What is the Bible? To some it is a book of fables. To others it is the word of God. I think that it is straightforward to see that someone who wants to understand the Bible for what it is needs to know first what it is!
The first thing to notice about the Bible is that it isn't just one book - it's many books, compiled into one volume. There are 66 books in total, grouped into what we call the Old Testament and the New Testament. The Old Testament, written in Hebrew, consists of the texts that the ancient Jews accepted as their scriptures until the time of Jesus, and the New Testament, written in Greek, consists of those written after Jesus came. Most people don't read it in the original Hebrew and Greek, of course, instead relying on careful translations from the earliest manuscripts.
Now the belief of Christians is that each book was inspired by God - that is, although humans were involved in writing each part of scripture, what was written down was exactly what God wanted preserved for generations to come. Nevertheless, as they were written by different people at different times, they are also written in different styles and with different purposes. Some parts of the Bible are written as historical records; others describe laws; others are written as poetry; other parts again are written as prophecy - messages of God's perspective on past, present, and future events. In the New Testament in particular, we have some biographies of Jesus, some letters written by apostles to the early churches, and some prophecy as well.
The whole of the Bible is about God - and each part of the Bible tells us something about the story of God and his people, from the creation of the universe to the creation of a new heaven and a new earth in the future. The authors who write later often quote or allude to earlier parts of scripture because they understand that God's plans are slowly revealed in one overarching, consistent narrative.
We might summarise some of the main things about the Bible like this: it is a set of historical documents, written in different literary styles, and its purpose was to persuade people to seek and respond rightly to God.
Since the Bible is historical, we can read it as a primary source of historical information. The New Testament in particular we can be confident to take as an accurate reflection of what the earliest disciples actually believed and taught about Jesus. The fact that the Bible was written over different periods of history is reflected in its content as well, so it is important to remember that the original hearers of each book would have understood it in a different context to us today - this helps us to understand the text when it uses cultural idioms or makes cultural assumptions.
Since the Bible is written in different literary genres, we must read different parts of the Bible differently. When the Bible is describing events in history, we must not treat what is described as the law of God. Parts of the Bible written as poetry should be interpreted as using poetic language, not simply literal facts.
Since the Bible is presented as integrated and coherent, we ought to read it as a whole and allow it to explain itself. Israel's history is best understood as having an overarching trajectory - God wants to care for people, but people reject him, bringing judgement on themselves; yet God promises that he will also bring salvation and forgiveness. A short passage, by itself, may be difficult to understand, but in the context of the whole story it may be easier to grasp.
Finally, since the Bible is purposeful, we ought to be mindful of what information it was designed to give. The Bible presents the story of God and his people, and ultimately in the New Testament we find that its purpose is so that those who read it might believe in Jesus. Those who forget that the Bible is written with a purpose in mind can stumble when they try to use it for different purposes, such as trying to discover untold secrets about the future, or making scientific predictions.
Next time, I'll explore some mistakes that people make when using the Bible which I think account for some of the differences of opinion about what it says.