What does it mean that the Bible is composed of different books?
The Bible is really a collection of God's Word to humanity, an anthology of different Scriptures. These individual messages were recorded over a fourteen-hundred-year period by forty different authors in three different languages depending on the language of the intended audience at the time. However, together, these messages share one common story of God working to restore His creation back to the paradise He originally created it to be by reconciling all creation back to perfect relationship with Himself (2 Corinthians 5:18–19). The Bible is composed of sixty-six different messages, or books, that are separated into the thirty-nine books of the Old Testament and the twenty-seven books of the New Testament. Interestingly, they were not even books in the way we currently think of books.
The Old Testament books were originally written as scrolls. Scrolls were long sheets of papyrus that rolled up for storage. They opened horizontally and had a wooden stick attached to one or both ends to make it easier to roll and unroll evenly. The text was written continuously in columns from left to right without paragraph breaks or headings. Thus each "book" of the Old Testament was actually a separate scroll. Because papyrus was a perishable material, God instructed the kings of Israel to write their own copies of the Law (Deuteronomy 17:18) and the Levites to be responsible for preserving and teaching the Law (Deuteronomy 31:26). After the Babylonian exile, an entire class of scribes had arisen to faithfully copy Scripture onto new scrolls (Ezra 7:6).
Around the first century AD, parchment was invented. Instead of using the papyrus plant to make long sheets of paper, animal skins were used to make pages that could be stacked and bound together. A group of pages all bound together opening on a hinge is called a codex, or what we currently consider to be a book. Even so, many of the New Testament "books" were simply letters sent to an intended recipient, the pages of which were not likely bound together like a book.
Nonetheless, each of these messages, both Old Testament scrolls and New Testament pages, whether they were bound or not, are referred to as "books" of the Bible. The Old Testament books can be further categorized into the Pentateuch (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), Historical Books (Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings, 1 and 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther), Wisdom Literature (Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon), and the Prophetic Books (Major Prophets: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel, Daniel; and Minor Prophets: Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi). The New Testament books can be further categorized into the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John), one Historical Book (Acts), Epistles (Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon, Hebrews, James, 1 and 2 Peter, 1 and 2 and 3 John, Jude), and one Prophetic Book (Revelation).
Over time, codices (or books) replaced the use of scrolls for many reasons. For example, codices can hold more information on less paper because there can be writing on both sides of each page; the parchment was more durable than papyrus; they are easier to store because they can be stacked and shelved in a way scrolls cannot; it is easier to access any section randomly because scrolls only allow for linear access; and codices allow for indexes, page numbers, and headings. So eventually Scripture, no matter its original format, made it into the codex of the Bible.
By 250 AD, the Old Testament, also known as the Hebrew Bible, was universally accepted to be comprised of the thirty-nine books it currently contains. It took another hundred plus years before the New Testament was similarly canonized. During the lifetime of the apostles, Paul quoted Luke's writings (Luke 10:7) to be as authoritative as Old Testament Scriptures (1 Timothy 5:18; see also Deuteronomy 25:4). Peter recognized Paul's writings as Scripture in 2 Peter 3:15–16. And apostolic letters were often circulated among the churches according to Colossians 4:16. So even as the New Testament was being written, many of those books were immediately accepted as Scripture. However, it was not until 393 AD at the Council of Hippo and at the Council of Carthage in 397 AD that the current twenty-seven books of the New Testament were fully agreed upon as Scripture to be included in the codex of the Bible.
We know that "All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work" (2 Timothy 3:16–17). Each of the "books" contained in the Bible are God's Word to humanity to reveal His character, His purposes, and His ways and are meant to equip us for every good work, whether that is the work of knowing and loving God or the work of loving and serving our neighbor.
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