About four years ago, I read the Bible cover-to-cover for the first time. I explained how I did it. It took me 100 days, and yes, as a result, I became a Christian. Since then, I have not stopped reading it. I read it again three more times, and I am now on a fifth pass through. I think I can explain how (and why) to undertake this task, in FAQ form.
- Why should I read the Bible?
- Why is understanding the Bible important?
- Is it OK to raise questions about what I’m reading?
- How carefully should I read it?
- What components and resources should I plan to use?
- What are the specific study problems I can anticipate?
- How should I pick a translation?
- How long should I plan on taking?
- What if I miss a day?
- Should I just read straight through?
- But how can I plan out such complex reading schedules?
- Wait. Why all the way? Why not skip some?
- But can I skip certain really boring parts?
- Should I join a Bible study group?
- But aren’t study groups quite devotional and for like-minded friends only?
- Should I listen to an audio Bible while reading?
- What about taking notes, highlighting, journaling, etc.?
- Other questions? Please ask below.
Why should I read the Bible?
There are doubtless many reasons, but two stand out.
(1) It will make you better educated. The Bible is the most important and influential book in the history of the world, bar none. No other book even comes close in influence, especially for Western culture. The more familiar I am with the Bible, the most amazed I am when I reflect that it is not more regularly required as a part of basic education.
(2) It might just be true. My own view is that it is the most amazing and profound book ever written. Billions of people, including many brilliant ones, have agreed with that assessment. And if it is true, reading it might prove instrumental to your eternal salvation.
So it seems worth the time investment.
Why is understanding the Bible important?
I wish people asked this question more. Passing your eyes over the text will familiarize yourself with it, sure. But that’s not enough. Reading without comprehension can create in people a contempt of what they’re reading, either because it’s old, outdated, and irrelevant, or because it’s…you know…stupid, boring, and confusing.
These are signs that you don’t understand what you’re reading.
Understanding the Bible is important for the same reasons that you should read the Bible (it’s essential to your being an educated person, and it’s very possibly true). But deep understanding of the Good Book provides:
- Historical insight. This is surprisingly important. You can’t understand ancient history without understanding the Bible. You can’t understand the history of one of the most important institutions of Western society—the church—if you don’t understand the Bible. It’s also essential to understanding all the references in Western art history. Without Bible understanding, your insight into many of the great events of history is hamstrung, from the Middle Ages, to the Crusades, to the Reformation, to the Enlightenment.
- Social insight. If you haven’t studied the Bible, you don’t understand Christians or Western society, period. If you study it, you are in a position to better understand church life, religiously-informed positions on politics, ethics, society, etc. You can understand Christians better, the people and their motives: why they do (and do not do) the things they do.
- Practical wisdom. If you pay close enough attention, you might just learn something important about how you live your life. The Bible can change your perspective on your relationship to other people and to God.
- Theological acumen. You cannot read the Bible for understanding without emerging with increased comprehension of everything related to God. Theology is one of the great classical disciplines of knowledge. Even if you are unconvinced, that’s better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick.
- Salvation. I saved the best for last: reading the Bible might save your soul. It could give you insight you never had before—even if you are familiar with some other religion—into the nature of the creator of the universe. If you are like me, you will find it to be surprisingly, even shockingly, persuasive.
Is it OK to raise questions about what I’m reading?
Yes. Contrary to what stodgy old religious relatives might have told you, when you raised questions as a child, it is not only OK to ask questions, it is essential that you both ask your questions and get them answered. If you don’t get them answered, they will bother you and they will undermine both your understanding of doctrine and trust in God. So, note your questions, at least your more important ones; maybe even write them down. Then look up a variety of answers.
How carefully should I read it?
There is a sweet spot, I think, that involves reading carefully (maybe each chapter twice), using references to clarify words and puzzling names, looking up answers to hard questions, and reading/viewing book introductions of modest length. Much more than that, and on your first pass, you might burn out. But if you lightly pass your eyes over the words and never consult any references such as study Bibles, maps, encyclopedia articles, or introductory lectures, you will definitely find it puzzling and will almost certainly not understand it. That will also make you give up.
