What Is the Bible?

Discover the origins of the best-selling book of all time

Ancient Bible on Table Against Wall

Alessio Cariddi / EyeEm / Getty Images

The Bible is the written Word of God and thus the ultimate set of guiding principles governing all areas of life for the people of God. Through these writings, God communicates his will, his laws, his nature, and his saving purpose to humanity.

The Bible is a compilation of 66 books and letters written by more than 40 authors during a period of approximately 1,500 years. The original text of the Bible was communicated in just three languages: Hebrew, koine or common Greek, and Aramaic. The Old Testament was written for the most part in Hebrew, with a small percentage in Aramaic. The New Testament was written in Greek.

'Bible' Definition

The English word "Bible" comes from bíblia in Latin and bíblos in Greek. The term means book, or books, and may have originated from the ancient Egyptian port of Byblos (in modern-day Lebanon), where papyrus used for making books and scrolls was exported to Greece. Other terms for the Bible are the Holy Scriptures, Holy Writ, Scripture, or the Scriptures, which means "sacred writings." For Christians, the simplest definition of the Bible is "the Word of God to humankind."

Beyond its two main sections (the Old Testament and the New Testament), the Bible contains several more divisions: the Pentateuch, the Historical Books, the Poetry and Wisdom Books, the books of Prophecy, the Gospels, and the Epistles.

Originally, the Holy Scriptures were written on scrolls of papyrus and later parchment, until the invention of the codex. A codex is a handwritten manuscript formatted like a modern book, with pages bound together at the spine within a hardcover.

The Inspired Word of God

Christians and Jews have been called "people of the Book" throughout history. Both Judaism and Christianity are based on the Bible. A key doctrine of Christianity is the Inerrancy of Scripture, meaning the Bible in its original, handwritten state is without error. Since the Bible contains the word of a wholly truthful God, all of its teachings are true.

The Bible itself claims to be the inspired Word of God, or "God-breathed:"

2 Timothy 3:16
All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives. It corrects us when we are wrong and teaches us to do what is right. (NLT)
2 Peter 1:16–21
For we were not making up clever stories when we told you about the powerful coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. We saw his majestic splendor with our own eyes when he received honor and glory from God the Father. The voice from the majestic glory of God said to him, “This is my dearly loved Son, who brings me great joy.” We ourselves heard that voice from heaven when we were with him on the holy mountain.
Because of that experience, we have even greater confidence in the message proclaimed by the prophets. You must pay close attention to what they wrote, for their words are like a lamp shining in a dark place—until the Day dawns, and Christ the Morning Star shines in your hearts. Above all, you must realize that no prophecy in Scripture ever came from the prophet’s own understanding, or from human initiative. No, those prophets were moved by the Holy Spirit, and they spoke from God. (NLT)

The Bible unfolds as a divine love story between the Creator God and the object of his love, humankind. In the pages of the Bible, we learn of God's interaction with humans. We discover his purposes and plans from the beginning of time and throughout history.

The Canon and Apocrypha

The word canon means "a rule" or "standard for measurement." The Canon of Scripture refers to the list of books that officially measured up to the standard, and, therefore, were worthy of inclusion. Only the canonical books are considered the "divinely inspired" authoritative Word of God, and, thus, rightfully belong in the Bible.

Both Jews and early church fathers agreed on 39 divinely inspired books as comprising the Old Testament Canon of Scripture. Augustine (400 A.D.), however, included the books of the Apocrypha. A large portion of the Apocrypha was officially recognized by the Roman Catholic Church as part of the biblical Canon at the Council of Trent in A.D. 1546. Today, Coptic, Greek, and Russian Orthodox churches also accept these books. The word Apocrypha means "hidden." The books of the Apocrypha are not considered authoritative in Judaism and Protestant Christian churches.

The Story of Salvation

The central message or theme of the Bible is God's plan of salvation—his way of providing deliverance from sin and spiritual death through repentance and faith. In the Old Testament, the concept of salvation is rooted in Israel's deliverance from Egypt in the book of Exodus.

The New Testament reveals the source of salvation: Jesus Christ. By faith in Jesus, the promised Messiah, believers are saved from God's judgment of sin and its consequence, which is eternal death.

In the Bible, God reveals himself to humankind. We discover his nature and character, his love, his justice, his forgiveness, and his truth. Many have called the Bible a guidebook for living the Christian faith. Psalm 119:105 says, "Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path." (NIV)

History of the Bible

On so many levels, the Bible is an extraordinary book, from its diverse content and literary styles to its miraculous preservation down through the ages. While the Bible is certainly not the oldest book in history, it is the only ancient text with existing manuscripts that number in the thousands.

In ancient days, the authors of the Bible recorded its messages with whatever resources were available at the time. The Scriptures themselves reveal some of the materials used: engravings in clay, inscriptions on tablets of stone, ink and papyrus, vellum, parchment, leather, and metals.

For a long period in the history of the Bible, common men and women were forbidden access to the Scriptures and their life-transforming truths. The first full copy of the Bible was completed in the Greek language around A.D. 312. It was called the Codex Vaticanus, as it was kept in the Vatican library. By 405 A.D., Jerome had translated both Old and New Testaments into Latin, which the Catholic church made the official language of the Bible in A.D. 600. It wasn't until the 16th century that the entire Bible was translated into English.

Today the Bible is the best-selling book of all time, with billions of copies distributed throughout the world in more than 2,400 languages.

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Fairchild, Mary. "What Is the Bible?" Learn Religions, Jul. 11, 2022, learnreligions.com/what-is-the-bible-700735. Fairchild, Mary. (2022, July 11). What Is the Bible? Retrieved from https://www.learnreligions.com/what-is-the-bible-700735 Fairchild, Mary. "What Is the Bible?" Learn Religions. https://www.learnreligions.com/what-is-the-bible-700735 (accessed November 27, 2022).

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