An Introductory Guide to Reading the Bible
The Structure of the Bible
The Bible is the best-selling book of all time. Yet unfortunately, it is more often bought than read. We want to encourage you to read the Bible because it is God’s message for all people, and contains the answers to the most important questions in life. These simple guidelines have been written to try and answer some basic questions and to help you enjoy and understand God’s Word better.
The Bible is composed of 66 separate books that make up the “library” we call the Bible. These books were written in various languages over a large span of time yet combine to make one unified whole. The first part of the Bible is called the Old Testament and covers the period from the Creation of the world and man until 400 years before the birth of Christ. The second part is called the New Testament and covers the period from the birth of Christ to the death of the Apostle John in approximately AD 95.
Chapter and Verse
The Bible did not contain the chapter and verse divisions we have today. These were added between the 13th and 16th centuries, and are helpful in locating and identifying particular passages of Scripture. (It may be helpful to think of them as an address to help locate particular passages.) The books were divided into chapters and the chapters divided into verses. These are written in various ways. For example, the 16th verse of the 3rd chapter of John will often be written like this: John 3:16 or John 3.16 or John ch. 3 v. 16.
You may have noticed that some Bibles contain words that are printed in red. This is done to indicate the words that were spoken by the Lord Jesus, so are primarily found in the Gospels, although also found in Acts and Revelation. They were added as a design feature to help people easily identify those words the editors believe were spoken by the Lord Jesus. However, all the words of the Bible are equally important because, as we shall see, God is the ultimate Author of all Scripture.
The Divine Authorship of the Bible
The Bible is an ancient book that has impacted the lives of millions of people. This is because the author of the Bible was God’s Holy Spirit. He was not the one who picked up pen and paper and actually wrote the words down, but as the Apostle Peter put it, holy men of God wrote as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit (2 Peter 1:21). This process is called the “inspiration” of Scripture. The Apostle Paul describes it this way: “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness.” (2 Timothy 3:16). The word “inspiration” in this verse literally means that God “breathed-out” the message, so that the words of Scripture are the very words of God.
The Human Authorship of the Bible
As you become more familiar with the Bible, you will notice that there are stylistic differences between various books of the Bible. Partly this is because they were written at different times in history; partly because of the nature of the material, e.g. poetry or narrative; and partly because God used the authors’ personalities to communicate His message. This will be seen in the use of certain words or phrases that are characteristic of a particular writer. We also read of certain events from the lives of individuals. Paul wrote in Philippians of his imprisonment and used this to encourage the believers in Philippi. So while it was his personal experience, the Holy Spirit took it and incorporated it into the Scriptures for us to learn from.
At least 36 different men were used in writing the Bible. These men came from very different backgrounds and had different qualifications. For instance, Moses was a political leader, Peter was a fisherman, Amos was a herdsman, Matthew was a tax collector, and Solomon was a king.
For this reason, it is important that when we are reading the Bible that we try and understand something of the author’s culture and perspective. While it is true that “all Scripture is inspired by God and is profitable,” not every passage of Scripture will have application to our particular needs and situations.
The Authority of the Bible
The Bible takes its authority from its authorship. Since God is the Divine Author behind the human authors, then it logically follows that it is authoritative, because God is God. And since God has spoken, we had better listen. As the author to Hebrews said: “See that you do not refuse Him who speaks” Hebrews 12:25.
Some people might say that the Bible is simply written by men and so it is merely someone’s opinion and so contains error and is subject to change with the times. But it is the unique dual authorship of Bible that makes it qualitatively different than any other book, and protects it from human error.
The Reliability of Scripture
This leads to the matter of the reliability of the Bible, a subject far too vast for this brief introduction. But it is a fair question to ask “How can I know that the Bible is reliable? Should I accept that it is God’s Word and inspired just because it says so?”
Fulfilled prophecies provide a powerful testimony to the reliability of Scripture and point to its divine origin. For instance, the prophecies concerning the Gentile world powers, given by God through the prophet Daniel, predicted the rise and fall of the Babylonian, Medo-Persian, Greek, and Roman Empires (Daniel 2, 7). Daniel also foretells the coming of Christ in Daniel 9. Daniel learned from reading the prophecy of Jeremiah that the Babylonian captivity of Judah would last seventy years (Daniel 9:2). And literally hundreds of prophecies concerning the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Christ, were all fulfilled during His lifetime.