In short, you do not need to read a full commentary or study every single thing you don’t understand. On your first pass through, that would be overkill. Just read it carefully and get a decent understanding.
What components and resources should I plan to use?
I think you should use four main resources. These are essential to a careful (not extremely thorough) reading that aims at basic understanding.
- The Bible itself.
- Read either all the notes on a not-too-detailed study Bible, such as the ESV Global Study Bible or (probably better) read selected notes from a much more detailed study Bible, such as the ESV Study Bible. Generally, you’ll read notes when you don’t understand something, have questions, or think something is unusually important.
- Use other references as necessary. Study Bibles will explain the first mention of a name, but sometimes you need the reference later on. For puzzling place names, get a reasonably detailed set of Bible maps. For names and concepts you have not learned (or have forgotten), consult a free encyclopedia resource such as EncycloSearch (you can always select only the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia).
- View lectures about or read introductions to each Bible books. This is not a trivial task, but it is so important to understanding the text. Recommendations: (a) If you have more time, watch David Pawson’s interesting (but devotional—meaning, taking a believer’s point of view) free lectures, Unlocking the Old Testament and Unlocking the New Testament. (b) If you don’t have so much time, at least watch the Bible Project book introductions (there is one for each book, and sometimes several). (c) A good study Bible will precede each book with an introduction. If you do not watch introductory videos, then read these sorts of introductions. (d) There are also textbooks containing introductions to the Bible books, and these also range from very basic to very difficult and academic.
These four components each solve a different problem. The Bible itself is the object of study. The study Bible answers common questions and provides sometimes indispensable stage-setting to particular sections, chapters, and verses. Maps and encyclopedias are essential for understanding name references. And without some sort of broad intros to books, you will almost certainly not understand what is going on. They give essential background and do stage-setting.
What are the specific study problems I can anticipate?
You can anticipate certain problems, particularly when you read the Bible seriously, for understanding, all the way through for the first time. Here’s a list, together with ideas for solutions:
- Hard words. You just don’t understand some words. That’s very normal; this is an ancient text. This is especially true if you are reading the King James Version. Use an ordinary dictionary or switch between versions to see how other translations gloss the word. If you still don’t understand, no worries, use a Bible dictionary (with longer entries) or encyclopedia. Again, lots of free resources are available.
- Syntactical and other riddles. Sometimes you read a sentence multiple times and still don’t get it, even though you know the words. This isn’t your fault. Again, try glancing at another version; an adequately detailed study Bible will cover the hardest puzzles. There are also plenty of free commentaries that explicate scriptural riddles, like Mark 13:14: “But when ye shall see the abomination of desolation, spoken of by Daniel the prophet, standing where it ought not, (let him that readeth understand,) then let them that be in Judaea flee to the mountains.” On this, consult BibleHub’s incredibly useful compilation of public domain commentaries.
- Difficult names. You don’t understand names of people and names of cities (mountains, countries, etc.), and you don’t know whether they matter. This can be very frustrating indeed. The solution is to use a Bible atlas (or just the maps included in the back of many Bibles, if they are detailed enough) and a free Bible encyclopedia. Hint: if the encyclopedia entry for a place is very short, the name doesn’t matter so much. If it is long, the place matters.
- Shocking and puzzling problems. Especially in the Old Testament, God’s people do shocking things, like marrying their sisters or having multiple wives, and God does shocking things, like killing priests for worshiping incorrectly or commanding the Israelites to thoroughly extirpate the Canaanites. You are not the first person to have these questions. Do, do search on those questions online. “Why did God command the killing of the Canaanites?” If you want to review answers that represent a small-o orthodox view (a traditional Protestant Bible-believing view) on such hard questions, one remarkably thorough free online resource is GodQuestions.org (here is their answer to the foregoing question). Note, I am not saying this to get you to accept whatever the Bible says uncritically. I am saying this so that you simply understand the Bible. If you cannot get past certain concepts because they are so implausible that they don’t even make sense to you, that can stop your reading in its tracks. You needn’t let that happen. These questions have been debated for hundreds, in many cases thousands, of years.
