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The Bible for BlockheadsA User-Friendly Look at the Good Book
By Douglas Connelly
ZondervanCopyright © 2007 Douglas Connelly
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Bible: What's with It?
<- Discover how the Bible was written - and how it survived.
<- Learn to find your way around quickly.
<- Find out what role God played in the production of the Bible.
The word Bible means "the book." The Bible is one book, but it is also a collection of books. Sixty-six books were written over 1,600 years by at least forty different authors. You will find just about every kind of writing in the Bible - love letters, songs, historical records, diaries, visions of the future, genealogies, riddles. The Bible was the first book printed on a printing press, and it still outsells all other books in the marketplace. You can get the Bible on audio, on video, and online. It has been translated into more languages and has been quoted more and memorized more than any book in human history.
The Bible is divided into two main sections - the Old Testament and the New Testament. The Old Testament focuses on God's interaction with the people of Israel. The New Testament, written later, focuses on Jesus and his early followers called Christians. The word testament means "treaty orcovenant," an agreement made between two people. God entered into a contract with the people of Israel in the Old Testament. God's new contract (in the New Testament) is made with anyone who will commit to following Jesus. In each Testament the terms of the agreement are spelled out. The Bible is an instruction manual for people who want to do what pleases God.
The Old Testament
The first and longest major division of the Bible is called the Old Testament by Christians. (Jewish people refer to it as "the Hebrew Bible.") Thirty-nine individual biblical books are included in the Old Testament. Some of the books are named for their author - like the book of Daniel. Daniel was a prophet (or spokesperson) for God, who wrote that particular book. Some books are named for their main characters, who may or may not be the author. The book of Joshua is about a great leader named Joshua. The book of Esther is about a Jewish girl who became a courageous queen. Joshua probably was the author of his book. Esther probably was not the writer of the book about her.
Other Old Testament books get their names because of the story they tell. The book of Exodus, for example, tells the story of the nation of Israel's "exit" from Egypt. The books of Kings talk about (you guessed it) Israel's kings. Some books have unusual names that don't make much sense in English - Leviticus, Ecclesiastes, Psalms. (I've tried to give some explanation of these titles in the Help File section of each of these books.)
Originally the Old Testament was written in two languages. Most of it was written in Hebrew. Small sections of a few books were written in a language related to Hebrew called Aramaic.
Here's what Hebrew looks like in a modern Hebrew Bible:
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.
Hebrew is read from right to left (the opposite of English) and from the top line of the page to the bottom line (the same as English). The large blocky letters are the consonants (twenty-two in the Hebrew alphabet). The dots and small marks above or below the consonants are vowels or vowel "points." When the Old Testament was first composed, Hebrew was written with no vowels and no word divisions (mostly to conserve room on very expensive writing material). Word divisions were made about AD 100. Vowel marks were added in the ninth or tenth century AD to preserve the correct pronunciation of the ancient Hebrew language.
Hebrew is a very expressive language. It is a language suited to stories and poetry - exactly the forms found most often in the Old Testament.
The New Testament
The second main section of the Bible is the New Testament (twenty-seven biblical books). Just as in the Old Testament, some of these books are named for their author. The gospel of John, for example, is the story of Jesus (a gospel) written by one of Jesus' followers (John). Other books are named for their content. The book of Acts records the "acts," or deeds, of the early Christians. Many of the New Testament books are letters and are named for those who first read the letter. Ephesians, for example, is a letter sent to the Christians in the city of Ephesus. People living in the city of Corinth were called Corinthians - and we have two letters to the Corinthian Christians (1 and 2 Corinthians).
The New Testament was originally written in Greek. When the story of the New Testament opened, Rome ruled the world of Europe and North Africa, but the universal language of the Roman Empire was Greek, not Latin. The New Testament was written in "street Greek." It was not the difficult language of the scholars, but the everyday language of the people. Today it looks like this in a printed Greek New Testament:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
Greek is read from left to right, just like English. While Hebrew is a poetic language, Greek is a very precise language. Its words and structure are more rigid than Hebrew. It is a great language for precise, clear communication.
A Survival Story
The original documents of the Bible have all disappeared, but copies of the originals have survived. We take making copies for granted. Every drugstore and post office has a ten-cent copy machine. Before the printing press, however, every copy of a book or letter had to be made by hand. Some of the most respected people in society were scribes, those who could write or copy words. Think of how long it would take you to copy by hand even one book of the Bible or the latest John Grisham novel! People in the ancient world copied only the most important or treasured documents.
Hand-produced copies of the Hebrew Old Testament and the Greek New Testament are called manuscripts. Some of the manuscripts we possess are very old. We are confident that these manuscripts are accurate copies of the original writings because the Jews and later the Christians who copied the text took extreme care in their work. They were fanatics about accuracy!
So many copies (manuscripts) have survived that we can compare the places where minor discrepancies occur. Less than 1 percent of the accuracy of the New Testament text, for example, is seriously questioned. That is just one word out of every four thousand words. More significantly, none of the teachings of the Bible are affected by any variation in the text.
Over four thousand Greek manuscripts of the New Testament have survived. Compare that to some other ancient writings:
Homer's Iliad has the most surviving copies of any other ancient document - 643 manuscripts. Five percent of the text is questionable. Julius Caesar's Gallic Wars rests on only ten surviving copies. Tacitus wrote seventeen books of Roman history. Only four and one-half books survive in two copies.
