What are the Contents of the Bible? A simple comprehensive guide

First section: the the Hebrew Bible/Tanakh/Old Testament, 39 Hebrew books composed by Jews between the 12th and 2nd century BCE (roughly); Jewish adherents combine certain texts to make a total of 24 books (more below). A few of the books were written in both Hebrew and Aramaic. TaNaKh is a Jewish term and acronym composed of consonants designating the first letter of the three major divisions of the Hebrew Scriptures:

  1. Torah (“Law”), also known as the Pentateuch (Greek, “five scrolls”)
  2. Nevi’im (“Prophets”)
  3. Kethuvim (“Writings”)

Second section: the New Testament, 27 Greek books composed by early Christians between 50 and 150 CE, divided in four main categories:

  1. Gospels
  2. Acts
  3. Epistles
  4. Revelation

Now for a closer look at each section…

Jewish Hebrew Bible (Tanakh) vs. Christian Old Testament


Order Differences

Both the Jewish Hebrew Bible and Christian Old Testament contain the same number of books, however each arranges and numbers them in a slightly different order (see table).

The Hebrew Bible divides its books into three parts – Torah, Prophets, and Writings. This method reflects the chronological order in which the books were written and subsequently added to the canon.

By contrast, both Catholic and Protestant bibles divide the biblical documents into four major sections, grouping books together according to their literary categories regardless of their original function or date of composition.

Looking at the table on the right, modern versions of the Tanakh list 39 separate Books just like the Christian OT. The first numbered column shows the traditional Jewish way of counting the 39 Books as 24 by combining the double Books (1&2 Samuel, 1&2 Kings, 1&2 Chronicles and Ezra/Nehemiah) and counting the whole set of Twelve Minor Prophets as a single Book (which it was originally, since they were small enough to be written on a single scroll).

As the gray bars show, the primary difference between the two canonical structures is in the distribution of the prophetical books.

Theological Differences

As stated previously, Jews only accept and adhere to the Hebrew Bible while Christians recognize both the Hebrew Bible (their Old Testament) and the New Testament as canon. For those unfamiliar with the biblical religion, this might seem a little odd. Aren’t Christians a separate group from Jews? Don’t Jews and Christians practice two different religions? How come Christians don’t stick with their own group of texts? Contrary to what some radicals preach, Jesus was a Jew; he lived as a Jew and died “King of the Jews.” The Jesus movement was a Jewish movement, namely one centered around apocalypticism. And as Jews, Jesus and his gang adhered to the Law of the Torah and lived by it. One only has to read the New Testament to realize this key fact, as we find references to Old Testament material throughout – some of it cited explicitly. As we’ll explore in a later post, it is only in the years following Jesus’s death and the missions of the Apostle Paul that the religion of Jesus became a religion(s) about Jesus – allowing for early stages of what we may call “Christianity” take shape. Case in point: while you can have Judaism without Christianity, you can’t have Christianity without a Judaic context.

For Jews, the Hebrew Bible is a divine source of answers and guidance, providing an identity through ancestral narratives (via the Patriarchs Abraham, Jacob/Israel, Moses, etc.) as well as the lawful covenants God made with them as his chosen people (see Leviticus or Deuteronomy for example). In contrast, the Hebrew scriptures for Christians are actually about Jesus. This began with Jesus’ earliest disciples, who in an attempt to make sense of why their messiah had been crucified, turned to their sacred writings for hidden answers. By reinterpreting certain passages – many found in the Writings, they concluded that the prophets of the Hebrew Bible had foretold of Jesus’ crucifixion – of a messiah who was supposed to die for the sins of the world. Therefore, the Hebrew Bible became the Old Testament, meaning “old covenant” – that is, the old promise/treaty God made with his people. Now that Jesus had died for our sins, a new covenant was in motion, as laid out in the writings of what were eventually chosen to be the New Testament scriptures.


Overview of The Torah/Pentateuch

The first five books of any Bible. It is also referred to as the Books of Moses, as Moses is the leading human figure throughout beginning with Exodus.

  • Genesis: Creation of the cosmos; Adam and Eve; accounts of the Patriarchal forebears of Israel; how God’s people settled in Egypt under Joseph.
  • Exodus: Israel’s liberation from Egypt under Moses; journey to Sinai; the Ten Commandments and God’s covenant with Israel on Mt. Sinai.
  • Leviticus: The law of sacrifice; the consecration of the priests (Aaron and his sons); what’s clean and unclean; holidays and rules; regulations concerning dedications to God.
  • Numbers: Journey to Canaan; 40 years of wandering the wilderness; the journey back to Canaan.
  • Deuteronomy: historical prologue; tredaty between God and Israel. This book is seen as the “second law” because the book repeats what has appeared in Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers.