- Motivation. Stick with it! You can get to certain sections (like Leviticus or Numbers in the Old Testament) and ask yourself, “How does anyone ever get through this?” If it’s your first time through, I’ll tell you why they can, and you (seemingly) can’t: they understand what’s going on well enough for it to be interesting, and you…don’t. The solution is to take my advice from above and introductory lectures and read some study Bible notes. They will help enliven what may seem like merely dusty, irrelevant old passages. It can also help, a lot, to read encyclopedia articles about specific puzzling topics, such as sacrifice and atonement. And, yes, you can give yourself permission to skim (not skip) the particularly eye-glazing sections (see below).
How should I pick a translation?
There are many answers to this question online. If you want mine, here it is.
To pick a translation (or “version”), you really need to understand a bit about translations.
Literal translations are more word-for-word, leaving difficult words and even syntax as they were in the source languages. Such translations are “closer to the original,” but they also require more study, because the original has many concepts and constructions that are unfamiliar.
Dynamic equivalence translations are sometimes called “phrase-for-phrase” or “thought-for-thought.” These sometimes substitute more familiar concepts for similar, but more foreign or difficult concepts in the original. Such translations are naturally easier. They can still be difficult, because there is no way to render many difficult thoughts easy, and such translations do try to avoid simply making stuff up.
Paraphrases are not really translations at all, but rewrites. They do attempt to follow the original thoughts closely (often closely enough to be translations, indeed), but their authors very frequently reword and restructure the thoughts in a way that they hope is clearer and more evocative. They try to express at least metaphorically similar thoughts as the original. But they make stuff up in the process of doing this. In other words, foreign concepts are “translated” into modern “equivalents,” but this is very problematic. This process can, indeed, make the text more immediately comprehensible; but it also inevitably imposes ideas on the text that just aren’t there, and that is a very big problem, in my opinion.
Without getting into all the controversies over determining “the best” translations, I will say this.
- I use the King James, mostly because I find it extremely literal but also readable (but then, early modern philosophy was an academic specialization of mine, so I’m used to dealing with “hard” texts of that era). The NKJV is a good compromise if you like the literality and the grand KJV tradition, but find it forbidding. It is hard to generalize about audience, but generally “purist traditionalist” types go in for these.
- If you want something more readable but still fairly accurate, the NIV, ESV, and CSB will work better for you. These are better for the average reader who want something fairly close to the original but just easier. Again, a wide variety of people like these.
- Protestant Bible scholars and students seem to like the NASB a lot. “Wooden” is the adjective one hears applied to it, but your mileage may vary. I really think it’s not bad, especially the 1995 version. The new LSB is a variant made by Reformed scholars.
- The NET has its fans, from academics to serious students, because it’s a new translation that aspires (with what success, I cannot say) to scholarly rigor, while also trying to be readable. It is a bit of a hybrid. Perhaps its most distinctive feature are its copious footnotes.
- Many liberal Protestant academics recommend the NRSV. This is a very modern version of the RSV (1952), which revised the ASV (1901), which revised the ERV (1885), which revised the KJV (1611). But go ahead, try comparing the NRSV and the KJV. They are entirely different.
- Catholics have their favorites like NAB, NRSVCE, and the Douay-Rheims (which for them plays a role similar to the KJV). These all have the Apocrypha.
- Some pastors recommend first-time readers to start with very easy paraphrases like the NLT, CEV, or even the Message (purists especially loathe this one), and while these are probably a bit easier than the NIV, they definitely do sacrifice accuracy. These are for people who expect their Bibles to be very easy, smooth, and modern-sounding. If you don’t like to be jarred with any difficulties (even if they’re there in the original), you might be charmed by these translations…until you encounter a “creative” translation that is just wrong. Accuracy matters.
Generally, when you pick a translation, you should read several chapters, from several different Bible books, using several different translations. They need not be the same chapters. You’ll get the flavor; if you like the translation, that will help you get through the first reading, and I can’t fault that.
