Help me read the Bible
October 16, 2008 5:45 AM   Subscribe

I've never read the Bible, and I'd like to. Which version should I read and what resources are good ones to help me understand and historically contextualize what I'm reading?
posted by arcticwoman to Religion & Philosophy (23 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
And also this.
posted by beagle at 5:52 AM on October 16, 2008

The English Standard Version is widely held to be a very accurate and readable translation. The Holman Christian Standard Bible is also very accurate and, to me, a little more readable. The ESV Study Bible is a one-volume Bible reference book and has enough information about the material in the Bible to last several lifetimes. Start your reading with the New Testament. When you have questions, the forum (non-denominational) is a good place to discuss things. Best wishes to you in your spiritual journey!
posted by davcoo at 6:01 AM on October 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

For a very lighthearted look (but also some serious historical commentary and extensive bibliography) I recommend A Year of Living Biblically
posted by purplecurlygirl at 6:14 AM on October 16, 2008

What is your purpose in reading, and what historical context are you looking for?

If, for instance, you wish to read the Bible to study English literature, you would want to read the King James Version, as that would be the version post-1600 writers were reading.

But if you wished to study the Bible as a text which was created centuries before that, I was recommended the Oxford Annotated Bible, and found it to be quite good with a great deal of additional information discussing translation choices, meanings of things, etc.
posted by jb at 7:08 AM on October 16, 2008

Wow, we've had like four or five Bible questions in the last few weeks. I think the general consensus has been that the Oxford is a pretty good fit for reading it from a historical perspective. I have looked at the brand new ESV Study Bible that davcoo linked to, and it looks like they went to great lengths to pack the thing with historical references, drawings, and background.
posted by joshrholloway at 8:07 AM on October 16, 2008

I've been working on reading the Bible on and off for several months now--I'm using the Penguin Classics edition of the King James Bible, along with the Oxford Bible Commentary.

The Penguin Classics KJV is a paperback version of the New Cambridge Paragraph Bible, which has paragraphs (as its title implies) and modernized spelling ("show" instead of "shew", e.g.) I'm finding it to be surprisingly readable.
posted by Prospero at 8:20 AM on October 16, 2008

Response by poster: I want to read it partly as a historical document, and partly to understand where my Christian friends/etc are coming from. It's such an important book to so many, I feel remiss in not having read it. I also feel like I cannot understand a pretty good chunk of the history of my culture since I know very little about a) its history and b) its informing literature and philosophy.

The Oxford Annotated looks pretty good. The ESV might be ok too.

Why should I start from the New Testament? Shouldn't I read the Old first? I'm not reading this to become a Christian, rather, I am reading it to understand the Judeo-Christian roots.

Should I look for a Bible with the Apocrypha?
posted by arcticwoman at 8:24 AM on October 16, 2008

Reading The Bible in its entirety is a pretty daunting task. The Gospels -- Matthew, Mark, John and Luke -- are very readable, not too long, and of course very central to Western culture, so that wouldn't be a bad place to start. Job is pretty accessible and interesting. Ecclesiastes has a very nice literary style. There's nothing wrong with starting from the beginning, since Genesis is also pretty interesting, but you'll definitely run into parts you'll want to skip.
posted by creasy boy at 8:33 AM on October 16, 2008

If you're not used to reading scripture, it can be difficult to get a handle on the "characters" and the context of their world. In addition to annotated bibles, I whole-heartedly recommend Jack Miles' books God: A Biography and Christ: A Crisis In the Life of God. Miles examines God as one might a literary figure, observing how His words and deeds inform the overall tapestry of biblical history, and it makes many normally confusing or ambiguous things seem quite clear indeed. Very fascinating!
posted by [NOT HERMITOSIS-IST] at 8:33 AM on October 16, 2008

Best answer: You really do need to read the Old Testament for the New Testament to make any kind of sense whatsoever. If you're looking at it as a historical document, you might consider reading it in chronological order. The arrangement of books in the traditional canon--Jewish, Catholic, Protestant, whatever--is arranged by subject and then, oddly enough, by length (mostly, anyways). For example, the Pauline Epistles come after the Gospels and Acts and before the non-Pauline epistles, but they're arranged not in order of suspected date of authorship, but in order of decreasing length. Read them straight through in canonical order and you can get a pretty muddled picture. Read them through chronologically and you can see Paul growing in grace and his emphases shifting accordingly.

