10 Tips for Reading the Bible for the First Time

How to get yourself through that resolution to finally read the world’s most talked-about book.

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is known for making aggressive New Year’s Resolutions, and apparently keeping them. For 2015, he plans to become a bookworm, reading a book every other week. His plan may include the Bible:

My challenge for 2015 is to read a new book every other week — with an emphasis on learning about different cultures, beliefs, histories and technologies. . . . Rachel Brown, Bill Munns, Marlo Kanipe and others suggested I read the Bible.

Maybe the Bible won’t make the cut — it’s pretty tough to read it in two weeks even when you aren’t running one of the nation’s largest companies — but it definitely fits the bill for “learning about different cultures, beliefs, histories. . . .” So as as thanks (/punishment) for founding Facebook, I’d like to offer him — and any other new Bible readers out there — some Bible-reading tips.

1. Start with this map.

The Bible is about a place — one eventually called Israel, but also its surrounding regions; later, the story spreads into parts of the Roman Empire. That link above goes to a map with ancient markings. Here’s the current Google Map of the area, which also includes a satellite view.

All of the stories in the Bible are about people who lived in those particular places long, long ago. Reading their stories without knowing something about their location is like watching a movie with your screen totally dimmed.

2. Don’t read from start to finish — at least not right away.

I mean, you can do that if you want. But you might fail to get through many of the 66 “books” that make up the whole Bible. The first two books, Genesis and Exodus, can be engrossing, but then the story grinds down for long stretches. So give yourself permission to hop around, and even to start with the highlights. Which brings me to:

3. Read the best stories first.

The Bible has some greatest hits. In just a few minutes, you can read some quick stories that are among the most famous and influential pieces of writing ever. And you’ll soon see why, because these tales tend to knock around in your head long after you’ve read them.

Here are four of my favorites, each of which takes between one and five minutes to read: Jesus and the woman caught in adultery (John 8:1-11, which is just beautiful); Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-8, which might blow your mind if you’ve never read it); the first creation story (Genesis 1-2:3, which is best read slowly and out loud); the Binding of Isaac (Genesis 22:1-14, which is not for the faint of heart); and the entire, but very brief, Book of Jonah (which is like a dark comedy).

4. Read a re-ordered Bible.

When you’re ready for longer stretches, try The Books of the Bible, a version that tries to correct for some odd choices made long ago. The order of books in most Bibles doesn’t always make sense chronologically, narratively, or in terms of authorship. This version tries to present the Bible as a more coherent reading experience.

It also does away with those distracting chapters and verses, which have transformed the Bible into a long list of standalone verses that get put to all sorts of misleading uses.

5. If you have to read just one book, read Genesis.

You can spend a lifetime thinking about Genesis, and people do. It’s my favorite book in the Bible in part because it shows up everywhere, all the time — in controversies about science and education, pressing social and political issues, and all sorts of great (or not so great) movies, music, and novels.

Genesis permeates the world, and the more you familiarize yourself with it, the more interesting and layered a place the world becomes.

6. But don’t just read one book. At least read the Gospel of Luke, too.

Or one of the other gospels — Matthew, Mark, or John. Each of these accounts of Jesus’ life and teaching is distinct, which is why all four are included. I think Luke has the best opening story — it’s the Christmas story, basically, but with an awesome preface — and it also folds really neatly into Acts of the Apostles, which was written by the same author, which is pretty dramatic, and which will get you reading at least three Bible books. So there.

7. Don’t go it alone.

The Bible isn’t a novel, and it isn’t an inspirational book or a history book or any other thing you’d normally put into the category “book.” It wasn’t made with the goal of getting you curled up in a chair, coffee in hand — and actually, individual Bible reading is a pretty modern phenomenon. This collection of writing is meant to be shared, debated, and wrestled over with others.

So try to find somebody — ideally, a friend or few friends, a church or synagogue group, or perhaps an online community. But find a partner for the journey.

8. Read out loud.

For centuries, the Bible was almost always an auditory experience, and it remains a text that’s better heard than read silently. Much of it is more like music or poetry than, say, the newspaper. Hearing it read, even if you’re the one reading it, makes for a different, and better, experience of the Bible.

9. Compare the Jewish Bible (TaNaKh) to the Christian Bible (Old and New Testaments).

Christians call everything before the gospels the Old Testament, but for Jews those books are the whole Bible. Take a look at a Jewish Bible (aka “Hebrew Bible”) and you’ll see that the books are ordered differently — Christians reset the order to make the overall story point more naturally toward Jesus. Both versions have an internal logic, and it’s worth comparing one to the other.

The Bible is also organized differently for Catholics and Orthodox Christians. Here’s a pretty handy comparison chart.

10. Real reading means re-reading.

Those four stories I listed in #3 will become more interesting with practice. The tenth time you read them, you may notice things that did not occur to you the first nine times. This is truer still if you spend some time learning about the Bible and its historical and theological background and legacies — Kristin Swenson’s Bible Babel: Making Sense of the Most Talked About Book of All Time is one nice place to start — and then come back to the text for more.

Whatever you read in the Bible, read it more than once. It’s more fun that way, and way more worthwhile.

Patton Dodd
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  • Disillusioned Christian

    11. Don’t get your hopes up about anything you read being worked out in any meaningful way in your local sunday morning christian social club.

    • bakabomb

      You seem to feel all Adult CE classes are Biblical-inerrancy kneejerkers or lightweight knitting circles. Hardly so. In the past two years we’ve read books by Borg and Crossan, Pagels, Ehrman, Harris and Mercadante. We play no favorites, don’t kowtow to orthodoxy and engage in wide-ranging, vigorous discussions. We’re currently studying the Israeli-Palestinian conflict sans the assistance of John Hagee. Don’t sell groups like ours short; we go way beyond a Sunday-morning kaffeeklatsch.

  • bakabomb

    I’d suggest Job rather than Genesis. Genesis certainly has its moments — Abraham bargaining God down on the price for saving Sodom and Gomorrah comes to mind. But Job’s the most literary book of the OT and is much less tied to time and place. It raises thought-provoking issues relevant to all times and generations.

    Certainly agree about Jonah, though. The passage about him sulking because Ninevah’s citizens repented upon hearing Jonah’s message, and God therefore decided not to smite it, is priceless.

  • VMWH

    Start with the Gospels and Acts and then go back to the OT

  • Stephen Abbott

    Telling them to not read the Bible with a Literalist mindset is extremely valuable, since the Gospels were not written in the way WE would read history, but they were written to be Theologically True, not as if being recorded by a Court Reporter or as if they were filmed and posted on YouTube, then transcribed from the video.

    Perhaps also an understanding that these books changed and evolved, sometimes over centuries, with new meanings and wording added and understand that prefaces and endings were likely appended to the originals to juice them up a bit. (Ancient people weren’t that different from us, after all!)

  • ricardo

    Reading a reordered bible is a great idea – Marcus Borg’s “The Evolution of the Word” is a reordered New Testament with good introductions for every chapter. Reading the NT reminds me a lot of reading Don Quixote. You can read it on your own, just reading along, but you will miss most of the richness if you aren’t aware of the external commentary, the culturally significant symbolism/metaphor, and the historical setting. Bart Ehrman has a good textbook about the NT that I often consult as I’m reading, and then the internet is full of articles to help situate the parables.