What’s the Bible about?

I’m looking for a succinct summary of the Bible for a Bible Overview course. That’s only worthwhile, of course, if one regards the Scriptures as telling (in the popular phrase) “His Story”, rather than their being a disparate collection of pious thoughts from Jewish religionists, cobbled together over their history from even more disparate and contradictory sources. Yet even that might add up to single story if one believes that God is in charge of history, and has a plan for it.

If you think about it (and plenty of academics have), one of the most ubiquitous story plots, if not the most ubiquitous, is this. Good guy has a legitimate goal in mind, but an evil enemy puts some spanner in the works to prevent it. Good guy, through many heroic and difficult endeavours (and perhaps with the aid of some helper), not only manages to achieve the goal at last, but also gives the enemy his come-uppance.

Think of the Three Little Pigs, concerned only to make their way in the world by building houses and living quietly, apart from grunts. But big bad wolf blows down the lazy straw-builder’s house and eats him (in the original!), and then the almost-as-lazy stick builder’s house, equally fatally. But the wise and industrious third pig’s stone house resists the wolf, who tries to enter by the chimney, and has the tables turned on him by landing in a cauldron and being cooked and eaten, enabling the surviving pig, or him and his refugee brothers in the sanitized versions, to live safely as originally planned.

The Billy Goats Gruff is not dissimilar: legitimate desire for nice pasture just over the bridge is stymied by troll-rolldy-roll. Two small but cunning goats sneak past the being-eaten-for-supper threat by pointing to fat big brother, who turns the tables with courage and horn-power. Result: pasture reached as originally planned, and drowned troll floats off downstream into the sunset.

Even classic tales like the Odyssey share the plot. Odysseus plans to cruise home from the Trojan Wars, but gains the enmity of Poseidon by killing the cyclops Polyphemus, his son, to avoid being eaten. Poseidon curses him to 10 years of drifting and danger, but his courage, and some help from his ally the goddess Athene, get him home in the end. In this case it would be unseemly for a man to get revenge on a god, but the parallel problem of besieging suitors for Odysseus’s presumed widow is solved and avenged… or it would be if Athena didn’t bring peace: still, Odysseus gets home and gets the girl against the odds.

The same pattern even occurs in several of Jesus’s stories. The first character in The Good Samaritan only wants to get from Jerusalem to Jericho. Bandits prevent that, and then we have rescues that fail (through moral deficiency and fear) on the part of a priest and a Levite. An unlikely Sir Galahad, in the form of the Samaritan, bravely and lovingly risks the bandits and saves the day and (by implication) enables the injured man eventually to reach his desired destination.

And what about that Sir Galahad? Good guy Sir Percival sets off to find him, but is beaten up by twenty knights on the way. Just then Galahad himself arrives like the US cavalry, trounces the twenty and the two goodies reach the desired destination. And what about that US cavalry saving the wagon train of settlers from the Indians Native Americans…? That plot is everywhere!

So here’s a simple synopsis along those lines for the Bible: God creates a good world, and plans to make it even better by uniting it to himself through a creature made in his own image, mankind. But an enemy deceives the chosen representative of that race, Adam, firstly spoiling the plan, and secondly spoiling the man. Through long and arduous trials (and notably though a champion – the Incarnate Son), God not only defeats and destroys his enemy, Satan, but restores the status of mankind and achieves his original plan of joining heaven and earth through him.

That plot-outline is not original to me, but rather has become an increasingly mainstream understanding of biblical theology over the last couple of decades. Although I’ve not read it, I gather that it’s pretty much what N T Wright describes in his recent book, The Day the Revolution Began. Wright does better than my thumbnail summary by showing Jesus to be the crux of the whole thing, and (according to some reviewers) falls down a bit by downplaying his own non-favoured theories of the atonement.

I have, in fact, read Wright in a more detailed study of how narrative works in the Bible, based on work by A. J. Griemas, and how that understanding reveals more fully what it’s seeking to say and, more importantly, how it builds our worldview as we relate to it. You can find it in The New Testament and the People of God, especially in chapters 3 and 8. I may refer to that in another post.

My point here, though, is simply to draw attention to the existence of what we might call the over-arching meta-narrative of Scripture, which not only provides a fantastic basis for finding the place in the narrative where each part of the Bible fits, but in my view encourages us to find our own place in it as participants. See the whole picture at a glance and the individual bits of the jigsaw puzzle make more sense.

Salvation, both personal and corporate, has a key role in that story for each of us, but not at the expense of forgetting what we’re saved for both in this world, and in the inauguration of the one to come through our service to that divine goal. I think it’s the biblical worldview in a nutshell. On the face of it, a book like The Day the Revolution Began might make a great course book to back up my Bible Overview. Has anybody who’s read it got a view?

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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4 Responses to What’s the Bible about?

  1. Jay313 says:

    I’ve read plenty of reviews, but not Wright’s actual book, so no help there. I did want to offer another alternative to consider, which is Middleton’s book “A New Heaven and a New Earth: Reclaiming Biblical Eschatology.” He uses Wright as a jumping off point in developing his own analysis of the overarching biblical narrative. Good stuff. Joe Bob says check it out!

    (Sorry for the American pop culture reference. It’s Joe Bob Briggs and his drive-in movie reviews!)

    • Jon Garvey says:

      Hi Jay

      Bought it, reviewed it, got feedback from the author! I think we’re all fishing in roughly the same pond (Beale, Middleton, Walton, Wright + a good number of others).

      All I’m trying to do here is to show how clear and classic the narrative structure is. More in a follow-up post later.

  2. GregC says:

    I cannot offer a full formal review of The Day the Revolution Began, but I have read it and I think it may meet some of the criteria you mention above. If you will pardon the extended quote, the following was totally worth the price of admission and brings together much of what I’ve come to appreciate about Wright from his other works:

    “In other words, in much of popular modern Christian thought we have made a three-layered mistake. We have Platonized our eschatology (substituting “souls going to heaven” for the promised new creation) and have therefore moralized our anthropology (substituting a qualifying examination of moral performance for the biblical notion of the human vocation), with the result that we have paganized our soteriology, our understanding of “salvation” (substituting the idea of “God killing Jesus to satisfy his wrath” for the genuinely biblical notions we are about to explore).” (p 147)

    And explore, he does! Regarding meta-narrative, I was especially struck (as in, “Why haven’t I heard this before?”) by the way Wright deals with the simple question: Why was Jesus crucified at Passover? If “atonement” is THE thing, why not on Yom Kippur, a day specifically about the forgiveness of sins? Wright proceeds to connect the original Exodus and Passover events, details of Israel’s history, and the events of Good Friday / Passover /Easter, claiming that in Jesus’ death and resurrection, God overthrows all the dark powers that have kept Israel and the whole human race in captivity; it is the ultimate freedom moment, the ultimate Passover, the final, long hoped for, Exodus. This, of course, releases us from the power of sin, freeing us to pursue our intended vocations as image bearers, peacemakers, lights to the nations, etc…it was the day the revolution began. That is a powerful story and Wright shows how the pieces fit along the way.

    That’s what I took away on my first reading. I think you would enjoy it.

    • Jon Garvey says:


      Thanks a lot – that’s very helpful. Certainly enough to make me get the book and judge whether it would be a useful read for other “ordinary folks” as well as me. You’ve whetted my appetite!

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