Before You Read the Bible: A Preliminary Decalogue

If you have decided that you want to read the Bible, and have never looked at it before, here are ten things to keep in mind.

1. The Bible is not just one book but 66 books, of greatly varying length, 39 in the Old Testament and 27 in the New Testament.  More than three-fourths of the Bible is made up of the Old Testament.

2. The Old Testament principally focuses on the ancient Jews (putting aside the first ten chapters of Genesis, it all takes place from a little before 2000 B.C. to about 400 B.C.), while the New Testament is about Jesus Christ and His early (first century) followers.  The Old Testament takes place mostly in the what is now Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, and Egypt; the New Testament takes place mostly in what is now Israel, Lebanon, Turkey, Greece, Italy, and some islands in the eastern Mediterranean.

The length and scope (in terms of time, geography, and subject matter) are all manageable.  Is that lucky, or providential?

3. The books contain various genres.  Thus, some books contain mostly narrative history, other mostly poetry or proverbs, and others mostly laws.  There are books of prophecy, both the future-telling sort and the you-better-repent sort.  The vast majority of the New Testament books are letters from early Christians to one another, and most of those letters were written by one man named Paul.

4. Relatedly, while all the books are divinely inspired, they have different authors.  Only one of the authors, who wrote the New Testament books of the Luke and Acts (which make up about a quarter of it), was not Jewish.

5. Reading the Bible is time well-spent.  Lots of really smart people have read it and found it to be, at least, valuable.  And, like it or not, it is one of the most influential and cited books of all time, probably the most influential and cited.

I’m transitioning now to an obvious question, namely the degree and kind of skepticism with which one should read the Bible.  (I’m not even talking at this point about Pascal’s wager and whether we wouldn’t rather believe it than not believe it.  And I’m only touching on the rules of textual interpretation, which I plan to discuss elsewhere.)

6. Read the Bible with an open mind — meaning, in part, try to look at it with some freshness.

7. Bear in mind how far off and fanciful we would expect a book written on this topic thousands of years ago to be.  That’s not the Bible.  Consider for example the amount of historical confirmation, likewise the dearth of historical refutation.  Who could have written anything better at the time — could you have — without some Outside Help?

8. Likewise, even if you think there are some discrepancies and mysteries, consider all that the Bible gets right, and ask whether in light of that it would make sense to throw out such a book, and whether we would do so if such a text suddenly appeared from any other source.  We would treasure it, would we not?

9. Why would a Jew lie in the way he wrote Scripture or prophesied or preserved or transcribed Scripture?  Remember that we are talking about a people who really believed in God; they would not want to blaspheme or do anything else to incur God’s wrath; what incentive could possibly exist and be so strong as to lead a believing Jew to do so?

10. Let me return, finally, to the point I made earlier about the Bible containing several different genres.  That’s important to keep in mind in judging the veracity of a particular passage.  I believe that the Bible is all true, but saying a poem or a song or a prayer or a proverb is true is rather different from saying that a historical narrative is true, isn’t it?