I would like to read the Bible.
March 13, 2017 7:58 PM   Subscribe

I would like to purchase a bible that is easy to read, is clear on intent and can educate me. I am not religious. I would like to read this historically. I want to understand why people think that their personal beliefs are more important that other peoples personal beliefs. The concept confuses me. I would like to read a bible that is just direct and specific. What should I read?
posted by Vaike to Religion & Philosophy (22 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
There are many different bibles (not the text but all the stuff that goes along with it). It sounds like you might be interstellar in an academic or college course study bible. When I was in seminary, the HarperCollins Study Bible was the most popular (Oxford annotated was the other). Both are based on the a translation that is used by most mainline Protestant churches (Lutheran, episciopalian,etc). It's not the easiest translation to read and it isn't perfect but it is a standard. Because the Bible is a collection of different kinds/genres of books written in different languages over 1500 years, it's not as direct and specific as we would like to be. Some traditions use a translation called the NIV (non-denominational and evangelical churches use that one) which tends to pick a side when a vague verse or phrase appears in the text.
posted by Stynxno at 8:18 PM on March 13, 2017 [6 favorites]

The Bible, as a text, is a compilation of ancient myths, histories, laws, proverbs and prophecies written in Hebrew (in the case of the Old Testament), Greek and Aramaic (in the case of the New Testament). Different versions of the Bible differ predominantly in their translations-- I'm not sure what you mean by "direct and specific" or "clear on intent"?

The New Oxford Annotated Bible might be close to what you're asking for. It is considered to be a fairly accurate translation of the original materials and contains copious annotations for a secular audience.
posted by justkevin at 8:20 PM on March 13, 2017 [4 favorites]

I agree with justkevin's suggestion about a nice annotated Bible. (When you get to something that has a lot of secular-world resonance, it might be useful to refer to the KJV version, too, just because that's the phrasing that's seeped so deeply into the culture.)

For what it's worth, I'm not sure a Bible is what you need to read to answer that second question, about why people think that their personal beliefs are more important than other peoples' personal beliefs.

If "personal beliefs" here mostly means people with Bibles, early Christian theology—or something about early Christian theology (and specifically early Christian differences with the non-Christian world)—would probably be more useful to you. I haven't finished Larry Hurtado's Destroyer of the Gods: Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World yet, but his thesis would probably interest you; he's discussing the ways in which early Christians were particularly likely to value personal belief over other ways of understanding identity and the world around them.

(These blurbs I grabbed from the Amazon page explain the connection to your question better than I can: "This is a fascinating survey of the features that made Christianity distinctive in antiquity and so―ultimately―successful. Hurtado discusses the Christian concept of an exclusive veneration of God, the trans-ethnic and trans-local religious identity, the central role of books and learning and distinctive and challenging forms of behavior within their ancient context..." "Hurtado sets out to... remind us that the origin of Christianity and its remarkable success has more to do with its ability to distinguish itself from other religions in antiquity than to be one with them. Hurtado challenges readers to reconsider what have become common assumptions of religion today―that there is a single God and that religious affiliation is a voluntary choice. Without the distinctive rise of Christianity, none of these would be so.")
posted by Polycarp at 8:52 PM on March 13, 2017 [3 favorites]

There's Asimov's Guide to the Bible, if youre looking for an academic, secular look at the Bible.
posted by Huck500 at 9:12 PM on March 13, 2017 [6 favorites]

that is easy to read, is clear on intent and can educate me. I am not religious.

I can't help you with the first two, because, well, there's three thousand years of beautiful tradition around that. However, for the last two, I can say that at my ridiculously secular liberal arts college, in which the religion professor held a "reading the Bible" seminar, the text that was assigned was the Oxford Study Bible (as mentioned above).
posted by General Malaise at 10:01 PM on March 13, 2017

I second Asimov's Guide to the Bible. Much of the Bible is just not understandable without historic and cultural backgrounds.

One summer, I read the King James version and Asimov's Guide to the Bible side by side and it was much clearer. As a nonreligious person, I appreciated Azimov's secular analysis.
posted by a humble nudibranch at 10:02 PM on March 13, 2017 [4 favorites]

I would actually go further than everyone above and say that, if at all possible, one should find a way to study religious works along with someone who actually believes in them and is willing to talk about their beliefs with you in a way that you're comfortable with. I believe that this is the only way to understand people's actual religious beliefs.

One reason I say that is because I have family members who are bigger believers in the authoritative text idea, including "the Bible is the word of God." This attitude has led them to investigate Islam by reading and interpreting the Koran in their own study groups. Not surprisingly, they've come away with some uncharitable readings of what Islam is about.