Overview of the Prophets  (Nevi’im)

The second part of the Hebrew Bible, this section recounts more than 600 year of Israels history (c. 1200-562 BCE). The Prophets contain two sub-groups: the Former Prophets and the Latter Prophets. It’s worth noting that many of the writings of the Latter Prophets are thought by scholars to be older than the narratives of the Former.

  • The Former Prophets: (Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings – also known as the Deuteronomistic History) The first book begins following the death of Moses and provides a narrative of Israel’s military conquest of Canaan under the newly appointed Joshua. Judges, Samuel, and Kings then describe the rise of Israel as a nation, establishing a monarchy under King David.
  • The Latter Prophets: a collection of books named for individual prophets, most of whom were active during the period of the Davidic monarchy. These fifteen texts are divided into two groups: the Major Prophets and the Minor Prophets. This designation exists not because the first three are considered more important, but rather because of their difference in length. None of the Minors were seen as being long enough to be its own book (Obadiah, for instance, is only a single chapter)
    • the Major Prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel)
    • Twelve Minor Prophets (Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi)

Overview of the Writings (Kethuvim)

The third part of the Hebrew Bible. Here we read texts which diverge largely from the previous sections; instead of narratives alone we find poetry (Psalms), philosophy (Ecclesiastes), and existential exploration (Job). Another trait which sets the Writings apart is that with the exception of Daniel, these works do not do not present themselves as divinely inspired – at least directly.

  • Psalms: Translated in English as “The Book of Songs.” In traditional Hebrew: “Book of Praises” – therefore identifying the book as a collection of poems expressing praise, despair, thankfulness, and requests for God’s deliverance. These devotional poems were sung during services at the Jerusalem Temple. It’s also interesting to note that the Final editor of the book arranged the various Psalms into five sections, perhaps imitating the five divisions of the Law.
  • Proverbs: Attributed to Solomon, a collection of wise sayings that instruct youth and give general guidance for life well-lived. It personifies wisdom, provides sayings attributed to “the Wise”, and warns against following sinners.
  • Job: Named after its protagonist, Job tells of one man’s agony following a bet God makes with Satan, who is not the devil portrayed in Christianity but rather an appointed member of God’s divine council (Ha-Satan is not a name but rather a title, meaning “the accuser” or “the adversary”). The message the narrative sets out to teach readers is that like God’s nature, God’s justice is unknowable; people like Job, no matter how righteous, should not try to seek an answer for why they suffer.
  • Song of Songs: Known as “Song of Solomon” from the KJV of the Christian Bible. The phrase “Song of Songs” is a Hebraism that means “The Best Song.” Simply put, it is an erotic love poem about a woman and a prince. One central message to take away from this text is that while passion comes and goes, love abides forever.
  • Ruth: The story of a Moabite woman who converts to Judaism and becomes the ancestor of King David. It appears to have been written then as a reminder that David’s ancestry was foreign. Like the Song of Songs, the text never mentions God.
  • Lamentations: A series of acrostic poems mourning the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians. ‘Nough said.
  • Ecclesiastes: Discusses the meaning of life. The author (who certainly wasn’t Solomon despite tradition) finds life to be meaningless since there isn’t much order and sense to God’s actions. Furthermore, he doesn’t believe in an afterlife; this is it. As such, he makes the respectable point that we should all simply concentrate on living life as joyfully as possible before we die.
  • Esther: The story of a young Jewish woman who becomes the queen of Persia and saves her people from destruction
  • Daniel: The story of a young man taken to Babylon following the conquest of his nation by the Babylonian Empire, his rise to a position of responsibility, and his visions of God’s plans for Babylon and Israel. the Book of Daniel is the first Jewish Apocalyptic work, prophesying the Son of Man and life after death.
  • Ezra: Linked closely with the Nehemiah, the book that follows it. The two are considered to have the same author and together counted as one book in Jewish tradition. This text tells of the story of how Ezra, a Jewish priest and scribe, returned to the homeland of Israel following the Babylonian captivity to teach the Law of Moses to the other returning Israelites.
  • Nehemiah: The story of Nehemiah’s return to Israel and how he purified the Jewish community and got them to rebuild Jerusalem’s city walls.
  • 1 Chronicles: Lists genealogies and focuses on the details of how Saul was unfaithful to God, allowing David to be chosen to taken his place. It parallels Samuel-Kings regarding how David’s kingdom was established, though contradicts the Former Prophets in many historical details.
  • 2 Chronicles: Picks up where 1 Chronicles left off with Solomon as king tells his story and that of the subsequent kings of Judah until it is conquered by the Babylonian Empire and its people are taken into exile. The Book largely ignores the history of the northern kingdom of Israel, except as it impinges on the history of the southern kingdom of Judah. The purpose of 2 Chronicles is to demonstrate the decline in the religious life of the faithfulness to Yahweh of both the kings and people of Judah.