Archaeology also has provided confirmation of the reliability of historical events recorded in the Bible. For instance, for years sceptics decried the inaccuracy of the Bible because it spoke repeatedly of the Hittites, and there had been no archaeological confirmation of these people. In the late 1800’s, archaeologists uncovered 5 Hittite temples, a citadel, and more than 10,000 clay tablets that had belonged to this once lost civilization, thereby confirming the historical accuracy of the Bible.
A third pointer to the Bible’s divine origin is the way it has transformed the lives of those who read and obey its teaching. Many people have testified to the ways in which their lives have been rescued from heartache and despair through reading and obeying the message of the Bible.
The Formation of the Bible
One question that is frequently raised is how we know that all the books in the Bible should be there and whether any were left out. The term applied to the list of recognized books is canon, a word meaning “rule” or “measuring rod.” These books were judged to be authoritative and therefore included in the canon of Scripture. No church or council made a biblical book authoritative; they simply recognized what was already true. One author has illustrated this principle by noting that IQ tests don’t make people intelligent; they simply measure their intelligence. In the same way, the authority, accuracy, and transforming power of the books that compose the Bible were acknowledged, and so these books were compiled.
The Hebrew Scriptures, our Old Testament, were compiled over a period of many years by prophets and priests. These men were recognised as men of God, and their writings gained an authoritative standing in their communities and were passed on from generation to generation. But perhaps the most important endorsement of the Hebrew Scriptures was that of Jesus Christ, who studied them, taught from them, and quoted them.
The New Testament was written during the first century but since most writing in those days was composed on parchments or scrolls, they were not immediately compiled into a single book as we have now. In some ways the teaching of the New Testament was a radical departure from the teaching of the Old Testament, yet at the same time we see that it is the proper culmination and fulfillment of that which went before. Many Jews found the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth to be blasphemous (cp. John 8:53-59), yet Jesus showed His disciples that the Old Testament really did speak about Him (cp. John 5:39; Luke 24:27). This actually helps us to evaluate the writings of the New Testament though, because we can see that they fulfill the pictures and prophecies made hundreds of years before.
The New Testament was written either by acknowledged apostles or those closely associated with them, and even during the life of the apostle Paul his writings were described as Scripture by the apostle Peter (2 Peter 3:16). As these letters of the apostles were distributed and read, they were seen to have a power and an authority that demonstrated their supernatural origin.
There was some debate in the early days of the church about some books that were included and some that were excluded. The book of Hebrews, for instance, was debated since the book is anonymous and the issue of authorship was important for determining acceptance in the canon of Scripture. But the importance of the material and the power of their teaching, convinced the early church that these were indeed God-breathed writings (2 Timothy 3:16). But the fact that these books were debated is actually a positive reminder that the early church took seriously this issue of determining authoritative books.
Some books, like the Gospel of Thomas, were rejected because they were seen to be inconsistent with the recognised Scriptures and contained errors, which a God-breathed book could not.
Some people today claim that the New Testament wasn’t even written until the fourth century, but this is patently false as today portions of New Testament manuscripts exist that date back to the second century. What happened in the fourth century was that the form of the New Testament as we have it today was finalised.
Some books, known as Apocryphal books, are accepted by the Roman Catholic Church but are rejected by most Protestant and evangelical churches. These books were all written before the time of Christ but were not accepted by the Jewish community as part of their Hebrew Bibles. Josephus, the famed Jewish historian of the first century, limited the Old Testament canon to 22 books, saying that there were no prophets after the time of Artaxerxes. These 22 books represent the same 39 books listed on the charts above, but some of them were grouped together. For instance, the last twelve books of our English Old Testament were considered to be one book in the Hebrew Bible.
It is important to note also that neither the Lord Jesus nor any of the New Testament apostles ever quoted authoritatively from these Apocryphal books. Even Jerome, the man responsible for producing the Latin Vulgate, the standard Bible of the Medieval Church, included them under ecclesiastical pressure, even though he didn’t personally regard them as God-breathed texts, nor on a par with Scripture. As Josephus noted, these books do provide a history of the Jewish period during the 400 years before Christ, but were not considered to be of equal authority or reliability as the Holy Scriptures.
