Which bible should I read?
March 19, 2010 10:17 PM   Subscribe

Which bible should I read?

I am an atheist and a keen reader. I don't intend in any way to take on a religion. I was just thinking if I can read a book in a week easy than why not take a peak at a bible and see what's it all about. And maybe I could later down the track relate to someone in some way.

I'm not superstitious at all. I'm just looking for something half interesting that wouldn't bore me.

Which bible should I read?

With any religion in mind off course...
posted by Bacillus to Society & Culture (46 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
the king james for poetry, the nrsv for historical accuracy, and alter's translations of the psalms and the pentatauch because they are lovely.
posted by PinkMoose at 10:24 PM on March 19, 2010 [6 favorites]

I'm just looking for something half interesting that wouldn't bore me.

My sixth grade religion teacher, instead of actually, you know, teaching, had us spend every daily religion class for an entire school year going around the classroom taking turns reading the Bible out loud. Some of the Old Testament was interesting (read: "racy" as in "and Person A came to Person B so they could 'know' each other"), but it mostly bored the hell out of all of us.

This would have been The New American Bible. Avoid that one.
posted by sallybrown at 10:25 PM on March 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

If, as a reader and a student of culture, you have an ear for language at all, then you should read the King James Version.
posted by dhartung at 10:25 PM on March 19, 2010

I'm no scholar, but here are the easy choices:
  • ESV Study Bible - More modern translation, lots and lots of footnotes and references
  • King James Version (KJV) or New King James Version (NKJV) - most widely quoted, but you have to have a dictionary with you. A lot of word meanings have changed, and so some verses mean something different than what they say. (I'm only talking about word changes, not theological interpretation.)
  • The New International Version (NIV) - Also a popular translation, and based on different source manuscripts than the above. But it is commonly called "easy to read", even if it seems like some things are left out if you read one of the others first.

posted by Katravax at 10:28 PM on March 19, 2010

Oh, and David Plotz of Slate Blogged the Bible, so that might be fun to follow along with.
posted by sallybrown at 10:28 PM on March 19, 2010

My favorite edition is the New Jerusalem Bible, which I find to be a particularly beautiful translation. Aside from that, I'm particularly fond of the Book of Tobit, which, when I read it in high school, struck me as a really early version of Jewish humor. I mean, the book basically starts with a slapstick gag:
9 That night I took a bath; then I went into the courtyard and lay down by the courtyard wall. Since it was hot I left my face uncovered.
10 I did not know that there were sparrows in the wall above my head; their hot droppings fell into my eyes.
(It was probably funnier when I was fifteen.)
posted by ocherdraco at 10:31 PM on March 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

Second the King James version. It reads much like Shakespeare--if you're into that, as it was translated during his time.
posted by Threeway Handshake at 10:32 PM on March 19, 2010

The bible translated into lolcat? This link was posted here to ask earlier this week, and may be the only bible I will ever actually read.
posted by cgg at 10:36 PM on March 19, 2010

I was just about to mention the New Jerusalem as well, which is a favorite of mine.

If you're going to do a reading of the Christian bible, be aware that there are differences in Catholic vs. Protestant bibles in terms of what books are included. The Catholic bible contains several Old Testament books that are not included in the Protestant scriptures.

(In the US, it seems that a lot of people automatically mean "the Protestant scriptures" when they say "the Bible", and I think that's a shame.)
posted by Salieri at 10:42 PM on March 19, 2010

You won't finish King James in a week. You have a bit of a choice here, do you want to go pretty, but hard? Or easy, but workmanlike prose? The latter will take a week, if you last a week; the former much longer.

Lots of Christians I know tend to break the bible down into various stories, books, gospels etc, then give those a "close" reading, and think and discuss them, as opposed to just reading the thing front to back over and over. Maybe you should consider that - it's a hell of a lot easier, and more rewarding I reckon - and there's a shit tonne of supplementary material that way too (some very good, some very bad).

Also Song of Solomon ftw.
posted by smoke at 10:45 PM on March 19, 2010

Why not start with R. Crumb's The Book of Genesis Illustrated?

It's a faithful, literal adaptation of the first book of the bible. Guaranteed not to be boring.
posted by Robot Johnny at 10:55 PM on March 19, 2010 [2 favorites]

For light reading (with the bible?), recommend The Message. I like ESV for "real" reading, but The Message is unique in being a whole lot more readable and natural.

