Help me read *only* the parts of the Bible about Jesus's time on Earth.
March 16, 2019 3:05 PM   Subscribe

So, I'm an atheist, but I'd like to read the parts of the Bible that are about Jesus's life on Earth, and I'd like to avoid reading any of the rest of it. If that's my goal, what sections should I read?

I have a vague sense that the answer is probably some sub-set of the Gospels, but a after looking up 1:1 from each of the Gospels, it seems like they each start before Jesus was born.

To be clear, here is what I would like to read:

*stuff that specifically mentions Jesus doing something
*something that one of Jesus's followers or contemporaries does without Jesus being around if and only if it's necessary to make sense of something that Jesus does (like, if there's some story about an apostle denying Jesus three times, Jesus isn't a part of that story, but if I need to have read that story in order for a different story about Jesus to make sense, then I'd like to read the story about the apostle denying Jesus)

And stuff I'd like to avoid reading:

*prophets before Jesus, or prophecies about Jesus
*anything about Mary and Joseph before Jesus was born
*anything about what Jesus's followers did after he ascended to heaven

I understand that this isn't the best way to understand the Bible, but if I wanted to read the sections of the Bible I've described above, what chapters and verses should I read? (I've tried googling this, and the answer I run into most frequently is "The whole Bible is about Jesus," which might be true, but it doesn't really answer my question.)
posted by 23skidoo to Religion & Philosophy (28 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Just save yourself the hassle and read the Jefferson Bible.
posted by phunniemee at 3:11 PM on March 16, 2019 [11 favorites]

Are you thinking of the red only text of the Gospels? Like here.
posted by jadepearl at 3:12 PM on March 16, 2019 [5 favorites]

Many editions of the Bible are called “red letter,” which means that the words supposedly spoken by Jesus are written in red. If you confine your reading to those words (in the Gospels) and the areas immediately around them, that will mostly give you what you want.
posted by FencingGal at 3:12 PM on March 16, 2019 [3 favorites]

I think you just have to read the gospels, making sure that you start at Jesus' birth and end once he ascends. I am not aware of any writing that only contains the things you would like to read, or any guide that would tell you precisely which chapters and verses to read and which not to read.
posted by slkinsey at 3:16 PM on March 16, 2019 [5 favorites]

Also, the top of each page will have a little summary of what happens on that page. So I’m looking at the Gospel of Luke, and the top of one page says “the genealogy of Christ” and the next page says “Temptation of Christ,” so that will give you a sense of where to start.
posted by FencingGal at 3:25 PM on March 16, 2019

Just read the four Gospels (the books titled Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) and quit when he dies. There's a little bit at the beginning of each of them from before he's born, since they are basically like four little biographies of him, but it's like a page, at most, for each of them.
posted by demonic winged headgear at 3:28 PM on March 16, 2019 [11 favorites]

Is there some reason you need to read the actual Gospels? Three of them are basically the same thing with different phrasing anyway. If your goal is to understand the life of Jesus, you're probably better off reading a secondary source, or at least an annotation. Wikipedia actually has a pretty detailed summary of each Gospel, with individual articles on a lot of the events and parables. And of course, there are links to the text on Wikisource.
posted by kevinbelt at 3:37 PM on March 16, 2019 [5 favorites]

The Gospels were written by true believers and reflect their intent to proselytize. Other sources could be considered, including the relevant parts of Josephus’ Antiquities, generally Chapters 18-20. Josephus was a historian born shortly after Jesus’ death.
posted by sudogeek at 3:46 PM on March 16, 2019 [1 favorite]

I would suggest reviewing sites such as Tabor blog on how to read the Bible as a scholar. Link is here. Picking and Choosing: How Scholars Read the Gospels

Reading the Bible as a believer of a particular sect enforces certain narratives and perspectives of interpretation. The way it sounds like you want to read the Bible is more of a scholar who is aware of the historical and religious traditions that surround the text, and more importantly, the people (I include the divine in that.) So best to find someone from the scholarly tradition to go over the material, so to speak.
posted by jadepearl at 4:00 PM on March 16, 2019 [3 favorites]

The gospel of Mark seems like pretty much what you want. Start at chapter 1 verse 9. The other gospels tell the same story in different ways.
posted by muddgirl at 4:05 PM on March 16, 2019 [3 favorites]

I should have added that Mark skips all the virgin birth and prophesy stuff because his intended audience was Roman non-believers. At least that is what I was taught in Sunday school.
posted by muddgirl at 4:07 PM on March 16, 2019 [2 favorites]

Here are the relevant passages, omitting those before his birth and including his death and resurrection. Keep in mind that some of the context of what he said and did will be in the omitted parts.

