What a ridiculous title this post has! Well, yes. It’s all Scripture and it’s all worth reading, and what business does anyone have ranking the different parts of God’s Word? And even putting it in terms of, “Which four books would you want to have with you on a deserted island?” seems a bit silly: It’s all one book, for Heaven’s sake.
But still: Are some books of the Bible more indispensable, more essential, than others? Are some at least more valuable or useful than others? Can we at least ask if some are more entertaining than others?
I think so, and if someone would like to read just a few books in the Bible before committing to reading the whole thing, and would like to know which ones, this post may have served a purpose.
One compelling answer is this: What’s absolutely indispensable are the Gospels. Period. I think a Christian could get along reasonably well with them, even if He had nothing else. Conversely, if you don’t have the Gospels, then you really don’t have the Christian Bible, not even close.
Even if you don’t pick all four Gospels, you have to pick at least one and maybe two … probably Luke and John. You’d want John, to complement your synoptic pick, and it wouldn’t make sense to pick Mark since too much of it is included in the (longer) Luke and Matthew. I’m giving Luke the nod just to include the one biblical author who’s not Jewish, and because I like Luke’s comprehensive-reporter style.
Speaking of Luke and his comprehensive-reporter style, perhaps my favorite book in the Bible to read is Acts. It’s an amazing narrative, with snakes, shipwrecks, jailbreaks, executions, miracles, people falling and being lowered out of windows, you name it. But is it indispensable? Well, I’m not sure, but certainly it’s important to see how the early church grew, and that the early Christians took Jesus’ Great Commission seriously.
Another amazing narrative is Genesis, which is not only one compelling story account after another: It’s theologically foundational. In fact, next to the Gospels, I would say it is the most important book in the Bible.
You can make a good argument that you need at least one book with some of the Old Testament laws (probably Exodus, since then you also get the escape-from-Egypt narrative, which is so central to Judaism) , and one New Testament book of the theology that supplements, and in important ways supersedes, those laws (probably Romans, though some might pick Hebrews).
What about the Wisdom books? I think the obvious one to include, especially if you’re on that proverbial deserted island, would be Psalms — to guide you in your prayers. Proverbs would be my second pick, but it would be a distant second; I like Job and have no problem with Song of Songs, but both are a bit narrow in their focus (not that the apparent unfairness of life and the glory of romantic love lack importance); the message of Ecclesiastes of the meaning and purpose of it all can, I hope, be replaced to to some extent by the other books being chosen.
Let’s talk about what’s not being included. There’s no Old Testament history after the Israelites get out of Egypt in the Torah, no Old Testament major or minor prophets, and no New Testament letters besides Romans or Hebrews. Well, that doesn’t seem crazy to me. That is, you would certainly be excluding a lot, but it would be hard to argue that any of those books is more essential than, for example, the Gospels or Genesis.
Finally, is it a mistake to exclude Revelation or, to the contrary, is that a relatively easy call? The most important point made in Revelation is that, in the end, God will prevail. That’s an important point, all right, even though it’s not exactly a surprise ending. The particulars of how the End Times will unfold is interesting; the problem is that we know for sure — since Jesus told us — that we won’t know when the unfolding will happen. In the meantime, we soldier on, and Revelation doesn’t tell us a lot we didn’t already know about how.
So the core books would be Luke and John, then Genesis and Exodus, and next, if there’s room, Psalms and Romans. If there’s even more room, I’d add Matthew and Mark, and then Acts. That’s not even a Top Ten out of the Bible’s 66 books (39 in the Old Testament, 27 in the New Testament).