For first-time readers, the Bible may appear to be a daunting book. Depending on the form in which you get it, you could be looking at around a thousand pages or potentially much more (this is not so much because the biblical text is different, but because of the amount of extra information that comes with it. Study Bibles with lots of extra info can catapult the page count into 2,000+ easily, while a simple beginner’s Bible might not even reach 1,000 pages). Additionally, the reader could become bogged down with detailed and seemingly irrelevant info—thus getting discouraged—before getting into most of the Bible’s main message: salvation.
One thing to know about the Bible is that it is not always in chronological order. Many books are, but there are a few books that out of place chronologically. Also, several books are somewhat in doubt as to exactly when they were written, but through techniques such as comparing literary devices used to contemporary works and taking note of events written and NOT written in the books, we are able to make educated guesses. Regardless, there is a well-established order:
The Old Testament (OT) covers the time before Jesus. It follows the history of God and his chosen people, the Israelites, over many centuries. The OT repeatedly gives hints of something to come, and that culminates in Jesus in the New Testament (NT). The OT is full of parallels and prophecies that are best viewed through the lens of the NT.
The Pentateuch, also known as the Book of the Law, make up the first five books of the Bible. They tell the story of God’s creation of the Earth to the lifetime of Moses and all that happened in it: the deliverance of Israel from Egypt, the establishing of the Old Testament law, and the journey of the Israelites to Canaan, the Promised Land.
The Pentateuch, added to the next 12 books (Joshua to Esther), form the historical books of the Old Testament. They tell the history of Israel after they arrive at Canaan and inherit the land.
The next five books, Job through Song of Solomon, are a significant change because they are not narratives – instead they take the form of poetry and wisdom. Psalms is the longest book of the Bible containing 150 poems providing inspiration for many of today’s worship songs.
Rounding out the Old Testament are 17 prophetic books from Isaiah to Malachi. These prophets spoke on behalf of God, and among the things they spoke of were things that were yet to pass – the coming of Jesus, for example.
The Old Testament stops a few centuries before the New Testament starts. The New Testament takes place during the ministry of Jesus and most of the rest of the century (the first century AD) afterward.
The first five books of the New Testaments are also historical books. These include the four Gospels, which cover the lifetime of Jesus, and the book of Acts, which covers the actions of the early church, starting with Jesus’s apostles and serving as a launching point for another important New Testament character: Paul.
The next 21 books, from Romans to Jude are epistles (letters) from important early church figures. These books contain many teachings about Christian conduct.
The final book of the Bible, Revelation, is a prophetic book in the New Testament, and describes the eventual second coming of Jesus.
There are several ways to divide the Bible into sections, but many of them roughly follow this pattern (that is, the Historical, Poetic/Wisdom, and Prophetic sections of the OT and the Historical, Epistles, and Prophetic sections of the NT). Further subdivisions are possible, but this works as a general overview.
As briefly mentioned in the very first post on this site, one suggested first-time reading plan is as follows: Start with the NT, and once you’re familiar with it, work your way back to the OT. Once there, you’ll be in a better position to understand how the promises of the OT have been fulfilled through Christ.
No matter how you separate the Bible books, keep in mind that they will all still form one story: that of God’s greatness and plan for His creation.