Not a book but a whole library!
The Bible is the most important book ever written. It is not really one book but a library of 66 books, plus some additional ones (apocrypha) that were included in an early Greek translation.
The first part of the Bible is known as the Old Testament by Christians and contains 39 works originally in Hebrew (for the most part). These writings are the sacred scriptures of Judaism as well as Christianity. In Judaism these books are not called the ‘Old Testament’ but the TaNaK, which stands for Torah (Law), Prophets and Writings. This refers to the three main divisions of books. The first five books are the Torah or Law (Genesis – Deuteronomy); then come books that tell the history of Israel’s rulers and prophets and collections of prophetic oracles (Joshua –Esther and Isaiah – Malachi). The last division contains poetry and hymns (Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and the Song of Songs).
Christian bibles have the New Testament as well, which has 27 works in it: 4 gospels, each giving a slightly different perspective on Jesus life; the stories of Jesus apostles (Acts) and then letters by early church leaders, especially Paul, Peter, James and John.
The Word of God?
For Jews and Christians throughout history the Bible has been the authoritative deposit of faith and spiritual teaching and, as such, has nurtured millions of souls. Scripture provides a benchmark against which everything else is measured. For some people the Bible is the literal Word of God – but what does this mean? Are the words of the Bible God’s words or are they filtered through human beings – the prophets and sages?
If you read the Bible it is clear that it contains a lot of different types of writing, from different ages and cultures, and there are clear signs of old ways of thinking being discarded and replaced with new ones. This is important because it tells us that the Bible is a record of human interaction with God. Most important of all the Christian New Testament re-interprets the ’Old Testament’ and reads it as referring to the life and work of Jesus the Messiah. Likewise some of the prophetic writings and the New Testament set aside aspects of the Torah, such as the requirement to sacrifice animals.
At the same time the Bible is full of mystical symbolism and infinite depths of meaning. The Jewish rabbis say that you could spend your entire life just meditating on the first word of Genesis ‘Bereshith’ – ‘in the beginning’.
So we have to be very careful about how we read and interpret the Bible – it needs to be read with our spiritual senses. When we read the Bible we need to be open to four levels of meaning – the literal sense of the story and what it tells us about history; the lessons of virtue it teaches us for our lives today; the way in which it points towards Jesus and the mystical sense, which indicates how we and the whole cosmos are restored and transformed in Christ.
Therefore we need to read the Bible spiritually. As St. Paul says: the letter kills, the Spirit gives life (2 Corinthans 3, a very important text). This makes sense if you think about it. When the prophets speak in the Hebrew scriptures, they are men and women inspired by the Spirit, speaking the Word of God for their time. Then those words get written down. But the Spirit, the living utterance came first, then the writing. So the Bible, the written word, points beyond itself to the living Word. It is not God’s ultimate revelation. Rather the ‘Word of God’, for Christians, is Christ himself, the living Jesus who wants to dwell in our hearts and lead us into all truth.
What Bible should I get?
Best versions are ones like the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) or the New International Version (NIV).
There are lots of good apps for having the Bible on your phone – for example this one
If you want to read books like the Wisdom of Solomon, you will need a version of the Bible with the Apocrypha.
A suggested order for reading from the Bible
It is great that you want to read the Bible but please don’t try and read it from cover to cover, at least not at first. You will probably give up somewhere in Leviticus or Numbers thinking – what is spiritual about any of this? The Bible only makes sense when it is read in a certain way, from a certain perspective. We need to read the key passages first that help us understand the rest.
It is also a good idea to only read a short passage each time, roughly 12 verses or a complete story / incident. Let it sink in, read it through again. It doesn’t matter if it takes five years to complete your reading programme.
The order suggested here covers about a 3rd of the Bible with something from every major section but avoiding repetition and stuff which is very specific to particular historical periods; or which is superseded by the teaching of Jesus or which is otherwise difficult to understand.
Variation: having finished reading about the life and teaching of Jesus you could try alternating readings from the New Testament and the Hebrew Bible.
Life of Jesus:
- Read Gospel of John chapter 1 verses 1-24;
- Then Gospel of Matthew chapter 1.verse 18 to chapter 2 verse 23.