Why So Many Versions?
The Bible was not written in English but in the contemporary languages of the day. The Old Testament was written primarily in Hebrew with a few sections in Aramaic. When the Greek Empire spread, the Hebrew Bible was translated into Greek and this translation is known as the Septuagint, because it is said to have been the work of seventy translators. It is sometimes abbreviated as LXX, the Roman numerals for seventy.
The New Testament was written in a form of Greek known as Koine Greek, the common language of the first century Roman Empire. But by the fourth century Latin had become the common language of the Empire and so a standard translation into Latin was produced by Jerome and became the standard Bible of the church for the next thousand years. Of course, as the Christian message spread to various parts of the world, Latin was no longer the common language of local cultures and by the fifteenth century some Christian scholars in England began calling for an English translation of the Bible so that it could be read by everyone. However, some in the Church hierarchy opposed this as they felt that common people were not qualified to read and understand the Bible.
In the sixteenth century, William Tyndale began work on an English translation of the New Testament directly from the Greek texts. There had been some earlier English translations from Latin but Tyndale felt that it was best to work from the original languages. However, opposition to this work became so intense that Tyndale had to flee to the Continent and continue his work in secret. Eventually the New Testament was completed and smuggled back into England. Tyndale was eventually arrested and condemned to death for his work and was burnt at the stake on 6 October 1536.
Since that time, the English language has continued to change and scholars have felt the need to provide fresh translations that will effectively communicate the unchanging message of God into contemporary English. The challenge is for them to balance accuracy and faithfulness to the original Hebrew and Greek with ease of understanding in English. As a result some translations may be easier to read but may also lose something of their faithfulness to the original text. It can be helpful to compare a modern English translation with older, more literal translations to get a fuller and richer understanding of the Scriptures.
How Should We Read the Bible?
God gave us His Word to be read and understood. It was written by ordinary people (shepherds, fishermen, tax collectors) for ordinary people. The Psalmist wrote, “The entrance of your words gives light; it gives understanding to the simple,” (Psalm 119:130).
As a book written by human authors, it should be read normally, as you would any book, seeking to understand the author’s message and purpose for writing, and recognising the use of figures of speech. Keep in mind that the Bible is a collection of individual books by individual authors with differing literary styles like narrative, poetry, etc.
As a book written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, it should be read prayerfully, asking God by His Holy Spirit to give you understanding. The Lord Jesus promised, “However, when He, the Spirit of truth has come, He will guide you into all truth,” (John 16:13).
You should read the Bible regularly, so that you will become familiar with its content and message. Many things you don’t understand at first will become clearer as you continue reading.
You should also read the Bible repeatedly. This is not a book that you can master in one reading but a living Word that provides fresh insights to faithful readers.
And finally, read it expectantly, believing that God will reveal His truth to you. The Lord Jesus said, “If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed. And you shall know the truth, and the truth will make you free,” (John 8:31-32).
Where should I start reading?
Keep in mind that the Bible is a collection of individual books. While it is not necessary to start at the beginning of the Bible, it is best to try and read individual books straight through to understand the flow of thought. Much false teaching has resulted from people taking passages out of context. While the New Testament will be most relevant to us today, we encourage you to read the Old Testament also as the Lord Jesus and the apostles based much of their teaching on it.
Having said that, we recognise that sometimes when people start at the very beginning, they go along until they get to long lists of names (called genealogies) or to descriptions of Jewish ceremonial laws, and then give up, totally overwhelmed. So we have provided a suggested reading plan below, broken down by various literary styles. This plan includes readings from the New Testament historical books, the Old Testament historical books, the New Testament epistles (letters written by apostles to churches and individuals), and New Testament prophecy. It does not include Old Testament poetry and prophecy, although these are also of immense value. The number in brackets next to the category is the number of days it will take you to read this category at one reading per day (the selected readings will take just over 6 months). You can check off the passages as you read them.
May the Lord bless you as you read and obey His Word. Please feel free to contact us if there are things you don’t understand.
To download the suggested reading plan, click on the link below.