It can be helpful to know how a book is arranged, especially with a long book like the Bible. Having a general idea of how the Bible is organized can help you get your bearings and keep you from feeling overwhelmed. Once you have a general idea of the main divisions and time frame of the Bible, you’ll have a framework to start understanding its message.
So, how is the Bible arranged? The Bible is arranged into two main sections: The Old Testament and the New Testament. The Old Testament, which consists of 39 books, is about God’s relationship with the people of Israel. The New Testament consists of 27 books and is about Jesus and the church that He established.
|Section||Time Frame||Main People|
|Old Testament||Creation to ~400 BC||Abraham (2000 BC)|
Moses (1500 BC)
David (1000 BC)
Isaiah (500 BC)
|New Testament||The 1st Century (0-100AD)||Jesus|
In the two main sections, the books are also grouped into different genres and types of books. There’s also a general timeline of history that the structure follows, but the 66 books of the Bible are not themselves in chronological order. Here are a few things to keep in mind about how the Bible is structured so you can get a good working understanding of its main message.
If you’re wondering where to start reading the Bible, I would recommend starting with the Gospel of Mark in the New Testament: Which Gospel to Read First? (links opens in new windows)
If you’re planning on reading more of the Bible, I would not recommend you read it in order, from cover-to-cover, like a typical book. Here’s the order I would recommend in order to get an effective overview of its main storyline and major themes: What is the Best Order to Read the Bible for Beginners.
The Old Testament is About God’s Relationship with the People of Israel
The Old Testament can be organized into 4 different types or genres: Books of the Law, History, Poetry, and Prophets.
|Section||Books of the Old Testament||Theme|
|Law||Genesis to Deuteronomy||How God relates to Israel|
|History||Joshua to Esther||The history of Israel|
|Poetry||Job to Song of Songs||Psalms, Proverbs & Writings|
|Prophets||Isaiah to Malachi||Calling Israel back to God|
The first 5 books of the Old Testament (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy) are called the books of the Law because they describe God’s design for how the people of Israel are to live differently than the people around them.
Genesis starts with the creation of the universe and then it explains God’s plan to bless the entire world. God’s way of doing this is to choose one nation to be His own, so He starts by choosing one man, Abraham. His grandson Jacob has sons who become the Twelve Tribes of Israel.
I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.(Genesis 12:3)
The Law describes how the nation of Israel became God’s people because He chose them and rescued them out of Egypt during the time of Moses. God gave them the Land and the Law so that they can live differently than the nations around them.
The books of History recount the history of the nation of Israel: How Twelve Tribes united to become one nation, how they later separated into 2 separate kingdoms: the Northern Kingdom of Israel and the Southern Kingdom of Judah.
The main theme in the books of History is that the people eventually choose to leave God and follow after their own desires: other idols, wealth and pleasure any way they could get it.
The books of Poetry are 5 books of hymns, called Psalms, which used for worship, and wisdom literature, like the book of Proverbs. These books are the songs and wisdom of the people of Israel and cover a wide range of topics from worship to work to marriage and children.
The section of the Prophets is divided into Major and Minor Prophets. The 5 Major prophets are the longer books and the 12 Minor prophets are the shorter books. The message of the prophets is that God’s judgment is coming if they don’t turn back to God.
Eventually, justice caught up with the nation of Israel and the judgments came. The people of Israel were conquered and many were deported to other regions. The rest of the prophets give hope that God will still be faithful and bring His people back into the Land that He promised to them.
The New Testament is about Jesus and the Church He Established
The New Testament is arranged into 4 sections as well: The Gospels, History, Letters, and Prophecy.
|Gospels||Matthew to John||The Life of Jesus|
|History||Acts||History of the Early Church|
|Letters||Most by Paul, several by others||Letters to churches or individuals|
|Prophecy||Revelation||Jesus’ Second Coming and Leadership|
There are four accounts of the life of Jesus: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Each author gives a different emphasis and shares different aspects of the life of Jesus. The Gospels, or telling of the Good News, explain why Jesus came, what His message was, how He lived, and ultimately, why He died and rose from the dead.
There’s one book in the category of History and that’s the book of Acts. The book of Acts explains how Jesus formed communities of people called the church to continue His message and mission in the world. It describes the story of the followers of Jesus in the early church.
The Letters, also called Epistles, include 13 that were written by Paul and the rest that were written by other followers of Jesus, such as Peter, James, and John. The Letters include teachings, corrections that needed to be made, or specific instructions for the churches or their leaders.
Some of these letters are named after the cities to which they were addressed. For example, Romans, Philippians, Corinthians were written to the churches in the cities of Rome, Philippi, and Corinth. Other letters are named after the author and some are named after the recipients.
The last book of the New Testament is the book of prophecy called Revelation. Revelation describes the leadership of Jesus at the end of this age. The Gospels describe Jesus’ first coming as a servant who would lay down His life on the cross and rise from the dead. The Book of Revelation describes Jesus’ Second Coming as the Bridegroom, King, and Judge to finally establish God’s Kingdom and rule on the earth.
The Books of the Bible are Not Arranged Chronologically
Although the books of the Bible are not in strict chronological order, they follow a general timeline. All the books of the Old Testament were written before the New Testament.
The Old Testament was written in Hebrew with a handful of chapters and verses in the Aramaic. The New Testament was written almost completely in Greek.
The English word “Bible” comes from a Latin word that means “books.” The Bible is a collection of 66 books written by about 40 authors over a period of 1600 years in various places and includes many literary genres.
Although we wouldn’t be able to tell from English translations of the Bible, the language of the original books is also a way to divide the Bible into Old and New Testaments.
What Is a Testament in the Bible?
Testament is a word that means covenant, or an agreement between two parties.
A similar idea today might be a “contract.” Calling the sections of the Bible the Old and New Testaments is calling attention to the different ways God shows His commitment to people.
The Old Testament is how God relates to the people of Israel through the Law of Moses. The New Testament is how God relates to mankind in light of what Jesus has done.
The message of the New Testament is that God now relates to mankind in light of His agreement through Jesus. In other words, the Old Covenant is no longer in full effect.
In speaking of a new covenant, he makes the first one obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away.(Hebrews 8:13)
This means that we now receive God’s blessing by believing in Jesus and what He has done through His life, death, and resurrection. We can be made right in our relationship with God. In other words, it’s not my own effort of trying to be good and keeping the commandments of the Law. This is the key difference between the Old Testament and the New Testaments.
For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.(Ephesians 2:8-9)
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What to Read Next?
If you’re wondering where to start reading in the Bible, a great place to start is with the Gospel of Mark in the New Testament. You can check out my thoughts on that topic here: Which Gospel to Read First – the Best Way for Beginners. Mark is also arguably the best book in the entire Bible to read first for beginners, or for anyone.
The Bible Explained for Beginners (Simple Guide & Diagram). In this article, I share a simple diagram that summarizes the main-story line of the Bible. I also share a summary of its main message.