Whatever version you decide upon, you should look into using something like this, a schedule for reading the entire Bible straight through in one year. Even if you decide to take longer than that, you've still got a road-map for what comes when in the Bible. For example, Nehemiah and Esther come before the Minor Prophets but describe events which occurred after those books, but because they're works of history, they get stuck after Chronicles with the rest of the histories.

Such a plan will have you reading the Writings and Prophets around the time in history when their authors lived. So you'll read most of the Psalms while reading Samuel and Kings, and Proverbs during Solomon's life in Kings, and the prophets will be scattered throughout with their authors appeared in the history of Israel.

A word about study Bibles: they're pretty much all deliberately attempting to emphasize a certain faith tradition. So a study Bible written by Catholics will tell you why Rome is right, one written by the Reformed will tell you why they're right, etc. Some of them, particularly amongst the Dispensational tradition (a plurality, if not majority, of Protestants in America are Dispensational, even if they don't know it), are ridiculously partisan. Study Bibles can be useful, but they're better used as a kind of shorthand guide to a particular tradition than as a resource which will elucidate the differences between traditions.

As far as the Apocrypha, you can take it or leave it. They aren't any part of the Jewish canon, and even Rome didn't include them until the 16th century with the Council of Trent. All Christian traditions have been more-or-less aware of these "deuterocanonical" works, but only Rome has officially declared them to be part of the canon (arguably because certain theological positions to which Luther objected are impossible to justify without them, but there I go being partisan again). In any case, you won't learn much about Jewish thought--other than some history, especially in Maccabees--and pretty much nothing in Protestant or Orthodox thought is dependent upon them at all. I'd say forget 'em.
posted by valkyryn at 9:08 AM on October 16, 2008 [5 favorites]

Best answer: The Oxford World's Classics King James Bible, paperback edition. A comfortable and inexpensive reading version, with authoritative commentary on the lovely King James version of the Bible (including Apocrypha), which has been so enormously influential in part due to the beauty of the language of this seventeenth century translation. While more recent translations of the Bible tend sometimes to present themselves as the True Best Versions, if you are a more secular reader you may especially appreciate this edition's scholarly and historical approach to the text.

On Preview: Seeing your comment at 8:24 I'd say you may find this edition a particularly good choice for you.
posted by washburn at 9:42 AM on October 16, 2008 [2 favorites]

If you want a historical idea and information on how the bible has been miss used you should also think of reading the writings of John Shelby Spong he is a bishop who writes on the use and miss-use of the bible and most of his books also deal with how the book was written e.i. when and why also what the authors basiced their writing on
posted by CollegeNelson at 9:42 AM on October 16, 2008

Best answer: Unless you read the original Hebrew text, you will be getting someone's translation of the original - which is either colored with bias, misinterpretations, erroneous meanings and generally - a far cry from what was intended when it was first scripted in the holy language of God- Hebrew. So - that said, you want to get a translation that has been put into another language by someone fully familiar with the meanings of the word, intention and hidden meanings of the Torah - because there is no just *flat* reading of the text, but a multi-dimensional holographic Book of Law and Light that can be read cryptographically, literally, metaphorically and metaphysically - and the meaning of all needs to be conveyed in the translation.

All past versions can be divvied up between the deplorably ignorant on one hand and the very close to the Real Thing on the other. You want the latter to comprehend what exactly is being taught.

All text with commentary online

There is a new volume of Numbers which is very very accurate and will be made available for purchase

And another edition - well accepted by scholars is the Stone Edition by Artscroll

posted by watercarrier at 9:50 AM on October 16, 2008

"Why should I start from the New Testament? Shouldn't I read the Old first?"

Because it's shorter and will make a fair amount of sense on its own. Yes, you need to read the Old Testament first for the New to make sense, but it's just as much the other way around (for Christians, Jews have a different kind of commentary tradition, as watercarrier points out), that the New Testament, and more specifically the Christ event is considered an interperative key to the Old Testament... call it the coherence theory of the Bible...

You should probably read the New Testament, the Old Testament, and then the New Testament again.