It's a paraphrase, so I wouldn't consider it authoritative/accurate/etc, but it's a bit easier than others when it comes to reading for fun.
posted by jumpfroggy at 11:00 PM on March 19, 2010

If you want something in modernish language, try The Message. Easy to understand, still dynamic. A good alternative to the traditional language in KJV or NIV.
posted by latch24 at 11:03 PM on March 19, 2010

Ah, jumpfroggy was too quick for me!
posted by latch24 at 11:03 PM on March 19, 2010

Ick, I hated The Message myself. It was so awkwardly vernacular, felt like "then Jesus said to his disciples, ' yo man, be cool. When one dude hits another, ya gots to turn the OTHER cheek. Be chillin', don't be illin'."
posted by salvia at 11:09 PM on March 19, 2010 [5 favorites]

I'd skip any Bible designated with a letter combination. If you're an atheist, why not read a Bible translated carefully by an eminent scholar of ancient Greek who just happens to be an atheist as well? Richmond Lattimore's New Testament is precisely that. Lattimore was not a "Biblical scholar," and he didn't agonize over every verse as it relates to Church teaching – he just translated the damned thing, end of. There's something to be said for that, and it's probably exactly what you're looking for – a Bible without all the bullshit, and without copious footnotes about twelfth-century saints and specific interpretations from the Diet of Worms. It's just... a translation of the New Testament from the Greek. Nothing more, nothing less.
posted by koeselitz at 11:26 PM on March 19, 2010 [8 favorites]

And I recommend strongly against The Message. That isn't a translation, it's an all-out dismantling. It is useless as anything but a perfect illustration of how different modern Evangelicalism is from actual Christianity.
posted by koeselitz at 11:27 PM on March 19, 2010 [2 favorites]

And – maybe it's too aesthetic for some tastes, but I've always felt as though Everett Fox's translation of the Five Books of Moses (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy) preserves the original's flavor a lot better - more in the spirit of the blank-verse feel of Hebrew, I think, than the fit-as-many-letters-on-a-page-as-possible Bibles of today. And it's a nice volume that's fun to read, at least for me. You should check it out.
posted by koeselitz at 11:34 PM on March 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

I like the NOAB for a myriad of reasons, but firstly because the fundies hate it, and secondly because the annotations are really very interesting.
posted by elsietheeel at 11:46 PM on March 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

I really liked Alter's translation of Genesis, and if he's done the rest of the Torah then I imagine they're equally as good. Depending on where you want to start, reading the first five books of the bible might be a good place!
posted by leahwrenn at 11:50 PM on March 19, 2010

NIV if you want to stick to a single source but I personally love my parallel bible with the 4 different translations on facing pages. A study bible with notes and citations might also add to your reading experience.
posted by irisclara at 11:56 PM on March 19, 2010

I read the Bible from cover to cover in my youth. It wasn't enjoyable and I didn't get much out of it, partly because it's a long and difficult read, and partly because as an atheist I didn't know enough about the subject to understand much of it. What I would do instead (and plan to do, if I ever get around to it) is to read an edition that includes commentary on the text, from religious, literary and historical points of view. One such edition that looks promising to me is the Anchor Bible Commentary Series, but there are plenty of others.
posted by Signy at 2:11 AM on March 20, 2010

The Brick Testament
posted by sebastienbailard at 2:38 AM on March 20, 2010 [3 favorites]

Yeah, I'd recommend against just plowing straight through the entire bible, it's not really meant to be read like a novel. And in a week? Even if it were possible, I can't imagine you'd retain much.

Pick a section that seems like it would be interesting and study it in some detail. That way also allows you to check out 2 or 3 translations and check out the differences, there's no shortage of different translations available online.

Then move on to some other section that looks interesting, and feel free to jump around.

I'd start with the King James version for maximum "so that's where that expression comes from" moments.
posted by the bricabrac man at 3:50 AM on March 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

I strongly suggest reading the books of the Bible in the chronological order that they were written. I also suggest feeling free to skip or skim things that are boring or hyperbolic (tons of that in the OT), or that you just really can't understand. This way, you'll essentially read virtually all of it without getting bogged down. This is what I did, also without reading any "studies" or commentary. I figured if I gave it a good read, I had the rest of my life to break ti down further.

