The Bible is a diverse collection of ancient literature that challenges modern readers with a question: why are all of these shorter books, poems, prophecies, letters, and other kinds of writing all collected into one large book? Is it for convenience, or is there another reason?
Is the Bible just a random, albeit interesting, product of history? It does seem disjointed or even contradictory at times (e.g. Prov. 26:4-5). And if it took thousands of years to write and had many authors and editors, how could it be anything but random?
These good questions have no simple answers, but when we read the Bible through a certain paradigm, we see a deep unity. The stories link together. Readers see characters returning to the same mountain, or the same well, generation after generation⏤each time adding new scenes and new meaning to a long saga. Fascinating patterns emerge through repeated words and images. For example, Eden, the tabernacle, the temple, and a carpenter from first-century Nazareth all have a lot in common, but not at first glance.
To sort this out, let’s first examine the Bible’s structure. Then we’ll consider the original authors, compilers, and editors of both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament in order to see the origin of this literature.
In the end, we won’t answer all of the questions, but we will understand why the Bible feels disjointed at times to all of us. We will also begin to see how the smaller stories, poems, and other documents tell one unified story that leads to Jesus.
Ready? Let’s take a look!
The Bible’s Structure
Aside from introductions and appendices, which vary from Bible to Bible, average Bibles include the Hebrew Bible (or Old Testament) at the beginning and then include the New Testament after that.
The Hebrew Bible is also called the TaNaK, which is an acronym for Torah (law), Nevi’im (prophets), and Ketuvim (writings). Written during a period of 1,000 years, this collection of scrolls includes epic narrative (e.g. Exod. 14; 1 Sam. 17), poetry (e.g. Psalms, Song of Songs), and apocalyptic literature (e.g. Dan. 7).
The New Testament is a collection of Jewish texts from the second half of the 1st century C.E. Beginning with the Gospel accounts, it details the birth of the early Church. After that, there is a large collection of letters from key players in the Jesus movement—teachers and missionaries who spread the message of Jesus’ Kingdom reign throughout the ancient world. The New Testament concludes with a book of apocalyptic literature (Revelation).
So we have two main parts, each a collection of scrolls. Through stories, poems, prophecies, and songs, the Bible takes readers through striking scenes of war and death (e.g. Lamentations, 2 Cor. 4:9) to images of peace and hope (e.g. 1 Kgs. 10, Rom. 5). Readers get to hear ancient yet beautiful expressions of love (Song. 4:1-7) and have to consider the oddity of talking donkeys (Num. 22:21-39)!
When we see the Bible’s diverse individual pieces, it does seem pretty disjointed. But is it?
What Connects the Collection?
Genesis opens with the phrase “in the beginning.” In the garden, humanity faces a huge decision. Will they listen to God’s instruction, or will they choose to live by their own wisdom (Gen. 3)? Later, the first verse of John’s Gospel also opens with the words “in the beginning,” and readers are brought back to the Eden narrative. Is John 1:1 starting a new creation story? A repeated idea? What is John doing here?
This repetition of words, phrases, and ideas is part of the Bible’s connective genius. As the Gospel story unfolds through Matthew, Mark, and Luke, readers once again find themselves in a garden with a new human facing a huge decision (Matt. 26:36-45, Mark 14:32-42, Luke 22:39-46). Will this person, Jesus, listen to God’s instruction or will he choose another path?
The Genesis story took a tragic turn, but its connected Gospel story ends with hope. “Not my will,” says this new human, “but your will be done” (Mark 14:36). Genesis and the Gospel of Mark contain two radically different styles of writing separated by thousands of years, but they are telling one story.
Repeated symbols, words, settings, plots, and characters⏤these are the things that biblical authors use to connect the entire collection. By learning how to see these patterns, the disjointed feeling that often accompanies Bible reading begins to fade, and the story starts to click into place.
Another way we can begin to see the unity of the Bible is by learning about who the biblical authors were and where they came from.
Who Wrote the Hebrew Bible?
Bible writers were not only noteworthy messengers like Moses, Isaiah, and Paul. They were also shepherds, reformers, scribes, and prophets. As the Israelites returned to their land after being exiled in Babylon, they brought with them the texts that would later become the Hebrew canon.
In its current form, the Hebrew Bible is a highly polished, interconnected work of literature. Yes, Moses or Isaiah or another author may have written the story, but we are not reading a first draft directly from them. Instead, a community of skilled scribes and prophets compiled and edited the collection at the very end of the process (approximately 200-300 B.C.E.).
These editors worked like the authors, participating with the Holy Spirit to communicate what God wanted to say. The authors and the editors were the Spirit-filled community who wrote and shaped the Hebrew Bible. (For more on divine inspiration, check out the first blog in this series.)
Who Wrote the New Testament?
The New Testament texts were written within decades of each other, all by people connected to the first generation of leaders in the Jesus movement. During the first-century, messengers (or apostles) from Jesus’ community started writing the stories, eyewitness accounts, and letters that would eventually become the New Testament. Like the Hebrew Bible, this section is a collaboration between people from all walks in the ancient world (e.g. a fisherman, a doctor, a tax collector, a pharisee, and more).
A rising Jewish scholar named Paul encountered Jesus, became an apostle, and started writing to individuals (e.g. Philemon, Timothy) and church communities around the Mediterranean world in Ephesus, Phillipi, Colossae, Rome, and elsewhere. Members of these communities shared and circulated these and other letters like them (e.g. Col. 4:16), and soon they were circulating as whole collections (2 Pet. 3:15-16).
Paul and the team of Jesus-appointed apostles wrote to communities all over the ancient world, guiding them in their discipleship to Jesus.
Conclusion: The Unified Story of the Bible
Unifying threads weave each piece of biblical literature together in order to tell one story. The Hebrew Bible’s authors build anticipation for a time when all of God’s promises will come to pass. And the New Testament authors say that, in Jesus, that time has come. They believe he is the climax of a story that began thousands of years before his birth.
This brilliant literary collection invites us to participate in the story by learning to see the patterns woven throughout the text. As we recognize these elements through story after story, we begin to see how they tie the entire Bible together.
This is the second post in our series The Paradigm, which summarizes the core ideas that shape the way biblical authors intended for us to read the Bible. To dive deeper into this topic, listen to the podcast episodes “The Bible Had Editors?” and “How the New Testament Came To Be.” For an overview of all the pillars of how we read the Bible, check out The Paradigm Study Notes.