How to Start Reading the Bible

Image: An open Bible lying on a wood table, with the setting sun in the background. Credit: Aaron Burden, Unsplash

“I’ve never read the Bible before. Where should I start?”

Most people start at the beginning — literally. But cracking the Bible at “In the beginning….” isn’t the only way to read it. Indeed, it might not even be the best way.

The Bible isn’t exactly one book. Rather, it’s 66 books (if you’re Protestant) or more books (if you’re not), spanning a dizzying array of genres, topics, audiences, and purposes. What you’ll get out of reading it depends on what you’re reading, and what you’re reading may well depend on what you are looking for.

Here’s a handy guide to the books of the Bible by genre and topic, so you can skip the begats and get straight to the good stuff — however you define it.

(Book titles everyone agrees on are in bold; apocryphal/deuterocanonical texts are in italics.)

  • The stories you think of when you think of “Bible stories”: Genesis
  • What Jesus and his friends got up to: Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Acts
  • Paul explains what to do now that you know about Jesus: Romans, 1 & 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 & 2 Thessalonians
  • Can we get advice from someone who isn’t Paul, please: Hebrews, James, 1 & 2 Peter, 1–3 John
  • Paul fanfiction, probably: 1 & 2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon
  • Bloody adventure tales: Exodus, Joshua, 1 & 2 Samuel, Jonah
  • Long lists of rules interrupted by the occasional gruesome death: Leviticus, Numbers
  • Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers, Cliffs Notes edition: Deuteronomy
  • History of Judah and Israel: 1 & 2 Kings, 1–4 Maccabees, 1 & 2 Esdras
  • Revisionist history of Judah & Israel: 1 & 2 Chronicles
  • Women are awesome, actually: Ruth, Esther, the rest of Esther, Judith, Susanna
  • Poetry: Psalms, Isaiah, Jeremiah, The Prayer of Manasseh, Psalm 151
  • Poetry, Advice Edition: Proverbs, Wisdom of Solomon, Sirach
  • All I can do these days is cry: Lamentations, Job
  • The weirder the better: Daniel, Ezekiel, Revelation, Azariah, Bel and the Dragon
  • Well-meaning advice from your drunk uncles: Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi
  • History as your drunk uncles remember it: Ezra, Nehemiah, Tobit. Baruch, The Letter of Jeremiah
  • Erotica: Song of Solomon
  • Whatever the opposite of religion is: Ecclesiastes

These categories, like everything in the Bible, aren’t cut and dried. There’s plenty of overlap among them, and a whole lot of writers borrowing from other writers. What they all have in common is an attempt to describe the divine as the writer understands it — a project that takes a lot more than 66+ books.

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