The books of Chronicles are pretty good reading, IMO.
posted by jgirl at 5:38 AM on March 20, 2010

break it down further.
posted by jgirl at 5:39 AM on March 20, 2010

You could try the series of individual books of the Bible published by Canongate. These use the Authorised Version (KJV) but have introductions by people as "as diverse as Doris Lessing, Will Self, the Dalai Lama, Ruth Rendell, Nick Cave, Karen Armstrong and Bono". Article including extracts from the introductions. The series was called Pocket Canons - here's a link to the edition of Genesis. wch had an introduction by Steven Rose. The introductions themselves were later collected.

I agree with the bricabrac man that the AV is the best because of the phrases you'll come across that you may not have known came from the Bible. If you get interested in the language you might like to read Hattersley's biog of Wycliffe - A Brand from the Burning - as much of the AV's language comes from Wycliffe's translation.

A really great book about the Bible, if you want to read around the topic, is Robin Lane Fox's The Unauthorised Version.

One further comment - you could try starting with the Book of Esther, wch as RLF comments reads like a novel (and doesn't mention God).
posted by paduasoy at 7:16 AM on March 20, 2010

"Lattimore was not a "Biblical scholar," and he didn't agonize over every verse as it relates to Church teaching – he just translated the damned thing, end of. There's something to be said for that"

Uh ... very little. There is NO book that old where you can "just translate the damned thing, end of." Either he's an enormously careless scholar without the knowledge to DO a translation, or he's pushing his own agenda. Anyone honest will admit that ancient languages present copious translation issues; a translation without footnotes is either useless, agenda-laden, or dishonest.

For accuracy in English, most scholars use either the New Oxford Annotated edition of the New Revised Standard Version, or the Catholic Study Bible edition of the New American Catholic Bible. Both are well-footnoted, have good explanatory introductions and notes, and read reasonably well. (Each makes slightly different decisions about where to pursue the poetry and where to laboriously work out the plain meaning, so each is prettier in places and more pedestrian in other places.) I slightly prefer the New Oxford Annotated NRSV, but I did my graduate theology work at a nominally Protestant school so I'm more used to it.

The best advice I could give you is actually to get Stephen L. Harris's "Understanding the Bible" as a companion text. Read the Harris section FIRST, THEN read the Bible book in question. Harris is not religiously committed (I believe he's an atheist but I'm not positive) and presents an engaging but scholarly background that helps you understand the context of each book. Very popular for scholarly intro Bible classes, both Bible as literature and Bible as theology.

I also like Commentary on the Torah by Richard Elliot Friedman, which is a very modern commentary that addresses a lot of modern concerns but is located very squarely in the rabbinical tradition. It's only the first five books and maybe more "religious" than you're looking for, but is very different and interesting.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:18 AM on March 20, 2010 [8 favorites]

Going along with the "how to read it" theme, I would divide it into genres (history, poetry, gospels, epistles and and so on) and read one of each. Also, hit highlights like certain psalms and parts of revelations.
posted by msittig at 7:19 AM on March 20, 2010

My view:

-King James Version has a rich history of its use for 2 - 3 centuries, and personally I feel it is consistent and accurate to its source material, moreso that later modern-language translations as others have noted here.

-if you find the KJV too daunting with it's older english, then consider NASB (New American Standard Bible) or perhaps NIV (New International Version), I've read the NIV more than the NASB but I think I might lean more towards NASB re: consistency with KJV.

-I too am unsure if trying to read the whole Bible start to finish is viable strategy. Again, my view is that you may want to start in the New Testament (the Gospel of John) following into Acts and then the letters (Epistles) written by the disciples.

Then, if you want more context, you can go back and read the first few books of history (Genesis and Exodus as a start for instance).
posted by thermonuclear.jive.turkey at 7:22 AM on March 20, 2010

The New Revised Standard Version (with the apocrypha) is great. It's scholarly without too much of an agenda. If you want beautiful poetry and nice sounding prose though, this is not the bible for you.
posted by pecknpah at 7:28 AM on March 20, 2010

New Jerusalem is best for old testament translation that is closest to the hebrew scriptures. For new testament, NIV is a good translation.
posted by hworth at 7:54 AM on March 20, 2010

I loved reading Robert Alter's translation of Genesis in college. It was the first time, for me, that the Bible really stood out as literature. It might be a cool way to start if you haven't read any of the Bible.
posted by Meg_Murry at 8:04 AM on March 20, 2010

I like The Living Bible for its readability but I understand some people have a problem with much of its paraphrasing. I think for context you might try to read at least some of the chapters of the King James version.

