Why is the Bible Important?
The Bible is the most important book for Christians. They believe it contains the
account of God’s relationship with the people of Israel in the Old Testament.
Then the New Testament tells them that God came to earth as a human being,
Jesus of Nazareth. Christians believe that Jesus is their Saviour for he showed
them how much God loved the world and the people in it. The word ‘testament’
means ‘promise’ and Christians believe their Bible to be the story of God’s
promises to humankind.
The early Christians would have called the Old Testament ‘Scripture’. The words’
Old’ and ‘New Testament ‘only began to be used at the end of the second
century after Jesus’ life. They were used to refer to the Jewish scriptures and the
new promise made, Christians believed, in Jesus.
The Christian Bible
The Christian Bible is divided into two sections, the Old Testament and the New
Testament. The Old Testament is almost all of the Jewish Bible; the New
Testament contains the story of Jesus and the importance of his life for
Christians. Christians believe they can understand the Old Testament in the light
of their belief in what the New Testament says. This means they understand the
Old Testament in a very different way from the way Jews understand their
Scriptures. The New Testament contains four Gospels (the word means ‘Good
News’), each giving an account of the life of Jesus. It also contains letters written
to early Christians explaining Jesus’ life, guiding them on how to behave and
encouraging them to be faithful to Jesus’ teachings.
The Old Testament
The Old Testament contains 39 books. They include poetry, history, teachings,
laws and some very good stories. It was written down over a period of about
1,000 years between 1100BCE and 200BCE although Jewish authorities did not
agree the final list of books until the second century CE. The Old Testament was
handed down for hundreds of years by word of mouth; this is called the ‘oral
tradition’. Christians believe that the Old Testament tells of the coming of their
Saviour, Jesus, and they use the text to show that everything points to him.
The New Testament
The New Testament contains 27 books. It was probably written between 50CE
and 130CE. The four Gospels (Good News) were written between c. 65-95 CE.
But the earliest writings came from the apostle, Paul, who travelled around the
Mediterranean writing letters to new churches. The Gospels give four accounts of
Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. There are many similarities but there are also
important differences. They are like ‘biopics’ or selected episodes from the life of
Jesus, first passed on by word of mouth before they were written down. The
Epistles, or letters, may be short and personal or longer to deal with particular
religious, ethical and moral issues faced by early Christians. There are two other
books: the Acts of the Apostles, the story of the very early church and The
Revelation of St. John, the last book in the Bible.
The Christian authorities did not agree on the final number of books in the Bible
until over 300 years after most of it was written. Agreement was reached at the
Council of Carthage in 397 CE. The first time the four Gospels were mentioned
was in 175-180 CE by a Bishop called Irenaeus.
There were other ‘gospels’ as well as the four in the Bible. The four Gospels in
the Bible, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, were agreed upon because they gave
the same basic account of Jesus’ life and were the earliest ‘lives’ written by
people who knew Jesus’ first followers.
Today there are 2 billion Christians, living in every country of the world. About
half of them are members of the Roman Catholic Church. The others belong to
over 22,000 Christian sects or churches. The word ‘church’ is used to describe a
local group of Christians, the building where Christians worship or the whole
community of Christians.
There are two stories of Jesus’ birth in the Gospels. One, in the Gospel of Luke,
tells how Mary, Jesus’ mother, was visited by an angel who told her she had
been chosen by God to have a child. The child would be called Jesus. He would
be a great king forever. Even though she was not married Mary accepted the will
of God. She married Joseph and then, just before Jesus was to be born they had
to go to Bethlehem, near Jerusalem. It was a long journey for a pregnant lady
and when they arrived they could not find a room. So the child, Jesus was born
amongst the animals and laid in a manger. Angels appeared to shepherds in
nearby fields telling them of this great birth. The shepherds went to Jesus and
paid tribute to him. Mary and Joseph took Jesus to the Temple in Jerusalem to
give thanks to God before returning home to Nazareth.
Matthew also tells of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem but in his story Joseph is much
more important. Joseph was told of Jesus’ birth in a dream. Magi, or wise men,
came from the east to find the newborn king for they had read of his birth in the
stars. They asked the king, Herod, if he knew where Jesus was but Herod could
not help them. He asked the magi to tell him when they found the child so he
might visit too, but really he intended to kill Jesus, the new King because he was
jealous. The magi brought gifts: gold for a king; frankincense for worship; and
myrrh, a spice used to anoint the dead. Warned in a dream not to go back to
Herod, the magi went home another way. Joseph was warned in a dream of the
danger to Jesus and took his family into Egypt just before Herod’s soldiers
arrived in Bethlehem to kill all babies under two. Only after the death of Herod did
Joseph and the family settle in Nazareth, a town in the north of Israel.
Jesus the Messiah
Both stories of the birth of Jesus say he was to be a king. He was the Messiah,
the Anointed One, who would bring about God’s rule on earth. But Luke and
Matthew want to say different things to their readers about Jesus.
Luke tells his readers that Jesus has come for poor and outcast people. Jesus
and his family had no place to go so this great king was born among the animals.
Shepherds, not kings and great people, come to see him. Mary, too, is important
in Luke’s story and he writes how she treasured all these events of Jesus’ birth in
Matthew shows Jesus to be a great king. Gentiles, non-Jews, came bringing
gifts. Matthew wants to show that the scriptures prophesied all the events that
happen around this great birth in Bethlehem. Jesus is greater than kings like
Herod but the gifts of the magi tell there is pain and death to come as well as
The festival of Christmas was not celebrated until 300 years after the death of
Jesus. When the Roman Emperor Constantine became the first Christian
Emperor in the early 4th century he decided the Roman festival of Saturnalia
should be replaced with a festival of Christ ‘s birth: Christmas. The crib scene
came later. It was in the 13th century that St Francis of Assisi is believed to have
created the first crib scene.