The Bible is not quite a philosophical text. In fact, the early Church Father Tertullian asked, “What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem?” Still, the Bible is the most important book in the Western Canon, and much of Western philosophy makes the most sense in dialogue with the religious and cultural tradition it springs from. What follows is a brief run through a most challenging book.
The world is created by God, and things go south pretty quickly. God makes a convenant with Abraham, making his decedents God’s people forever.
The Jewish people are enslaved in Egypt. Moses leads them out of Pharoah’s hold, and God begins giving laws to the Jewish people. These first five books would become the Torah, which is the primary law of Judaism.
This book is mainly laws God gives as the Jewish people wander through the desert for 40 years. Many of the laws make sense for a nomadic community, but some of them are sort of peculiar, or don’t seem to have a direct purpose, other than to distinguish the Jewish people from their neighbors.
More laws, but also stories about the Jews wandering through the desert. Perhaps most important is Moses producing water from a rock, which ultimately frustrates God to the point of preventing Moses from ever entering the Promised Land.
More laws, some poetry, and the Moses dies right before the Jews cross the river Jordan into the Promised Land of Israel.
Joshua takes over from Moses, and engages in a lot of wars with other nations in the area.
The Jewish people break into 12 tribes, and there is a lot of fighting and violence. The book ends with the most horrifying story in the entire Bible: The Levite and the Concubine.
One of my absolute favorites, a short book about a Moabite woman (a gentile) who accepts the God of Israel, and later begins the line of the House of David. This book suggests that gentiles can become Jewish, and belong in the tradition.
1 & 2 SAMUEL
The Jewish people are upset that there is no order, and demand to God for a king. God tells them its a bad idea, but lets them have a king named Saul, who is not that great of a guy. A prophet of God, Samuel, anoints a boy, David, to be the future king of Israel. More violence and political conflict. David becomes king, and wants to build a temple for God. More violence, and David abuses his power to sleep with Bathsheba and have her husband killed. David is a flawed protagonist.
1 & 2 KINGS
David’s son Solomon becomes king. He builds the temple for God in Jerusalem. The Assyrians invade the northern part of the kingdom, God saves the day, but after the Jewish people keep worshipping false gods, the Babylonians invade Jerusalem. The Temple is destroyed, and all the intellectuals and politicians are exiled to Babylon.
1 & 2 CHRONICLES
Mostly retells the same events from 1 & 2 Samuel and 1 & 2 Kings, but makes David and Solomon look better. At the very end, Cyrus the Great, the Persian king, defeats the Babylonians and liberates the exiled Jews.
The Babylonian-exiled Jews return to Israel and are disappointed to see how their culture has changed since they were gone. Ezra the prophet commands that all foreign wives need to be divorced. (Note, the Book of Ruth is seen as a counterpoint to this notion).
Nehemiah, a high-ranking official in the Persian court, returns to Israel from Babylon. They start rebuilding the wall to the Temple and figure out who they are supposed to be as a people after generations of separation.
Esther and Mordecai use their wits to prevent a genocide of Jewish People.
God and the Devil make an agreement where the Devil gets to punish Job, a good man, to see if Job renounces his faith. Job loses everything, and argues with his friends why this happened. His friends say he is to blame, Job maintains his innocence. God shows up at the end to silence Job, who later gets his wealth back.
A series of poems and songs written at different points of time. Some are lamentations, some are jubilation, some are beautiful, some are horrifying, it’s the emotional content of the Bible in one book.
Lots of pieces of advice, some of them are especially dubious. The Book of Job and Ecclesiastes are in some parts a response to Proverbs.
Arguably the best book in the entire Bible: the writer reflects on the difficulties of life, and the challenges of faith, identifying that we need to find meaning in what we have right now.
SONG OF SOLOMON
A bawdy poem, a dialogue between two lovers. Some hypothesize this is a metaphor about God’s relationship to the church.
The prophet Isaiah writes about the Jewish people suffering under the Assyrians (and later the Babylonians) because of their unfaithfulness, and how a Messiah will deliver them from their oppression.
The prophet Jeremiah writes about Israel’s unfaithfulness to God, why they were conquered, and why there needs to be repentance.
The prophet Ezekiel is exiled in Babylon. He has a number of visions, including a wheel in the sky, an army of skeletons, and a new Temple built in Jerusalem.
Daniel works in the Babylonian court, and has some adventures interpreting dreams and being thrown in a Lion’s den. The second half of the book is a long apocalyptic vision.
The prophet Hosea marries Gomer, who is slut-shamed repeatedly as an allegory about Israel’s unfaithfulness to God.
The prophet Joel writes about a Locust plague, and promises things will be better for the Kingdom of God.
