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The Bible: What actually is it? And why is it so important? 

What comes to mind when you think of the Bible? 

Perhaps you picture a black leatherbound book, respectably taking pride of place on a shelf or hidden away in a cupboard. You may remember some of the stories from school assemblies; classics like Noah’s Ark, or the Good Samaritan. Maybe you recently heard it quoted at a wedding, or a funeral. Perhaps you’ve even tried reading bits of it for yourself? Or maybe it just feels like a mystery – too strange or daunting to open?

The Bible remains one of the most influential books ever written. But have you ever stopped to ask, what actually is it? Who reads the Bible these days? What’s the story of the Bible? And why is it such an important book?

What actually is the Bible?!

The words ‘Bible’ and ‘Scripture’ may sound like religious terms, but they were actually pretty normal Greek words meaning ‘books’ and ‘writings’. There’s nothing particularly spiritual about either word, which is why they are often prefaced with the word ‘Holy’.

The Bible is a collection of sacred writings that form the basis for the Jewish and Christian faiths. It’s best thought of not as one book, but a collection of books, compiled over nearly 2,000 years and set across three continents. It was written by over 40 different authors, including scholars, shepherds and songwriters. Each of them shared their stories and wisdom in their own unique voice. The result is this diverse library, and there’s something in it for everyone. 

Like a library, the Bible contains writings of different genres. There are history books, with epic tales of heroes and villains, and laws and instructions for how to live well (you may have heard of the Ten Commandments, but there are plenty more where they came from!). There’s poetry and song that speaks to every season of life, and wisdom books that grapple with the big questions we all face. There are biographies, letters, and some pretty weird visions as well! 

However, unlike a library, all of these books come together to tell one unified story. More on that later. But first …

Does anyone actually read the Bible these days?

It may surprise you to know that the bestselling book year on year is not Harry Potter, The Da Vinci Code, or Fifty Shades of Grey, but the Bible! One hundred million copies are sold or given away worldwide every year. One and a quarter million are sold in the UK annually. In fact, the Bible so consistently dominates the charts that it’s intentionally left out of the listings. 

The Bible has been bought, banned, and burned more than any other book in history. It regularly features on lists of 100 books to read before you die, and is the most commonly shoplifted book! It is by every definition ‘a classic’, including Mark Twain’s definition that, ‘A classic is something everyone wants to have read and nobody wants to read.’ 

While it’s true that the Bible sells well, that doesn’t necessarily mean people are reading it. Chances are you may have a copy or two – maybe a family heirloom that hasn’t been opened for decades. But consider that those sales figures only account for physical copies, and many people access the Bible online, either through choice or necessity, since in some countries it’s illegal or impossible to own a copy. The YouVersion Bible app – just one of many digital options – has been downloaded over five hundred million times. 

Why is the Bible such an important book? 

The influence of the Bible goes far beyond religion. While many turn to it for spiritual reasons, plenty of others who wouldn’t consider themselves religious still find it to be a fascinating book. And whether we realise it or not, it’s influenced pretty much every area of life. 

Language, arts and culture

The Bible itself is a great piece of literature, containing beautiful poetry, prose and song. It’s had a profound influence on the English language, and many phrases we use today originated from the Bible. For instance: go the extra mile, how the mighty have fallen, or there’s nothing new under the sun. It’s not uncommon to hear it quoted in public life or casual conversation, even if the person quoting it doesn’t know where the phrase came from.

In addition, the Bible’s made a huge contribution to art and culture, with its themes being explored and alluded to in pretty much every medium. 

The Bible has inspired novels such as Les Miserables, The Lord of the Rings, the Harry Potter books and Crime and Punishment. It’s been quoted in films like The Shawshank Redemption, Pulp Fiction and Indiana Jones, and hit musicals like Jesus Christ Superstar and Hamilton. Its stories have been depicted in countless pieces of art by the likes of Michelangelo, Leonardo Da Vinci and Caravaggio. And it’s inspired many great musicians, from classical composers like Bach and Handel to jazz and gospel musicians such as John Coltrane and Mahalia Jackson, and modern artists like U2, Kendrick Lamar and Stormzy. 

Many people today – religious or not – enjoy reading the Bible as an important cultural artefact, which helps us understand the themes and allusions in many other great pieces of art.  

Laws, ethics, and social change

The Bible also has an ongoing role in wider society. It’s inspired countless men and women to work for social justice, racial reconciliation, environmental care, feeding the hungry, and looking after the vulnerable. People like Nelson Mandela or Florence Nightingale, civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jnr and abolitionist William Wilberforce. Each of these was inspired by their Christian faith and the teaching of the Bible. And historically, churches have taken the lead in establishing schools, orphanages and hospitals, motivated by the words of this book. 

Of course, plenty of people make a positive contribution to social change whether they read the Bible or not. Religious people certainly don’t have the monopoly on doing good. (In fact Christians have a sad history of failing to live up to the teachings of their own sacred book!) But many of the values we take for granted today were not always obvious in other times and cultures. Things like:

  • Caring for those in greatest need, whether or not they could ever repay us
  • Expecting standards of truth and integrity from our leaders
  • Striving for equality and treating all people with dignity
  • Offering forgiveness, restoration and a fresh start

We owe these, and many other values, to the influence of the Bible. Which is why many of the greatest speeches written to inspire people to stand up for justice – such as those of Martin Luther King Jr – draw on themes and language from this ancient text.

