Where to get started with the Bible

Reading the Bible isn’t optional for Christians – it is part of what makes us who we are. However, there’s no doubt that some people find it daunting and don’t know where to start.

Personally, I wouldn’t recommend starting at the beginning and working through to the end. It starts OK with some interesting and apparently familiar stories about creation and a load of stories about Abraham but soon veers off into purity codes and punishments and what can seem like interminable records of who gave birth to whom.

Better to begin somewhere else.

Start with one of the Gospels

I’d suggest starting with one of the gospel books – that means one of the following books – Matthew, Mark, Luke or John.

(By the way, I recommend the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible. Get one of the ones with the Apocrypha and look for one with British rather than American spellings if that matters to you).

You’ve got the idea that the Bible is really a library of books written by different people at different times and in different places, right? Well the gospels are four different accounts of the life of Jesus told by different writers for different audiences. If you look carefully you’ll see that there are what appear to¬† be discrepancies between them but essentially they all clearly tell you about the life and death of a man who told stories, healed people and befriended an unlikely crew before being killed in Jerusalem. These books were all written after Jesus’s death and crucially after those who knew him best spread the story that death had not been the end of Jesus but that in some way they were still encountering him in a way which changed the world.

If you want a short one to start with I’d suggest Mark – just 16 rushing chapters where we find Jesus portrayed as a healing holy man. Note how the action flows from the desert to the city. Note also that there’s nothing much about Jesus’s birth in this one. It is all about his life and teaching. If you want to find the Christmas stories you need to look in Matthew’s gospel for the story of the Magi (aka the Wise Men) from the East or in Luke’s gospel for most of the stuff about Mary, Joseph and Bethlehem. Matthew was trying to relate Jesus’s life to a community who were working out the relationship between their Jewishness and the rest of the world which is perhaps why he presents the Magi coming from outside the holy land to worship at the crib. Luke, traditionally thought of as a doctor has more about Jesus’s relationships with women and the amazing song of Mary that teaches us that spirituality and justice are inherrently bound together.

John’s gospel, meanwhile was written after the others and the big theme is to try to explain what it all means rather than simply to tell a story. Symbols are hugely significant to John and whoever wrote it (no, we don’t really know) plays around with time in order to make his point.

All human life is found in the Psalms

After reading one of the gospels, I’d suggest that someone heads over into the Psalms and starts to dip in and out. All human life is there. These are spiritual songs which form a collection of spiritual writing which goes from anger to joy, from despair to compassion. Most people already know Psalm 23 because of the comfort that it has brought through many centuries to those being bereaved. But check out Psalm 121 for inspiration, Psalm 139 for a meditation on what it means to be human and the final psalms at the end of the book for fabulous images of praise and worship.

People still read the psalms as a bedrock for prayer and they form the core of Daily Prayer in just about any Christian tradition. We sing them every week on a Sunday at St Mary’s and recite them every other day at Morning Prayer.

Maybe now it is time for Genesis and a bit of Job

Remember the first book of the Bible that we glossed over at the beginning¬† – well maybe it is time to give it a go now. Start with the creation stories at the beginning and remind yourself that there’s two quite different accounts in the first two chapters. They are obviously not worth reading if you think that they are either a replacement for a scientific understanding of the world and nor if you think they are irrelevant now we have a scientific understanding of the world. They are a good deal more subtle than that – they are attempts to prompt reflection about the way humans experience the world. It is the big – “what are we doing here?” question turned into stories and pictures. These texts still provoke a response even now.

Whilst we are on the “What are we doing here?” question, you might like to take a leap into the book of Job – a story of someone who is trying to work out precisely that. He does what he thinks is right in the world and ends up leading a miserable life. A bunch of friends come along who say, “well, that sucks, God’s been horrible to you” and from somewhere inside himself, Job seems to conclude that this is just the way it is and that God is to be blessed and praised anyway. It is a good one for psychologists (amateur or otherwise) is Job.