Origin of the New TestamentIntroducing the New Testament

The New Testament is a collection of various writings written by first century Christians following the death of Jesus, whom they believed to be the messiah. Before Jesus, the future messiah – the anointed King of Israel – was perceived to be a powerful figure who would be sent by God to overthrow the foreign oppressors and re-establish God’s kingdom on earth. Of course, Jesus did not fulfill such standard messianic expectations; instead of vanquishing the Roman government he was ultimately crucified by them. How then did his movement continue on? It flourished for two main reasons: 1. Jesus’ disciples became convinced that God had risen him from the grave, allowing him to soon return, and 2. turning to the Hebraic scriptures for guidance, Jesus’s disciples found passages which – when taken out of their original context – could be reinterpreted to fit his life, death, and resurrection. Thus the followers of Jesus redefined the role of the Messiah. They became convinced that since Jesus had died, the Messiah was supposed to die all along, and that it must have been foretold by the prophets. Why did he have to die? Because we need to be saved from sin. Ever since Adam and Eve fell from God’s grace, all of humanity has been tainted with sinful nature and no amount of good works or ritual sacrifice can atone for it. By dying on the cross, Christians believe that Jesus the son of God payed our debt and has allowed us to be granted eternal life by believing in him. While Jesus may have died, it is believed that God raised him from the dead and that he will soon return to judge humanity – bringing the kingdom of God with him.

Convinced that the kingdom of God was “at hand” and would arrive at any moment, followers of Jesus began spreading the good news of his death and resurrection. While most conversion naturally occurred through word of mouth, there came to be a small number of educated Christians living in the first century whose writing is dedicated to the early Christian mission. The New Testament, therefore, is an anthology of first century Christian texts which, Christians believe, were divinely inspired in order to deliver the message of Jesus’ “new covenant [testament]” with all humanity. It is important to note that although the 27 writings which make up the New Testament are our earliest Christian sources, they are far from our only scriptures from the early Christian period that have survived. Indeed, outside the New Testament are dozens of other gospels, acts, letters, and apocalypses which didn’t make the cut into the orthodox canon – a process that didn’t even occur until the 4th century; in other words, there was no New Testament for the first three hundred years of the Christian movement! More shall be said about this fascinating part of Christian history later.

Overview of the New Testament





Introducting The Deuterocanonical books/Apocrypha

So far we’ve looked at the differences between a Jewish Bible and a Christian Bible. But even within Christianity bibles differ depending on the congregation, as Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox churches include fourteen books or parts of books in their Old Testament canon that Jews and Protestants have chosen to omit. As Stephen Harris writes, “Rabbis of the first centuries CE apparently decided not to recognize as authoritative Scripture about fourteen documents – including several additions to Daniel and Esther – that had been included in the Septuagint or other Greek editions of the Tanakh. The Christian community, however, which used Greek editions of the Hebrew Bible, eventually regarded these fourteen books or parts of books as deutercanonical – belonging to a later second canon. In Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Bibles, deuterocanonical works are interspersed among the Prophets and Writings. Following the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries CE, however, most Protestant editions of the Bible either omitted deuterocanonical books altogether or relegated them to a separate unit between the Old and New Testaments. Taking the name that Jerome assigned them in the fourth century CE, these ‘supplementary’ books were called the Apocrypha.”

In short, Catholics include these extra books in their Old Testament and call them deuterocanonical meaning “second canon” (not to be confused with the book of Deuteronomy which means “second law”), where as Protestants do not include them and refer to them as the Apocrypha meaning “hidden.”

Overview of the Apocrypha

Sources and Further Readings:

Click here to question 3: Who Wrote the Bible? =>

One thought on “What are the Contents of the Bible? A simple comprehensive guide

  1. Comprehensive. Well-researched. Fair. Hardly a need to go elsewhere to become informed about the history of Christianity and their writings and doctrines. I really appreciate the incredible amount of work you’ve invested in researching and organizing this website.

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