God’s Word — Part 1:
What Exactly Is The Bible?

image iof a Bible

In this series, I’m about to answer two questions I believe to be crucial to our understanding of Christianity:

  1. What is the Bible?
  2. How do we correctly grasp what we read in it?

Why Should This Topic Concern Us?

Tragically, some so-called Christians misuse the Bible to preach hate against various groups: racial minorities, interracial marriages, homosexuals, and Jews, to name a few. I won’t take time to explain my stance on those issues here because I’ve already dealt with those topics in the depth they deserve elsewhere here on Miscellaneous Ramblings, specifically:

Still others distort the Scriptures to support their subversive ideological agendas, such as atheists, Moslems, the Alphabet Mafia, and political/theological liberals.

Worse yet, we also have Christianity-based cults such as Mormonism, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christian Science (which is neither Christian nor scientific), Roman Catholicism, and 7th Day Adventism, among others. Such folks either misinterpret various verses and passages out of the Bible or rewrite their “Bibles” to serve their own warped doctrinal ends. Each of these groups also adds extra-biblical writings to their respective “canons of scripture,” all of them conflicting with the Word of God itself.

All this leaves us with a second set of questions:

  1. How can we be confident we are clearly perceiving God’s Truth?
  2. How can we be assured we are accurately proclaiming that Truth to the lost as well as those trapped in man’s religion?
  3. How can we avoid being deceived ourselves?

Before we can answer those questions, we’ll need to take a look at the Bible itself.

What is the Bible?

Before we get into the hermeneutics stuff, let’s answer the first question I listed in my introduction to this article: what exactly is the Bible?

Most folks — even many proclaiming themselves to be Christians — have more than a few misconceptions about it. Whole books have been written on this topic by authors far wiser than myself, so what follows is me hitting the high points, the 10,000-foot view, if you will.

Many mistakenly assume the Bible is a single book with many chapters. In reality, it is a library (biblios in the Greek as well as other languages) containing 66 individual books written by dozens of different authors over a timeframe spanning thousands of years. As you already know, those books are divided into 2 major sections: the Old Testament (OT) and the New Testament (NT).

A Snapshot of the Bible

A Divinely-inspired collection of writings written across 3 continents, in 3 languages, by some 40 authors over a 1500-year timespan in 66 volumes covering hundreds of topics — and still telling 1 cohesive, redemptive story.
Pastor Ron Merrell

Let’s take each one in turn:

Old Testament (OT)

This portion consists of 39 books. They:

  • Recount God’s creation of the universe.
  • Proclaim His character, will, and ability.
  • Describe His dealings with various individuals and nations — as well as mankind in general — with special emphasis on His covenant relationship with His chosen people, the Jews, beginning with their progenitor, Abraham.
  • Define God’s standards of morality (e.g., the 10 Commandments, among other passages)
  • Are considered to be Holy Writ by both Judaism and Christianity (the Jewish and Christian OT are identical in content, but organized somewhat differently)
  • Are primarily written in Hebrew (a couple of books were written in Aramaic)
  • Were written by a variety of authors including historians, kings, priests, musicians, prophets, waiters, shepherds, government officials, and other occupations
  • Quite specifically foretells the appearance of Jesus to redeem the world from our sins in 300 or so separate instances spanning multiple books written hundreds — even thousands! — of years before Jesus’ birth and apart from one another (the first such instance appears in Genesis 3)

The Christian OT is organized into the following sections:

  1. Books of the Law aka Torah aka Pentateuch (Genesis through Deuteronomy)
  2. Books of History (Joshua through Job)
  3. Books of Poetry/Wisdom (Psalms through Song of Solomon)
  4. The Major Prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, and Ezekiel)
  5. The Minor Prophets (Daniel through Malachi)

AUTHOR’S NOTE: the term “major prophets” simply means those men’s books are much longer; it has nothing to do with their relative importance to the plans and purposes of God.

Anywhere in the NT where you see the terms “scripture”, “Word of God,” or “The Law,” or phrases to the effect of “it is written,” “as the prophet _______ foretold,” and the like, Jesus and/or the writers are always citing the OT.

The Apocrypha

Roman Catholic Bibles have 7 additional books in their Old Testament: Tobit, Judith, 1 Maccabees, 2 Maccabees, Wisdom of Solomon, Sirach, and Baruch. Additional material has also been added to the books of Daniel and Esther by later Greek interpreters. Collectively, these writings are what Catholic theologians call “the Deuterocanonicals, more commonly known as “The Apocrypha.”

