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How to read the Bible

Reading the Bible is much easier if you follow some simple steps and get prepared. And, as you delve into it, you might find that you are more familiar with the Bible than you expected: it crops up in everything from Shakespeare to Hollywood movies; it’s inspired musicians, historical figures and campaigners.

Read time: 4 minutes and 43 seconds

The Bible is complex. It’s not one book but a collection of 66 books, split into two sections: the Old Testament and the New Testament. All of the books are divided into chapters and verses. People often find it easier to begin at the opening of the New Testament, which starts about three-quarters of the way through.

"The Bible crops up in everything from Shakespeare to Hollywood movies."

The Gospels

The New Testament begins with four accounts of the life of Jesus Christ, the founder of Christianity, known as the Son of God. These accounts are known as the Gospels. They include eye-witness reports of what happened. Matthew and John were among Jesus’ 12 closest followers. Here you can read about what Jesus did and said – his profound teaching, how he healed people of sickness and how he challenged the authorities. The Gospels also tell us about his death by crucifixion and how he came back to life and then returned to heaven.

The first Gospel, Matthew, opens with the story of Jesus’ birth (the event which is celebrated at Christmas) and then jumps forward 30 years to when Jesus began travelling around what is now Israel and the Palestinian territories telling people about God. Starting with a Gospel introduces you to the person of Jesus and the basics of Christian belief.

Early Christian teaching

A good next step is to read some of the teaching given to the early Christian Church. Much of the New Testament is a series of letters written by early Christian leaders such as Paul. He travelled around the lands of the eastern Mediterranean, telling people about Jesus. He then wrote to newly-established churches and individuals to encourage them in their beliefs. Letters such as Philippians or Colossians are short, bite-sized letters full of advice about how to live a Christian life.

Getting to grips with the whole Bible takes some time, but it is worth the effort. In his second letter to a young leader called Timothy, Paul says the Bible is “inspired by God and useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness”.

How reading notes can help

Many people find it helpful to find a quiet and comfortable place to sit and read the Bible and make sure that they read it every day. Take time to digest what it says. You could say a quick prayer – asking God to help you understand what you are reading and its relevance to you. Another letter in the New Testament notes how the Bible can touch the very heart of the issues we all face. The letter known as Hebrews calls the Bible “the word of God” and says it is “living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart”.

There are plenty of tools around to help you read the Bible. You might like to use a daily reading plan, which gives you a structured way to navigate the Bible. These usually include portions of the Old Testament and the New Testament to read every day.

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Christianity How to read the Bible

The Psalms – ancient songs which still resonate

Many daily reading plans will also include a Psalm. The book of Psalms is in the Old Testament about half way through the Bible. The Psalms are songs – and were the hymn book of the ancient Jewish people. There are 150 Psalms. Some are very short. The Psalms cover every human emotion, so they still have an impact on modern readers. They include love, anger, joy, doubt, frustration, despair, hope and the desire for justice.

It’s also a good idea to explore different versions of the Bible. The meaning is the same, but some versions use more contemporary language. It is important to find one that works for you. Many Bibles include side notes or commentaries which explain what is being said and give helpful background information.

Bible notes will help as you begin to explore the complexities of the Old Testament. Much of it is the extraordinary story of Jewish people over about 1,500 years. Some of the events and characters are well-known in modern culture: Moses leading the Jews’ escape from slavery in Egypt; Joseph and his multi-coloured coat abandoned by his brothers; Noah and the flood; Abraham - a key figure for Jews, Christians and Muslims; King David, who ruled Israel and wrote many of the Psalms.

Jesus Christ often referred to Old Testament writings in his teaching, so it is important to understand them so that you can understand what he was saying.

Academics continue to study the Bible and wrestle with the meaning of some passages. They analyse historical documents, read the original translations and consider the context in which the books were written – the culture and the politics. This is important because it uncovers aspects and subtleties that may not be immediately obvious. Academics interpret some parts of the Bible slightly differently.

It is not necessary to be a scholar to enjoy and understand the Bible. Christians read and re-read it and find it life-changing and inspirational. It has insights into how to live, how to cope with difficulties and how to forgive. It explains who Jesus Christ is and shows us what God is like. Many find God speaks to them personally through what they read.

We recommend that you try to get hold of a copy of the Bible for yourself. If this is not possible, or in the meantime, you can get started by reading the Gospel of Mark here.