How to Read the Bible & Where to Start
Just picking up a Bible and committing to read the whole thing can seem an impossible task. Where should you start? How should you make sense of the whole book? Here’s a little bit of advice for getting started:
- Everything must be read through the lens of Jesus Christ. The Incarnation of the Son of God is in a sense the beginning and the end of the story of salvation. As Christians, we understand all of the Scripture through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. This is a good argument for not reading the Bible cover to cover the first time you are getting really acquainted with the Scriptures–the gospels are the primary key to the rest of the Bible (for more on this, see my reading recommendations below).
- Everything is not equal. The Bible is not a monolithic document–it contains history, poetry, letters, prophecy, ritual practices, and more. The gospels, for example, are their own genre of literature: neither history nor mythology nor theological teaching, but “the good news.” This means we have to treat different parts of the Bible differently. Now, this isn’t a judgment of validity, but a ranking of importance. The Gospel of John is just always going to be more important to the life of the Church than the Apocalypse of John (Revelation). Psalms will always be read more often than Numbers. The Church uses all of Scripture, but uses the different parts differently, in a manner appropriate to their genre, content, and context.
- Everything need not be read literally. Flowing naturally from #1 and #2, allegorical and typological readings of the Old Testament especially are completely the norm in the Church. St. Paul does it in his letters (for example, in Galatians and 1 Corinthians), and the Church Fathers continue this tradition, seeing Christ and salvation through Him as the most important point of interpretation. This has a lot of implications for our understanding of Scripture. For example, we don’t deny any of the “ugly” history of the Old Testament, but we also understand it in a spiritual context and in relationship to the coming of Christ.
- There are supposed to be bumpy spots. The Bible is a collection of thousands of years worth of a variety of texts meant to apply to every era, culture, and individual person to encounter it until the Second Coming of Christ. Obviously, then, it’s not exactly the easiest book you’ll ever read. Sometimes, we open it up, and the reading for the day is perfect for what is going on in our lives and draws us closer to God in an obvious way. But sometimes, we can get disheartened when a passage seems difficult to understand or jars us in a negative way. We shouldn’t give up, but should continue to ask God to reveal to us what we need and use the bumpy spots as opportunities to ask questions and learn how to interpret these difficult passages. Which brings me to my last principle…
- Interpretation is done through and in the Church. The Bible is the text of the Christian Church, and it is only in the context of the worshiping, Eucharistic, Body of Christ that it can be interpreted. This means we should read the Scripture in the context of a full life in the Church and should go to the Church Fathers and the whole communion of saints to help us understand what we read and how it should be applied to our lives. It also means we shouldn’t be surprised when those who are outside of the Church don’t understand the Scripture or misinterpret it or even try to use it against us. St. Irenaeus in his book Against Heresies warns us that some who are outside of the Church will even try to use Scripture to their own ends and lead people astray with our sacred Scriptures. We shouldn’t be intimidated by anyone using our Scriptures inappropriately, and we should always go to the Church with our questions as we read the Bible ourselves.
So now that we have an idea about how to read Scripture, here are a few suggestions for where to start (these are my personal recommendations):
- The Daily Readings: If you aren’t in the habit of reading Scripture at all, a great way to start is by downloading the Daily Readings App and just starting with the daily readings. This will help you not only get used to reading the Bible, but will make sure you are automatically following #1, #2, and #5 above.
- The Gospels: If you’re wanting to read the whole Bible, you have to start with the gospels. Start with Mark (it’s the shortest) then Matthew and Luke (which are similar to Mark) then end with John (the theological gospel). Once you have read all four gospels, you’ll have a better foundation for whatever you read next.
- The Epistles: After the gospels, I recommend reading through some of the epistles. My college student recommendations are 1 & 2 Timothy (how to be a young Christian leader) and James (faith and works, wealth and poverty, and controlling your tongue).
- The Wisdom Literature: If you are looking for a good place to start in the Old Testament, I recommend starting with the wisdom literature. For college students, I always recommend the Wisdom of Sirach (practical advice for young people), Job (how to deal with suffering), and the Psalms (the favorite book of the Church, the Psalms have a prayer for everything).
We also have this list of great resources for starting a Bible Study (on your own or in a group). May your reading of Scripture illumine your heart with the Light of Divine Wisdom.