The Bible is made up of sixty-six books divided into two Testaments and organized by genre rather than chronologically. It is further divided into chapters and verses. It is not a book you can just let flop open, read a couple of sentences, and then claim to understand what God is saying. We must approach God’s word with respect and wisdom.
Understanding how the Bible is organized is one of the first important parts of navigating and properly interpreting the Bible.
Old Testament vs. New Testament
The Bible is divided between two major categories: the Old Testament and the New Testament. The word testament comes from the Latin term testamentum meaning covenant. A covenant is an agreement between two or more parties. So, the Old and New Testaments are actually the Old and New Covenants.
“The Bible speaks of different agreements that God made with humanity. The entire flow of biblical history is based upon the covenants that God has made with humankind. In the Bible we find covenants made with Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, and David. Through the prophet Jeremiah God also promised a new covenant. Jesus Himself is the one who instituted the new covenant…God has kept His part of the bargain in all of these covenants. However humanity miserably failed to keep their part. This is why a Savior is desperately needed.” ~ Don Stewart11
The Old Testament contains several covenants that God made with the people of Israel. It would probably be more accurate to refer to the Old Testament as the Old Covenants. However, even within the Old Testament, there were prophecy of a new and final covenant to come, through the Messiah.
“Behold, days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, not like the covenant which I made with their fathers in the day I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, although I was a husband to them,” declares the Lord. “But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days,” declares the Lord, “I will put My law within them and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. They will not teach again, each man his neighbor and each man his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they will all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them,” declares the Lord, “for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more.” (Jeremiah 31:31-34)
The New Testament is the new and final covenant. I will go into more depth regarding covenants at a later date but for today I’ll give a more condensed explanation. A covenant in the Bible was sealed by a sacrifice, by the spilling of blood. In the Old Testament, this was done by sacrificing specific animals. In the New Testament, we see that the new and final covenant is sealed by the spilling of Jesus’ blood. We see this pointed out by Christ, Himself, in Luke 22:20 during the Lord’s Supper before His crucifixion when He said, “This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in My blood.”
But now He has obtained a more excellent ministry, by as much as He is also the mediator of a better covenant, which has been enacted on better promises. (Hebrew 8:6)
This new and better covenant is the covenant of grace and offers much better promises than the old covenants of the Old Testament. We have the promise of the Holy Spirit (John 14:16), the promise of eternal security (John 10:27-29, and we are no longer under the law but under grace (Romans 6:14).
The Old Testament tells of the history of the Israelites, the people whom God chose to send His Son to be born into. The Old Testament also includes the prophecies of the promised Messiah. The New Testament reveals the Messiah that was promised in the Old Testament. It includes the teachings of Jesus, the revelation of the New Covenant, instructions of holy living as a Christian, and additional prophesies about Christ’s final return.
“the Old Testament lays the foundation for the coming of the Messiah who would sacrifice Himself for the sins of the world (1 John 2:2). The New Testament records the ministry of Jesus Christ and then looks back on what He did and how we are to respond. Both testaments reveal the same holy, merciful, and righteous God who condemns sin but desires to save sinners through an atoning sacrifice. In both testaments, God reveals Himself to us and shows us how we are to come to Him through faith (Genesis 15:6; Ephesians 2:8).” ~ Got Questions6
Hebrews 1:1-3a points out another difference between the Old and New Testaments:
God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, in these last days has spoken to us in His Son, whom He appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the world. And He is the radiance of His glory and the exact representation of His nature, and upholds all things by the word of His power.
Genres of the Bible
One of the most important keys to properly understanding a passage of Scripture is to understand the literary style used by the author. Many teach that we should take the Bible “literal” but doing so can cause misunderstandings. Rather, we should study the Bible “literarily” (notice the spelling difference). In other words, where the Bible is speaking in metaphors or figurative language, we should not interpret it as being literal.
“An understanding of the genres of Scripture is vital to the Bible student. If the wrong genre is assumed for a passage, it can easily be misunderstood or misconstrued, leading to an incomplete and fallacious understanding of what God desires to communicate.” ~ Got Questions4
Below, I have listed the books of the Bible by the genre in which they are typically listed. However, it is very important to acknowledge that each book has parts that might fall into other genre categories. For example, Psalms is definitely properly categorized as poetry however, it does also include prophecy. Another example is the books listed in the genre of the law, they also contain much history. These genre categories are based on the overall message within the book but it is important to recognize the different genres within the books as your read them.
“The purpose of law is to express God’s sovereign will concerning government, priestly duties, social responsibilities, etc. Knowledge of Hebrew manners and customs of the time, as well as a knowledge of the covenants, will complement a reading of this material.” ~ Got Questions4
These books are also known as the Torah. They are often referred to throughout the Old and New Testaments as The Law.
The law of the Lord is perfect, restoring the soul;
The testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple.
The precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart;
The commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes. (Psalm 19:7-8)
So then, the Law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good. (Romans 7:12)
It is important to acknowledge that while these books are considered in the genre of law, they are also considered narrative and history. They are historical accounts with law embedded within them.
Literarily, historic narrative is to be taken literally. Because of this, we can understand passages such as the creation story in Genesis as God creating all that is within creation in six literal days.
“In the Old Testament, history writings tell the story of Israel’s history from the settlement of Canaan in 1250 B.C. to the fall of Jerusalem in 587 B.C.” ~ American Bible Society3
“Poetry makes use of many literary devices that you’ll rarely find in other forms of literature. A literary device like parallelism can help you understand an idea by comparing it or contrasting it with another idea. Psalm 1:3–4 is an excellent example of parallelism.” ~ Ray Deck, III2
“Wisdom writings usually do not give much direct information about Israel’s history. Instead, they raise questions about moral issues, and ask hard questions about life.” ~ American Bible Society3
Wisdom literature is often written in generalities rather and dogmatic promises. We must be careful in interpreting wisdom writings not to take them as rules but rather strong possibilities. For example, Proverbs 22:6 says, “Train up a child in the way he should go, Even when he is old he will not depart from it.” We all know children who were raised in good, godly homes that later rejected Christianity and lived immoral lives. Does this mean that God was wrong when He inspired this proverb? No, this was never meant as a promise but rather a proverb. It is not a rule but a generality. It is much more likely that a child raised in a Christian home will grow up to be a Christian than if she is not.
“Some of the language used in wisdom literature is metaphorical and poetic, and this should be taken into account during analysis.” ~ Got Questions4
Prophecy is the most difficult of genres to interpret. They often included much metaphorical language that is not meant to be taken literally.
You may hear the prophetical books referred to as the major prophets and minor prophets. This major/minor distinction has nothing to do with their value but rather to their length. They are all equally God breathed and profitable for teaching. Do not let the major/minor title confuse you on the importance of their contents.
“Apocalyptic literature is a specific form of prophecy, largely involving symbols and imagery and predicting disaster and destruction.” ~ Got Question4
While these books are included in the lists of major/minor prophets above, these three also contain much prophecy regarding the end times.
“When you read narrative, it’s important to remember who was writing and for what purpose.” ~ Ray Deck, III2
These are the eyewitness accounts of those who were with Jesus or a part of the early church. The first four books are the Gospels, describing the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
An epistle is a letter. These are letters to individuals or churches written by some of the Apostles, mainly Paul.
“The content of the Epistles involves clarification of prior teaching, rebuke, explanation, correction of false teaching and a deeper dive into the teachings of Jesus. The reader would do well to understand the cultural, historical and social situation of the original recipients in order to get the most out of an analysis of these books.” ~ Got Questions4
The final book of the Bible includes epistles to seven churches in the beginning but the majority of the book is apocalyptic prophecy describing the second coming of Christ and the Final Judgment.
“Some things will not be made clear to us except in the fullness of time, so it is best not to assume to know everything when it comes to prophetic literature.” ~ Got Questions4
The Bible is not organized in chronological order but rather by genre.
Because many of the books overlap in the time line, it wouldn’t really make sense to attempt to put it in chronological order. That would require splitting up books.
I do recommend reading chronologically every so often so that you can see how all the books build upon each other. It can really give you a more well-rounded picture of what is happening in a moment. For example, you will read of David being on the run from Saul, being pursued and hunted. Then in reading the Psalms that he wrote during that time, you can really understand the pain, loneliness, and fear he was experiencing.
If you would like to see what a chronological reading plan is, you can check out this post I have written about reading the Bible in ninety days. It includes a printable for this reading plan. We are just over half way through the ninety day plan but I encourage you to start today. It is a great way to get a birds-eye view of the entirety of the bible. If you do not feel you have time to read the Bible in ninety days, you can do searches online for other chronological reading plans.
Chapter and Verses
The Bible has been divided not only by testaments and books but also chapters and verses. The divisions of the Testaments and books is inspired by God while the divisions of chapters and verses is not inspired but rather man made.
There are 1,189 chapters in the Bible with 979 of those being in the Old Testament and 260 being in the New Testament. There are 31,102 verses in the Bible: 23,145 in the Old Testament and 7,957 in the New.
It was Stephen Langton, Archbishop of Canterbury, in 1227 AD who added the chapter divisions in the Latin Vulgate. The Wycliffe English Bible was the first Bible produced that included Langton’s chapter divisions in 1382. Nathan, a Jewish rabbi, was the first to add chapter divisions to the Old Testament in 1448 AD.
In 1551, Robert Estienne (Stephanus), further divided the chapters into verses in his Greek New Testament. The Geneva Bible, in 1560, became the first English translation to use both chapter and verse divisions.
