How to Read the Christian Bible

or A Short Guide to the Bible for Non-Christians

The following brief points are intended to assist non-Christian scholars, students, or other readers who may wish to consult the Christian Bible. It occurred to me to write such a short guide after struggling myself to understand the basic structure of the Qur'an.

1. The Bible is divided into the Old and New Testaments, the former being the older scriptures of Judaism and the latter being the uniquely Christian scripture.

New Testament

2. The New Testament contains:

  • The four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John)
  • The Acts of the Apostles
  • Epistles (Letters)
  • The Revelation of John

3. The Gospels record the life and teachings of Jesus.

4. The Gospels are believed to have been composed somewhere from 60-120 AD; Mark is considered the earliest and John the latest.

5. Authorship of the Gospels:

  • Matthew: traditionally attributed to St. Matthew the Apostle (def. Apostle: one of Jesus' twelve original companions); some now dispute that view.
  • Mark: traditionally attributed to a companion of St. Peter the Apostle named Mark.
  • Luke: attributed to a companion of St. Paul (see below) named Luke
  • John: traditionally attributed to John the Apostle; now only a minority believe this.

6. Due to parallels in content and structure, the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke are believed to derive in part from a common source (or multiple common sources); these three are called the synoptic Gospels. The Gospel of John is more distinct in character.

7. The Acts of the Apostles (or Acts) records events of the early Church, with special attention to St. Peter and St. Paul. The author of the Gospel of Luke also wrote Acts.

8. St. Paul was not an original apostle. He was an educated, conservative Jew who, after Jesus' Ascension, became involved in persecution of the Christians. On the way to Damascus to arrest Christians there, Paul (then called Saul) had a blinding vision which threw him to the ground, and in which the Lord Jesus addressed him. Paul subsequently converted to Christianity and became a tireless missionary, spreading the religion to Greece and Asia Minor. Paul's letters to the individual churches he founded comprise the main part of the Epistles. He was martyred in Rome ca.67 AD.

9. Foremost among the epistles of St. Paul are: Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and 1 and 2 Thessalonians; most are considered genuine; they date from 50-66 AD.

10. The epistles of St. Paul, along with the Gospels, are a major source of Christian doctrine.

11. Among the other epistles, the anonymously authored Hebrews is also very important as a source of doctrine.

12. The Book of Revelation, also called the Apocalypse, describes a complex, highly symbolic vision. The author calls himself John. Until a few decades ago, this person was thought to be John the Apostle; that view is less widely held now.

13. The New Testament was originally written in Greek.

Old Testament

14. For Christians the most frequently consulted Old Testament books are:

  • Genesis, along with the other first five books (Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy ) -- all five collectively are called the Pentateuch.
  • The so-called Wisdom books: Book of Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Book of Wisdom, Sirach
  • Isaiah

but all Old Testament books are frequently cited.

15. Most of the Old Testament was originally written in Hebrew and later translated to Greek in pre-Christian times. Some of the later books, however, were originally written in Greek.


16. The Bible is divided into Books. Books are subdivided into chapters, and chapters into verses of one or two lines. The standard reference format is: Book x:y, where x is chapter and y is verse. For example, Mark 2:3 means Gospel of Mark, chapter 2, verse 3.

17. The Catholic bible has 72 books; Protestant versions contain slightly fewer.

18. In studying the New Testament, Christian scholars use a concordance, the best-known example being the Strong concordance (named for James Strong). A concordance is an indexed lexicon of the principal Greek (New Testament) and Hebrew (Old Testament) words of the Bible. To determine the meaning of a word in a particular verse, one notes its Strong number, and then, using the index, consults other passages that contain the same word.

19. From the strictly literary standpoint, the best English translation arguably remains the King James Version, which dates from 1611. The language of the King James Version is uniquely poetic. Only rarely does this, a Protestant translation, pose doctrinal problems for Catholics. Many phrases of the King James Version have been assimilated into Western literature and culture.

20. Christians believe the Old and New Testaments to be (a) divinely inspired, and (b) inerrant.

21. However, it is the Scripture itself which is inerrant, and not necessarily any given personal interpretation, which may be subject to error.

22. Catholics and most other Christian denominations do not insist on a completely literal interpretation of the Bible. Many passages are obviously allegorical, metaphorical, and symbolic. There are a minority of American Christians who interpret the entire Bible literally; unfortunately, these are disproportionately in evidence on the internet.

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John S. Uebersax PhD
January 2008

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Version: 26 Jan 2008 (first version)
Version: 15 Mar 2008 (corrected typos)

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