Where should I start my journey to study the bible?
July 11, 2005 8:35 PM   Subscribe

I'm a Christian, but I don't know jack about the Bible. What's the best way to tackle this divine dilemma?

I consider myself Christian, but the kind that never really paid attention during church. I'm 20 now, haven't been going to any church on a regular basis for the past five years, and (not surprisingly) I don't have a very good idea of what the Bible *really* says.

If I want to learn more about the "Christian" Bible (I know that's another post all together...), what are my different versions to choose from and how do I go about studying the testaments in a somewhat organized/efficient fashion? I mean, for someone who's never read the Bible before, it's pretty damn daunting. I know I can't be the only one who's thought this before...

Also, if this helps to narrow my choices, I particularly lean towards the Episcopal church, I'm gay and fairly liberal, and I'm intrigued by progressive views towards religion and God.
posted by mercurysm2 to Religion & Philosophy (40 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I highly recommend a bible study group in the denomination of your choice. You'll read a bit, then discuss it in depth with your group.

This may require a casual relationship with a church, but the motivation and insight of studying with a group is well worth it.
posted by frykitty at 8:40 PM on July 11, 2005

Oh, addendum...books about how the Bible was put together can definitely motivate you to read and learn further. Who Wrote The Bible? just covers the pentateuch, but it's a fascinating starting point.
posted by frykitty at 8:42 PM on July 11, 2005

Even though this site can be viewed as anti-christian, it is a good way to familiarize what most of the political debate from the bible originates from. It won't tell you much about all those biblical stories, but it is a good starting point for anyone wanting to familiarize themselves with the bible for discussion.

posted by whoshotwho at 8:48 PM on July 11, 2005

Sounds like you want some New Testament reading material. Read the original King James Version, New Testament , if you want to see how current church teachings have developed. There's no better way than reading the original text (or some reasonable modern translation).
Or get down to the local progressive Episcopal Church and check out a study group, most have some sort of religious ed. programs for adults. Make friends, read some books, and learn. New Testament starts with the four gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, ( each a version of the life of Jesus). Then gets on into the apostles and their letters to the early church groups in various locals.
posted by Agamenticus at 8:49 PM on July 11, 2005

I don't think it's a divine dilemma at all - if you never paid attention in church and you haven't been regularly for 5 years it doesn't sound like you're particularly motivated to be a Christian. Perhaps the question should be, "Why do I consider myself a Christian when I've proven so little interest in it?"

I don't mean that to sound harsh at all, it's just how it comes across to me.
posted by forallmankind at 8:58 PM on July 11, 2005

whoshotwho suggest an interesting site with link to online translations.
posted by Agamenticus at 9:00 PM on July 11, 2005

This link is one sided, but worth reading.
posted by Dean Keaton at 9:16 PM on July 11, 2005

What Agamenticus said in his first post.
posted by James I at 9:26 PM on July 11, 2005

I would recommend staying away from the King James version. There are several better translations available. I recommend the NRSV (new revised stanstard version). This looks upon newly found manuscripts and can better be explain by Wikipedia.

I have no idea what your intentions are if I were you I'd highly recommend taking a scholarly theological approach. I've had extenstive theology classes (with an emphasis on Roman Catholicism and Judaism) and find it much more rewarding, but I'm not religious by any means and did not take classes to "find God". I think you'll find yourself much more sound going for academic texts over evangelical texts if you have an inclination for critical thinking.

As a pure beginner book I enjoyed An Introduction to Christian Theology. This really explains the important parts and ideas of the NT. It's very, very basic but I believe it will get you started if you have as little understanding as you said. Any kind of annotated version of the Bible in my opinion is boring and somewhat counter productive. There a lot of things in there you won't need and without a guide that's not page by page you won't know what's more important in the overall scheme of things.

Here's my take on what you should do:

- Skip the Hebrew Testament (quick flyby, Jews flee Egypt, build kingdom, have fun along the way). It really needs a lot of study and historical context to be understood.

- Read the New Testament, it's an easy read, preferably a modern non-Evangelical version (NRSV mentioned above), if you're going the non-Evangelical route.

- Read the Introduction to Christian Theology

- I would then suggest you read the subsequent three books by the author of the said book above. It's interesting to see how Christianity evolved, what problems erupted, etc. You'll get a true grasp on modern theology and the views on Christianity.