The Prophet Amos makes repeated calls for God’s Justice in the World. This is a pretty cool book, and MLK famously quoted from here.
One of the shortest books in the Bible, Obadiah has a vision about the destruction of one of God’s enemies.
The prophet Jonah is told by God to preach to a corrupt nation, Nineveh, for them to repent. Jonah ignores this, gets thrown off a ship, stays in the belly of a whale (fish) for three days, and finally goes to Nineveh. To his surprise, the Ninevehans accept his preaching, and beg God for forgiveness. Jonah is disappointed that God doesn’t want to destroy them all, and God chews Jonah out for his prejuidice.
The prophet Micah writes about Judgement and the hope of restoration in Zion.
Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrian empire, falls. There is judgement for their cruelty.
The prophet Habakkuk writes about how God is using Babylon.
The prophet Zephaniah writes about judgement, deliverance, the Day of the Lord, and the sort of thing that an oppressed people think about in a difficult time.
The prophet Haggai writes about how the Temple needs to be rebuilt in Jerusalem.
The prophet Zechariah has a vision of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.
The prophet Malachi writes to correct the moral and liturgical failings of the Jewish people post-exile.
THE GOSPEL OF MATTHEW
Jesus Christ is the Son of God, the Prophet alluded to in the Book of Isaiah. He has a ministry in Israel, drawing ire from both the Romans, and the Jewish elites who have made compromises with the Roman empire and control the second Temple in Jeruselem. Jesus is crucified, and resurrected. This Gospel emphesizes how Jesus fulfills the requirements of the prophecy.
THE GOSPEL OF MARK
The first-written of the Gospels, this one does not have the Nativity, or much to say after Jesus’ resurrection.
THE GOSPEL OF LUKE
Similar to Matthew, but with more details.
THE GOSPEL OF JOHN
Very different from the rest, the Jesus in John is much more detached and etherial. Jesus engages in long, cryptic discussions, and there’s more stories as to what happens after Jesus’ Resurrection.
ACTS OF THE APOSTLES
Jesus returns to heaven, and the disciples have plenty of Adventures around Greece and the Near East spreading the Word. In particular, Paul, a Jew and Roman official, has a vision from Jesus, and begins his ministry.
Paul writes a letter to the Roman church explaining how salvation works. The take-away is that we are all contaminated by the force of “Sin,” and Jesus Christ is the way God has selected to expunge sin from us. Paul, counter to Jesus’ disciple Peter, does not think one has to convert to Judaism to become a Christian.
Paul tries to settle a dispute in the Corinthian church. He ends up talking a lot about love, sexual purity, marriage, and how we all need to be on the same side right now.
Paul defends himself, and writes a really bitter letter.
Paul writes a letter addressing if Christians need to follow the Law of Moses. Paul argues they don’t, because Jesus is the fulfillment of the Law.
Attributed to Paul, but perhaps not written by him, Ephesians is a letter about how the Church needs to work together, and how everybody has different gifts.
Paul writes a correspondence to the Philippian church. It’s mostly hopeful.
Paul writes about the structure of the Church, and staying clear from false teachers.
Paul writes about the Second Coming of Jesus Christ, which he imagines will be soon.
Paul, this time too the authership is in question, writes more about the Second Coming.
Almost certainly not written by Paul, the letter gives a number of instructions of churches, and includes a fair bit of domestic rules for wives and slaves.
Paul writes to a follower for support.
More church instructions, with a very unfortunate part about slaves obeying their masters.
A short letter Paul writes after interacting with a slave. This has been interpreted as both a pro-slavery and anti-slavery text.
Not written by Paul, The letter to the Hebrews discusses Jesus Christ’s status as a high priest and a King, making him able to sacrifice himself the way the high priests of the Temple were able to sacrifice animals.
A sort-of response to Paul, the letter of James is allegedly written by Jesus’ brother, and gives some generally life advice, while also asserting that a faith without good works is meaningless.
Supposedly written by Peter, disciple and the first bishop of Rome, Peter writes to comfort the oppressed Christians in the Roman Empire.
Peter writes to warn against false doctrine and false teachers.
John (probably not John the Disciple) writes about how Jesus is both a man and the Son of God, against other heresies.
Written to an unnamed woman, the letter addresses divisions in the Church’s theology.
A short, personal note between churches.
Another letter against recent heresies. However, Jude quotes a passage from The Book of Enoch, which is a book that did not make it into the final cut of the Bible.
The most difficult book in the Bible, John (who is almost certainly not the same John as before) has a long vision of the apocalypse, of things going haywire, God and Satan having a final battle, and the Kingdom of God triumphant in the end.