So I'm a big believer in the idea that the text, the people that revere that text, and those people's beliefs are tightly knit together. I think that puts me closer to the Orthodox and Catholic traditions than my Protestant home base, but what are you gonna do? Gotta believe one thing or another.
posted by billjings at 11:00 PM on March 13, 2017 [3 favorites]

For the Old Testament, the gold standard translation is the Jewish Publication Society's. I've personally used the JPS Henrew-English Tanakh, but a major part of the draw of that is having the parallel Hebrew and English together along with thorough translation and interpretation notes, and it sounds like you wouldn't be particularly interested in that. It looks like they have a straight translation as well.
posted by Itaxpica at 11:09 PM on March 13, 2017 [2 favorites]

The general academic standard Bible right now is the New Revised Standard Version. Here it is, annotated.

I want to understand why people think that their personal beliefs are more important that other peoples personal beliefs.

No study bible will help you do this.
posted by flibbertigibbet at 3:29 AM on March 14, 2017 [19 favorites]

Speaking as a formerly religious person who has read the entire Bible in a couple different editions, reading it is not going to help you achieve your stated goal. You need to take a class or read supplemental nonfiction; you may want to check out some books on the Moral Majority to get yourself started. If you can find something about group dynamics and majority/minority politics, that'd probably also be good, and/or general church history.

If you've never read the Bible before, you'd be surprised about how much of Christianity isn't really in it -- it's in the traditions that have built up around the stories over the years. This is especially true of Catholicism but also true for other sects.
posted by possibilityleft at 4:45 AM on March 14, 2017 [6 favorites]

I want to understand why people think that their personal beliefs are more important that other peoples personal beliefs.

Wow. That is an entire question in itself, and for me, extends far beyond the parameters of the bible/religious text arena. I think I grasp the motivation here, but I'm not sure how reading the bible (or any text) will help advance your understanding.

What is written is almost irrelevant... It's what people think, and what they were told, and what they experienced growing up, and so many other factors, that all unite to establish the stronghold a person's fundamental beliefs can have in their life.

Then, to extend it to a desire to understand what's behind the premise that someone's own beliefs are more important than those of others... wow. I am just not sure how you get there from here. Especially when IMO, the New Testament especially seems to strongly espouse NOT forcing one's own beliefs on others, or presuming supremacy. This is why I eyeroll so hard at any "religious" group who presumes to think they're the one true path. Amazing how people can twist things to suit themselves.

Perhaps what your reading will reveal will be more of that sort of awareness. How far from actual teachings people go in the name of whatever sign they're waving.
posted by I_Love_Bananas at 4:47 AM on March 14, 2017 [3 favorites]

This is a bit of a meta answer but David Plotz wrote a book recapping his experience reading the whole bible. This grew out of a blog with a similiar intent.
posted by mmascolino at 5:34 AM on March 14, 2017

The New American Bible is a lucid translation with some commentary. It was produced for Catholics (and so contains the deuterocanonical books that Protestants call "apocrypha"), but it's a scholarly translation. I've used it when teaching world religions.

I agree with those who say that reading the Bible, alone, won't help you understand some people's firm commitment to the primacy of their religious beliefs. For that, you need to do some reading in the sociology of religion. Peter Berger's book The Sacred Canopy is a decent starting point.
posted by brianogilvie at 7:48 AM on March 14, 2017 [4 favorites]

If you've never read the Bible before, you'd be surprised about how much of Christianity isn't really in it -- it's in the traditions that have built up around the stories over the years. This is especially true of Catholicism but also true for other sects.

Furthermore, due to the varying texts of varying genres that the Bible contains, starting from page 1 forward might be an exercise in frustration if you're expecting to read about Jesus. On the other hand, if you're looking for lots of rules, those are pretty close to the front, but then there's a lot of talk in the last third or so about how much those rules actually matter. And then that is kind of a discussion that continues to this day.

If you're not starting at the beginning, there are varying evangelical answers on where you should start (a Gospel, usually - often Mark or John), and while I wouldn't discourage you from reading it, I don't know if even that would quickly give you the historic and culture background of things. Some of the academic books others have mentioned may serve you better and get you to the point where you can decide which parts of the Bible you'd like to start out reading.

FWIW, I'm a speaking-in-tongues Pentecostal and am available via MeFi mail if you want to bounce anything off of me. I'm almost certainty not as, uh, extreme as the type of person I suspect you're looking to understand, but I'm probably several steps in that direction if you have questions. (Here's a quick list of the belief system I generally subscribe to)
posted by Nonsteroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drug at 9:06 AM on March 14, 2017 [3 favorites]

With a similar motivation, I took a college course called something like "Approaching the Bible as a Document." It was excellent. What I found most helpful were two companion books for the course: Trawick's Old Testament and New Testament volumes of The Bible as Literature. I had no intention of becoming a bible scholar, so these fit quite well into reading the text of the thing. I still have them and consult them from time to time when a particular biblical reference is made by some elected official or other public figure.
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 9:35 AM on March 14, 2017 [2 favorites]

The Bible is huge. It's okay to read only parts of it at a time. Like late afternoon dreaming hotel, I tend to look up and read Bible passages as I see them referred to or cited in other texts.