I think if you have an inquiring mind going to Church and reading some Chicken Soup feel-good texts will leave you unfufilled. I highly recommend taking the academic route and not short cutting it. Don't put too much emphasis on demonination unless you want to. Reading about how each demonination evolved from the Catholic Church (sans several churches that did not evolve from the Catholic Church per se, I'm looking at you Orthodox religions) will give you a better understanding of where your belief systems are and which Church fits those best.
posted by geoff. at 9:36 PM on July 11, 2005 [1 favorite]

I should mention, contrary to those mentioned above, you can literally spend years figuring out who wrote the bible and get really bogged down in the academic side of things. If I read you right I would suggest avoiding this as it does not fufill your stated goal and you'll become bored. I enjoy delving into this but my intentions are different.
posted by geoff. at 9:39 PM on July 11, 2005

One of the better books I used in college (BA - Religious Studies, Early Christianity) was The Complete Gospels. An off-shoot of the Jesus Seminar, it is a scholarly (i.e. accurate) translation with a discriminating look at source materiels.

For solo study, it's pretty well done.
posted by ..ooOOoo....ooOOoo.. at 9:40 PM on July 11, 2005

Get yer hands on this hot little number.

Oh baby. The Apocrypha. OH BABY.
posted by schroedinger at 9:58 PM on July 11, 2005

Try 'The Living Bible- by Tyndale House Publishers.
It is a thought for thought translation. It is written in modern english and is easy to read. Other than that I would recommend a bible that has Jesus' words highlighted in red. This way you can see what Jesus was actually saying.
posted by Kilovolt at 10:25 PM on July 11, 2005

Asimov's guides to the Old and New Testaments. For a loquacious atheist, he knew his Biblical history.
posted by kindall at 10:39 PM on July 11, 2005

I suggest anything by Randel Helms; he's a hell of a scholar and a great guy.
posted by Optimus Chyme at 10:40 PM on July 11, 2005

When I was first reading to give context to my understanding of the Bible, I really enjoyed Jesus Before Christianity. It'll help you understand the society in which Jesus lived and give you some introduction to the idea of the "historical" Jesus. Fascinating stuff, particularly if you're interested in a progressive point of view.
posted by mr_roboto at 11:47 PM on July 11, 2005

"Asimov's Guide to the Bible".


He also has a hellaciously terrific "Guide to Shakespeare".
posted by RavinDave at 11:52 PM on July 11, 2005

For study, look for a Bible called the "Thompson Chain Reference Bible". I don't know what translation versions there might be, but its a great Bible for study. There is a small concordance and much cross-reference material.

However, while reading the Bible comes highly recommended, I'd like to point out a problem. This can lead to an obsession with scripture and, therefore, written religious law. This, I believe, is a trap which Christ warned about. If you carefully consider the words of Christ, you'll find that your heart and attitude are of far greater importance than following some nebulous religious set of rules.

For assistance in actual spiritual matters, it helps very much if you read some Thereveda Buddhist teachings while learning your Christian teachings. Many things are the same between the two (as regards one's spiritual life) and often, they are more clear and detailed in the Buddhist versions.

Some would call these "spiritual matters" by the term "Christian Mysticism", if that helps you understand. IMO this area is often neglected in mainstream churches, but I consider it rather the deeper part. But here is where you find peace and strength that no amount of mere knowledge can provide.
posted by Goofyy at 12:31 AM on July 12, 2005

I've haven't read much of the bible either, aside from parts of the new testament, so I know where you are coming from. As others here have stated, tackling the old testament can be a little fatiguing without some kind of context.

I read The Harlot by the Side of the Road last year and it was a real eye opener. It takes on some of the "forbidden" stories of the old testament and offers context in a very accessible yet intelligent manner. You don't have to be a biblical scholar to take it in. And trust me - you won't believe some of the bizarre stuff in there.

If you are intrigued by progressive views about religion and god then I second looking into The Jesus Seminar. They are interested in the exploring the historical Jesus rather than the long-haired hippy Jesus immortalized in so many bad portraits.
posted by quadog at 2:18 AM on July 12, 2005

If you're just getting into it, avoid get bogged down by unfamiliar language. I would recommend one of these three recent translations:

If you're looking for understanding of the text and don't mind some casual language, try The Message. It's a paraphrase, so it is considered an interpretation but it's a good (and easy) read and simplifies difficult passages.

If you want a version that's more of a translation than a paraphrase but still expresses things in a way that's easy to understand try The New Living Translation. This is my personal favorite. The editors sought to create a readable bible that is great for reading out loud. It's regarded as reasonable accurate translation-wise.

If you are looking for a modern translation that Bible translation scholars like, I would recommend the recently released Today's New International Version. They've cleaned up many passages and it is much truer to the Greek than the original NIV. The language isn't as contemporary as the two above, but it's still not stale.

To test drive several different translations, try Bible Gateway.

