Our brains need shelving. How often do we just toss information into piles on the cranial floor—half-digested residue from cramming, snippets from conversations and articles, scraps from observation—where a casual glance from time to time makes us feel a lot more informed than we actually are?
When it comes to the Bible, Christians can easily become victims of mental clutter. Over the years, we learn a lot of names and events and bits of theology, but how do we organize such a giant story into a simple, cohesive framework? How do we study this complicated text in a way that keeps the context always in view?
When I teach my Old and New Testament survey classes, I always start with an A – Z Timeline. That way, as we study, the students have a sense of where they are in the grand scheme, allowing them to place the actions and reactions of God and his people in their appropriate contexts rather than snatching verses from here and there, stitching them together, and spinning out new theologies.
The Bible is organized by genre, not storyline. Chronological Bibles can be helpful, but they can also interfere with the flow by forcing the genres together, bogging down the historical sections with prophecy, sermons and wisdom literature. Sort of like pausing a movie every couple of minutes to hear from the director or see how a special effect was made.
When are Christians supposed to get the big picture?
Sermons tend to focus on a story or concept for reflection and application, but rarely will a pastor lead a church through the grand scheme just to build a framework. Sunday School classes are usually better about data entry, but usually they will tackle something a little more bite-sized, like the Beatitudes, the book of Romans, or the life of David. Bible schools and seminaries will pull out their microscopes, scouring the text, pulling in the original languages and the insights of church fathers and philosophers.
I hope this A – Z Timeline is helpful. Without commentary, it may be a little unclear, but post your questions and suggestions in the comments below and we can fill in the missing data. For shelving purposes it may help to note that Abraham was about 2,000 years before Christ, and we are about 2,000 years after. David falls exactly between Abraham and Christ, and the Crusades started about halfway between Christ and us.
Oh, and I filled in the so-called “silent years” to connect the Testaments, explaining why the Old Testament ends with Esther ruling in Persia, and the New Testament begins with Jesus coming to Greek-speaking Jews under the domain of Rome.
ADAM is given authority over God’s creation
Adam’s authority is BROKEN at the Fall
The world is CORRUPTED by sin and selfishness
God DROWNS sinful humanity in a flood, starting over with Noah
EVIL re-emerges on the earth
God starts a new redemptive program with a FRIEND, Abraham
Abraham is blessed, and his descendents GROW into a large community
They find a HAVEN in Egypt during a famine
Pharaoh INFLICTS slave labor upon them
God uses Moses to JUDGE Egypt with 10 plagues
God KILLS Pharaoh’s firstborn, but preserves the firstborn sons of Israel
Moses LEADS Israel out of Egypt through the Red Sea
On MT. SINAI Moses receives the Law…
…establishing Israel as a NATION
An OBSTINATE generation dies in the wilderness
A new generation claims the PROMISE LAND under the command of Joshua
Divinely-QUALIFIED men and women judge a fickle Israel
A monarchy is established to RULE over Israel
Israel SPLITS between Solomon’s son and one of his supervisors
TEN TRIBES in the north serve pagan gods
Prophets URGE the kings of Israel to follow Yahweh
Assyria VANQUISHES the northern tribes
The southern tribes WITHSTAND Assyria, but eventually fall to Babylon
Judah is taken to XILE in Babylon…
…for 70 YEARS, until Cyrus of Persia allows them to return
ZERUBBABEL leads the first of three groups back to their homeland
ALEXANDER the Great conquers Persia
The empire is BROKEN after his death
The Jews enjoy a CENTURY of peace under the Ptolemies
Epiphanes of the Seleucids DESECRATES the temple
The Maccabees EXPEL their foreign rulers
The FESTIVAL of Hanukkah celebrates the rededication of the temple
Palestine is GOVERNED by the Hasmoneans for a hundred years
HEROD the Great becomes King of the Jews under Caesar Augustus
Herod is INFAMOUS for his political power and cultural compromises
JESUS is born in Bethlehem, fulfilling prophecy
As a KID, he impresses the teachers in the temple
He LAUNCHES his ministry from Capernaum, choosing 12 disciples
His MIRACLES draw huge crowds
He is NOTICED by the political powers
He OPPOSES the religious leaders
His PARABLES confuse, enlighten and challenge the crowds
He is QUESTIONED and crucified in a trial
He is RESURRECTED after three days
He SENDS the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost
THREE THOUSAND are converted at the temple by Peter’s sermon
The church is UNIFIED in Jerusalem by Peter, James and John
Opposing VIEWPOINTS divide Jews and Christians
The WITNESS of the apostles spreads throughout the world
The apostles XPLAIN the mystery of Christ in letters to new churches
300 YEARS of persecution spreads and strengthens the Church