Back in Genesis, you’ll find the sagas of Abraham and of Joseph taking up a good deal of the space. Worth a go, not least as they start to establish the theme that God blesses unlikely people. (Abraham sells off his wife to save his own skin not once but twice and you already know the story and the songs from the Joseph stuff from a certain musical).

A bit of prophecy now – Isaiah but start in the middle

Take a leap into the prophets now by reading a few chapters from the book of Isaiah. But don’t start at the beginning, start at chapter 40. Isaiah was written by at least two people at different times. Pick it up in the middle where there’s this soaring and wonderful prose which will again sound familiar but this time it is Handel who is giving you the tunes to hum over as you read rather than Andrew Lloyd Webber – we are in Messiah territory here.

Read some tricky stuff

Oh, don’t neglect the tricky stuff. You know fine well that this was written a long time ago and that our culture and society has moved on now, right? Well, it is still worth reading about Sodom and Gomorrah and that pesky verse in Leviticus 18 about men not lying with men and having a think about the sexual morality of godly people has changed and is still changing. Nowadays, we tend to think of the Sodom stuff as being about the crime of being inhospitable rather than an injunction against faithful, stable gay lives. Similarly, you want to read a few verses either side of the Leviticus verse and you’ll find that eating shellfish is condemned with as much ferocity as gay sex. The day an evangelical church launches a campaign against prawn cocktails is a day to take them more seriously in wanting to limit the human rights of gay people today.

Don’t miss the stuff about women and men either. We’ve already encountered some of it in the second chapter of Genesis but you want to take a look at St Paul’s stuff about women being quiet in church (1 Corinthians 14) and keeping their heads covered (1 Corinthians 11). Again, we have to see this in its historical context and murmur to ourselves that even in its historical context it was wrong, it kept women silenced and recognise that not everything in religion is good.

But don’t miss the best bits of Paul

Oh heavens, right in the middle of all that stuff about women you get one of the best bits of St Paul’s writings – 1 Corinthians 13. It is such a fabulous celebration of love that it still gets read frequently (and often very badly) at weddings.

Love is patient and love is kind, but if you want something a bit erotic you need to dip back into the Hebrew scriptures and read the sexy Song of Songs.

And end up with Revelation

The last book of the Bible is the Revelation of St John. It is a wacky read at first sight. You’ll find yourself asking “what was he on?” Is this drug induced writing or something that comes from a mystical state. Whatever it is, you find, amidst some rather gory stuff which is probably an allegory of how people thought the world was ending at the time it was written, some glorious images of what heaven is like – fabulous food, music and sex are the basic images of heaven that run through a lot of biblical thinking.

Then start reading it systematically

Once you’ve got a basic idea of what’s in it, reading a few short passages a day is a good idea.

Any member of the clergy in any church in any part of the world is delighted when someone asks for suggestions on how to read the Bible. Go on, if you are short of ideas yourself, make their day complete.


  1. However, you could read it from beginning to end using the Book of Books by Trevor Denis which is a beautiful paraphrase.

  2. I’m not sure there’s much of either 1 or 2 Chronicles in there, never mind the minor prophets.

  3. So here’s a question, relating to a recent tweet of yours: if the attempt at gaining sanctuary of the Church by the activists supporting Independent Living Allowance to allow people with disabilities to live with dignity may find justification in the Letter of St James (on true religion and on the rich) where in the scriptures does your disagreement with that attempt find justification?

  4. I don’t think that the Letter of James does justify the attempted occupation at Westminster Abbey.

    I think that the various injunctions to deal with secular authority (eg praying for civil authorities and rendering to Caesar what is Caesar’s) suggest that it is reasonable, proportionate and legitimate to take one’s protest to the civil decision makers rather than attempt to bring the body of Christ into disrepute by way of raising an issue on the news.

  5. And anyway, who said the Bible was a guide to morality and ethical decision making?

    • Quite a lot of people, really.

      But Quis custodiet ipsos interpretes?

