A good way to get a grip on what goes on in the Bible is to think about the 66 books of the Bible in a number of different groups or sections. This enables you to get a handle on how all those books are organised. The Old Testament has 4 basic sections: the Pentateuch (the first five books), the Historical Books, the Writings (works of poetry and wisdom) and the Prophets. The New Testament is made up of the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles, the Letters, with the book of Revelation (which is prophecy once more) at the end.
It’s quite useful to have a sense of different groupings of some of the Bible books. There isn’t one authoritative way of doing this, but the following might be helpful as a rule of thumb. Let’s quickly take a walk through the contents of each of the Testaments.
The Old Testament begins with five books which are traditionally associated with Moses. They are sometimes called the books of Moses, and sometimes the rather more forbidding title ‘Pentateuch’ (which just means ‘five scrolls’ or ‘five volumes’). These tell of the creation, and of God’s initial relationship with human beings at large. They then focus in on His relationship with Abraham and his descendants, the Jewish nation. Included here are things like the Exodus from Egypt (think Charlton Heston’s ‘10 Commandments’ or Steven Spielberg’s ‘Prince of Egypt’), and the unique laws that God gave to the Jews, known as ‘The Law of Moses’.
Then we move into further books which detail the history of the Jews, from the time that they entered the land of Palestine/Israel (in the book of Joshua), to the time in which they were removed from it by the Baylonians in 586BC and taken into captivity (some of them subsequently returned 70 years later). All together, this section accounts for twelve Old Testament books. It’s important because the way in which God dealt with His people Israel (their history, in other words) sheds massive insight on God’s character and the way in which He plans to interact with the larger world. This is discussed on the pages Why the Jews? and Does the history matter?
Next come a tricky group to categorise. Known as ‘The Writings’, this group of Old Testament books includes different kinds of poetry. It contains the book of Psalms (a favourite for many Bible readers), as well as Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and Song of Songs. One of the fascinating things about these books is that they deal with the emotional aspect – the human response – to life and a relationship with God.
The Old Testament is rounded out by the Prophets (17 books, or about a third of the whole). These books tell how to live, the consequences of obedience and disobedience, and set out a vision for the immediate and long-term future in God’s plan.
When we come to the New Testament there are three main parts. The four Gospels and the book of Acts tell of the life of Jesus and the formation of the early church in the first century AD. Next there are a series of 21 letters written by different apostles to congregations or individual believers in the first century, addressing their questions and needs about how to serve God and preach the good news about Jesus. The New Testament is then concluded with the book of Revelation which reprises and extends the prophecy of the Old Testament.