From Moses to You: Lesson 1: The Bible – What Is It?

Why is THIS BOOK CALLED A “Bible”? What does the word  “Bible” mean? What is a testament? What is inspiration? What is the canon?

Today, we will examine some important words that we use to describe the Bible, discuss why the Bible is divided the way it is, and suggest the main theme of the Bible.

Important Words

The Word Bible

The Egyptians (approximately 1200 bc) used the term biblos to refer to the papyrus reed. This was a common plant that grew on the banks of the Nile River and was used to make writing material. The outer skin of the stalk was stripped off and the pithy inner material was cut into thin strips. These strips were then laid side by side, and another layer laid on top crosswise. The sheets were then pounded together, dried, and cut to size. Multiple sheets of papyrus were spliced together to form rolls (scrolls) which were wound around wooden dowels called navels. This type of scroll was called a biblos. The word “Bible” simply means “scroll” or “book.”

Many scraps of the New Testament written on papyrus still exist. In fact, the oldest fragment of the New Testament is written on a small piece of papyrus. Papyrus was a very common writing material, and it’s almost certain that the original New Testament writings were recorded on papyrus. The oldest known papyrus fragment comes from Egypt and is dated about 2400 BC. However, few documents written on papyrus have survived that long because the material is not very sturdy. Papyrus was commonly used until the fourth century AD; after that, parchment became the preferred material. The Gospels were likely originally written on papyrus scrolls.[1]

Parchment (also called vellum) is a strong, durable material made of dried animal skin. The skins were tanned, scraped, and rubbed with chalk to produce a fine, smooth writing surface. The most complete ancient New Testament manuscripts are recorded on vellum.

As time passed someone discovered that he could stack sheets of papyrus, fold them in the middle, and bind them into an easy-to-use book. A book bound this way was called a “codex” (plural “codices”). The word “codex” originally referred to the trunk of a tree, then a block of wood split up into tablets. The Epistles, being letters, were likely written on papyrus codices rather than scrolls.

The word “scripture” is the translation of the Greek word graphe, meaning “writing.” The Latin word for writing is scriptum or scriptura. People often call sacred writings Scriptures.

The Bible contains two testaments – the Old Testament (OT) and New Testament (NT). The word “testament” comes from the Latin translation of covenant, testamentum. In the Hebrew language, the word “testament” referred to a covenant, that is, an agreement, arrangement, contract, or treaty. A covenant usually consisted of promises, responsibilities and punishments for those who are part of the agreement. Although God made covenants with several people (e.g., Noah, Abraham, David), the most significant covenants are the ones God made with the nation of Israel through Moses (the Old Covenant) and the one made through Jesus (the New Covenant). Elements of the Abrahamic Covenant (Gen 12-22) span both the Old and the New Covenants.

Old Covenant

And Moses took the blood, sprinkled it on the people, and said, “This is the blood of the covenant which the LORD has made with you according to all these words.” (Ex 24.8)

New Covenant

Behold, the days are coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah (Jer 31.31)

The OT forms about three-fourths of the entire Bible. It was written by about thirty different authors and covers about two thousand years of Israel’s history.

The NT is primarily concerned with the life of Jesus Christ, the origins of the church, and the letters from various leaders of early Christianity to the churches instructing them what to believe and how to behave.

The Relationship of the OT to the NT

The OT is not useless or obsolete, as some have suggested. However, it has been fulfilled by Jesus Christ (Mt 5.17).  Thus, we currently live under the jurisdiction of the NT. The Old is useful, however, as a source of many timeless principles and examples. But we are not under the dictates of the Law because we live in the church age (Rom 6.4). NT believers follow the law of Christ (Gal 6.2) rather than the Law of Moses.

