Bible Terminology

The name for the Bible comes from the Greek word biblion which means “book”, which is why the Bible is sometimes specified as the Holy Bible. The Bible is not just one book; it is actually a collection of 73 different writings. The Bible is sometimes also called the Scriptures, or specifically the Sacred Scriptures. The word “scripture” comes from the Latin word scriptus which means “writing”, and “sacred” is a synonym for “holy”.

The Bible is divided into two parts, the Old Testament (writings from before the birth of Christ) and the New Testament (writings from after the birth of Christ). The Old Testament was written mostly in Hebrew; the New Testament was written entirely in Greek, which was a widely-used language in the time of Jesus. There was even a translation of the Jewish scriptures into Greek, called the Septuagint (so named because it was said to have been completed independently – yet identically – by seventy translators), that was in use at the time.

The term “testament” comes from the Latin testamentum which means “covenant” – a covenant is a bond between two parties with conditions and obligations, established by an oath. The Old Testament is concerned with God’s covenant relationship with Israel through Abraham, Jacob, Moses, and David; the New Testament is concerned with God’s covenant relationship with all of humanity through His Son, Jesus Christ.

The Old Testament books are generally divided into three groups: the Torah (Hebrew for “law” or “teaching”), the Nevi’im (Hebrew for “prophets”), and the Ketuvim (Hebrew for “writings”, which were histories, psalms, and wisdom literature). The Torah is also called the Pentateuch because it is composed of the first five books of the Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.

The New Testament books are generally divided into four groups: the Gospels (which means “good news”), the Acts of the Apostles, the Epistles (or Letters), and Revelation (also called the Apocalypse). There are four gospel accounts, named for their authors: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. These are accounts of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The book of the Acts of the Apostles (written by Luke as well) reports the history of the early Church following the ascension of Christ into heaven. The epistles are twenty-one letters written either to churches, individuals, or groups – most of them written by Paul, but others written by the apostles Peter, James, John, and Jude. The New Testament concludes with the book of Revelation written by John, which describes a lengthy series of visions which John received during his exile on the island of Patmos.

Both the Old and the New Testament are inspired revelation from God. The Old prepares for the New, and the New fulfills the Old. A saying from the early centuries of the Church teaches that “the New is concealed in the Old, and the Old is revealed in the New.”

References to the Bible are generally made in one of three ways: to a book of the Bible, to a chapter or chapters in that book, or to a verse or selection of verses in one or more chapters. Being able to decipher a biblical reference means you will know where in the Bible to find the given passage.

References to a book: Genesis, 2 Samuel (there are two books of Samuel, 1 Samuel and 2 Samuel), Matthew, 1 Corinthians (there are two letters to the church in Corinth). Book names are also sometimes abbreviated, sometimes down to as few as two or three letters: Genesis, Gen, Gn; 2 Samuel, 2 Sam; Matthew, Matt, Mt; 1 Corinthians, 1 Cor. Most bibles will have these abbreviations either with the table of contents or in an index.

References to chapters: Genesis 2, 2 Samuel 3-4; Matthew 26-27; 1 Corinthians 11.

References to verses: Over the centuries, there have been several ways to refer to specific verses in a chapter of a book of the Bible. Our Bible study will always use the least confusing format, which is Book Ch:V-V. So the first ten verses of the third chapter of Genesis would be referred to by Genesis 3:1-10. A reference to a set of verses that spans multiple chapters of a book will have two sets of Ch:V, so a reference to the whole first story of creation in the Bible would be Genesis 1:1—2:3.

Five books of the Bible only have a single chapter, so when you see a reference to Obadiah, Philemon, 2 John, 3 John, or Jude, it may be in the form 2 John 1:5 or just 2 John 5. Since none of these books has more than one chapter, the number after the book’s name refers to a verse.

In some rare cases, you might see letters after a verse number. This is a reference to a portion of a verse, usually determined by natural divisions of a verse. For example, Psalm 17:4b refers to the second part of verse 4 from Psalm 17:

3 You have tested my heart,
searched it in the night.
You have tried me by fire,
but find no malice in me.
My mouth has not transgressed
4 as others often do.
As your lips have instructed me,
I have kept from the way of the lawless.