I agree that reading the entire Bible is a daunting task. The only way I've managed to do it--after several attempts--was to start from the last chapter in the last book of the New Testament and read it "backwards". I only read a chapter or two a day so it took a while but I've been able to read it several times doing it that way.
posted by fuse theorem at 8:07 AM on March 20, 2010

Another vote against The Message.

Here's a quote from the ESV (Psalm 7:14):

Behold, the wicked man conceives evil
and is pregnant with mischief
and gives birth to lies.

And in The Message:

Look at that guy!
He had sex with sin,
he's pregnant with evil.
Oh, look! He's having
the baby—a Lie-Baby!


I would recommend either the Richmond Lattimore version, or The Jefferson Bible. (Keep in mind, the Jefferson Bible specifically excludes supernatural stories (miracles), so if you're specifically looking for those, it might not be the best. If you're not looking for those, it might be just right.) A few pastors I know highly recommend the ESV, too. It's not relevant to the discussion, but I think the typesetting on the ESV is really impressive.

If you're looking for an easy way to become familiar with Biblical stories, you might consider a well-done kids' storybook. Well-done ones are hard to find, but the Ladybird Bible Storybook (perhaps republished by Zondervan?), with text by Jenny Robertson and GREAT illustrations by Allan Parry, is really good. In fact, it's the only one that I'd even think of recommending.

Finally, a good tool for comparing Bibles is at biblegateway.com.
posted by Alt F4 at 8:18 AM on March 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

The Bible takes way more than a week to read unless you spend most of your time reading it. It's also really boring to read from cover to cover. You're also not supposed to read it in that manner, it's not really how the Bible was meant to be used (I am not religious). I agree with those who suggest choosing some specific books to read and doing that first.

Also, the first few books of the Old Testament spend a lot of time with long lists of who begat who and stuff like that.
posted by ishotjr at 8:23 AM on March 20, 2010

As a meta-suggestion, I'll throw in that used bookstores are a very good friend in this. The Bible being one of the world's most printed books, it's also one of the world's most redistributed, preserved, discarded, and so forth books.
posted by gimonca at 9:45 AM on March 20, 2010 [2 favorites]

just so that we can fully kill the idea that the message is worth reading, here is that passage from Alters modern language translation"

And for him, He readies the tools of death
lets fly His arrows at the fleers
Look, one spawns wrongdoing,
grows big with mischief
givers birth to lies.
posted by PinkMoose at 9:55 AM on March 20, 2010

"What's it all about"--that's probably more useful if you can distill it down to "what it's about for whom". In short, think of a goal or topic you'd like to concentrate on. That should help inform the choices you make, and keep you from getting overloaded.

That said, here are five possible ways to pull out bits to concentrate on. Pick one or several, as you like. There are certainly others.

Genesis and Exodus, skipping the "begats" and the legalistic bits. That gives you the base mythology and stories up through Moses. Good commentaries exist from many points of view.

Proverbs through Song of Solomon, for poetry. (Nothing wrong with Psalms, either...there's a lot of them.)

Luke, for a standard Jesus story. John, for a more mystical one. (Spoiler: Matthew and Luke have baby Jesus, Mark and John don't.)

Romans through Philippians to get to know Paul and what he was about. Note that it's possible to think about Paul on many levels--how do Paul's ideas relate to or conflict with Greek and Roman ideas of his day?

Ezekiel, Daniel, Revelation for the wild and wacky stuff. Why read some 'Left Behind' potboiler when you can go right to the source?

I'd start with the King James version for maximum "so that's where that expression comes from" moments.

A good point. I'd extend that to say in general, you'll find some "that's where that idea comes from" and "that's where that image comes from" moments, too. Some you'll know, some you won't expect. Connections from the Bible to other things in western culture are everywhere. Everyone from Abraham Lincoln to Erich von Däniken has used it as support, for better or worse.