      • Quite. Who is sovereign over scripture readings – and who guards Guardian readers? Martin Luther didn’t go in for “sola scriptura” as he interpreted through the prism of justification by faith – and hated the Letter of St James for that reason. I’m stirring, as Kelvin well knows, but as I know prereformation concepts of law were influenced by imperial Rome, I do wonder whether Anglican concepts of the privacy of belief and property are influenced by Kant and Locke. So the Church as a whole could do with rediscovering Jubilee and the rest of the prophetic tradition. Like that compassionate law on gleaning the edges of fields that allowed our foremother in faith, Ruth, to survive.

  6. jaye richards-hill says

    Its the books of Ruth and Esther for me. And the Psalms of course.

  7. Ritualist Robert says

    “(By the way, I recommend the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible. Get one of the ones with the Apocrypha and look for one with British rather than American spellings if that matters to you).”

    One can, of course, get various versions of the Scriptures online. NRSV with Apocrypha (and the option of British spelling) is available at the uber-excellent http://www.oremus.org website under the resources links. I like it because it has study notes included.

    Many other delights await there too.

  8. Rosemary Hannah says

    Well, I would put Amos high up the list – and I do think the Bible is about ethics – as well as being about other things. I do not see how one could understand the Christian faith at all without getting to grips with the push to social justice found in (but not limited to) the Deuteronomist and Amos. Leviticus too. I do not think we should let the fact that we want to reject some of the ethics vlind us to the fact that other parts are important. I think doing that is dodging the issue.

    • Is it not the case that religous people want to talk about ethics and will tend to find that material which inspires them then prompts them to try to change the world for the better? That seems to me to be the way it works best. The way it works least well is for religious people to try to make others live according to rules they apprehend in sacred texts from different times and other contexts. Even though the motive for the latter might be just as pure as the motives of the former, I think one course of action brings life and the other is ultimately doomed.

      • Rosemary Hannah says

        Trying to make others live by your rules is always doomed, and that is not what I am talking about. I do think the Bible has clear ethical approaches on some things, and a great deal of discussion aobut others. I see much of the OT as a discussion. For instance, there is a clear strand of thought that sees ‘strangers’ (anybody who is not ethnically from Judah and Israel) as something that can contaminate, and is to be shunned. Another strand argues hard against that. That latter strand is typified by the book of Ruth and the story of Elisha forbidding the murder of the army he has hoodwinked. A discussion – and in the end, by the time we get to the NT, the strand which treats strangers as equals has won out. Much the same with ethics. There is a lot not to like. There is a lot of concern over purity, which we now, and I think rightly, do not follow. But there is also a very clear strand which demands good and kind behaviours. Injunctions not to take clothing needed for night time warmth as a bond. And Amos, where I started, which his condemnation of those who exploit by trade practices, who have luxuries and who deny others the necessities.

        Where I think it becomes dangerous to use the Bible for a basis of ethics is where one draws single injunctions out and uses them as the basis for a new code, utterly divorced from the place where they started life. Or uses them without recognising they are part of a much longer discourse, stretching over a long time, many personalities, many situations. We need to read the the Bible on ethics as we read it on everything else: intelligently, critically, and listening for the larger narrative. But in my view, we need to read it, because that is where our concern for fair trade, and the right treatment of the pour had its birth.

  9. Thank you, Kelvin, for this useful guide to the searcher after faith in Jesus Christ as Saviour and Redeemer of our world. The question of whether, or not, we have to follow the moral imperatives of every sentence of the Scriptures is surely not at issue here (and would be very difficult anyway). Modern hermeneutic processes have to be brought into the equation – but perhaps only after scanning the material offered.

    I’ve taken the liberty of quoting you on kiwianglo. Thank you, again

  10. Rosemary Hannah says

    On my better days I spell the impecunious as ‘poor and not ‘pour’. It appears this was not one of my better days.

  11. Lorenzo at http://www.exclusivechurch.com has a blog post titled Closed Circuit Theology which supports your contextual theology point Kelvin (that already committed to an ethical struggle we look to Scripture for inspiration) and your point Rosemary about contending Biblical ethical discourses. Thoughts?

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