A Beginner’s Guide to Reading the Bible

*post is based on a document I put together a few years ago, so apologies for any weird formatting*

A while after I became a Christian, I realised I needed to read the Bible. So, I began at the beginning, and read through to the end. It soon became clear to me that this was a mistake, but I didn’t know what else to do except press on. It wasn’t until I spent a year studying for a Diploma in Biblical Studies that I realised where I had gone wrong, and what follows is my attempt to help anyone who’s thinking about tackling the Bible for the first time to avoid some of my pitfalls.

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Like many Christians in the affluent West, I have a lot of Bibles.

  1. Don’t begin at the beginning: Seriously, don’t. Even if you make it through Genesis the chances are you’ll wind up shipwrecked on the stony shores of Leviticus or becalmed in the endless ‘begats’ of Numbers. A much better place to start is with the New Testament, as this is where you will find the life and teachings of Christ, in Whom (if you are a Christian) you have chosen to place your trust. Specifically, I would recommend either Mark or John’s Gospel as the first book you should read (more on this later).
  2.   Know your genre: The Bible contains many different types of writing: the Books of the Law, history, wisdom, hymns, prophesy, gospel, epistle (letter), and apocalyptic. Once you know what genre you are dealing with you’ll find it easier to understand what you’re reading.
  3. Know how the Bible is organised: The Bible is divided into the Old and New Testaments. Within each testament, books are organised by type (genre), and then either in order from earliest to latest (Law, history, the gospels), or length (Paul’s epistles), or by some other, less obvious, logic. The table below should help you to make sense of how the books of the Bible fit together.
  4. Know the Biblical Timeline: The Bible starts with God’s creation of the world at the beginning of Genesis. The first five books of the Bible (the Jewish Torah, or books of the Law) show God establishing a relationship with a particular group of people, the Israelites (Jews). The second of these, Exodus, shows God leading His chosen people out of slavery in Egypt, and in Joshua (the first of the histories) they settle in a land of their own. The remainder of the Old Testament covers the history of these people from approximately 1400B.C. to around 400B.C. During this time they establish a kingdom, which flourishes and then falls, leading to many of the Israelites being carried off into exile in Babylon in around 600B.C.. By 500B.C. the kingdom has been re-established, although it is much less powerful than before and is subsequently conquered by the Greeks. By the birth of Christ in around 5B.C., Israel was still under foreign rule, this time by the Romans. There is a gap of around 400 years between the Old and New Testaments. The New Testament follows the life and teaching of Jesus, His crucifixion, resurrection and ascension into heaven, and the earliest days of the church, finishing in the late first century A.D..

The Books of the Bible

Books Genre and Timeline
Old Testament
Genesis

Exodus

Leviticus

Numbers

Deuteronomy

The Books of the Law, also known as the Torah (Jewish) or Pentateuch (from the Greek for ‘five’).

They cover a period from around 4000B.C. (the traditional date of Creation) to around 1400B.C.

Includes the Ten Commandments as well as the numerous other laws by which God charged the Israelites to live, hence their collective name.

Joshua

Judges

Ruth

1 Samuel

2 Samuel

1 Kings

2 Kings

1 Chronicles

2 Chronicles

Ezra

Nehemiah

The Histories.

 

Cover a period from around 1400B.C. to around 400B.C., with a gap during the Babylonian exile (circa 586-538B.C.).

 

Note that 1 and 2 Chronicles is a recap from a different perspective of events in the books of Samuel and Kings, which cover the period up to the exile in Babylon. Ezra and Nehemiah pick up the story as the exiles return. A number of the Prophets (below) wrote during the intervening years.

Esther

Job

Psalms

Proverbs

Ecclesiastes

Song of Songs/Song of Solomon

The Wisdom books.

A collection of books dedicated to helping the reader live wisely (‘wise’ here meaning ‘in a manner which is pleasing to God’). Esther is sometimes classed with the Histories, but has a timeless quality which fits better here.

Psalms was the hymn book of the ancient Israelites, and includes prayers for just about any life situation.

Isaiah

Jeremiah

Lamentations

Ezekiel

Daniel

The Major Prophets.

The Prophets spoke (and wrote) God’s messages to His chosen people regarding both the present and future.

Isaiah and Jeremiah wrote before the Israelites were taken into exile in Babylon, and during the early days of deportation (Lamentations, attributed to Jeremiah, is a lament for the suffering caused by the Babylonian conquest).

Ezekiel and Daniel wrote during the Exile. Daniel is also partially apocalyptic  (dealing with the end of the world).

 

 

 

 

 

Hosea

Joel

Amos

Obadiah

Jonah

Micah

Nahum

Habbakuk

Zephaniah

Haggai

Zechariah

Malachai

The Minor Prophets.

 

Written between approximately 800 and 430 B.C.

Shorter and more specific than the books of the major prophets. Yes, Jonah is ‘that’ Jonah – the one with the whale.

 

New Testament
Matthew

Mark

Luke

John

The Gospels.

 

Written between approximately 50 and 120 A.D.

 

The Gospels, meaning ‘Good News’ tell of the life, teachings, miracles, death, and resurrection of Jesus. They are the core of the Christian faith.

Acts History.

 

Also known as The Acts of the Apostles, Acts was written as a sequel to Luke by the same author. It covers the establishment of the early church under the Apostles in Jerusalem, and the evangelical missions of Paul to the non-Jewish (Gentile) world.

Romans

1 Corinthians

2 Corinthians

Galatians

Ephesians

Philippians

Colossians

1 Thessalonians

2 Thessalonians

1 Timothy

2 Timothy

Titus

Philemon

The Epistles (letters) of Saint Paul

 

Ordered by length rather than date. Cover a period from around 40A.D. until the late 60s (when, according to tradition, Paul was martyred in Rome).

 

Paul wrote these letters to churches he had founded and individuals known to him. Galatians is believed to be the earliest whilst Romans, written to the church in Rome which Paul intended to visit, is one of the latest and a detailed treatise on Christian life and belief based upon Paul’s own experiences and extensive knowledge of Old Testament scripture.

Hebrews

James

1 Peter

2 Peter

1 John

2 John

3 John

Jude

Epistles by authors other than Paul

 

Written during the first century A.D..

 

Grouped by author, where relevant. Note that although Hebrews was traditionally attributed to Paul, modern scholars consider it unlikely that he was the author.

Revelation Prophecy/Apocalyptic (dealing with the end of the world).

 

Written between 70 and 100A.D., during some of the first widespread persecutions of the church.

Also known as The Revelation of St. John the Divine, likely the same John who was an apostle of Jesus and wrote the Gospel of John and the epistles 1, 2 and 3 John. Note that this book is properly called Revelation (singular) not Revelations (plural).

 

Revelation has provided rich fodder for books, movies, and cults. It is filled with symbolism and open to multiple interpretations. If you think you fully understand Revelation, you don’t

With all the many challenges which go with reading the Bible, it really is worthwhile, even if you’re not a believer. No other book has had the same influence on Western society, culture, and art. As a Christian, I’ve read the Bible in its entirety every year for the past nine years, and in that time I’ve grown, and been challenged, in many areas of my life. A working knowledge of the Bible as a whole and the way it fits together has also been invaluable when trying to distinguish between genuine Christian teaching and the distorted versions presented in the media and by some within the wider Christian community.

Have you ever read the Bible, or part of Bible?  What did you think?

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