The Word Revelation

Revelation is the content of God’s communication to man, the facts and ideas that God wanted recorded in Scripture. The word can refer to either the act of revelation or the content of revelation. Revelation occurs when God reveals something to man that he otherwise would not know. There are two sources of revelation:

General revelation:  That information about God that comes to all men generally.  General revelation is a universal witness to God’s existence, power and deity (Rom 1.20).  All men know God because of creation (Ps 8.1?3, 19.1?6; Rom 1.18?20) and conscience (Rom 1.18?21, 2.14?15).  General revelation is not a vehicle of salvation.  Man is condemned because he perverts and rejects what knowledge of God he has.

Special revelation:  That information revealed to a specific individual or group (Heb 1.1?2).  The Scripture is special revelation.  Scripture is sufficient for condemnation, salvation, and sanctification.

The Word Canon

The canon (not cannon) is the list of authorized books that became part of the Bible. The word “canon” originally came from the word for a reed measuring stick. Hence, a canon is a rule, standard or guideline. Today a canon is a list or collection of accepted books. Canonization refers to the historical process whereby God, through the Holy Spirit, directed His people to recognize which writings were inspired.

Only those books which bore the marks of authenticity were included in the canon.  Man did not determine which books were canonical (they were canonical the moment they were penned); he simply recognized which ones were. The canon is comprised of the sixty-six books of the Old and New Testaments (1 Pet 3.16; 1 John 4.6; Rev 22.18?19). The canon was permanently closed with the writing of the book of Revelation at the end of the first century AD (Rev 22.18-19). (See Lesson 3 for more on canonization)

The Word Inspiration

Inspiration is that supernatural process whereby the Holy Spirit caused the biblical writers to compose and record without error the very words of God’s choosing in the original manuscripts (2 Tim 3.16; 2 Pet 1.21). God did this without overriding or negating the individual personalities of the writers in the process. Inspiration technically applies only to the original manuscripts (MSS), usually called the autographs (1 Cor 14.37). Technically speaking, copies and translations are not inspired in the same sense the originals were. But in that they accurately follow the originals, they are the product of inspiration. (See Lesson 2 for more on inspiration)

The Word Illumination

Illumination is the act of the Holy Spirit whereby He enables saved people to understand the true meaning (or significance) of the Word of God (John 14.26; 1 Cor 2.6?16; 1 John 2.20?21, 27). This is necessary because of the negative effects of sin on the human mind. Illumination results in a removal of the hostility toward Scripture due to man’s sinfulness and a certainty that the Scriptures are true and authoritative.

The Holy Spirit is not revealing anything new to us, only illuminating our minds to see the truth that has already been revealed.

Biblical Divisions

The Hebrew Bible (OT)

The Hebrew Bible was divided into three different sections – The Law, The Prophets, and The Writings (or The Psalms).

… all things must be fulfilled which were written in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms concerning Me. (Lk 24.44)

The Greek Bible (OT)

The OT was written in Hebrew (and a little Aramaic). Around 200 BC, scholars translated it into Greek, the common language of the day. This translation is called the Septuagint (sometimes abbreviated lxx[2]). This is the Bible that Jesus Christ and the early Christians used. The following are the divisions of the lxx: Law, Poetry, History, and Prophets.

The Latin Bible (OT & NT)

The Latin Bible is often called the Vulgate. The word “vulgate” comes from the word “vulgar,” which means “common.” Latin used to be the common language of the church and of scholarship. The great scholar Jerome translated the Bible from Hebrew and Greek into Latin in the fourth century, and Jerome’s Vulgate was the most common version in the western church for centuries. The Latin Bible reflects the same divisions we have today—Old Testament and New Testament.

The Main Theme of the Bible

Just like any other book, the Bible has a main theme or focus. Some would suggest that the main theme is Jesus Christ or the message of the Gospel. But there is a broader approach that encompasses the whole Bible.

Throughout the Bible, God repeatedly expresses the following idea: “I will be their God and they shall be my people” (Gen 17.8; Jer 32.38; Ezek 11.20; 2 Cor 6.16). Everything contained in the Bible seems to be somehow related to this general idea. One scholar puts it this way: “God for His own glory has chosen to create and gather to Himself a group of people to be the subjects of His eternal kingdom; to praise, honor, and serve Him forever; and through whom He will display His wisdom, power, mercy, grace and glory.”[3] Thus, the overall theme of the Bible is how God enters into a positive relationship of loving sovereignty with mankind. God recognizes a group of people as his own special people, and they recognize Him as the one true God. The contents of the Bible express and reveal this relationship between God and man.

