groups of books:

  1. The Historical books:
    They tell the story of the creation (the book of Genesis), then of Abraham and the Jews until approximately 130 BC, which means until the beginning of the Roman Empire in the Near-East, particularly in Palestine (see 1 Maccabees 15,15-24).
    This group is composed of 21 books.
  2. The Wisdom books:
    These are books of wisdom and high morality. The style is often poetic. They contain councils and prayers springing out spontaneously of a heart inspired by God to teach us on how to address the Creator.
    These books are 7.
  3. The books of the Prophets:
    Each one of these books speaks of the prophet of whose name it bears and brings back his words and testimony to us.
    They are 18 books.

The New Testament
The 27 books of the New Testament are divided into three groups:

  1. The 4 Gospels and the book of Acts of the Apostles.
  2. 21 letters (known as “epistles”, of Latin “epistola”) sent by the Apostles to the first Christians.
  3. The Book of Revelation.

Each biblical book is divided into chapters and each chapter into verses, the same in all the Bibles and all the translations. This facilitates the references and the location of texts; Example: Genesis 12,3 means chapter 12, verse 3 of the book of Genesis.

The first five historical books have a particular historical importance. They are: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. Find them in your Bible. The Jews call them “Ha Torah” (the Torah) which means in Hebrew “the Law”. When the Gospels speak of the Law, they are referring to these 5 books (John 1,45). The Christians call them the “Pentateuch”, from the Greek “penta”, which means five and “tevki” which means “scrolls”, because the Bible was formerly written on leather scrolls which the reader unfolds as he goes along.

Example of scroll

Today, thanks to printing, we are able to have a Bible in only one volume and easy to transport. In the past, the books were written manually by specialized scribes. Some Biblical books such as for example the Books of Genesis and Isaiah the prophet, each contained several scrolls which were not easily transportable, and no one could possess all the Holy Scriptures. These were kept in the Temple of Jerusalem and in some synagogues where they were taught, read, consulted and discussed. Some books are very small and hardly fill a page of our modern volumes, but it became a habit in calling them “book” even if they were but one paper (as the book of the prophet Obadiah, the letter of Jude and the last 2 letters of John).

Make an outline of the name of the biblical books to have the structure of the Bible in summary before your eyes. That will help you find and distinguish the books of the New Testament from those of the Old Testament.

The authors and the duration of the compilation

It took 1000 years to write the Bible, from Genesis to the Book of Revelation. Its drafting began towards the Xth century BC and finished about 95 years after J.C. with the Gospel of St John and his Revelation. St John was the last biblical writer.

Having been written over a period of a thousand years, the Bible is the work of several authors whom one calls “the sacred writers”. They come from various social backgrounds: they are priests, kings, prophets, shepherds, Apostles of Christ of whom two were simple fishermen: Peter, who wrote 2 letters, and John, who wrote a Gospel, 3 letters and the Book of Revelation, the last of the biblical books. Luke the evangelist was a doctor, a cultivated and educated man. Some sacred writers are and will remain unknown, like the writers of Genesis, the books of Samuel and Kings, etc…

Before printing was discovered, the Bible was hand written by scribes devoted to this purpose. They were erudite in regards to the biblical texts and religious laws. It was against the scribes who condemned him that Jesus placed his anger. Because they, who had written the Bible, knew about the prophetic texts which announced him; their refusal of his message, announced by the prophets, is thus unjustified and condemns them (Matthew 23).

Aside from the many biblical writers, there is only one Author who, along the centuries, inspired and supervised the biblical work in its entirety: God. It is the divine Spirit which pushed the ensemble of human writers, spread out over the duration of approximately a thousand years, to put in writing all what they knew of God, his apparitions and his manifestations to those men chosen by Him in order to conclude his plan: to make Himself known to all men. These sacred writers sometimes were cultured, like the prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, Daniel and the Apostles Matthew, Paul and Luke, and sometimes just simple shepherds and fishermen like the prophet Amos and the Apostles Peter and John. This shows that God does not need human culture to reveal himself.