Eastern Orthodox Bibles add yet more apocryphal books such as 3 Maccabees, 2 Esdras, and the Prayer of Manasseh. The Ethiopian Orthodox bible incorporates still others like Enoch and Jubilees.

All these are ancient Jewish writings from well after the time of the OT which Jews have never accepted as Scripture but which some ancient Gentile Christians mistook as part of the Jewish canon. For this very reason, the Council of Nicæa in 325AD, who defined and closed the canon of Scriptures once and for all time, declined to include them. This fact flies in the face of claims made by skeptics and conspiracy-theorists that Catholicism excluded them for nefarious reasons. Point-of-fact: the Catholic Church in its current form did not exist at that time; rather than a single pope, there were actually 4 regional bishops who ruled over the Church.

While some of this material has historical/cultural value, none of the apocryphal books qualify as genuine, inspired Scripture, and therefore should not be in the Bible. This is why Protestants do not include them.

New Testament (NT)

  • This section contains all things pertaining to Jesus Christ and His followers.
  • All of the NT is written in Koine Greek, the lingua franca of the Roman Empire.
  • Its authors include fishermen, a doctor/historian, a tax collector, a Jewish religious leader, and 2 half-brothers of Jesus.

The NT is further organized into the following 4 subdivisions:

  1. The Gospels (Matthew through John) recounting the Christ Event (Jesus’ birth, life, words, deeds, death, burial, and resurrection)
  2. The Acts of the Apostles (a brief history of the growth and establishment of the nascent Church during the first century after Christ’s resurrection)
  3. The Epistles (letters written by several apostles to various local churches. This section spans Romans through Jude)
  4. The Revelation aka The Apocalypse (a prophetic vision written by the Apostle John describing events surrounding Jesus’ second coming, and His subsequent millennial reign over the earth). This was also a letter to existing church congregations at the time, specifically the seven churches in Asia Minor (modern day Turkey) addressed in Chapters 2 and 3.

    Please note that the word apocalypse means “something revealed,” not the end of the world as we have come to use that term in modern times. That shift in meaning over the ensuing centuries came as a result of this book’s descriptions of major catastrophes which would appear in the end times. For an in-depth analysis of this book and related issues, please read my article entitled Are We Truly in the End Times?

New Testament vs. Old Testament

Both are Scripture. They are in perfect harmony with one another. They are both authoritative and pertinent to the lives of all Christ-followers. The rule of thumb is this:

  • The OT foretells and lays the foundation for the NT.
  • The NT fulfills and explains the OT.

There are those who try to throw out the OT as a whole, deeming it irrelevant because salvation by grace through Christ supersedes the Law of Moses. This is a grave error; removing that testament from the equation of Christianity leaves us hopelessly adrift as Christ-followers with no foundation for us to stand upon doctrinally. In other words, the NT doesn’t make any sense apart from the OT.

Translations vs. Paraphrases

It’s crucial to know the difference. Here’s the distinction:

a written or spoken rendering of the meaning of a word, speech, book, or other text, in another language.
a rewording of something written or spoken by someone else to express the meaning using different words, especially to achieve greater clarity

To summarize:

  • A translation expresses the thoughts and intents of an author word-by-word in another language as much as the respective languages permit.
  • A paraphrase portrays those selfsame concepts in a more summary form.

Translational Obstacles

One of the essential doctrines of the Christian faith is the “verbal inspiration of the Scriptures” as our sole authority over faith and practice. This means God said what He meant and meant what He said, word for word in the original languages.

The sticking point is this: there are grammatical, punctuational, and linguistic nuances unique to every language. The Bible’s original languages are no exception. Therefore, various translations/paraphrases into other languages — even those targeting the same language, such as English — can differ in how they either capture or blur those nuances.

If that wasn’t enough of an issue to deal with, we Western-Civilization types view the world through a distinctly Greco-Roman (aka Hellenistic) set of philosophical spectacles. That means we think and operate in terms of analytical logic and reason. We prize science over everything and that very worldview is what has made science possible. We like categories and bins and labels with clearly-defined, absolute boundaries between them. Whenever we encounter anomalies and exceptions and gray areas, we are uncomfortable with them and compulsively try — sometimes in vain — to remove or clarify them.