Two of the oldest complete New Testament manuscripts that survive were copied about AD 350 - some 250 years after the New Testament was completed. In addition we have fragments of various New Testament books that can be dated 100 to 200 years earlier, to within 150 years of the writing of the New Testament. Other ancient writings don't even come close.
Scholars of the Greek dramatist Sophocles tell us that we have an accurate text of his seven surviving plays. But the manuscript on which the text is based was copied more than 1,400 years after the poet's death.
The earliest surviving copies of the dialogues of Plato date from 1,300 years after their original writing.
We don't have the actual letter written to the Christians in Ephesus (our New Testament book of Ephesians), but we can put our confidence in the accuracy of the text we do have. The Bible has survived attacks from every direction. Dictators have tried to destroy it, critics have tried to shred it, skeptics have tried to ignore it, and enemies have tried to burn it, but it has survived them all.
Finding Your Way Around
Once Bibles began to be printed as books on a printing press (around AD 1550), chapters and verses were added to make it easier to find a specific text. Today we have a standard way of writing references to Bible verses. John 1:12, for example, means the gospel of John (the biblical book), chapter 1 (the chapter is listed to the left of the colon), verse 12 (the verse number is listed to the right of the colon). The Bible reference is the "address" of the verse in the Bible. You can pick up any Bible and find the gospel of John (the fourth book in the New Testament section). In the first chapter at verse number 12, you would read something like this:
Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.
To refer to more than one verse, a dash is used to connect the first and last verses. John 1:12-14 indicates the section of John, chapter 1, from verse 12 through verse 14. Individual verses in a chapter are separated by a comma. John 1:12, 14 refers to John, chapter 1, verse 12 and verse 14. Sections of a book covering more than one chapter are also indicated by using a dash. Acts 15:36-18:22 refers to the book of Acts, chapter 15, verse 36, through chapter 18, verse 22. Sometimes a Bible reference just includes the chapters of a book. John 14-17 means the gospel of John, chapter 14 through chapter 17.
A few biblical books are just one chapter in length. A reference to those books mentions only the book name and verse number. Jude 8 refers to the book of Jude, verse 8.
Occasionally a reference will be made to a small section of a verse rather than the whole verse. A lowercase a or b (and sometimes c if the verse is long) is used in the reference. John 1:12a refers to the first part of verse 12 in the gospel of John, chapter 1.
The Bible is also divided into paragraphs or stanzas of poetry. Different versions of the Bible have different ways of indicating those divisions. Sometimes the editors of a version of the Bible will insert section headings describing the content of a section or "passage" of Scripture. As you read and use your Bible more, you will become familiar with the "mechanics" of its layout. What is most important in your Bible, of course, is not the layout or size of the print or color of the cover. What is most important are the words of the Bible themselves.
But I Don't Speak Greek!
Down through the centuries, the Bible has been translated from Hebrew and Greek into other languages. A translation of the Bible is usually called a version of the Bible. The Authorized Version (AV; also called the King James Version [KJV]) of the Bible is one of the most famous English translations. It was completed in 1611 and was the main version of the Bible used by Protestant, English-speaking Christians for more than three hundred years. But the English language has changed in the past four centuries, and the KJV has become more difficult to understand. In the mid-1900s several contemporary English-language versions of the Bible were produced.
One popular English version is the New American Standard Bible (NASB for short). This very accurate translation converts the Hebrew and Greek text into English as directly as possible. The NASB was updated in 1998.
The New International Version (NIV) is the most widely used English version today. It translates the original languages accurately but in a more readable style than the NASB. In this book I use the TNIV-Today's New International Version. It's a revision of the NIV that eliminates most instances of the generic use of masculine nouns and pronouns, and it speaks clearly to today's culture.
Other widely used versions in English are:
New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) New King James Version (NKJV) New American Bible (NAB) (used by many Catholics) Jerusalem Bible (JB) (used by many Catholics) New Living Translation (NLT) Contemporary English Version (CEV) English Standard Version (ESV)
All versions or translations of the Bible attempt to express accurately the meaning of the original writings in a new language.
The best version for you to use is the one you will actually read! If you like and can understand the English of the KJV, fine. If you enjoy the NASB, plunge in. If you are new to the Bible or have never read the Bible much, the NIV or the TNIV is an excellent choice.
Is the Good Book God's Book?
Christians look at the Bible as more than just a collection of ancient religious writings. The Bible is God's Word - God's truth written in human language. The Bible itself claims to originate with God, not with those who wrote it. One of Jesus' followers, Peter, wrote that the authors of the Bible "spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit" (2 Peter 1:21). Paul, another New Testament writer, said, "All Scripture is God-breathed" (2 Timothy 3:16). Over four thousand times in various ways the Bible claims to record the very words of God. The Bible speaks with God's authority and tells us the truth about God, about the world, and about ourselves.
God did use human authors to communicate his truth. The writers of the Bible were not robots, mindlessly recording the dictation of an inner voice. They wrote letters and historical summaries and wise sayings for people who lived in a particular culture at a specific time and place in history. But God guided what they wrote so that their writings communicated exactly what he wanted said. God still speaks to us in the Bible even though we live thousands of years later than the original writers and readers of the Bible.
You may not agree that the Bible is God's book. You may not even think that the Bible is true. It's OK to think that way. Clever arguments won't convince you differently, so don't expect any "pulpit pounding" from me! I encourage you to pursue your interest in the Bible at any level. What you will discover as you read is that the Bible can defend itself. God will begin to speak to your mind and your life when you least expect it.
Excerpted from The Bible for Blockheads by Douglas Connelly Copyright © 2007 by Douglas Connelly. Excerpted by permission.
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