The Bible is a library of books rather than a single book. But it is a very unusual sort of library. All its various component books are collected together in one cover and have a unity of theme and purpose (a 'golden-thread', if you like) which binds them together. And yet its different parts were written over a period of more than a thousand years by many different authors. In both its form and its formation it is unlike any other book in the world.
The Bible is not a single book, although people often refer to it as if it were. Instead, it’s actually a library of 66 books, divided into two parts known as testaments. Just as a library contains many different types of books of all shapes and sizes, so it is with the Bible. Just as a library collects more books as time goes by – some of them very old, some of them relatively more recent – so it is with the Bible.
But there the similarities end.
The oldest books in the Bible are around 3500-4000 years old (and there are sections which are probably considerably older), and for a period of around 1500-2000 years more books were written and added. But then the process stopped. The Bible was recognized as being complete, and no more books were added (this process is called the formation of the Canon, and is discussed here).
This process by which the Bible grew into its present form is fascinating, for it shows that God gradually and incrementally revealed more of Himself and His purpose to human beings as history moved forward. In a way, God was leading His people, through the growth and development of these writings, on a journey in which they gradually got to know Him better. In a way Bible readers today go on a similar journey (though not one that takes hundreds of years!) as they gradually fit together the various pieces of God’s word and come to see how it all fits together and reveals God’s great purpose.
A library of today has many more than 66 books, of course, and would likely contain within it a multitude of opinions on a myriad subjects – many of them contradictory. Not so with the Bible. Though it was written over a period of more than 1500 years and by more than forty different authors, it has a consistency and agreement which is very powerful, and which many take as an indication that it is God’s word, while at the same time having been written by men.
Unity in Diversity
There is no other book in the world which was written and compiled in quite the same way as the Bible. It is absolutely unique. To be sure, an encyclopedia has many different authors. But it is commissioned a particular point in time, with the writers conscious that they are contributors to a larger work – and there is no unifying goal or theme to its content. Many of the writers might have significant disagreements with one another. The Bible was written over an enormous time span, with the writers unaware that they were creating pieces of a larger, inspired puzzle – that they were playing bit-parts, as it were, in a much larger unfolding drama.
The Bible library contains a vast array of different types of literature, from law to prophecy to narrative to poem and beyond. Its authors range from shepherds to kings, tentmakers to priests. The very fact that the Bible has so many authors means that it reflects to some extent the different personalities and aims of its human writers, and that some parts of it appeal more to certain types of people than other parts (for example, some people find it fascinating to unpack the rituals of the Law of Moses to find their meaning, while others might find the Law to be complicated and somewhat dry). But while we may naturally have our personal favorites, all of the Bible is important, and it all fits together in a wonderful way, despite its diversity.
Because each constituent part takes its place in a greater structure, there is an overarching pattern and message. Having an eye on the flow and message of the Bible as a whole is very helpful when it comes to interpreting its unique and individual component parts.