Another translation-picking strategy I’ve heard, which seems very solid to me, is to exhaustively list your priorities in picking a translation (readability, literalness, Majority Text-based or Critical Text-based, etc.); then determine which translation fits your criteria.
If you are comfortable with reading on your phone (as I do), you will not be stuck with one translation. With Bible apps, you can easily switch between translations.
How long should I plan on taking?
Please don’t leave this up to chance. Determining how long your reading will require is something you should decide on before, or soon after, embarking on a plan. If you’re reading by yourself, you could just dive in and read as much as seems comfortable to you for a few days. Then you’d have some insight into what is a reasonable per-day goal, then do some calculations. To do those calculations, you can use some planning tools described below. This will give you a reading schedule that will help you stay on that same pace. I do recommend having a schedule that will keep you on track; try hard not to deviate from it.
Here are comments on whole-Bible reading times:
- 30 days. This is, frankly, a little crazy. It would take many hours per day, especially if you wanted to consult resources as I suggest. Strictly for students and retirees only, I imagine.
- 90 days. This is also very hard, and required me 90-120 minutes per day. This is only for people who are highly self-motivated and passionate about finishing the Bible quickly.
- Half a year. This is doable. Depending on your speed and how carefully you consult resources, your reading might require about an hour per day. A reasonable plan for highly motivated people.
- 365 days. This is the traditional and most popular “through the Bible” plan. If you read the OT and NT each only once (another plan is to read the NT twice in that time), you’ll be reading 3-5 chapters per day, which is doable. This requires perhaps 30 minutes per day. The problem is that the sheer length of the plan does mean you have to maintain your motivation for an entire year straight.
- Two years. I don’t have much experience with people reading the Bible for the first time in two years. For what it’s worth, I’m inclined to think this is not a good approach. I’d be a little surprised if you finished; you’d have to keep up your discipline for two whole years, and most people aren’t that motivated. Actually doing the reading would not take much time each day, unless you are rather carefully studying (as I am, in my current two-year plan). So that’s not the problem. But it takes long enough that if you get behind, catching up can seem impossible. Just don’t get behind!
What if I miss a day?
Well, catch up, silly!
Seriously, it depends on whether you’re reading with a group or on your own. I’ve done both. On your own, you have the option of making “catch up days,” either scheduled in advance (as part of the plan) or pushing back your finish date by a day. This is OK in moderation, but try hard not to do it more than a couple times per month.
If you’re with a group, this is more of a problem. You should resign yourself to getting behind sometime, and then having one or two long reading sessions to catch up. That’s what weekends are for.
Should I just read straight through?
You might think that there’s only one way to read the Bible all the way through: start at Genesis, read the books in their traditional order, and stop at Revelation.
That is not the only way.
The main ways of reading the Bible, and the reasons for reading them that way, are:
- Straight through. Hey, there’s nothing wrong with this. The main advantage of reading it this way is that it familiarizes you with the book order, and I suppose there’s something to that.
- Chronologically (fine-grained). This interleaves books, chapters of books, and sometimes sections of chapters, depending on the reading plan. If you read this way, you will probably read Job after Genesis 11; you will read the first psalm maybe while reading Numbers; you will spend a lot of time on wisdom literature when you get to the stories of David and Solomon; you will read parallel accounts of 1 and 2 Chronicles as you read through Samuel and Kings; you will read the prophecy books while reading the history books; etc. Also, you will probably read different letters of Paul with corresponding chapters of Acts. The great advantage of reading this way—and it is a significant one—is that it puts books into a more historical context. This helps to understand what’s going on. Reading Psalms and prophets when historical events are described can make them much more dramatic. Similarly, with the New Testament, you can understand certain letters better when you read them with the corresponding parts of Acts. The big disadvantage is that this breaks the books (and Acts) into pieces, and this makes it much harder to understand the books as integrated wholes, which they are.