Thus there were several human authors, but the principal Author is God. Along all the centuries when the Bible was compiled, God watched over the fulfillment of his plan and his writing in order to reveal himself to men of all the coming times, to reveal himself to you, today, as to those who will come after you until the end of mankind on earth. The Spirit of God was for the holy writers what the muse is to poets, all things considered.

We can note that the biblical writers expressed the divine Revelation with a precision and a fidelity that evolved with time and experience. There was often confusion between the Revelation of God and the writer’s personal desire, between what God intended and wanted one to understand, and what was understood. One needs subtlety and discernment to seize the language of God. This requires time, experience and prayer. It is necessary to purify our souls and rise to the intention of God, whose language is beyond ours that is too materialistic. Indeed, God says in the book of Isaiah: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts… Yes, the heavens are as high above earth as my ways are above your ways, my thoughts above your thoughts” (Isaiah 55,8-9).

The more the prophets got familiarized with the language of God, the better they seized the true meaning of his words, his true intentions. God wanted this incomprehension of His Word to be reflected in the biblical text. Thus, after having spoken, for example, of circumcision to Abraham and Moses, God explained it later through the prophet Jeremiah as the need to circumcise (ie to purify) the heart, not the foreskin (Jeremiah 9,25). Only love is capable of purifying the heart.

It is with Jesus that God best expressed Himself: Christ reports with precision the real words and intentions of God. This is why He is called “the Word of God” by the Gospel (John 1,1) and the Qur’an (chapter 3, “The House of Imran”, 45. See the text “A Look of faith at the Qur’an”). It is he above all, who insisted on love (Matthew 19,19) and the love which purifies (Luke 7,47).

Jesus, the Word of God by excellence, is the synthesis of the whole biblical message. He is the living and active Bible in us; we must also succeed in introducing Jesus in us, so that He acts in us and with us. It is in order to know and understand Jesus that we must study the Bible, the Old and New Testaments. Then we will know how to introduce the Spirit of Jesus that is the Spirit of God in our everyday life.

Oral traditions

Abraham appeared in 2000 BC. The scribes started writing the Bible approximately 1000 years later. But before the drafting of the Bible, how did the history of Abraham pass on to the following generations? Orally: the first community of believers told the story by mouth to mouth, among families, the stories of ancestors, how God appeared to Abraham, then to his descendents to make them move away from idols. Along the centuries, the stories passed from fathers to sons. Thus, the events remained alive in the spirits. However, passing orally from fathers to sons along the centuries, the same narrative was told differently concerning some details of no importance. What some attributed, for example, to Abraham, others said of his son Isaac.

This gave rise to several “oral traditions”, which slightly differed from each other. You will thus find the same story repeated twice, once attributed to Abraham (Genesis 12,10-20) and another to Isaac (Genesis 26,1-11). In the same way, there are two accounts of creation in Genesis: the first: Genesis 1,1 to Genesis 2,3 and the second: Genesis 2,4 to Genesis 2,25. You will note that the manners of creation differ in the two accounts. The man, for example, according to the first account, is created after the plants and the animals, but he is created before them in the second account. The difference between the two accounts is in the manner of creation, but it is always God who is the unique Creator. Such is the important message that the Bible wants to communicate to us, a message still disputed today by atheists and materialists who reject all the divine revelation.

What are the reasons for these oral traditions to be different?
The most important are:

  1. The long duration (many centuries) which passed between the event and its writing makes one forget to whom a specific fact happened: was it with Abraham and his wife (Genesis 20,1-18) or with Isaac and his wife (Genesis 26,1-11)? Some oral traditions attributed it to Abraham and others to Isaac. The writers, later on, not wanting to omit anything, reported the two accounts to satisfy everyone and unite the ranks. One should not see therein as historical accuracy.
  2. The multitude of narrators.
  3. The evolution of the mentalities of the scribes and believers.