The chapter and verse divisions make is much easier to find a passage and much faster to navigate within Scripture. However, there are many cons to these man-made divisions. Many are poorly placed and they disrupt the flow and may cause a division in the mind of the reader as to the message being conveyed.
“A number of the books of Scripture can be read through in one sitting. This is the best way to discover what the author is trying to say. Dividing up the Scripture into chapters and verses encourages people to read only small parts at a time.” ~ Don Stewart10
These divisions can also lead to isolating passages and verses from the rest of the context of the Scripture. This can lead to misunderstanding and twisting of Scripture to fit into a preconceived idea rather than properly interpreting a passage.
“I think it is a good thing for us to have chapter and verse divisions in our Bibles, for the sake of convenience. However, it is very important that we never forget that context is a key factor in forming a correct understanding of Scripture. When we forget context, misinterpretation is inevitable, and this is something we should always be vigilant to avoid.” ~ John Samson7
The history of our Bible is a fascinating study. It is also a very important part in properly understanding and interpreting Scripture. If we do not understand the differences in genre, that the Bible is not necessarily organized chronologically, and take caution when reading with chapter and verse divisions, we can become confused as to what is happening within a passage and completely misinterpret what is being taught.
The Bible is God’s Word and God is not a God of confusion (1 Corinthians 14:33). As 2 Timothy 2:15 says, “Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth.” To handle God’s Word with respect and wisdom, we must understand how to read literarily and with a proper understanding of how to approach each passage.
- Carmichael, Alex. 2017. “What Kinds Of Writing Styles Are Used In The Bible? | CARM Christian Apologetics & Research Ministry”. Carm.Org. Accessed February 12. https://carm.org/bible-writing-styles.
- Deck, III, Ray. 2013. “4 Kinds Of Biblical Literature”. Faithlife Blog. https://blog.faithlife.com/blog/2013/05/4-kinds-of-biblical-lit/.
- “Different Kinds Of Literature In The Bible”. 2017. American Bible Society Resources. Accessed February 12. http://bibleresources.americanbible.org/resource/different-kinds-of-literature-in-the-bible.
- “How Should The Different Genres Of The Bible Impact How We Interpret The Bible?”. 2017. Gotquestions.Org. Accessed February 12. https://www.gotquestions.org/Bible-genres.html.
- Marlowe, Michael. 2017. “Chapter And Verse Divisions Of The Bible”. Bible-Researcher.Com. Accessed February 12. http://www.bible-researcher.com/chapter-verse.html.
- “Old Testament Vs. New Testament – What Are The Differences?”. 2017. Gotquestions.Org. Accessed February 12. https://www.gotquestions.org/difference-old-new-testaments.html.
- Samson, John. 2016. “Bible Chapter & Verse Divisions”. Effectualgrace.Com. http://effectualgrace.com/category/bible-chapter-verse-divisions/.
- Slick, Matt. 2017. “What Is The Bible? | CARM Christian Apologetics & Research Ministry”. Carm.Org. Accessed February 12. http://carm.org/what-bible.
- Slick, Matt. 2017. “Why Is The Bible Divided Into Two Parts: The Old Testament And The New Testament | CARM Christian Apologetics & Research Ministry”. Carm.Org. Accessed February 12. https://carm.org/bible-two-parts.
- Stewart, Don. 2017. “Why Is The Bible Divided Into Chapters And Verses?”. Blue Letter Bible. Accessed February 12. https://www.blueletterbible.org/faq/don_stewart/don_stewart_273.cfm.
- Stewart, Don. 2017. “Why Are The Two Divisions Of The Bible Called The Old And New Testament?”. Blue Letter Bible. Accessed February 12. https://www.blueletterbible.org/faq/don_stewart/don_stewart_271.cfm.
- “What Are The Books Of The Bible? What Does It Mean That The Bible Is Composed Of Different Books?”. 2017. Gotquestions.Org. Accessed February 12. https://www.gotquestions.org/books-of-the-Bible.html.
- “What Are The Major Prophets And Minor Prophets?”. 2017. Gotquestions.Org. Accessed February 11. https://www.gotquestions.org/major-minor-prophets.html.
- “What Is The Bible?”. 2017. Gotquestions.Org. Accessed February 12. https://www.gotquestions.org/what-is-the-Bible.html.
- “When Were The Books Of The Bible Divided Into Chapters And Verses? Who Did The Dividing?”. 2017. Compellingtruth.Org. Accessed February 13. https://www.compellingtruth.org/divided-Bible-chapters-verses.html.
- “Who Divided The Bible Into Chapters And Verses? Why And When Was It Done?”. 2017. Gotquestions.Org. Accessed February 12. https://www.gotquestions.org/divided-Bible-chapters-verses.html.
- “Why Isn’t The Bible In Chronological Order?”. 2017. Gotquestions.Org. Accessed February 12. https://www.gotquestions.org/chronological-Bible.html.