I could go on about this for hours. If you have any more questions, please feel free to email me.
posted by wallaby at 3:27 AM on July 12, 2005

How about sitting down and reading the Bible? That's what I did, I started about a year ago. I'm currently in the middle of Proverbs, so that's about half of the Bible. Nowadays I read about 3/6 pages a week, so progress is slow. I'm reading it for cultural reasons: to get the "biblic mythology" references (ie: "consulting the fleece" means really bad decision making, "shibboleth" is a password, etc..)
I have a NIV annotated Bible that doesn't preach in the footnotes but tries to situate events in the wider historical context, explains what specific phrases mean and describes on which passages major dogma has been founded. I also take notes on the side, because there's a lot of references you'd want to remember, from really weird passages to deeply touching ones..
Furthermore, it's knowledge to arm yourself against preaching fundamentalists: you won't be a simple ignorant in front of people that misquote the Bible, or pull a phrase out of context. (happens pretty often)
posted by ruelle at 3:41 AM on July 12, 2005

I started reading the Bible for the same reasons as ruelle did--cultural references, "know your enemy," etc. For my first go, I used a NIV one-year version, which worked very well. It chops the whole thing up into relatively equal daily installments. In a year, you go through the old and new testaments once each, and the proverbs and psalms twice.

The one year bible comes in other translations, also.
posted by Tholian at 4:21 AM on July 12, 2005

A Christian reading of the Bible will probably be a bit more than an academic exercise. St Mary's Press lists a couple thoughts to keep in mind while studying.
posted by klarck at 4:39 AM on July 12, 2005

If you want to understand some of the principles of Christianity, you might try reading some C.S. Lewis, who wrote some very accessible theology.
posted by unreason at 6:04 AM on July 12, 2005

Nuts to all you KJV dissers. It's one of the most beautiful and evocative things ever written in the English language. :P
posted by By The Grace of God at 6:13 AM on July 12, 2005

I second the nomination of the NRSV as a great translation for actual understanding. I'm told it's a good translation, though I read no Hebrew, Greek, or Latin, so I can't say so personally. What I can say is that it's very good at pointing out alternate translations in the footnotes, and I've always found it easier to read than most other translations.

Yes, the KJV is much better if you're looking for poetry. But for understanding, I stand by my NRSV. Plus you can find one with an apocrypha fairly easily. Which may or may not be important to you, but I think it's just as much fun reading the stories the Church did *not* canonize.

If you want to compare translations, there's a small program (freeware) at e-sword that will show you side-by-side translations (unfortunately, they don't have the NRSV).

Of course, asking what the Bible *really* says is an incredibly loaded question.
posted by solotoro at 7:47 AM on July 12, 2005

There is so much cultural specificity in the OT/NT that I think it would be pretty much pointless to read them without an accompanying interpretation, ie. the Asimov books or somesuch.
posted by five fresh fish at 10:08 AM on July 12, 2005

I didn't know two was evil.
posted by graventy at 12:05 PM on July 12, 2005

What the Bible Is All About by Henrietta Mears is a great compliment to a good Bible translation. I'd suggest reading this book as you read through the Bible. NSRV has already been mentioned as a readable translation. I'd also suggest the ESV and the CEV.
posted by marcusb at 3:05 PM on July 12, 2005

There have been some good suggestions, here are mine:

Pick a well respected translation, and try to avoid many of the looser or more modern ones. The KJV's english is old, though beautiful, and depending on your familiarity with that period of english, it may confuse you. I prefer it, having grown up with it, and it has been around much longer than any other. The NKJV is easier reading in modern times, and the NASB is also good I hear. I hear the ESV is decently literal also.

The best way to start to understand the Bible is to read it. I would start in the New Testament. Read the Gospels, Paul's Epistles and those of Peter and James. Hold off on Revelations until you are much more familiar with the Bible as a whole. the first 3 or 4 chapters can be edifying, but much of the rest of the prophecy is very symbolic and needs an extensive understanding of previous prophecy and church doctrine to be fully understood.

Genesis up to Job are historical. Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Solomon are not history but poetry, and should be understood that way. Isaiah through to Malachi are mainly prophetic, though there are historical narratives mixed throughout.

Mainly, you should read it. Stick with the New Testament at first. There are a good number of excellent helps out there, many of which are free and online (see: www.crosswalk.com). I would suggest finding a church, and cultivating the friendship of someone who knows scripture and can help you with your study. That is one of the reasons why scripture commands Christians to not forsake the assembling of ourselves together.

Oh... I would read commentaries by unsaved men with a good deal of caution. Understanding of scripture is partly made possible by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Asimov, who was an atheist, though a great author, would by virtue of the fact that he did not believe nor could ever experience much of what is spoken about in the NT, would have a hard time properly explaining it.

