The word Bible comes from the Greek tà biblía which means “the books” in the plural. As Burridge (2014a) says it is “more like a library” than a single bound ‘book’. The name is also associated with the Phœnician city of Byblos in present day Lebanon which used to export papyrus around the Mediterranean.
The Greek also gives us the Latin Biblioteca and German Bibliothek as the name for a library. This is defined as a collection of books which can be located in a room in a private residence or in a public building. Libraries are collections of knowledge from different viewpoints. The Old and New Testaments of the Bible are a codification of Jewish and Christian viewpoints.
In this essay I want to detail the various books which go together to make this library we call the Bible. In particular I want to outline the various literary genres into which the books can be classified.
The Bible was the first mass-produced ‘book’ when Gutenberg invented moveable type printing in Mainz, Germany around 1454 AD. It has been a huge influence on both history and literature and has gone on to be the best-selling ‘book’ of all time!
The Protestant Bible neatly divides into two: 39 books of the Jewish Old Testament originally written in Hebrew and 27 books of the Christian New Testament originally written in Greek (or possibly Aramaic which was the language of Jesus Christ), giving a total of 66 books. Roman Catholic Bibles have 12 extra Deutero-canonical or apocryphal books giving a total of 78 books. The various branches of the Eastern Orthodox church have even more, the record being held by the Ethiopian Orthodox church Bible which consists of 81 books! Each book is divided into chapters and each chapter consists of various verses, usually written as continuous prose, but occasionally as poetry.
The Old Testament consists of a re-ordering and sub-division of the 24 Hebrew scriptures. The first five Books of Moses (the Pentateuch) present the Jewish law or Torah (Warner, 2014). The opening book is named Genesis which covers the mode of formation or origin of the world. It begins with the famous opening line “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth” (Genesis 1:1). It includes the famous stories of the expulsion from the Garden of Eden, Noah’s Flood and the Tower of Babel. It has many famous double acts including Adam & Eve, Cain & Abel, Abraham & Isaac, Esau & Jacob and Joseph & the Egyptian Pharaoh.
The second book is Exodus which covers the mass departure of the Ancient Israelites from Egypt led by the prophet Moses. The third book is Leviticus which continues the Exodus story and codifies the Hebrew civil, ceremonial and moral laws. It bans a long list of things including pork, shellfish, rabbit, mixed seeds, mixed fabrics, adultery, incest, male homosexuality, bestiality and child sacrifice. Not eating shellfish and male circumcision make a lot of sense in the heat and dust of the Middle East, other condemnations less so! The book of Numbers comes next, continuing the Exodus story. The fifth and final book of Moses is Deuteronomy. This consists of three of the sermons of Moses to the Israelites during the Exodus (Warner, 2014).
The second section of the Old Testament contains the 21 books of the Prophets (Nebi'im). The books of the Former Prophets include Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings detailing the history of the Israelites. The books of the Latter Prophets include Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and 12 minor prophets which continue the history of Ancient Israel (Joyce, 2014).
The third section of the Old Testament contains the Writings (Ketubim). These include the Psalms, the Proverbs, the Book of Job, the Song of Solomon (also known as the Song of Songs) and Ecclesiastes, all five of which are mainly poetic rather than prosaic in form (Stökl, 2014a). Perhaps the most famous of the poems is Psalm 23 which begins: “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want”. Perhaps the most intriguing is Psalm 46 whose 46th word from the start is “shake” and whose 46th word from the end is “spear”, is this a hidden sign that Shakespeare, the foremost man of letters of his time and who was 46 years old in 1610, had a hand in the translation of the King James Version (KJV) of the Bible?
Christian Bibles re-order and split some of the Hebrew scriptures, so the books from Genesis through to Esther are historical, followed by the five poetic books listed above and ending with the prophets Isaiah through to Malachi (Stökl, 2014b).
The Christian New Testament, written originally in Greek (or possibly Aramaic which was the language of Jesus Christ), consists of four sets of books: the four Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, the 21 Epistles or letters and the apocalyptic Book of Revelation. Gospel means ‘good news’ and these four books tell the story of Jesus Christ. These include both historical narratives and the figurative stories (‘parables’) that Jesus himself told (Burridge, 2014b). Some stories, like the feeding of the 5000, figure in all four canonical gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John; whilst other stories can appear in only one gospel. There is considerable overlap between the first three ‘synoptic’ gospels, but less so with the fourth gospel written by John.
The Acts of the Apostles, probably also written by Luke, features both the tribulations of Peter and the conversion of Saul into Paul. The latter may have written 13 of the Epistles, whilst 8 letters may have been written by other authors (Adams, 2014). These letters mainly deal with answering theological and ethical questions raised by the early Gentile (non-Jewish) Christian churches across Asia Minor (modern day Turkey) and Greece.
The final book of the Bible is the Revelation of St. John the Divine (Griffith-Jones, 2014). It begins as a letter from St. John on the Greek island of Patmos writing to seven churches in Asia (Minor). It continues with a series of prophetic visions, before ending with the apocalyptic second coming of Jesus Christ. It is unclear which of the events described so graphically are in the past, the author’s present (i.e. the first century AD) or sometime in the future (at the time of the Fall of the Roman Empire or yet to come?).
So to summarise, ‘The Bible IS more like a library than a book’ consisting as it does of at least 66 individual books. These include both fact and fiction, prose and poetry, chronicles and genealogies, sermons and hymns, rhetorical questions and logical answers, literal history and figurative stories. Something for everyone perhaps?