Countering that is the fact that both testaments of Scripture were written from a Jewish (aka Hebraic) perspective. The Old Testament was written in Hebrew and Aramaic (both Semitic languages) using Hebraic concepts and terminology to a Hebraic audience having a Hebraic frame-of-reference. Even though the New Testament was written in Koine Greek, its authors all wrote from that same Hebraic mindset and its shared cultural assumptions. Accordingly, when interpreting the Scriptures, we with a Hellenistic heritage must work diligently to bypass our own cultural mindsets, biases, and narratives to decipher the true meaning(s) of what was originally spoken and why.

Also, the Bible was written across a timespan measured in thousands of years. Each of the authors wrote in the vernacular of their time, so even interpreters from only a hundred years or so after something was written shared the same challenges as we do, only somewhat less so.

Therein lies a seemingly insurmountable challenge. That being said, the Holy Spirit is both ready and willing to help us overcome that obstacle if we but have ears willing to listen and the humility to recognize and allow Him to work in us to overcome our cultural limitations.

In many instances, there is no equivalent term in the target language, so a particular Greek or Hebrew word might require more than a single word in that tongue to convey its intended meaning. In other situations, certain nuances get blurred when translators use one English word for two or more similar-but-different Greek words.

One classic instance of the latter is how the single English word “knowledge” is often used for both the Greek words gnosis (intellectual knowledge) and epignosis (experiential knowledge/wisdom), two entirely different concepts. The example which immediately comes to mind is 2 Peter 1:2-4 where the term “knowledge of God” is assumed by readers to be “knowledge about God” rather than Peter’s intended meaning: “knowing God personally.”

The Moving Target of English Language Idiom

Translational issues are further compounded whenever you take into account the era of English employed, such as the King James Version (KJV) which is written using 17th-century idiom far more linguistically aligned with Shakespearean literature than our modern terminology and patterns of expression.

Let’s explore this a bit by comparing James 1:21 in 9 different versions:

Wherefore lay apart all filthiness and superfluity of naughtiness, and receive with meekness the engrafted word, which is able to save your souls.
King James Version (KJV)

Therefore lay aside all filthiness and overflow of wickedness, and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.
New King James Version (NKJV)

Therefore, ridding yourselves of all filthiness and all that remains of wickedness, in humility receive the word implanted, which is able to save your souls.
New American Standard Bible (NASB)

So get rid of all uncleanness and all that remains of wickedness, and with a humble spirit receive the word [of God] which is implanted [actually rooted in your heart], which is able to save your souls.
The Amplified Version (AMP)

Therefore, get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you.
New International Version (NIV)

Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.
English Standard Version (ESV)

So this is why we abandon everything morally impure and all forms of wicked conduct. Instead, with a sensitive spirit we absorb God’s Word, which has been implanted within our nature, for the Word of Life has power to continually deliver us.
The Passion Translation (TPT)

So get rid of all that is wrong in your life, both inside and outside, and humbly be glad for the wonderful message we have received, for it is able to save our souls as it takes hold of our hearts.
The Living Bible (TLB)

So throw all spoiled virtue and cancerous evil in the garbage. In simple humility, let our gardener, God, landscape you with the Word, making a salvation-garden of your life.
The Message (MSG)

As you can see, all these versions convey the same basic meaning, but some are clearer to our modern ears than others. After all, the KJV’s “filthiness and superfluity of naughtiness” is a phrase we never encounter nowadays whereas The Message’s “spoiled virtue and cancerous evil” is straight forward and clearly conveyed.

Bible versions humorous memeThe KJV confusion gets worse when we explore the modern-day semantics for the terms “naughtiness” and “filthiness.” Nowadays, “naughtiness” connotes the trivial misbehavior of a child. “Filthiness” is most often used to describe someone covered with physical grime from working/playing hard. We almost never combine them to describe moral depravity in an adult — unless we’re quoting the KJV, that is!

Yet another KJV-related problem is one of shifting word definitions within the English language itself. For one crucial example, whenever you hear the word “conversation” nowadays, what’s your first thought? Two or more people having a verbal discussion, right? But in the 17th century, “conversation” meant your conduct during interactions with other people.

Thus, we can be left scratching our heads with the King James, whereas more recent translations express a verse’s meaning far more completely and obviously to a modern reader.

AUTHOR’S NOTE: This why we rarely use KJV in any of our articles here at Miscellaneous Ramblings, defaulting to the NKJV as our standard translation.

