What actually happens in the Bible? What are the main points of the Bible? Is each book a standalone work, or do they fit together to tell one coherent story?
One big book, split into two sections, including at least 66 individual books – and featuring over 700,000 words.
It’s fair to say that the Bible isn’t a quick, breezy beach read. In fact, to put it in perspective, George RR Martin’s A Game of Thrones is a (mere?) 290,000+ words in comparison – but at least HBO made an adaptation we can whizz through in a couple of sittings.
Due to its length and structure, it can be helpful to view the Bible like a small library. Like a library, the Bible showcases several different genres – including history books, legal writings, letters and biographies.
Nor is it the creation of one lone writer, either; it draws together the work of over 40 different authors from different backgrounds and beliefs, who all add something unique to the collection.
But what actually happens in the Bible? What are the main points of the Bible? Is each book a standalone work, or do they fit together to tell one coherent story? (Plot spoiler: yes – we'll get to that shortly.)
So, if you’re keen to discover the major plot points of the world’s number one bestseller in a few short minutes, join us with this whistlestop tour.
The Bible is split into two sections: the Old Testament and the New Testament.
The Old Testament starts with the depiction of a creator God, who creates with purpose and intention.
Across 39 books, it zooms in to focus on the history of one group of people – the Israelites – and their relationship with God, each other and surrounding nations over thousands of years.
The Hebrew Bible (referred to by Christians as ‘The Old Testament’) remains a sacred text within Judaism.
But what happens in the Old Testament?
The first book of the Bible, Genesis, provides an answer to questions many of us have asked at one point or another – questions we’re still asking all these years later:
The beginning of the Bible offers a poetic depiction of the creation of the world. When approaching this text, it can be easy to critique its depiction of how the world was created – does it align with modern science? And, if we reach the conclusion that it doesn’t, does it automatically lose its value?
But what if, rather than asking how the world was created, Genesis is actually asking a different question: why?
Why was the world created? And, moreover, why were we created? What’s our role in the world? How should we be in relationship with each other, with nature, and with the divine?
Genesis is an ancient text – and it was written by an ancient author, for an ancient audience. Its early audience had a completely different worldview to most of us today, believing that the earth was flat and surrounded by sea. The sky acted like a dome over the earth, with heaven found above and beyond.
As human understanding of the world has developed, some have drawn into question the plausibility of the Bible story, and yet, many today view the creation less as a narrative about how we got here, but a narrative about why we’re here – and Genesis still has something to say in response to that question.
Genesis is the second longest book in the Bible, and a lot happens in it. In fact, some of the most well-known Bible stories are found in Genesis: Adam and Eve, the Flood, and Joseph and his brilliantly coloured coat. But how do these turn of events unfold?
Genesis introduces the story of Adam and Eve, two figures blessed with a safe haven – a beautiful, bountiful garden where they have a close, personal relationship with God. They have everything they could possibly need, but they’re tempted, and act selfishly, turning their backs on God in the process. Things spiral from here; Adam and Eve must leave this space as a result of their actions. But this isn’t a story of total abandonment: it’s a lesson in actions, consequences, justice, and hope. God doesn’t turn his back on humanity.
We see this pattern repeat itself throughout Genesis; people trying to do things their own way, and the consequences that follow. But we also get the image of a faithful God, who continues to forge a relationship with key figures, such as Abraham and Moses.
At the time of Genesis’ composition, different cultures had found their own ways of getting to the heart of some of those difficult questions we wonder about how we got here and why we’re here. Examples include the likes of Enuma Elish, an ancient Mesopotamian creation epic that describes a battle between the gods, resulting in the creation of the world and humanity, who were created from the blood of a slain god.
The creation narrative found in Genesis tells a story of one God, who created with purpose – and love. Within this creation story, humans aren’t mistakes. They're intentionally made, and they’re made to reflect their creator. With this comes a responsibility to look after the world and everything in it, and the chance to coexist harmoniously with each other and with the divine. But it also offers a lesson about the role of evil in the world, and the impact it has on our lives.
The next four books of the Bible join Genesis to form what is referred to as ‘the Torah’ in Jewish Bibles, or ‘the Pentateuch’ in Christian Bibles. Together, these five books tell the early days of the Israelite nation.
The Bible details the Israelites’ enslavement in Egypt and their eventual entry into Canaan: a space for them to live and grow as a community.
The authors of these texts were living in a world that can feel very different to the world we are living in, a world in which slavery was commonplace, violence was widespread, and nations viewed and understood the concept of a higher being/beings in different ways.
