The Bible is easily the most influential book of Western literature. If you haven’t read any part of it at all, you aren’t educated, period. But, for that matter, if you haven’t read it all the way through, then again you still have a massive hole in your education. That’s what I told myself last month, deciding once and for all to fill in that hole.
I guess I’m still an agnostic, but let’s just say I’m newly curious. I might explain why later on, but for now suffice it to say that for many years I was not particularly curious about the possible truth of monotheism or Christianity in particular—and now I am.
So last month I decided to start reading the Bible all the way through. While I had read quite a bit of it when I was a kid, then a chunk (25%?) again to my boys over the last decade as part of their homeschooling, I never did read the entire thing cover to cover. Maybe more importantly, I never really did understand it. Now that I am reading it, I am understanding Christian (and Jewish) theology much better than I used to.
Even with great care, the big problem about reading the Bible is understanding it, because it is a difficult text. I don’t care if you are super-smart and have read lots of difficult texts; if you haven’t read the Bible in particular, then you won’t understand it without a lot of help, period.
For such a truly ancient book, the Bible is actually quite an amazing piece of literature, history, theology, and philosophy, if you didn’t know. Not for nothing has it dominated and shaped Western civilization. Not for nothing did most the greatest minds of Western civilization (most philosophers other great minds such as Sir Isaac Newton) admired it for millennia. It may be confusing and confounding, but it is not stupid. It makes a lot more sense and is much more consistent than many atheists and agnostics believe. I am not declaring here that it is the Truth, but I am declaring that it is far more coherent and intelligent—again, properly understood—than many people in our modern, secular culture know. They think it’s stupid; the reason they think so is that they don’t understand it. Period. The significance of the Bible text is complex, layered, and deep. But you can’t understand that significance without reading it, studying it, and getting help (see below) with your study.
As I first post this, I’ve done 30 days of my Bible-in-90-days plan, and I’ve been clued in to some modern discoveries, ideas, and tricks for doing this. I thought I’d share them, if for no other reason than to memorialize this for myself in case I want to do it again sometime:
- You don’t have to use a printed book to read the Bible. I’m using several apps concurrently. This is lighter, easier, and comes with audio and multimedia built in.
- Top Bible apps? I have reviewed a lot of Bible apps fairly closely. At present (this could easily change), there are five stand-outs, all iPhone apps since I don’t use Android: YouVersion’s Bible app, Tecarta Bible, Bible Hub, Logos, and BLB (Blue Letter). None of these is perfect (they should contact me and I’ll tell them how to improve). What do these excel at?
- YouVersion’s “Bible” app: The plethora of great reading plans (see below), the audio versions, and good but not perfect UX (design/ease of use), especially when it comes to switching between translations. Unfortunately, no commentaries available.
- Tecarta Bible: Excellent (still not absolutely perfect) UX, good audio versions, free built-in commentaries. You might want to buy a commentary, and if so, I’d recommend doing it through this one because of the design (and they have dozens available, pretty cheaply too).
Note: As reading hubs, the above two are the best I’ve found so far.
- Bible Hub: While the design (it’s an app wrapper for a website) might be off-putting, they’ve got massive numbers of free commentaries that have become my go-to place for second opinions. The amount of free study/scholarly resources packed onto the website is amazing and as far as I can tell, superior to any other app’s by far. Just for example, check out this array of free commentaries on one Bible verse. So, that’s in the app. If only they would improve their appalling UX…
Note: The above three are the ones I’ve been using on a daily basis for the last two weeks or so.
- Logos: Lots of free resources, particularly the Faithlife Study Bible and online dictionary. The UX is “clever” but actually clunky, so I don’t use it much; I can see how some might like it. Especially good for word study and serious Bible scholarship.
- BLB (Blue Letter): tap a version, get a bunch of resources including, again, a bunch of commentaries. Bible Hub is probably better. Good for word study.
- So in general, I am currently using YouVersion for the reading plan, actual reading, and audio; Tecarta Bible as my “go-to” commentary; and others for backup commentaries. I also use a Bible dictionary app and a backup Bible atlas map when the commentaries fail me.