Yale University has video lectures and course materials online for two courses that function as excellent commentary on the Bible:

Introduction to the Old Testament (Hebrew Bible)

Introduction to the New Testament History and Literature

They approach the texts from the theological, literary and historical perspectives. You could watch these lectures in sequence and read the selections from the Bible as they are discussed each session and you'd have a really solid basis.

There's also a really excellent set of video lectures on coursera.org that you can audit for free: The Bible's Prehistory, Purpose, and Political Future. It approaches the Bible mainly from the perspective of academic history and examines the intent of the scribes who initially compiled the Hebrew Bible. Part of the professor's view is that ancient Hebrew religion was more open and tolerant than the monotheism you find in the Bible, and that this monotheism was constructed in the pursuit of a specific political project. So it might help you with your question about religious intolerance. (Which is part of the Bible, imo. See the First Commandment.)
posted by bertran at 10:04 AM on March 14, 2017

I like having a giant print NIV bible. The giant words make me happy, and they make reading the bible more appealing .

Also, I would like to super recommend the Bible Study Project. Have you heard of them? They do excellent 5-10 minute videos explaining and analyzing books in the bible. The graphics are pretty cool too!
posted by Crookshanks_Meow at 10:58 AM on March 14, 2017

I have a Rainbow Study Bible and I love it. Every verse is highlighted, and the color of the highlighting corresponds to a specific topic.

So, for example, verses discussing sin (or evil) have a gray highlight. And verses about love have a pink highlight.

It is colorful and convenient and came with a bookmark explaining the colors so they are easy to look up.
posted by tacodave at 2:50 PM on March 14, 2017

To answer your first question, definitely go with the Oxford Annotated or any NRSV version with commentary. The NIV is infantile garbage and not worth the paper on which it is printed.

In aid of your second question, I recommend Fundamentalisms Observed (ed. Marty, Chicago). As a thinking Christian feminist I have found Asimov's take on the Bible to be dated, infuriatingly condescending, and male-oriented, but that's just my opinion.
posted by tully_monster at 8:30 PM on March 14, 2017

I would like to read a bible that is just direct and specific.

Thinking about this further, I think this a little like saying you want to read the US Constitution to understand the modern United States. That's a good start, but you'll be missing a lot.

Like, why is "gun control" so opposed but "asset forfeiture" just gets grumbled against? The 2nd and 5th amendments seem to be given equal importance in the text. Why is there no NRA for privacy?

And what's this "three fifths of all other Persons" junk? Who are the "other persons"? Does this connect to anything in the modern US?

And what's the deal with alcohol? If you don't know that some amendments were written right away and others were written a long time later, the 18th and 21st amendments will be a head scratcher. And even if you know the timing, you might miss out on how Prohibition connects to things like the American Mafia.


So just like people have strong feelings one way or another about the 2nd amendment's "well regulated militia", Christians have pretty dug in thoughts about phrases in the Bible. For example, there's a part where Jesus hands out bread and says "This is my body given for you" - so the Catholic church teaches that during communion, bread changes to become the literally flesh of Jesus. After all that's what He said, right?

But Protestants who say they believe the Bible to be the true, literal source for the faith and conduct, want nothing to do with magic flesh eating ceremonies. Because, come on, the Son of God can obviously use a metaphor, right?

You'll probably miss out on this whole exciting line of discussion if you just read through the story of the last supper. And there are dozens of other fun issues like this! :)

My point is, read the text, but you'll need some external background historic and cultural information to really understand what's going on. The books people are recommending will give help give you that background information.

And here's two more book recommendation: How to Read the Bible Book by Book: A Guided Tour, and How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth. These are the sorts of books that might be handed out with a Bible at the type of church I attend, and they may give you a little more insight into how the people you're looking to understand think about things.
posted by Nonsteroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drug at 10:11 AM on March 15, 2017

You may want to start with some intro material before you jump into any version of the bible or Tanakah (Hebrew Bible). I use Oxford University Press's Very Short Introductions as a starting points for a lot of topics. They do not disappoint on the bible front:
The Bible: A Very Short Introduction by John Riches
The Old Testament: A Very Short Introduction by Michael Coogan
The New Testament: A Very Short Introduction by Luke Timothy Johnson

For understanding historical context, I'd suggest Karen Armstrong's A History of God.
posted by carrioncomfort at 11:34 AM on March 15, 2017 [1 favorite]

I did this a couple years ago. This is what I used:

The Life Application Study Bible notes gave me a sense of how many Christians interpret the text. I did find it had a evangelical lean.

The Archaeological Study Bible helped somewhat with the history.
posted by jocelmeow at 11:52 AM on March 16, 2017

« Older How do I contact California SDI?   |   Stovetop popcorn protocol Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.