- Chronologically (coarse-grained/by books). Read whole books, in this order: Old Testament: Genesis, Job, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1 Samuel, 2 Samuel, 1 Chronicles, Psalms, Amos, Hosea, 2 Chronicles, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, 1 Kings, Joel, Micah, Isaiah, Zephaniah, Habakkuk, Jeremiah, 2 Kings, Lamentations, Jonah, Nahum, Obadiah, Daniel, Ezekiel, Ezra, Esther, Nehemiah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi. New Testament: Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Acts, James, Galatians, 1 Thessalonians, 2 Thessalonians, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Romans, Colossians, Philemon, Ephesians, Philippians, 1 Timothy, Titus, 1 Peter, 2 Peter, 2 Timothy, Hebrews, Jude, 1 John, 2 John, 3 John, Revelation.
- New Testament (NT) first, then Old Testament (OT). (Each can be done in either traditional or chronological order.) If you’re particularly unfamiliar with the NT, you dread the OT, and you really don’t know if you’ll be able to get through the OT, I would probably recommend doing this. That said, if you know you are going to read the OT, I recommend starting with the OT, or at least reading them at the same time (see next option). This is because the OT is essential to understanding so much of the NT fully. Jesus believed the OT. It was the Bible for him and the apostles. “Christ” means “the anointed one” prophesied in the OT. You cannot fully understand the significance or role of Jesus-the-Christ properly if you have not adequately understood the OT.
- Read the OT and NT at the same time. This is possible, and is recommended more for committed Christians. I myself am currently mixing OT and NT readings, but that’s because I don’t want to leave off reading the NT for too long. Besides, I’m already familiar with both. Also, most Christians find the NT more interesting and relevant, so interleaving them is a way to keep things interesting. My first time, I read the OT first and then the NT; this was a good idea because, having finally understood the OT properly for the first time, the NT became incredibly powerful to me.
But how can I plan out such complex reading schedules?
If your Bible is traditionally ordered, this can pose a challenge.
Never fear. There are tools, which are especially helpful if you want to follow a chronological (or even more complicated) plan. (If you don’t like computer tools, see next paragraph.) One of the best-designed I have come across is the Reading Plans feature on Bible.com. You’ll have to make a free account, but after doing that, click on “Plans” at the top of the page, then Discover (or, if you know how to describe what you’re looking for, just use the search box). You want the “Through the Bible” > “Whole Bible” collection. This is the 90-day chronological plan I followed. This is another chronological plan I followed, with Bible Project videos already incorporated (but if you don’t like those, you can always substitute something else). If you want a planning tool that offers you more control, this tool may help. I used it when generating my current group’s reading schedule. If you have an iPhone, this app is the bee’s knees if you want to generate and use specialized plans. It has some aspects that are even better than the Bible.com app.
Wait. Why all the way? Why not skip some?
The short answer is simple: because the whole thing is important. But there are two variants on this question.
(1) Isn’t it OK to use an abridged version? You might ask this if you are a beginner and pick up an actual Bible, or just contemplate its length: 783,137 words! For comparison, War and Peace is a paltry 561,304. You might be surprised (I was) that there are few “abridged Bibles” on the market. Here is one guy’s opinion (selections). There is the inevitable Reader’s Digest Bible. I can’t recommend these because I think the Bible matters, every part of it matters, and I would be misrepresenting my true views if I said that you can cut out significant parts without missing much.
(2) Why not just read the New Testament (maybe my favorite Gospel, and Acts, and a few favorite letters) and supplement that with a few key passages from the Old Testament?—This is the approach that many Christians take, who say they have “read the Bible,” but really haven’t. Those parts you skipped and never bothered to try to understand are important.
Why are the parts you want to skip important? Ah, now that’s the question. Let’s list a few of these supposedly “boring parts”:
- Lists of civil laws in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy: those lists of civil and moral laws are not, in fact, that long. If you actually pay attention and think even briefly about what you’re reading, you’ll find the laws a fascinating window into the life of Biblical Israel. The laws are also essential to understanding what the new covenant (the method of salvation explained in the New Testament) is replacing.