The bottom line is this: among all the generally accepted translations out there, none of them contradict the others and all of them collectively are of value when we are trying to grasp what the Scripture is telling us.

One exception to this general rule are those translations which have been suborned by so-called “progressive” elements, both within and without Christendom. The Revised Standard Version (RSV) has historically been the choice of theological liberals and it appears the New International Version (NIV) has recently been corrupted by its publisher after that company was purchased by a secular corporation. And when I say “generally accepted,” I am also deliberately excluding versions produced by various cults (e.g., the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons) who have altered the Scriptures to support their own heretical doctrines.

One of the amazing aspects of God’s Word is it has been successfully translated into mulitudinous languages so people of all nations, races, and tongues can read, understand, and respond to the Gospel of Christ and thereafter apply its teachings to their lives. Point-of-fact: the Bible is by far the most translated book in human history!

Contradictions & Errors

It is an article of faith among atheists and other skeptics that the Bible is full of errors and contradictions.

That is patently untrue!

Years ago, someone posted a reward of a huge sum of money (I seem to remember it was a million dollars, but I’m not sure) for anyone who could clearly demonstrate one measly taken-in-context contradiction within God’s Word.

That reward came and went unclaimed!

As for errors, in every case where a perceived “error” has been posited, it has later proven to be erroneous itself through subsequent archeological or scientific discoveries. While certain scientific theories contradicting God’s Word have indeed arisen and are even generally assumed to be incontrovertible by many today, the truth is all such theories and opinions have ultimately been proven factually wrong. And no actual archeological discovery has ever contradicted the Bible.

What the Bible Says About Itself

All Scripture is God-breathed [given by divine inspiration] and is profitable for instruction, for conviction [of sin], for correction [of error and restoration to obedience], for training in righteousness [learning to live in conformity to God’s will, both publicly and privately—behaving honorably with personal integrity and moral courage]; so that the man of God may be complete and proficient, outfitted and thoroughly equipped for every good work.2 Timothy 3:16-17 AMP

For the word of God is living and active and full of power [making it operative, energizing, and effective]. It is sharper than any two-edged sword, penetrating as far as the division of the soul and spirit [the completeness of a person], and of both joints and marrow [the deepest parts of our nature], exposing and judging the very thoughts and intentions of the heart.Hebrews 4:12 AMP

But understand this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of or comes from one’s own [personal or special] interpretation, for no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.2 Peter 1:20-21 AMP

Sanctify them in the truth [set them apart for Your purposes, make them holy]; Your word is truth.John 17:17 AMP

The Holy Spirit is Our Teacher

But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all things that I said to you.John 14:26 (emphasis mine)

These things we also speak, not in words which man’s wisdom teaches but which the Holy Spirit teaches, comparing spiritual things with spiritual.1 Corinthians 2:13

If we accept the premise that God the Holy Spirit inspired the contents of the Bible, then it also follows that the Author is the Person best qualified to help us grasp its teachings. This is one of the many roles the Holy Spirit fulfills in the life of all Christ-followers through the New Birth.

Because unredeemed man lacks this indwelling of God personally, he is incapable of grasping much of the Bible apart from whatever the Holy Spirit reveals to him as He woos him to the foot of the Cross and salvation.

This is why it is so spiritually toxic and doctrinally dangerous to interpret the Scriptures with a humanistic mindset. As a 2nd-century church father once proclaimed:

What has Athens (secular humanism) to do with Jerusalem (the things of God)?Tertullian of Carthage in Prescription Against Heresies (parentheses mine)

Bottom line?

The Bible is a supernatural book. Therefore, many of its teachings cannot be truly grasped apart from supernatural assistance from its supernatural Author.

2024 Update

Recently, my close friend and co-contributor here, Pastor Ron Merrell of Connection Pointe Church in Brownsburg, Indiana delivered a truly awesome message concerning this topic. With his permission, I have embedded the YouTube video of that sermon here. It is well worth the listen; it has to be one of the best messages I’ve heard on this topic in the 50+ years I’ve been walking with Jesus. Be blessed!

If the video refuses to load in this page for whatever reason, you can click this link to view it.

Next, we’ll discuss the process of interpreting the Bible in detail.

Thanks for reading!

One thought on “God’s Word — Part 1:
What Exactly Is The Bible?

  1. Barry Foster

    I really enjoyed this article loads of great points for me to take note of I’m going to save this article to reread. Thank-you

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