How the Theme is Expressed Throughout History

This main theme of God’s desire to enter into fellowship with man has been stated at various times and in different ways throughout history.

God, … at various times and in various ways spoke in time past to the fathers by the prophets (Heb 1.1)

These ways, or arrangements, between God and man are usually called dispensations. Many scholars recognize seven different dispensations. In each dispensation, God reveals certain information about Himself and requires certain responses from man. As God reveals more information, man’s responsibilities change. But in every dispensation, the same theme is played out: God desires to enter into a relationship of loving sovereignty with man. Unfortunately, in every dispensation, man fails to perform his part of the arrangement.

The Contents of the Bible

We sometimes focus so much on the details of the Scripture that we fail to grasp its overall arrangement. So let’s take a broad view of the Bible.

The Bible: 66 separate books in one book—Old Testament and New Testament. The OT is primarily about the nation of Israel; the NT is primarily about Jesus Christ and the Church.

Old Testament: 39 books in four parts—Pentateuch, History, Poetry, and Prophets

Pentateuch: the five books of Moses, often called “the Law” (Heb. “Torah”)

  • Origins of man and of Israel
  • Laws and sacrifices
  • Points out man’s need for holiness

History: the twelve books from Joshua to Esther

  • Records the history of Israel and the land
  • Switches between optimism and disappointment
  • Focuses on the importance of leadership

Poetry: the five books from Job to Song of Solomon

  • Largely the work of David and Solomon
  • Practical wisdom and expressions of worship

Prophets: the seventeen books from Isaiah to Malachi

  • Messages to Israel (north) and Judah (south)
  • Predictions and preaching
  • Exhortations to covenant faithfulness

The Old Testament is a book of unexplained ceremonies, unfulfilled prophecies, and unsatisfied longings. It looks forward to a perfect prophet, priest and king. The whole OT is preparation for a Messiah, One who would fulfill all OT expectations.[4]

New Testament: 27 books in four parts—Gospels, Acts, Epistles, Revelation

Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, John. The Gospels introduce the person and work of Jesus Christ. They are introductory, not explanatory.

Acts: The proclamation of the person and work of Christ and the history of the early church.

Epistles: The interpretation and explanation of the person and work of Christ.

Revelation: The culmination of the work of Christ in human history.

The OT is preparation for a perfect man, the Messiah. The NT is the manifestation of the God-Man, Jesus Christ.


The Bible is a wonderful, valuable book. We should thank God that He took the initiative in communicating to man. It should be our desire to get to know the Bible better and to submit to its principles.


  1. Why do we think that the Bible is an important book? It’s the word of God, authoritative, true, and binding.
  2. Why don’t we follow the OT like we do the NT? Christ fulfilled the OT, so we are not under the dictates of it. We follow the law of Christ.
  3. Are English versions of the Bible inspired in the same sense the originals were? No, only in a secondary “derivative” sense.
  4. Is special, direct revelation from God to man ongoing, or did it end? Direct revelation from God has ended. The Bible is God’s direct communication to us. The prophets and apostles received direct revelation from God; we do not. We believe the canon is closed.
  5. What is the main theme of the Bible? “I will be their God and they shall be my people” — God’s desire to enter into a relationship of loving sovereignty with man.

[1] Paper was invented by the Chinese and was unknown in the West until the time of the Crusades. Paper replaced vellum by the fifteenth century, shortly before the printing press was invented.

[2] LXX is the Roman numeral 70. Tradition suggests that 70 scholars worked on translating the Hebrew into Greek.

[3] John MacArthur, How to Get the Most from God’s Word (Word, 1997), p. 146.

[4] There are over 100 Messianic prophesies in the OT.

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