- Here, let me try. If anyone reading this wants to pay me to plan out an open source, collaborative Bible study app from the ground up, I am willing to do so for a fee (gotta eat). If well-coded and my UX/design recommendations were followed, it suspect would blow all others out of the water. Gee, that doesn’t sound like Christian humility, does it? Well, let’s just say I find these apps frustrating, as useful as they are, and that it is easy for me to imagine how to improve them by using the best ideas from all.
- Listen to an audio version while you read. Maybe this is a matter of taste, but I find that if the text is coming in through the ears as well as the eyes, I’m able to focus and understand better. But be sure you pick a decent audio version. There are a lot of clunkers, it seems to me. A lot of “dramatizations” in which the voice actors actually try to act out different parts leave much to be desired. I ended up preferring the deep British voice (free) that goes with the KJV in the YouVersion. No nonsense, no strenuous attempt to interpret the text or “do voices.” But it does read expressively, and not blandly, as many other (free) audio Bibles do.
- Play with app reading settings. Your overall experience may be changed significantly, maybe even profoundly, by changing any one of these variables in your app, so play around with these:
- Bible version/translation: KJV for literality and purism, NASB for (maybe) scholarly accuracy, ERV (“Easy-to-Read Version”) for ease of reading, etc.
- Go-to reading app. You might prefer one I haven’t listed. Go with the one that’s easiest for you to use.
- Go-to commentary. Do try several. Some are free, and some other feature-rich ones are quite cheap (less than $10) if you purchase through the app.
- Go-to sets of reference (maps and Bible dictionary). Super important if you actually want to understand what’s going on, which you should, because your commentaries won’t always answer your questions properly. Keep trying until you get a set of reference materials that always answer your questions satisfactorily.
- The speaking voice. I keep coming back to that deep-voiced British guy after trying out others. Frankly, I can’t stand the ones who lamely try to act out parts and get them totally wrong.
- Reading plan, if you use one, which I recommend (see below).
- Font style, font size, and background (white or black). Yeah, those things make a difference too.
- Making sense, important. But back to strategies I’m following. In general, do make a real effort to understand the hard vocabulary as well as the person, tribe, and placenames. If you don’t, then yeah, it’s going to be merely puzzling and look like ancient nonsense to you. If you do, a lot of things start falling into place. Individually it may not matter whether Og or Abimelech was a king, priest, or general, or whether he came from came from Shechem, Moab, or Bashan, but attention to the full set of these details will help the whole to come together much more coherently.
- Translation switching: for vocabulary. Pick a literal translation (I use the KJV) and stick with it. This can be harder to read but it will get you closer to the original thoughts than versions that are basically just rewritings. I gathered from a few different reliable sources that Bible scholars also like the NASB (North American Standard Bible). Still, I look at other, easier versions when I have trouble with the actual vocabulary of a verse (YouVersion’s Bible app is great for this: just tap on a verse, then tap “Compare”). This can be faster than consulting a commentary, if your issue is just about vocabulary.
- Study Bible: for proper nouns. While switching back and forth between versions can help you puzzle out some archaic vocabulary, the person, tribe, and placenames require other kinds of resources to make sense of. The most efficient way to make sense of this is to use a study Bible (that’s what I do, anyway), especially one that comes with many detailed maps integrated just where they are needed (ESV Study Bible is what I use in no small part for the maps). But no study Bible seems to be complete, so the more the better. A Bible dictionary/encyclopedia will often help answer more general questions the commentaries don’t cover (like “Who was Abimelech again?”).
- Intros: background for theology, culture, history, archaeology, etc. If you’re not familiar with the Good Book, you can’t just read the thing straight through. Especially if it’s your first time reading the Bible, you definitely will not understand it if you don’t have the assistance of not just commentaries, but also introductions or lectures. Book introductions (e.g., an introduction to the book of Genesis) or video lectures (which cover similar information) are essential to understanding the theology of the Bible above all, which is kind of the whole point, but also the narrative structure, which is important if you want to make sense of what you’re reading. I’ve been reading my study Bible’s text introductions sometimes, and always also watching short YouTube videos.