- Sacrificial and ceremonial instructions (concerning various “offerings” and such things as religious holidays), especially in Leviticus and Deuteronomy: a comprehension of the types and their purposes will help you understand how seriously God took certain kinds of sin. It is again a window into the life and background of the ancient Jews.
- Long chronicles of kings: there is admittedly some repetition here, but these have theological content and surprisingly important context for prophecy and later developments.
- Long prayers, speeches, and discourses: these are in fact some of the most important texts in the entire Bible, providing key elements of doctrine.
Et cetera. From a very limited (not to mention disrespectful and faithless) point of view, the whole thing looks boring. But the more you understand it, the more you understand that it is an integrated whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.
But can I skip certain really boring parts?
Skim, not skip, only your first time through, and only a few bits. Which bits? See below. If we’re talking about the same bits, then I hate to say it, but…yes. Your first time through, you can skim. Not skip.
What can you skim the first time through? Those genealogical lists, lists of tribal leaders and their censuses and cities, descriptions and re-descriptions of tabernacle and temple construction (and their furniture and priestly vestments), land allotments and boundaries, lists of cities, and detailed, repetitive descriptions of sacrifices.
I’m not gonna lie: these can be very boring and (more importantly) off-putting, if you don’t have the background to understand and care what is going on in the detail being offered. Sadly, a lot of people stop reading the Bible because they run smack dab into these walls of text, and they give up. What a shame. Frankly, unless you study them carefully, you won’t get much out of them, and what you get out of them is probably less important (the first time through) than the later stuff you shouldn’t skip. So…yeah. If you want, you can skim those (relatively few) especially eye-glazing lists and descriptions.
Regardless, do read what book introductions and study Bibles say about even these more eye-glazing bits. Find out what they are lists and descriptions of, at least, and why they were considered important. They can become more meaningful on later passes through. Not to brag or anything, but I have read and studied the Bible enough that many of the name lists and sacrifice instructions have started to become downright interesting.
Should I join a Bible study group?
This is a really good idea, especially if you are willing to follow someone else’s organizational plan. Reading the Bible with a group, whether online or offline, can create enough extra peer pressure to keep you involved and interested. The comments you and others make can give you keen insights that make the text seem more important than it might if you are reading by yourself, say with a study Bible or a commentary.
But aren’t study groups quite devotional and for like-minded friends only?
Not necessarily. It varies. Some groups are just close friends and family. Some are church-organized. Some are organized online. Sometimes a group is like-minded, but usually there is some disagreement, and that is OK. And it’s not hard to find groups that are open to nonbelievers and people who are just exploring. You can always try to organize your own group, too.
Should I listen to an audio Bible while reading?
I do, and have done so since my first time all the way through the Bible. It’s a good idea, because you get the words coming in through two different sensory modes; that way, they might make more of an impact. It also gives you pronunciations (or one person’s take on the pronunciations) of names. The YouVersion Bible app has free audio readings included, and other apps can do this for you as well (see this blog post for more details). YouTube also has plenty of free audiobook performances of the Bible.
What about taking notes, highlighting, journaling, etc.?
These are traditional topics for discussions of “Bible study.” But we are talking about your first pass through the Bible. You might invest a huge amount of time in reading in the first month, only to find later that you don’t have so much time; that could cause you to stop altogether. That would be a shame. Your first pass through probably should not be a “Bible study.” It is a reading, not a deep dive. Some notes on study methods:
- Highlighting: If you’re a Bible believer and already familiar with much of the Bible, and you like highlighting and collecting verses and passages, this is a great idea. If you are not a Bible believer, frankly, I wouldn’t bother.
- Writing down critical questions: This is a good idea for first-time readers. If you write down your questions and then look up answers in your various resources, you’ll get so much more out of your reading than otherwise.
- “Journaling” or sharing reactions in a group setting: This can heighten your engagement level with the text.
- Consulting resources as necessary (see above): This is essential, for reasons already explained.
Other questions? Please ask below.
I do hope this helps somebody. If you have remaining questions, maybe I (or someone else here) can answer.
Also, if you have read the Bible the first time recently, or if you had a memorable experience your first time, why not share your experience below?