Within this wider context, the early books of the Old Testament document the attempts of a small group of people to remain loyal to the one active creator God, in a part of the world where the worship of multiple gods was commonplace.
The Bible documents Israelite leadership, charting the era of leaders known as ‘Judges’ through to the eventual establishment of a monarchy. Different writers provide accounts of Israelite leadership over hundreds of years, highlighting their trials and tribulations in the political and the personal.
Following errors made during the leadership of the Judges, Israel appoint Saul as their first monarch. He was followed by King David, a bit of an underdog who went from shepherd boy to the ruler responsible for uniting the 12 tribes of Israel as one. However, the Bible doesn’t mask King David’s personal failings, including his adulterous relationship with Bathsheba and the ensuing murder of her husband.
But it’s not all narrative here. Inspired by the wisdom of King Solomon – David's son with Bathsheba – the Bible also contains a collection of books known as ‘wisdom literature’ which draw together lessons on life, relationships and faith. That’s where you’ll find well-known pieces like Psalm 23.
Following the successful reign of King Solomon, his son, King Rehoboam, caused a division in the land. This results in Israel being split into a Northern Kingdom, known as Israel, and a Southern Kingdom, known as Judah, in 930 BCE. The Bible depicts the leadership of both Kingdoms, and the separate challenges they faced over hundreds of years.
At this point in the Bible, you’ll find lots of prophetic writings from individuals who saw how bleak things had become but had a message to share: it won’t always be this way.
This section of the Bible describes a complex political period, culminating in the conquer of the Northern Kingdom by the Assyrian Empire in 773 BCE. The Southern Kingdom survived an Assyrian attack in 701 BCE but was attacked by the Babylonians in 597 BCE and taken into captivity in Babylon for around 70 years. Then the Persians defeated the Babylonians and allowed the exiles to return home and rebuild their temple.
Following on from the Old Testament, the New Testament features in Christian Bibles. It tells the story of Jesus, a man born into humble conditions, who Christians believe to be the one promised to humanity hundreds of times throughout Old Testament writings.
But what happens in the New Testament? Let’s dig a little deeper:
The New Testament starts with what’s known as the ‘Gospels’, which translates as ‘Good News’. And for its four writers, that’s exactly what the Gospels were: the ultimate good news; a promise, fulfilled.
The Gospels draw together writings from Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, traditionally viewed as Jesus’ followers. Covering the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, the Gospel writings spell out the writers’ belief that Jesus is the promised Messiah – God in human form.
He was different from other leaders; according to Gospel writings, Jesus was a peaceful figure, who dedicated his life to teaching, preaching and healing.
The New Testament is roughly 2,000 years old – what we might now consider to be pretty ancient. But, for its very first readers, the New Testament was anything but old. In fact, it offered a new idea, a new belief system and a new way of living to its contemporary reader – and many viewed these as radical and even blasphemous works.
The Old Testament explores the relationship between God and humanity, focusing on several key figures and their unique relationships with the divine.
But the New Testament is different. It focuses on the life and legacy of one individual: Jesus. And its message is that Jesus is the true Messiah – in fact, the name ‘Jesus Christ’ translates as ‘Jesus the Messiah’.
After the Gospel accounts of the extraordinary life of Jesus, the Bible features a collection of works that explain the highs and lows of the early Church.
Christianity is now a major world religion, but that hasn’t always been the case. When the New Testament was first compiled, the early Church was still relatively small – but it was growing. As Jesus’ friends and followers shared his message to the ancient world, more and more people began to adopt Christianity as their religion – but that meant trying to work out how to live a good life, and how that might differ from the life they lived previously. But the early Church was also under constant threat from the authorities, who disagreed with their beliefs.
Wondering what the last story in the Bible is? This collection of ancient texts concludes with the book of Revelation, which is taken from the Greek to mean ‘unveiling’.
If you read Revelation, you’ll notice that it feels pretty different to other parts of the Bible – and it can be a little tricky to get your head around at times, too.
Revelation is packed with metaphors that take on meaning when read within the context of the time, and often with a background knowledge of the Old Testament.
The narrative captures the author’s vision of the future, where paradise – just like we find at the start of the Bible, in Eden – is restored.
This book was written during a time when Christians were being targeted and persecuted by Roman officials. And the author of the final book in the Christian Bible was directly impacted.
Exiled and imprisoned on the island of Patmos, John’s writings were created during a time of fear and oppression for the early Church, yet he stays true to his faith and maintains a message of hope for the future.
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