Matthew 3:13-28:20
Mark 1:9-16:19
Luke 4:1-24:51
John 1:38-21:22

For this much reading, it might be more comfortable to get a "reader's Bible," which treats the Bible as literature by removing the verse numbers, cross-references, notes, etc.
posted by davcoo at 4:15 PM on March 16, 2019 [9 favorites]

Mark is the shortest, and the original was in the least elegant Greek. Luke is the longest, and Acts is a sequel to Luke covering the events after Jesus' death.

Bibles come in two basic kinds:translations and paraphrases. The later has more freedom of expression which makes them easier to read. Versions vary by century and the older ones have archaic word use. I reccomend the Good News Bible.
posted by SemiSalt at 4:23 PM on March 16, 2019 [1 favorite]

If you want all of the actions and appearances of Christ on Earth that are in the Bible, you're going to need to read First Corinthians and Acts for the post-resurrection activities, as well as the gospels.
posted by windykites at 4:39 PM on March 16, 2019 [2 favorites]

Just as an FYI there are also non-canonical texts like the Infancy Gospel of Thomas which deal with the life of Jesus.
posted by XMLicious at 4:47 PM on March 16, 2019 [2 favorites]

> Just save yourself the hassle and read the Jefferson Bible.

The Jefferson Bible is kinda incomprehensible if you don't already know the stories.
posted by The corpse in the library at 5:59 PM on March 16, 2019

If you really want to dig in on this, in addition to some of the excellent advice above here, I recommend getting a copy of the Oxford Annotated Bible. It's generally built around the Bible as history and literature and includes a lot of useful context and essays to help make sense of things.
posted by piedmont at 6:05 PM on March 16, 2019 [1 favorite]

Also, the Jefferson Bible takes out almost all of the miracles, so you’d lose much of what the OP asked for, which is the Biblical version of Jesus’ life on earth.
posted by FencingGal at 6:16 PM on March 16, 2019 [1 favorite]

I just remembered from my religion studies days that many different people have tried to put together all four gospels into one gospel. Most of them are published and want money for them but a few are free online. Here is the index to one I found based in the World English Bible. You will want to start with section 15 then skip to 17, then stop at section 213.
posted by muddgirl at 6:45 PM on March 16, 2019 [1 favorite]

It also includes the relevant bits of Acts and 1st Corinthians.
posted by muddgirl at 6:45 PM on March 16, 2019 [1 favorite]

Sounds to me like you want the Gospel of Mark. Generally considered the earliest of the canonical Gospels, and the one least encrusted with Jesus retconning and fanfic mythology. It contains Action Jesus (as my college professor called it) and pretty much nothing else. No Nativity story, for example. Jesus runs around and does stuff and (spoiler) dies at the end, and that’s it.

If you get interested in the mythology, read Bart Ehrman for a good historical treatment.
posted by snowmentality at 6:57 PM on March 16, 2019 [7 favorites]

2nd book Mark.
posted by ovvl at 7:42 PM on March 16, 2019

It's worth bearing in mind that there have been many, many Bible translations over the years, and some are way better than others. I would second the recommendation to read from the Oxford Annotated Bible, if you can. The translation is extremely well-researched, with an emphasis on accurately reflecting the language and intentions of the various authors (for example, the translation team has reintroduced gender-neutral pronouns that are present in the original text, but which have been lacking from most English translations for centuries). The book is also crammed full of footnotes and appendices that explain subtle, but meaningful cultural, religious, and historical aspects of the text. Many apparently simple passages turn out to have major symbolic or historical significance.

I'm not religious, but I love the Oxford edition because it provides the scholarly perspective that I want.
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk at 9:21 PM on March 16, 2019 [5 favorites]

"Just as an FYI there are also non-canonical texts like the Infancy Gospel of Thomas which deal with the life of Jesus."

Which are super-fun to read but also non-canonical for good reasons, like in the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, toddler Jesus is constantly striking his friends dead, like if Prince Wednesday were even more of a sociopath than he already is on Daniel Tiger. (I myself am partial to the Second Treatise of the Great Seth, where Jesus turns invisible and forces another dude to get crucified in his place while he laughs invisibly in the crowd watching not-him get crucified while looking like him, and then flies up to heaven while mocking all the idiots who thought they crucified him, and then basically tells Seth to have lots of sex with all his followers' wives whenever he wants because Jesus is cool like that.)