From a Catholic perspective I recommend Peter Kreeft's You Can Understand the Bible which is not as hokey as it's title suggests and Lawrence Boadt's Reading the Old Testament: an Introduction.

It's probably out of your budget, but if you can find it in a library, the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture is amazing. It has excerpts from the writings of the Church Fathers showing how they interpreted various scripture passages.
posted by Jahaza at 10:13 AM on October 16, 2008

Personally, I like the Skeptic's Annotated Bible. It's got helpful notes that point out the contradictions, mistakes, and sheer absurdity of many biblical stories.
posted by chrisamiller at 10:30 AM on October 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

Marcus Borg's Reading the Bible Again for the First Time is used in my church's bible study group (liberal Episcopal parish). Borg provides a "historical-metaphorical" way to read the Bible instead of a literal reading. Pair it up with the translation you like best (I like the NRSV and Oxford Bibles, but the King James is so ingrained in English-speaking culture that I actually find myself distracted while reading it). A good biblical dictionary may help too, especially if you are sitting there thinking "How on earth do I pronounce that?"
posted by catlet at 10:39 AM on October 16, 2008

The Oxford Annotated, New Revised Standard Version.

Accurate. Readable. Mainstream. Do It.

Unless you want poetry, then go for the King James Version all the way.

Avoid like the plague paraphrases like The Message, Good News Bible, The Living Bible etc.

NIV and NASB are both decent serviceable translations, but were put together by more theologically conservative committees instead of mainstream scholars like the NRSV was.

The New Jerusalem Bible is pretty good (Catholic), and the New English Bible is pretty, but has some problems or so I'm told.
posted by MasonDixon at 10:42 AM on October 16, 2008

Isaac Asimov's Guide to the Bible. Absolutely fantastic.
posted by CRM114 at 11:39 AM on October 16, 2008 [2 favorites]

Feel free to start with the Old Testament. Sure, large sections of the New are very readable, and they are more influential on Christian thinking - but the Old has all the best smiting and sex. When I was in church I always spend sermons looking for the violence and sex in Genesis.

I would also second Isaac Asimov on the Bible - his book on The Book of Ruth was one of my favorite reads as a child.
posted by jb at 9:19 PM on October 16, 2008

I think the main thing would be to read the interesting bits first -- Many Christians won't have read large sections of the boring laws or confusing prophecy, unless they belong to a fundamentalist church which stresses reading the whole thing.

But what you want to get at - the cultural impact of the Judeo-Christian tradition - is mostly in the stories of the Old and New Testament: the history stories (Genesis, Exodus, parts of Judges, Kings, Ruth), and the Gospels. Also the Psalms, which were extremely widely read in the premodern period, and parts of Paul's letters.

Basically - I would start at the beginning, skip all geneologies, keep going through all the interesting stories, but skip most of the long law books, and look for more stories. Just skim through. And when you get bored, switch to the Gospels, and read some more stories. Stories is really how Christian culture has been passed through the centuries. Like a European "Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra".

As for Leviticus - No one reads that really, they just look up the silly laws. I did try reading it all the way through once, but that was for a bible reading challenge at a somewhat bible literalist fundie church. And it really had no religious meaning for me.
posted by jb at 9:29 PM on October 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

You probably missed this very recent thread that asks a nearly identical question but from a slightly different angle.

Although frankly I don't know how. Surely it must have shown up as a related question when you hit preview. But it's your free AskMe per week and you can do with it as you willl.
posted by Deathalicious at 10:40 PM on October 16, 2008

Response by poster: Thanks for all the great advice, everyone. Yes, I had seen the earlier posts but due to the immense numbers of translations/versions/annotations, I figured that "slightly different angle" might be enough to generate different suggestions. In part it did, although the general consensus seems to the the Oxford Annotated with a dash of Asimov on the side, and some hefty reference books from the library when I need them.

I think I'll head to my local Christian store with this thread as shopping list and see what I find.

I'm really interested in this "what to read in what order" stuff. I am a very procedural person and had never considered reading the books of the Bible in any order other than front to back - the way I read any other codex, I suppose, other than dictionaries. I'll have to do some research on this. I do want to read even the boring parts, but I remember last time I tried reading the bible and got all caught up in the "He begats," so I'm sure I'll end up skimming.
posted by arcticwoman at 6:55 AM on October 18, 2008

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