A lot of people pick up the Bible with the intention of reading through it. Start to finish. Genesis 1:1. GO. By the time a person rolls around to the “begats,” Reading “War and Peace” is sounding much more manageable.
Many forget that reading the Bible is this: it is one book of many. It’s a collection of poetry, a bunch of letters, worship songs, a little history, a lot of mythic stories trying to explain the mysteries of the universe and our place in it, stories about Jesus and the early church initially passed on through oral tradition, prophesy, and even the collected bizarre dreams from one fella. There is not necessarily a narrative arc and there is a whole lot of background that is helpful to understand what was going on around the words we can read.
Here are some pointers on how to start studying the bible:
- Picking a Bible - choose wisely
- Set your reading pace
- Use resources available
- Find your reading support system
- Understand what the Bible is when you start
For an in depth look into these pointers, read them below.
So where to start?
First, get a Bible. Understand that not all are created equally. Outside of the original Greek and Hebrew, all scripture is a translation. That means that people like you and I had to determine the meaning of words in conversion. That’s not always easy and there is much room for bias.
Sometimes the lens through which the translators viewed the world impacted its meaning greatly. So, find a modern translation (think last half-century modern) that balances meaning, inclusivity (“humankind” vs “mankind”), and the poetry of the original text. (You can still read the King James Version of Psalm 23, but otherwise, probably let it go; King Jim had an ax to grind with the ladies.)
NRSV and NIV versions are a good place to start. Most importantly, find a “study” or “student” version to use. The additional content of a study Bible will help tremendously with context. Bible apps are great for reading on the run, but most don't have the additional context pieces.
Find a reading track
Second, whether studying the Bible in a small group or alone, consider utilizing a one, two, or three-year reading track. Check the front of your Bible for one, look for options online, or find an app. A prescribed reading track makes it manageable and habit-forming. To bite off shorter studies, find a quality Bible study that walks you through one or a handful of books.
Look for other resources
Third, use resources to help you understand the context that may not be apparent to the average reader. The ‘Good Samaritan’ story that Jesus told hits home hard because the Samaritans were the bad guys. The hated enemy bad guys.
But the story doesn’t explain that! Paul’s letters were addressing some controversial topics and conflicts in new churches. But we only get one side of the letters.
A little help with context can help us understand his words, including the ones that don’t necessarily make sense to us today. (Do you have to wear a hat to worship because Paul said so? No, but his point that church isn’t the place to flaunt your stuff is pretty universal.)
You can find many resources, but you’ll want to be careful that they are theologically sound. Obviously, your denominational publishing house is a good place to start. A good student or study Bible helps as well – look for ones with lots of context in text boxes on the page and good introductions in the front of each chapter. Don’t let the name “student Bible” scare you off – I still find important points in the Bibles I give to my confirmation kids when I’m writing sermons or curriculum. We’re all students!
Look for support
Fourth, reading scripture by yourself is a great thing to do. But you don’t have to go it alone. Working in a small group with a pastor can help fill in some of the blanks. But having a group of lay people to bounce questions around with is excellent too.
The lens of scripture is always seen through our own experience; having multiple lenses to view it from can be a healthy thing. Work to make your group as diverse in thought, background, any anything else as you can. You might not agree on everything, but you’re in good company. Parts of scripture don’t even agree with itself!
A final tip
Whichever way you decide to delve into scripture, understand the power of the words in this collection of writings. The Bible has changed hearts and changed nations. It is dotted with funny little dirty jokes (do a double-take when you read about feet) and addresses the very universal struggles of humanity. How might the power of these words change you?
P.S. One of my favorite books that helped me understand the world in which Jesus lived was an easy read called The Shadow of the Galilean. It’s through the lens of a fictitious narrator and it helped me understand what a force Jesus was.