Reading the Bible

Two main sections

The Bible has two main divisions:

Different categories of text in the Old Testament

The Old Testament has several groupings of books:

  • The Pentateuch (the first five books)

  • The Historical Books – Joshua through to Nehemiah - recount Israel's history from the settlement in Canaan (Palestine) until about 350 BCE. Many of these books are called ‘The Former Prophets' in Hebrew because the prophets are considered to be the people who give the clue to understanding history.

  • The Prophets - four major collections, all about the length of a scroll: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and ‘The Twelve' (twelve short books, including Hosea, Amos and Micah).

  • The Writings (Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes)

  • The Psalms (which itself is divided into 5 books, although we don't count them!)

Different categories of text in the New Testament

The New Testament also has several groupings of texts:

  • Four Gospels – witnessing to the life and mission of Jesus, with a focus on his death and resurrection

  • The Acts of the Apostles which recounts the founding and spread of the church from Jerusalem to Rome

  • Letters (also called ‘epistles') from Paul, mainly to young churches and also the Letter to the Hebrews

  • Smaller collections of letters from James (possibly Jesus' brother), Peter and John (two of Jesus disciples) to churches, sometimes called the Pastoral Letters.

  • It ends with The Revelation of John the Divine' which includes letters to churches and visions of the heavenly realms. These may be understood primarily as what is currently going on in the spiritual worlds that are hidden from us, or in future times, or a mixture of both.

Finding your way around


  • At the beginning of most Bibles you will find ‘Contents' pages which will list the books of the Bible in the order they occur and will give you page references.

  • Many Bibles also list them alphabetically, which is helpful when you want to use a concordance (see below) or a chain reference (see below).

  • In most modern editions of the Bible each book is divided into chapters and each chapter into verses.

More on chapters and verses: Dividing each book into chapters and each chapter into verses are helpful ways of providing short hand references, but it is important to know that these divisions are not there in the early manuscripts. Chapters were introduced, probably in the thirteenth century and verses in the sixteenth.

Bible references

It is helpful to understand the ‘shorthand' that is used to find particular bits of the Bible.

For example:

  • Mark 3:7 (or Mark 3.7) means Mark's Gospel, chapter 3 and verse 7

  • 1 Kings 17:6, 9; 19:8 means The First Book of Kings chapter 17 verses 6 and 9 and also (note the ‘;') chapter 19 verse 8.

Understanding this system means that when you are looking up a word or a name in a concordance you will be able to find out fairly easily where in the Bible that word occurs.

Using a concordance

A concordance can be either a separate book or, in some Bibles, a separate reference section at the back which lists the occurrences of any given word throughout the Bible. The references to where that word occurs are usually listed in the order of the books in the Bible.

  • Some concordances give you most references to each word and some only a few which they think are the most important.

  • Some concordances list proper names separately to ordinary words.

Chain reference

A chain reference can sometimes be found in the central column or section at the bottom of the page of a Bible. Where there are a number of different ones on a page, they will be labelled with a lower case letter of the alphabet. The chain reference will usually give you the first occurrence of the word and then the next occurrence after the one you are looking at. This is an easy way to follow a subject through the Bible.

The order of the Bible

Each book of the Bible contains different kinds of literature and much of it was originally transmitted orally before being written down. The order in which the books occur in the Bible is not necessarily an indication of the relative order of the date of the writing, nor is the subject matter.

For example:

  • Some of the Psalms were written after prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah had died

  • While the events referred to in the Gospels occurred before the letters Paul wrote, they were probably not written down as Gospels until after most of his letters.

Different types of literature in the Bible

Different genres

To make sense of different parts of the Bible it is important to understand what kind of literature you are reading at any one time:

  • Some is poetry, some is prose

  • Some was meant to be understood as an account of the past, some was meant to make sense of the present

  • Prophecy, which we often think of as about the future, was frequently seeking to help people make sense of difficult contemporary situations as much as indicating how the future (either near or further away) would turn out

  • Many kinds of Bible writing are similar to ones we use – poetry, the novel etc. but they often had a different intention too.

  • Some types of literature seem strange to us – genealogies for instance and tribal boundary lists - but they were important to Israel.

It is important to understand what sort of genre is being read. For example, we understand the ‘truth' of the poetic idiom that the sun rises each day, even though we know scientifically that it is the earth which rotates. In the same way biblical poetry and prophesy should not be interpreted literally (in the same way as narrative history, say) yet can still be ‘true'.

Understanding the Bible

It is not always easy to sit and read the ‘library' of the Bible from start to finish. If you have never encountered it before, it can help to read a short gospel first (eg. Mark) then perhaps Acts, rather than plunge into an Old Testament book of law (eg. Leviticus) or prophesy (eg. Ezekiel).

However, in the end, the Bible is meant to be interpreted as a whole, not taking different bits in isolation. The parts help to shape the whole and the whole affects the parts; it is a symphony rather than a collection of separate pieces.

To see how the ‘story' of the entire Bible fits together, see A Narrative Summary of the Bible.

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