For a good reading on Christianity on a philosophical level I recommend C. S. Lewis, specifically Mere Christianity and The Screwtape Letters.

If you have any further questions, feel free to email me at jason (at) walljm.com.

Best Regards,
Jason Wall
posted by walljm at 9:00 PM on July 12, 2005

If you have the ovaries to handle a scathingly irreverent take that "lays bare all the sex, gore, and lunacy that the Bible has to offer", try reading Ken's Guide to the Bible. Ken's one of the folks behind Roadside America, and doesn't pull any punches at all as he scoffs at the horrid misogyny, vengefulness, violence and lunacy of the God represented in the, er, Good Book.

Of course, not everyone can handle that sort of thing, so if you prefer less scathing wit the next best place to start is the Oxford Annotated Bible. It's the single most useful edition of the Good Book I've ever seen, including fascinating footnotes on every page that provide essential context for understanding the text. The notes for the Book of Job, for instance (my fave chapter), explain in detail which verses were added later to refute Job's savage indictment of God's indifference to injustice. I don't think you can fully understand the Book of Job without reading those notes.

I would read commentaries by unsaved men with a good deal of caution.

What God-awful advice. Commentaries from "the faithful" deserve far greater caution than commentaries from those who at least *try* to adhere to a minimal level of solid historical and literary scholarship.
posted by mediareport at 9:25 PM on July 12, 2005

Like the Jesus Seminar, perhaps? I'm sure determining history via dropping marbles in a jar to reinforce a fringe group's preconceived consensus about Jesus counts as "solid historical and literary scholarship."
posted by brownpau at 9:49 AM on July 13, 2005

Like the Jesus Seminar, perhaps?

Actually, I was referring to folks like Bart Ehrman, whose scholarly approach to the Bible is careful, detailed and very closely grounded in what we know of the history of the period.

I said nothing about the Jesus Seminar, which has long been a bugaboo for folks like you, who apparently assume without demonstration that the early decisions about what to include in the New Testament were made with historical accuracy foremost in mind. Whatever.

Perhaps you missed the part where the poster mentioned, "I particularly lean towards the Episcopal church, I'm gay and fairly liberal, and I'm intrigued by progressive views towards religion and God." Perhaps you might want to find another place to prosleytize for fundamentalist approaches to biblical texts.
posted by mediareport at 3:49 PM on July 13, 2005

(That last line is better directed to walljm, not brownpau. Apologies for the confusion.)
posted by mediareport at 3:51 PM on July 13, 2005

Depending on your background, I'd recommend Bruce & Stan's Guide to the Bible, which is a very easily digestible book, great light-hearted tone, and gives an overview that fits everything together in a way that made sense to me.

Currently, I'm working through Cover to Cover which is a daily plan to read the bible in one year - the twist being that it arranges the whole thing chronologically, which appeals to my disordered mind.

Also, get a good study bible. No matter what version you choose, it helps to have notes, maps and further information alongside as you read.
posted by szechuan at 9:46 PM on July 13, 2005

mediareport - I must apologize for my reactionarily lumping you in with the "Jesus Seminar" types. Sorry. I'm not entirely in agreement with Bart Ehrman, but I sure am a lot more impressed with his knowledge than with the "marbles" method. ;) </derail>
posted by brownpau at 7:56 AM on July 14, 2005

Apology accepted, brownpau, but there's little wrong with the "marbles" method; even coming from the clearly biased description in your link, it's obvious it was just a way to sort out the varying positions, no different from written voting but oh so much easier to dismiss with a petty caricature. Nice going. And the accusation of "preconceived consensus" is just that - an unsupported accusation, the likes of which could just as easily be made against those who insist that the early Church acted only from the holiest of motives.

What a crock of shit *that* is. Please get over your parody of the Jesus Seminar folks and deal with the scholarship directly. In short, argue like someone with a brain.
posted by mediareport at 8:24 PM on July 14, 2005

You are right in on thing mediareport, you shouldn't just read commentaries by the unsaved with a lot of caution, you should read all commentaries with a lot of caution. :)
posted by walljm at 1:12 PM on July 15, 2005

argue like someone with a brain.

Aaaand that's my cue to stop taking you seriously.
posted by brownpau at 1:36 PM on July 15, 2005


The question was clear, and you posted a link to a ridiculous caricature of generally thoughtful folks' position on biblical scholarship, picking out the most colorful and irrelevant detail to dismiss them out of hand, and then you whine when someone calls you on it? It's not me who's been unserious here, brownpau.
posted by mediareport at 7:23 PM on July 15, 2005

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