A first-timer’s guide to reading The Bible

This is a collection of observations from my first time ever reading through the entire Bible (Old and New Testament). It is not organized with any specific thesis, just some thoughts and notes focused mainly on historical content and not as much on religious commentary. I do hope I can encourage more first timers who are curious for whatever reason to try reading it. Even if you are not religious, the Bible is interesting and important for anyone who has an interest in the history and moral origins of modern Western culture.

Old Testament Overview

Everyone is probably familiar with the opening books of the Bible — “Let there be light!” After the Jewish story of the creation of the world, the rest of the Old Testament describes a thousand years of Jewish history from 1500 B.C. to 500 B.C. This includes tracing the ancient ancestral line from Abraham, into the political/military/cultural history of the organized Jewish nation, and eventually to its decline and conquest by the Babylonian Empire. The Old Testament also includes collections of religious poetry and essays, writings by key religious prophets, and short tales featuring instructive and interesting figures and stories.

Stylistically, the books of the Old Testament include various forms of literature — legend and myth (Genesis), religious/moral instructional content (Leviticus), personal memoir (Nehemiah), poetry (Psalms), philosophical meditation (Lamentations), and even a religious essay written as dialogue (Job).

I remember feeling surprised at how much of the Old Testament read like a history book — factual, dated, year-by-year narrative of key events in the history of the Jewish nation, with a focus on royal lineages, wars, and regional politics. It is amazing that the Jewish people have documented their history going back thousands of years.

Along with the Torah and the History books, we also have the Psalms and books of Wisdom (collections of poems and essays written over hundreds of years, some purported written by King David and Solomon) as well as the books of Prophets (many from around the time of the invasion by the Babylonian empire and conquering of the Jewish state). The Psalms are an important bridge between the old Jewish and new Christian theologies: ancient Torah stories are often referenced in the Psalms, and much of the New Testament looks back to the Psalms for inspiration, religious analysis and quotation. The Prophets are more dense and are mainly a series of exhortations against immortality and secularization. Both these sections will completely immerse you in a mindset that is devoted to the world of God and the spiritual — the first through poetry, the second through preaching.

The historical portion of the Old Testament roughly covers the period from the first establishment of a Jewish state (c. 1500 B.C., after Moses) to its conquer and destruction (c. 587 B.C., by Nebuchadnezzar). There is a running theme through the entire “historical” portion of the Bible covering the emergence, development, and functioning of a political body for the Jewish nation.

A very explicit moment around 1000 B.C. sees the Jewish people ask for a king in addition to their priestly leader — this was a direct response to threats by neighboring countries. Then, the question over the next 500 years is how the religious (spiritual/moral) and governing (political/military) authorities should interact. These questions are often framed in regards to treatment of local religions and eventually in the context of rule by larger empires. A drift towards secularization of government is tied to the downfall of the Jewish nation; after the peak of Jewish culture with King Solomon, it is pretty much all downhill…. until a thousand years or so later when Christianity would rise to as prominent a political role.

The mystical scenes of the Bible only really take place in the first two books of the Torah, when God plays a prominent role in the creation of the world (of course) and has extended, direct interactions with the legendary ancestors of the Jewish people. After the Jewish law is established, the rest of the Bible focuses more on historical figures and narrative — though phenomena like war, climate disaster, or rises and falls of the nation’s wealth are always tied to the power of God and the sinfulness/piety of the Jewish people.

I remember feeling surprised that some of the scenes which have taken on such epic meaning in today’s society occur in only one or two paragraphs in the Bible. I suppose that much of the power from these short stories comes from their repetition over hundreds of years, along with extrapolation, narrative context, and imbuing of symbolism (e.g. telling the story of Exodus during Passover). Similarly, there is not too much character development of some of the legendary figures — we are perhaps left to fill in the blanks or imagine the personalities of these characters ourselves (or via the help of a spiritual leader). King David and King Solomon are especially compelling: they are both portrayed as immensely powerful and successful spiritual and political leaders (during the peak of the Jewish state), but their stories contain hints of human emotions, flaws, and inner conflict.

New Testament: Introduction

The writings in the New Testament begin 500 years or so after the end of the Old Testament: The Jewish nation is under political rule by the Roman empire and awaiting the coming of the promised Messiah from Old Testament scripture. Jesus is born, identified by his followers as the Messiah, and becomes the basis of a new religion distinct from its roots in Judaism.

The New Testament tells the story of Jesus’s life (Gospels), a history of the first generations and growth of the Christian church (Acts), and also includes a number of letters by St. Paul that clarify the spiritual and philosophical basis of the religion. The New Testament also includes the famous Book of Revelations, which brings the Bible full circle back to its first chapters on God and the origins of humanity — prophesizing how the the End of Days will come to pass.

After deep immersion in the Old Testament, the message of Jesus in the Gospels feels novel and powerful — for the first time, a prophet is explicitly preaching the holiness of love for his fellow human. The Old Testament, as a history of the rise and fall of a nation, is filled with so much violence, and much of it takes place during an early period of human civilization filled with tribal warfare. Perhaps like many people at the time, I wanted badly for someone to emerge with the charisma of King David and a renewed focus on morality… but with a philosophy of peace and love.