(My position in a nutshell: religious/spiritual but not 'Christian')
posted by gimonca at 10:25 AM on March 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

The New Oxford Annotated Bible, New Revised Standard Version with the Apocrypha. It comes with thoughtful commentary and offers indispensable context. You will have questions, this version will offer scholarly answers.
posted by Toekneesan at 10:35 AM on March 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

If you going to take a peak at it to see what it's all about, I'd recommend reading the four gospels in the New Testament, plus the Book of Acts, and the first five books of the Old Testament (a.k.a. the Pentateuch / the Torah). These are the foundational scriptures of Christian and Jewish religions respectively. (The other books aren't unimportant, but less so.)

For reading the Gospels, I'd recommend starting with the Gospel of Luke. It was originally addressed to a (apparently) skeptical reader not familiar with Jewish tradition, and so is a bit more accessible. He seems fairly close to his sources. The Gospel of Luke and Book of Acts were written by the same author and make a continuous story. You can then go back and read the other gospels.

For the Pentateuch/Torah, just skip over the genealogies, to get to the important parts - the two stories of creation, the flood and repopulation of world, the traditional early history of the Jewish people, and of course the Law.

I'd recommend a modern scholarly translation that's fairly well accepted: the Revised Standard Version, the English Standard Version or the New International Version. The RSV is archaicizing, the NIV is pretty easy to read. It doesn't really matter much. You'll get the gist of it. There is something to be said for getting a study Bible (of some version), they'll explain which translations are disputed and what the alternate interpretations are (although they'll also include a lot of discussion you'll probably want to ignore) .
posted by nangar at 11:21 AM on March 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

Also, I just wanted to say: the King James Version is a horrid translation. It's ridiculously popular, but I have no idea why; even when it was first translated the high-blown language wasn't really in keeping with the style and substance of the original, and there are considerable changes made to the actual text between the source and the finished product. And it also wasn't nearly as influential on the English language as people think; almost 90% of the phraseology from the King James translations was actually lifted from the earlier (and more accurate) translations done by William Tyndale. So: if you really want an English lesson mixed in with your Bible, read Tyndale's, not the KJV.

The NIV is simple and easy to read, but loses points because it manages to simplify out some very important complexities. It's emblematic, I think, of the superficial reading of the Bible most modern Christians give it; so if you're interested in that superficiality, and prefer something as simple and flat as possible, you could check that out.

Most of the letter-combination bibles (NIV, RSV, NRSV, ESV, NAB, etc) are variations on the theme of "general translations carefully modified to make sure the plebs only hear what's good for them." I roundly do not trust them, and, at least as far as I check the Greek (I don't know Hebrew, unfortunately) my distrust is usually correct. The translators of these Bibles are throughout concerned with church teaching, and tend, consciously or not, to mold their translations around what they think the Bible ought to say. That's pretty unfortunate, so it's worth avoiding them and going with something fresher.
posted by koeselitz at 1:16 PM on March 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

I enjoy the KJV, but I also have a NRSV for clarity.
posted by Ouisch at 8:56 PM on March 20, 2010

Oops - in my earlier comment I confused Wycliffe and Tyndale. That's pretty major rubbish. Thanks to koeselitz for getting this right.
posted by paduasoy at 6:24 AM on March 21, 2010

This is the Tyndale biog I was thinking of - William Tyndale: If God Spare My Life - Martyrdom, Betrayal and the English Bible.
posted by paduasoy at 7:04 AM on March 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm not such a fan of KJV for casual reading, and this explains why, in part: the English is pretty archaic.

The NRSV is pretty much the academic standard. I do not agree with koeselitz's statement that the NRSV just parroting Church doctrine--its translation board actually had good cross-denominational representation from all streams, Protestant (mainstream or not), Orthodox, Catholic--so I honestly don't know which 'Church-with-a-capital-C' koeselitz may be referring to--as well as Jewish representation for the OT. It was published in 1989 and is pretty fresh, as translations go. Most of the 'fun' is from reading the footnotes, but I'm also a huge nerd, so...

The best Bible-translation-comparison website out there: Unbound Bible. Find multiple translation in many languages, and have them display side-by-side for easy comparisons. Awesome, I love it. Thanks Biola University! Perhaps choose some of the more popular translations and see which one you like the best?

Note: I'm doing my Master's in Biblical and Apocryphal Literature.
posted by flibbertigibbet at 9:23 AM on March 21, 2010

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