Thus, there were several oral traditions of which the most important are:

  1. The “Elohist” tradition where God, in the original Hebraic text, is called “Elohim”.
  2. The “Yahvist” tradition, where God is called “Yahveh”.
  3. The “Sacerdotal” tradition, introduced by the priests and the Levites where the rigidity and narrowness of their mentality are noted, as well as their attachment to cult. The book of Levites (Leviticus) is an example.

These oral traditions should not be an embarrassment to you; just take note, so that you have a better understanding of certain differences when you start reading the Bible.

These oral traditions also differed from the North to the South of Palestine, the inhabitants being influenced by mythologies of the neighboring countries. So, some believed that creation was completed in six days, others thought differently, according to what they heard from their neighbors in bordering countries. But the Jews all agreed on an essential fact: only one God created everything, and it is this unique God who spoke to Abraham. This is the important revelation to safeguard; the form of creation is less than secondary.

It is this revelation of a unique and creator God that distinguished the Jews from other people who surrounded them and who were, at that time, all polytheists and idolaters.

When, in the Xth century BC, the Jewish religious responsibles decided to put their History in writing, they included the various oral traditions to safeguard the unity of the Jewish community. These various oral traditions help us understand the Revelation in spirit, according to the intention of God, not according to the letter or according to human and political interpretations. You will understand that better when you study Genesis.

The authenticity of the biblical text

Since a couple of years, archaeological discoveries have called into question the historicity of the biblical accounts. According to two Israeli archeologists, Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman, authors of the book “The Bible Unearthed”* argue: “These are accounts which were knit together from souvenirs, details of ancient customs, legends on the birth of different people of the region”.
Even if names of persons and places quoted in the Bible do not have any archaeological proof, the fact remains that the biblical text was written by men inspired by God with the aim of elevating their contemporaries spiritually. (*Published by ‘The Free Press’ A Division of Simon and Schuster, Inc New York, USA. 2001).

It is up to us to read these texts with discernment and to dig out the gold. The prophets themselves, in particular Jeremiah, a contemporary of the writing of the Bible, condemns “the lying pen of the scribes!” (Jeremiah 8,8)

How can we be sure that the biblical text we have in our hands today is the original text? Some claim that this text was falsified and that, consequently, one can no longer depend on the Bible.

There are three kinds of evidence on the authenticity of the current biblical text; there is, on the other hand, no proof of its falsification.

The archaeological evidence

Archaeology unearthed an incalculable number of texts of the Holy Scripture, Old and New Testaments. No literary work of the Antiquity, even post-biblical, has been so accurately transmitted as the Bible, with the support of archaeological evidence. We have so many, and such ancient biblical manuscripts, that the doubt on the authenticity of the biblical text is not permitted.

For the Old Testament

The “Dead Sea” scrolls
The most important archaeological discovery is that of the scrolls known as “The scrolls of Qumran” or of “the Dead Sea” in Palestine. These leather scrolls on which a great part of the Old Testament has been written, were providentially discovered in the caves of the plateau of Qumran, near the Dead Sea, in 1947, by a Palestinian shepherd who was looking for his lost goat. He found it in one of the caves, whilst stamping its foot on a certain place. After getting closer, he saw under its foot the lid of a jar made of earthenware which contained a leather scroll written in Hebrew. It was the debut of the discovery of many scrolls, buried so, of various books of the Old Testament. They had been hidden under ground by a Jewish religious community, the “Essenians”, who lived in Qumran and whose specific mission was the writing and the protection of the biblical texts. These discovered scrolls go back to 200 BC.

It was the habit to keep documents buried so to protect them; this habit is mentioned by the prophet Jeremiah who asked his secretary: “Take these sealed deeds… and put them in an earthenware pot, so that they may be preserved for a long time.” (Jeremiah 32,14)

The scrolls of the Dead Sea are currently at the Rockefeller Museum in Jerusalem, copies of them in microfilms are in all the large museums of the world. The text of these scrolls is identical to what we have in our Bibles today.