I would recommend reading the Old Testament before coming to this point, for a few reasons: (1) much of the text contains references to the stories and scripture from the past (both for symbolic purposes and for scriptural argument used to identify the Messiah), (2) reading the story of Jesus in the Gospels had an especially redemptive impact after the events leading into and after the Babylonian captivity, and (3) much of the discussions among early Christian leaders, along with questions of doctrine and practice, arose out of and in comparison to the Jewish traditions described in the Old Testament.

Once again, I was surprised by portions of the New Testament that read like historical chronicle. In particular, the Acts (and some of the underlying narrative in the Epistles) offer a clear description of the early days and growth of the Christian church, including an enumeration of dates and cities where religious communities were established. It was fascinating to read from a historical perspective.

I had not known that joining the very early Christian church involved selling one’s possessions and participating in sharing and distribution of food by the leadership (Apostles). In one story, a husband and wife lie about having sold their land and donated the proceeds, and immediately die on the spot. I also appreciated the detailed historical context offered in Acts and by the Letters of St. Paul. Placing these letters in their geographic/historical context requires additional annotation. Then, the spiritual message can be read in the context of a movement that was spreading year by year across the region — from its origins with the Twelve Apostles in Galilee to states and towns all across the Roman Empire.

The New Testament describes spiritual and practical changes to religious practices in the evolution from from Judaism to Christianity: (1) spiritually, having faith in Jesus as the Messiah became the most important tenet of the religion — replacing the covenant from the Jewish religious tradition; (2) therefore, early Church leaders like St. Paul argued that many of the (hard-to-follow) laws from the Jewish tradition were no longer critical elements of the faith — for example, circumcision was no longer required for pagans who were converting.

Philosophically, one major shift that stood out to me was the deeply personal spirituality described in the New Testament. In the Old Testament, God is a powerful and terrible force who only reveals himself to a few priestly figures. For example, according to the Torah, only the High Priest can enter the holiest chamber of the Holy Temple to commune directly with God, and even he must follow elaborate and specific rituals to accomplish this safely! In the New Testament, much of the language and symbolism instead felt more personal: rites like baptism fill the soul with Holy Spirit, each individual is encouraged to follow the good in their heart, and of course the coming of Jesus describes the manifestation of God in a human figure who acts with kindness and benevolence to everyone he meets.

Additional notes: Social issues and topics for discussion

Throughout my reading, I wondered about the impact of the social structure and morality codified in the Bible on our culture today. A few thousand years have passed since it was written, and Christianity is the most common religion worldwide and many modern politicians/pundits (in America at least) quite directly from the book. Here are a few topics I reflected on:

  • On gender roles: Much of the Old Testament consists of the law by which the Jewish nation (c. 1000 BC) will operate. There is a clear hierarchy of men over women, starkest in a story where it is considered more appropriate for a father to turn his daughter over to a mob to be raped rather than to give up a man whom he has taken into his house as a guest. There are great stories of the heroism of female figures in politics and in war, but they are against this backdrop of codified inequality. The hierarchy is reiterated in the New Testament.
  • On servitude: I was reminded of this recently by Ibram Kendi’s book Stamped From The Beginning, which traces New Testament statements on servitude over 1000 forward to race relations and slavery in early colonial American times. The Old Testament actually prohibits the Jewish nations enslaving their own people (there is a maximum time limit on how long any servitude can last), but is less prohibitive of enslaving captors of other nations during war. This was back about 1000 BC, when the various tribal groups in the area were warring for land. The New Testament, 1000 years later, encourages peaceful obedience of servant to master, writing about this as a natural aspect of social hierarchy. This is the line that Ibram Kendi draws to the emergence of race-based slavery 1000 years later in colonial America.
  • Us/them: From the very beginning, the Jewish nation self-describes as a Chosen People with a God-given set of beliefs, practices, and even geographic territory. Unlike a few of the other empires that will arise during the Biblical narrative (Babylonian, Greek, Roman), the Jews do not seek to extend or conquer beyond this territory. But they maintain their culture through strict enforcement of non-assimilation: they are forbidden from marrying other religions, and non-Jewish religious practice in their territory is frowned upon. So, they are not interested in expanding or converting others, but are extremely strict about self-identification within the tribe. In contrast, the Christian religion takes on the responsibility of converting non-believers. This begins with some of the final lines of the Gospel, where Jesus encourages his apostles to spread his message (perhaps one of the most impactful moments in all in Western history?), and is carried on by his immediate disciples and then famously by St. Paul. Two different approaches to being part of a group that has devout faith in its beliefs and truth.

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Those are just a few of the notes I’d jotted down. It took me about 8 months to read the Old and New Testament. I happened to have the Jerusalem Bible edition, which I enjoyed for all its historical notes and annotations.

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