Science and Innovation

Many people think the Bible and science are at odds with one another, but while at times through history, the church has been suspicious of scientific progress, more often the church encouraged, and in fact sponsored scientific study. Many leading scientists have been Christians, for example Copernicus, Galileo, Isaac Newton, and more recently Dr Francis Collins who, as Director of the Human Genome Project, made vital contributions to mapping the human genome and understanding disease genes.

Many significant innovations in science and technology have been made by people who love the Bible and have found within its pages the encouragement to explore and make sense of the world.

So, what is the story of the Bible?

The Bible is made up of two parts, which together tell a story that spans thousands of years. 

The Old Testament: The Story of Israel

The first half of the Bible contains the Hebrew Scriptures, often referred to by Christians as the Old Testament. These books tell the story of the Jewish people, up to about 400 BCE. 

The Old Testament begins with origin stories, of the world itself, and the nation of Israel in particular. The early books contain some stories you may recognise, such as Adam and Eve, Abraham, Joseph and his multi-coloured coat, and Moses leading the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt. These were Israel’s foundational stories, explaining how their nation had come to exist. From thereon, the rest of the Old Testament depicts their ups and downs; the defining moments in their national history and lessons they learned along the way. Not just the glossy highlights, but the ugly stuff too, preserved to remind future generations of the failings of the past, so they wouldn’t repeat them.

But the authors didn’t only recount historical events, they also interpreted them. Through poetry and prose, they tried to make sense of the struggles they faced, grappling with questions many of us feel today: what does it mean to live a good life? Why do bad things happen to good people? What’s God like? And if God really is loving and powerful, why does the world seem so messed up? 

Throughout the story, the authors expressed their hope that one day Israel’s God would send someone to rescue them. They called this person ‘the Messiah’ which means ‘anointed one’. Fast-forward 400 years, and a man named Jesus arrived on the scene. People started to believe that maybe he was the Messiah they’d been longing for. 

The New Testament: The story of Jesus and the Church

The second half of the Bible, known as the New Testament, opens with four biographies about Jesus, which today we call Gospels. They contain accounts of the things Jesus said and did; how he spoke truth to those in power, and cared for those who were in need – healing the sick and welcoming those who society rejected. He taught about what God was like, and announced that God had a plan to put the world to rights. And he invited people to join him. 

Many who heard Jesus thought he was the real deal, and some even began to believe he might not just be a wise teacher, but God himself in human form! His enemies felt threatened by him and conspired to have him killed. He was arrested, put on trial, sentenced to death under false pretences, and executed on a cross. 

But three days later (spoiler alert!) some of his followers announced that they’d discovered his tomb to be empty. Furthermore, they claimed to have met Jesus, risen and very much alive! This was a shocking twist that nobody had seen coming. But for Jesus’ followers, their belief in his resurrection was the ultimate message of hope that gave meaning to the whole story of the Bible. 

The God who had made the world and everything in it had not given up on it. Through the ups and downs of Israel’s story, he hadn’t abandoned them, but had a plan to put things right. 

Christians believe that Jesus’ death was an act of love – God willingly laying down his life for us. And his resurrection is a powerful symbol of his victory – not even death itself can stand in the way of God’s plan to heal the world. This is where the story has been heading all along, and the final book of the Bible (the book of Revelation) depicts a day in the future when God will free the world from the power of death, forever. 

The stories of Jesus are central to understanding the message of the Bible. If you want to find out more, this article considers whether there is any evidence that Jesus existed, and this page looks a little more at the significance of Easter.

In the first century CE, the stories about Jesus went viral, as Christians travelled across the world, telling people about Jesus and starting churches – communities based on Jesus’ teaching. The story of this spread is captured in a book called the Acts of the Apostles. And the rest of the New Testament contains letters written to encourage these churches through the challenges they faced. These stories and letters still encourage and inspire many people today. 

Does the Bible have anything to say to me?

The Bible has been hugely influential, right across the world, and down through the ages. Every generation has discovered new things in this book – both new inspiration, and new challenges! Its words have given hope, comfort and guidance to billions of people. 

But maybe you’re wondering if it has anything to say to you? Well, if you’re curious about the Bible, we’re here to help. 

Perhaps you have big questions about life? Maybe you suspect there are some answers out there, but aren’t sure where to find them. We’d love to help you experience the Bible as a source of millennia-old wisdom, with things to say about life, death, love, work, beauty, faith and doubt. A great place to begin may be with this ten-minute guided meditation on worry, or this fresh look on the Easter story.

Maybe you’ve got big questions about the Bible itself? Like who actually wrote it? Is it full of errors? Or whether there’s any evidence outside the Bible for the existence of Jesus? We’ll explore some of those questions as well. 

If you’d like to join us in exploring this book, you may want to subscribe to our email list, so we can let you know when we release new content. And if you’ve got burning questions you’d love us to consider, drop us an email at [email protected] – we’re always happy to help.

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