- Study the general concepts. Sometimes you’ll notice certain concepts coming up again and again without much introduction or explanation, things like covenant, sacrifice, various angelic beings, redemption, forgiveness, etc. When you come across these and you really have no idea what they really mean, look them up and read several paragraphs about them, at least. If you don’t have at least some rough understanding of those (and quite a few other) concepts it is absolutely certain that you will not understand the Bible. Many of those concepts are very unfamiliar to modern, largely amoral, secular minds, and require special explanation.
- Reading the Bible in 90 days is doable and is a good idea. There are lots of “reading plans” built into several Bible apps, including the top two listed above. Again, YouVersion’s Bible app has the biggest selection that I found and their reading plan feature is very well designed. Now, most whole-Bible reading plans are for 365 days, but that struck me as being too slow. For one thing, as with any body of knowledge (think especially of foreign languages), the more you jam it all in together in a relatively short space of time, the more mental connections you will make and the better understanding you will have. So I experimentally tried out the 90 day plan, and worked my way up to doing all of a day’s work in one day. I think requires something like 90-120 minutes per day—maybe sometimes more. This includes consulting resources such as commentaries.
- On “The Bible Project.” So a seminary professor and a writer got together with a team of dozens to produce some quite well-made, opinionated, extremely informative videos about not just every book of the Bible, but how to read it and various Biblical concepts. These videos are part of a daily orienting “devotional” that goes along with the reading plan I chose. I’m not 100% sure I trust the theology of these videos (er, so do they really think the seraphim are flying snakes, like the pagan Egyptian critters?), but they sure are handy in how they encapsulate a lot of information briefly. I’m checking out other video series as well, anyway.
- Do searches on critical questions. Naturally, if you’re the least bit curious, you’ll have hard and critical questions. Why does God seem to be so, um, harsh in the Old Testament? What really do the Israelites have to atone for? What’s the point of all the sacrifices? Is there any real reason to take the history of the Gospel story seriously? Etc. Use your search engine of choice to look up the answers. You might or might not be convinced by the answers (I’m afraid I’m not, in some cases), but if you don’t know how intelligent, well-informed, and committed believers answer such questions—and especially if you assume that they have no answers to such questions, because they’re not smart enough to think of the questions or take them seriously—then again, I guarantee you simply won’t understand what’s going on when you read the Bible.
- Do not zone out and let the words wash over you. Look, maybe you don’t need to understand everything in the greatest detail, as a serious scholar does, but if you let a verse pass you by and you can say to yourself, “Wait, what did I just read, and what did it mean?” and you don’t know, then you’re not really reading. You’re sort of pretending to read. Don’t do that. If you let whole sections, chapters, or books go past you when you’re on autopilot, I guarantee you’ll miss something important. The only time when you can safely skip something is when you’re going through “the begats,” the repetitive details of sacrificing (but going through one of the repetitions seems necessary), the word descriptions of boundaries of the territories of the twelve tribes, and other such things that are best regarded as reference information inserted into what is otherwise a narrative.
- I walk and read. I happen to pace through my whole house as I read, getting my hourly walking minutes in (something I do for health) and my reading time in. By the end of the day I’ve finished my day’s reading. If not, I do another half-hour’s reading after the kids are in bed, no problem. Maybe you can read while on the train, or while on the treadmill, or whatever.
There are of course many other things I am not doing (or, not so much) and that at a future date I might recommend: Bible study groups, both online and in face-to-face; getting help from an actual human being (always a good idea); doing a course on the whole Bible concurrently with reading (something I started on The Great Courses Plus, since we have a subscription, but found was too much of a commitment to do along with 60-90 minutes of daily reading).
Anyway, there you have a catalog of strategies I’ve followed the last few weeks. Since I’m far from being an expert on any of these subjects, I submit these just as ideas, and maybe more experienced people will be able to give me more ideas as well.
UPDATE: I finished in 100 days, and then immediately started re-reading it in 365 days.
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