By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
The Bible contains many well-known stories, but how much do we know about them? And what are the best Bible stories everyone should know? Many people, even those raised in countries where Sunday school and religious assemblies are a mainstay of many children’s education, may find they’ve misremembered, or got the wrong impression about, some of the iconic tales from the Old and New Testament.
Below, we introduce a dozen of the best, and best-known, Bible stories, and provide links to further information about each.
If you would like to learn more about the Bible, you might find our explanation of some of the best-known quotations from the Bible of interest too.
According to Oscar Wilde, ‘The Book of Life begins with a man and a woman in a garden. It ends with Revelations.’ But as with many stories from the Bible, there are many things we get wrong about that ‘man and woman in a garden’, Adam and Eve. Where was the Garden of Eden?
And was Eden the name of the garden of merely the location of it? What did the serpent represent, and what was the forbidden fruit hanging from the Tree of Knowledge?
In the post linked to above, we address these questions and provide some very surprising answers to them …
2. Cain and Abel.
The story of Cain and Abel is the next major story in the Bible, after the Creation account and the story of the Garden of Eden. Cain dispatches his younger brother Abel and is exiled for his crime.
But is the story ‘just’ a moral tale, or might it be an attempt to explain something deeper about the development of human civilisation?
What’s an ‘ark’, and why is it that only Noah’s boat is known by this name? And what was gopher wood, the mysterious material from which the ark was supposedly made?
The Biblical account of the Flood, in the Book of Genesis, is similar to the older Babylonian accounts of a Great Flood. These texts, written much earlier, include the Epic of Gilgamesh, which predates the earliest known Old Testament account by more than a millennium.
If you think Noah took two of every animal onto the Ark (he didn’t), or that it rained for forty days and forty nights, the link provided above will help to set you straight on one of the most universally known (and misunderstood/misrepresented) Bible stories.
In many ways, the Tower of Babel is a kind of ‘just so’ story about how the world came to have many languages. It occurs in the Book of Genesis, not long after the account of the Flood.
Like the Garden of Eden story, the tale of the Tower of Babel is also about man overreaching himself: the descendants of Noah build their tower in Babel because they want to create something lasting that will immortalise their ‘name’ or reputation, rather then God’s. For such hubris, they must have their hopes (and their tower) dashed to pieces.
The story may well have grown out of an earlier Sumerian myth – but also appears to have its roots in a very ‘tower’ (of sorts) which existed in Babylonia thousands of years ago.
The story of Moses parting the waters of the Red Sea so he and the Israelites could flee Egypt and travel to the Promised Land is one of the most famous stories from the Old Testament.
But was it really the Red Sea or was it, in fact, a Reed Sea? We explore this episode from the Book of Exodus in the post linked to above.
The story of David and Goliath is one of the most iconic and celebrated tales from the Old Testament. Virtually everyone vaguely acquainted with Bible stories knows that David, as a young boy, slew the giant Goliath.
The story is an inspiring example of how the plucky underdog triumphed against a much stronger opponent. But David wasn’t the underdog, in fact – and, in the first account of this story in the Bible, he wasn’t involved at all! We explore these issues in the post above.
The story of Samson is found in chapters 13-16 of the Book of Judges, in the Old Testament. Samson’s birth is foretold to a childless couple, so his conception is something of a miracle. Everyone knows that Samson’s mighty strength resided in his hair, and everyone knows that Delilah, his lover, cut off his hair and thus deprived him of his strength.
Except the second part of this isn’t strictly true …
If it had been composed a little bit later, the Book of Daniel may have been consigned to the pile of texts labelled the ‘Apocrypha’, and the story of Daniel in the lions’ den would not be as well-known as it is.
Daniel, a Jewish man living in Babylon during the Babylonian Captivity, is thrown into the lions’ den for praying to God when an edict prohibited it. But God intervenes, and the lions do not harm Daniel.
Was Jonah, the Old Testament prophet, swallowed by a whale? The Bible doesn’t actually say this – instead it simply mentions a ‘big fish’ – and there are many strange aspects to this short narrative, which has even been labelled as satirical by some commentators, to account for its strangeness.
Jonah is commanded by God to travel to Nineveh and tell the people to repent, but he shirks this responsibility and flees across the Mediterranean. Stormy times at sea follow, and Jonah ends up in the belly of the ‘big fish’ before reluctantly travelling to Nineveh to discharge his duties …
10. The Nativity.
Moving on to the New Testament, we find the best and most well-known stories in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, which recount the life and teachings of Jesus Christ.
The most detailed and influential account of the birth of Jesus Christ is found in the Gospel of Luke. But Luke’s account, as well as being much more informative than the one we find in the Gospel of Matthew, is the version of events which does the most to strain readerly credulity.
We explore some of these details – such as the census requiring Joseph and Mary to travel to Bethlehem – in the above summary and analysis.
The raising of Lazarus is one of the miracles performed by Jesus. Like the miracle of turning the water into wine at the wedding at Cana, the raising of Lazarus is mentioned only in the Gospel of John. In the miracle, Jesus raises Lazarus of Bethany from the dead four days after Lazarus had been entombed.
Jesus’ raising of Lazarus also prefigures Jesus’ own triumph over death through his resurrection, three days after the Crucifixion.
The most important event or story in the history of Christianity is surely the Crucifixion of Jesus and his Resurrection three days later. Crucifixion, invented in Persia, was a popular method of execution throughout the Roman Empire, but it is now intrinsically bound up with the story of Jesus’ sacrifice and his subsequent return from the dead.
Continue to explore the Bible with the meanings behind these classic Biblical quotations.