This is a pretty good list which I have slightly edited:
Matthew 1:25-28:20
Mark 1:9-16:8 (original ending)
Luke 2:7-24:53 (last two verses are technically about after he rises BUT part of the same sentence as 24:51 where Jesus is still doing stuff and I hate ending mid-sentence, don't you?)
Although honestly I'd just read the Gospel of Mark entire, given that it is less than two paragraphs before Jesus appears at the beginning, you might as well read them, as Jesus's own contemporaries would have considered the couple of paragraphs about John the Baptist as being crucial information for understanding Jesus's biography. (Also I assume the above mean to say to read until Mark 16:8 which is the original end of Mark; Mark 16:9 - 16:20 is just a couple of paragraphs extra and kinda interesting b/c you can see how early Christians appended to what Mark originally wrote to make it LESS INCREDIBLY TERRIFYING -- it originally ends with the women at the empty tomb, and the angel is like "good news -- he's risen!" and the women are too terrified to share the good news so they just go away and say nothing. People a few years later had to add the bit where they go out and preach about it.)

Similarly, the first chapter of Luke reads quickly and situates Jesus in his historical-cultural context, and his contemporaries would have considered that an important part of understanding his biography. Like obviously it's not a crisis if you skip it, it's just a book, but it also takes less than 3 minutes to read up to the part where Jesus actually appears, which is Luke 2:7 (which is a sentence that starts in Luke 2:6 with Mary in labor but Jesus appears in 2:7 after the comma).

I would probably not read John for your purposes; Jesus dies around 33 CE; Mark is writing around 68-70 CE in absolutely terrible Greek; Matthew is written around 85 CE; Luke between 85 and 95 CE; these first three share some clear sources and are relatively straightforward for the era. John was not written until 90-100 CE, and is in an entirely different mode where the author is more concerned with conveying spiritual truth and theological correctness than his predecessor gospel-writers were.

If you want to set yourself a MUCH more complicated task, the books written closest in time to the actual life of Jesus are Galatians (48 or 55 CE); 1 Thess (51 CE); 1 & 2 Corinthians (52 and 55 CE); Philemon (54 CE) and Romans (57 CE). Those all predate ALL the Gospels and provide a terribly unvarnished view of the TEACHINGS of Jesus -- and sometimes his life -- through the eyes of Paul specifically. It's super-interesting! But it's definitely a higher-level textual task where you have a specific author with a very clear viewpoint, who's not writing biography directly.

I like the New Oxford Annotated New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), followed by the Catholic Study Bible New American Catholic Bible (NACB), and if you don't have those to hand (/easy to borrow from the library), any NRSV or NACB edition will do you nicely and are well-translated by scholarly translators. NIV would be my third choice. If you like your rolling, grand English and you're comfortable with Shakespeare, the KJV is a GREAT translation for 1611 with up-to-the-minute 1611 scholarship which is really pretty freaking impressive for the texts they had available, and I feel like as an atheist you're probably not in any danger of getting overexcited about the KJV and insisting Jesus spoke English, so if you prefer the KJV and you're comfortable with Shakespeare and all the language shifts that have occurred since then, that's a totally fine choice for the casual reader! You'll miss some nuances you might get from a more modern translation, but you'll miss nuances in translation period, so if you like the KJV or it's easy for you to put your hands on or it's what you grew up hearing grandma quote, I think that's fine.

Plus when English-language literature quotes the Bible, it quotes the KJV, so we all end up there eventually.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 10:46 PM on March 16, 2019 [36 favorites]

Daaaamn, knocking it out of the park, y'all. Appreciate the book/chapter/verse suggestions from you knowledgeable folks.
posted by 23skidoo at 8:17 AM on March 17, 2019 [1 favorite]

I endorse Eyebrows's comment wholeheartedly. However...

Once you get through the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew and Luke are rewrites of Mark, but actually include sermons and parables and stuff), there are a handful of stories that are only told in John. You don't have to read the whole thing; there are lots of philosophical, or I guess theological, monologues in there where somebody asks Jesus a question, then he gives a long deep answer that doesn't read like the way anyone actually talks in real life.

For all of these, there's a story followed by discussion; you can skip the discussion once the action ends if you want to.
John 2 is where he turns water into wine.
John 6 starts with the feeding of the 5000, which is in all the gospels, but then follows with Jesus (and, briefly, Peter) walking on the water.
John 11 is where Lazarus dies, Jesus weeps, then Jesus resurrects him.
posted by Huffy Puffy at 11:38 AM on March 17, 2019 [2 favorites]

I want to second those who are pointing you towards Acts of the Apostles, as well as everything Eyebrows McGee says.
posted by kensington314 at 3:14 PM on March 18, 2019

I just remembered from my religion studies days that many different people have tried to put together all four gospels into one gospel.

Also, a sort of inverse of this may have existed, the hypothetical Q source which other portions of the New Testament are theorized to have been derived from. According to that Wikipedia article at least, the theory of a common written source for parts of several gospel texts is one of the foundations of most modern gospel scholarship.
posted by XMLicious at 4:27 PM on March 18, 2019

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