A Reader's Guide to the Books of the Bible
Gail R. O'Day
The signs in a bookstore or the category headings in the card catalogue at the library inform us whether a book is history or science, fiction or non-fiction, poetry or drama, and so we are able to prepare ourselves for our reading in advance. We would read a biography with a different set of expectations, for example, from those with which we would read an autobiography; a collection of essays on contemporary social problems calls for a different approach to reading than does a novel that focuses on one of those problems. The more readily we as readers are able to recognize the type of literature that we are reading, the more deeply we will be able to engage what that literature has to offer.
For example, the knowledge that Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl is the actual journal of a young Jewish girl who lived in hiding during the Nazi occupation of the Second World War raises a different set of reading expectations and responses than would a novel built around the same set of circumstances. Reading the journal of a real person's experiences is different from reading a fictional representation of what those experiences might have been like. Moreover, our reading can be diminished if we misunderstand what type of literature we are reading. If, for example, we read a book on military tactics and strategy with the expectation that it will focus on the emotional costs of battle and so enable us to experience the human face of war, we will inevitably be disappointed or confused. Likewise, if we read a war novel expecting to learn how the high command developed its specific strategies and deployed the troops, we most likely will be disappointed again.
Although it is common to refer to the Bible as a faith community's book (singular), in reality the Bible is a collection of many different books (plural). The very word “bible” signifies a collection of books, because the word's origins can be traced back (through the Latin biblia) to the Greek phrase ta biblia, which means “the little scrolls.” In the Jewish community as well, the diversity of books is reflected in the word used to refer to its Scriptures; “Tanakh” is an acronym formed from the first letters of the Jewish threefold division of Scripture: Law (“torah”), Prophets (“nevi'im”) and Writings (“kethubim”).
Bound within one cover, then, are many different books, each of which demands something different from the reader. In the New Testament, for example, one can read Paul's own accounts of his ministry in his letters and someone else's account of Paul's ministry in the stories of the Acts of the Apostles. As with The Diary of A Young Girl, reading Paul's own words and reading what someone else presents as Paul's words are two very different reading experiences. And unlike the signs and classifications that guide the modern reader through the bookstore or the library, the markers that identify the various types of literature found in the Bible are not as obvious at a casual glance. The titles of the different books of the Bible, for example, do not automatically indicate what we will find there. A man's personal name is the title of many books of the Bible, but reading Amos and reading Philemon are completely different experiences. The rest of this essay suggests the categories in the card catalogue at the library under which the books of the Bible might be filed, if they were filed as individual books, and so equips all readers for a deeper and fuller engagement with the Bible.