For the New Testament

The Rylands papyrus
The oldest manuscript known as “the Rylands papyrus”, is a small fragment of papyrus from the year 125 AD, after the name of the archaeologist who discovered it. It contains a text of the Gospel of St John 18,31. This reassures us on the authenticity of the text, considering that John died around the year 105 AD and that this papyrus goes back only about 20 years years after his death.

Chester Beatty
Another more quantitatively important archaeological discovery is that of the papyri (plural of papyrus) of “Chester Beatty” dating from the 3rd century AD. They contain a great part of the New Testament. They are preserved at the University of Michigan in the United States.

Excerpt from the “Sinaiticus”

There are still three very old whole specimens of the Bible, Old and New Testaments:

  • The “Vaticanus
    In Latin. It dates from the IVth century AD. It is at the Vatican’s museum, from where it derives its name.
  • The “Sinaiticus
    In Greek. It also dates from the IVth century AD. It was found by a Russian Prince at the end of the XIXth century in the Greek Orthodox Convent of St. Catherine in Sinai, from where it derives its name. It is in the British Museum.
  • The “Alexandrinus
    It dates from the Vth century AD and is in the British Museum.

The text of these three ancient Bibles are the same and identical to those of our modern Bibles.

The logical evidence

  • The multitude of Christian rites is a guaranty of the authenticity of the biblical text, as they are the same for all.
  • The texts of the Old Testament are the same for the Christians and the Jews.
  • Some Muslims and Jews claim that the Christians falsified the Bible. Their claims are based on an imposter: the alleged “gospel of Barnabas”. And yet, it is demonstrated that this “gospel” was written in the XVIth century by a Jew “converted” to Christianity, then again to Islam. According to this “gospel”, the Messiah is not Jesus, but Mohammed. This contradicts the Bible and the Qur’an, which both recognize that Jesus is the true Messiah. Thus, no Christian and no Muslim can believe in the “gospel” of Barnabas without disavowing his faith. Furthermore, let us recall that the archaeological discoveries demonstrate the authenticity of the current biblical text.
  • All the biblical scholars recognize the authenticity of the biblical text. Among the Muslims, two great scientists: the late sheikh Afghani and the late sheikh Mohammed Abdo (former Mufti of Azhar, Cairo) categorically deny the falsification of the Bible.

An evidence of faith

God, who revealed the biblical message, cannot permit that its content be falsified and its prophecies lost, especially those that concern the Messiah.

The biblical languages

The Bible was originally written in two languages: In Hebrew for the Old Testament and in Greek for the New Testament (except the Gospel of Matthew which was written in Aramaic, as it was to the Jews that Matthew addressed his Gospel). The Old Testament was also written in Aramaic by the Jews who were exiled to Babylon (Iraq) in the VIth century BC, and where they learned this language.
The Books of the New Testament were originally written in Greek, the international language at the time (see Acts 21,37), like English and French are today.

The “Hebraic” Bible

We call “Hebraic Bible”, what is the original text of the Old Testament in Hebrew. This Bible does not therefore contain the Books of the New Testament, considering the fact that the Jews do not believe in Jesus. It was kept in the Temple of Jerusalem and in the synagogues in the form of scrolls. The biblical translators refer to it as a solid base in their translations of the Old Testament.

The “Greek” Bible

In the 3rd century BC, the Jews of the Diaspora (those who lived outside of Palestine) no longer spoke Hebrew and so, could not read the Hebraic Bible. Therefore, those of Alexandria in Egypt, asked the Jews of Palestine to send them biblical experts to translate for them “The Torah, the Books (of Wisdom) and the Prophets” (that is how the Jews call the Bible), from Hebrew into Greek. They sent 70 biblical scholars to them. When they arrived in Alexandria, they translated all the biblical books from Hebrew into Greek, adding 5 other books that the Jews of Palestine read in the synagogues and the assemblies, without however acknowledging them as inspired books. Thus these five books were not part of the “canonical” books, i.e. not recognized officially as inspired by God.