- Then the whole of the Gospel of Mark
- Then Matthew 27.57 to end chapter 28;
- Luke chapter 24;
- John chapter 20-21.
More Teachings of Jesus
- Read Luke chapters 7.36-50; chap. 9.57-62; chap. 10.25-42; chap. 14.7-35; chap. 15-16; chap. 18 ;
- Then Matthew chapter 5-7 (Sermon on Mount); chap.10; chap.13 verse 24-58; chap.18; chap.20.1-16; chap.22; chap.25.
- Last of all John chap.3.1-21; chap. 4.7-42; chap. 8.1-11; chap. 8.12-20; chap.11; chaps. 14-18
Life of the Apostles:
Read Acts chaps.1-5; then chaps. 6-8; chaps 9-12; chaps 13-22 alternating with readings from:
Teachings of the apostles
Read in this order:
- The letter of James
- The 1st letter of John chaps. 1 verses 12-17; chapter 3 verses 11-24; chapter 4 verse 7- chapter 5 verse 5.
- 1st letter of Peter chapter 1.3-9; 1.13-2.12; 3.8-22
- The letter to the Colossians chap.1.1-23; 3.1-17; 4.2-6;
- Ephesians 1.3-10; 1.15-23; 2.1-10; 2.13-22; 3.14-21; 4.17-5.2; 5.8-20;
- Letter to the Philippians 2.1-11; 2.14-18; 4.4-9;
- Galatians 5.13-26; 4.3-7; 2.19-21;
- Romans 8;
- 1 Corinthians cap.1.10 – 3.23; caps.12-14; chap.15;
- 2 Corinthians 2.14-4.12; 4.16-5.21
Suggested Readings from the Hebrew Bible
Depending on your pattern of reading you might want to read a psalm or part of a psalm and then a passage from the other groups
1st group: Psalms 23; 145, 146, 100, 147, 148, 150; 139.verses 1-18, 23-24; 104; *Prayer of Azariah (additions to Daniel) Psalms 90, 91, 92, 93, 95 verses 1-7; 63.1-8; 8; 15; 19; 30; 33; 37; 42-43; 45; 46; 47; 61.1-5 & verse 8; 65; 82; 84; 86; 96; 98; 99; 103; 111; 112; 113; 117; 2 Samuel 23.1-7; Psalms 121; 131; 134; 138; 119 in sections.
2nd group: Psalms 1, 6, 10, 12, 13; 14.1-6; 18.1-30; 22; 25; 26; 27; 29; 32; 34; 36; 38; 39; 40; 50; 51; 62; 69; 71; 73; 77; 88; 94; 102; 116; 118; 126; 130; 133; 142; 143.
2nd group contains more sorrowful psalms and ones which are seen as prophecies of Christ’s suffering by the Church. You can mix the two groups up if you choose.
Texts marked with an asterisk * are in the Apocrypha section of the Bible.
Most bibles have a list at the beginning which tells you on which page to find the start of each individual book.
Proverbs chapters 1-9;
Proverbs chapters 25-29;
*Wisdom chapters 6-9;
Proverbs chapters 10-24;
Genesis chapter 1.1-2.3 (1st creation story);
Genesis 2.4-3.24 (2nd creation story);
Genesis 6.1-9.17 (Noah and the flood);
Genesis 12 (Abraham)
Exodus chapter 1.1-4.23 (Moses);
Exodus chapters 19-20 and 33.1-35.3 the giving of the Law at Sinai;
Deuteronomy chapter 4.1-40 and chapters 5-6 and 30.15-20.
1 Kings 8 (Solomon dedicates temple); 1 Kings 17-19 and 2 Kings chapters 2 and 4-8.15 (Elijah and Elisha)
Isaiah chapters 40-55 and 61
Jeremiah chapters 32.36-41; 31.31-37
Ezekiel chapters 28.1-19; 36.22-32; 37.1-34
Daniel chapters 1-6 and 7
Hosea chapters 11 and 14
Micah chapter 4.1-7
Zechariah chapter 8.1-8
Malachi chapters 3-4