They are:

  • For the Historical books: Judith and Tobit;
  • For the Wisdom books: The Book of Wisdom and Ecclesiasticus;
  • For the books of the Prophets: Baruch;
  • Two chapters were also added to the book of Daniel: Daniel 13 and 14.

Later on, the two books of the Maccabees were also translated into Greek and added to the already translated predecessors, changing to 7, the number of the books translated into Greek and added to the 39 books of the Hebraic Bible. This group of 7 books with the chapters 13 and 14 of Daniel are recognized as the deutero-canonical books, in which one is free to believe or not.

You will find in the second book of Maccabees, the echo of the close ties between the Jews of Palestine and their co-religionists of Egypt, and the invitation made to the latter to obtain the texts of the Bible: “Greetings to their brothers, the Jews in Egypt, from their brothers, the Jews in Jerusalem, etc… May He (God) open your hearts to his Law (Torah)…” (2 Maccabees 1,1-4) … “Nehemiah founded a library and made a collection of the (biblical) books dealing with the kings and prophets, the writings of David… In the same way, Judas made a complete collection of the books (biblical books of the Old Testament) dispersed in the late war (deportation to Babylon), and these we still have. If you need any of them, send someone to fetch copies for you.” (2 Maccabees 2,13-15). The interest carried by the Jews of Palestine to those of Egypt is due to the fact that the latter formed the richest and most powerful Jewish group of the Diaspora, like the Jews of America today.

The Greek translation of the Hebraic Bible is known under the name of “the Greek Bible” or “the Bible of the Seventy” because of the 70 Jewish scholars who translated it into Greek. It differs from the Hebraic Bible by the 7 “deutero-canonical” (not officially recognized) books which were added. This is the Greek Bible, that the Jews of the Diaspora, who did not understand Hebrew, consulted at the time of the Apostles, to verify the words of Paul (Acts 17,2 / 17,11).

The Jews then refused and still refuse to recognize the 7 deutero-canonical books as inspired by God. This is why they are not to be found in the Hebraic Bible. The Protestants also reject these 7 books and do not introduce them into their Bible. On the other hand, the Catholic and Orthodox Bibles contain these books.

Thus, according to whether you find these 7 books or not, you will be able to recognize a Catholic Bible from a Protestant Bible. These books do not contain anything which differs, on the doctrinal level, between the various confessions. As for the 27 books of the New Testament, they exist entirely in all the Christian Bibles. It is only in the XVI century, after Luther (the founder of Protestantism), that the Protestants removed the seven deuteron-canonical books from their Bible.

The Hebraic Bible, and the Greek Bible of the Seventy, are used as a basis for all the biblical translations. When the books of the New Testament were written, they were added by the Christians to the Greek translation of the Old Testament (Seventy).

The “Latin” Bible (or “Vulgate”)

In the IVth century AD, St Jerome translated the Bible from Hebrew and Greek into Latin, which became the international language at that time, and it remained for a long period, a language employed in the religious and scientific worlds (medicine, etc…) Jerome translated it into a popular version (vulgaris) so that ordinary people could understand. This is why this Bible was known by the name of “the Vulgate”, meaning “The Popular”, accessible to the people. This Latin translation was used a lot and for a long period in the Western religious world, before the Bible was translated into all the languages of the world, since only about a hundred years. Today the Bible is translated into more than 2000 languages. Thus, the evangelical Message is currently spread throughout the whole world. This is a sign of the times predicted by Jesus (Matthew 24,14).

When a Bible mentions that it is translated from the original languages, it means from Hebrew and Greek, but not from Latin, that is already a translation from the original Hebrew and Greek. Before buying a Bible, make sure that it is translated from the original languages.