Q: I’ve never read the Bible very much, but I’d like to. What’s the best way to get started?
A: Your desire to read the Bible is a graced invitation from God! I urge you not to ignore that invitation but to start immersing yourself in the stories of the Bible today. As St. Jerome is credited with saying, “Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ.” Your study of the Bible, then, will inevitably open your mind and heart to Jesus himself. Here’s some suggestions that might help you to get the most out of your experience.
It’s always important to remember that the Bible is not so much a single book as it is a collection of books. In fact, the Greek term for the Bible is ton biblon, which really means “the books.” So the Bible is a library and needs to be approached like a library. Some books relate history while others communicate through poetry. Even the prophets used specific styles of speaking in order to get their message across.
With all these different literary genres, it is important to know something about the style of a particular writing so we don’t misread the message. Think of a newspaper: We don’t read the front-page news the same way we read the comics; nor do we read the opinion page the same way we read a recipe or the classified ads. You might want to use a study Bible that has an introductory section before each book to help you better understand the method of communication for that particular text.
Speaking of background, it’s also important to know the historical and cultural world in which the text came to life. That’s because each biblical author was trying to communicate a message to people experiencing particular situations and challenges. If we don’t understand the historical circumstances in which a biblical book was composed then we are missing half of the conversation. Remember — the Bible wasn’t born in a vacuum. To help you better understand some of the historical and cultural background to each biblical text, I would recommend using a one-volume Bible study tool like HarperCollins Study Bible or The New Interpreter’s Study Bible to help you enter more deeply into the biblical story.
In addition to the above two recommended approaches, I would also encourage you to always remember that Jesus himself is the Word of God come among us in the flesh. Jesus is the unique expression, in words and deeds, of God. For this reason, I recommend that a person read first those books of the Bible called the Gospels since they most clearly introduce us to the person of Jesus who is the revelation of the Father.
One last piece of advice would be to take time when reading a Scripture text to pray over its meaning. Ask the Holy Spirit to open your heart and mind so you can let God reveal the meaning of the text to you. It is better to read one sentence and understand it deeply and personally than to plow through a whole chapter without personal understanding and application. This process of prayerfully reading the Scriptures is called lectio divina. One very good resource I would recommend to help you experience lectio divina is entitled Too Deep for Words by Thelma Hall.
Most importantly, don’t be afraid of reading the Bible. When you have questions about particular passages, I encourage you to seek consultation with some more experienced reader to help guide your understanding. The church has been reading and praying over the Scriptures for nearly 2,000 years. There is a collective wisdom in the living tradition of our Catholic faith and I encourage you to access that sacred treasure as often as you need it.
As you begin to dive deeply into the biblical texts, remember the teaching from Hebrews 4:12–13: “The word of God is living and effective, sharper than any two-edged sword.” Also, recall 2 Timothy 3:16: “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for refutation, for correction, and for training in righteousness.” The great saints certainly experienced the sacred Scriptures in this way, and I hope you do as well.
Let me know how it goes!
Read the Spanish version of this column.
Northwest Catholic - October 2017
Daniel Mueggenborg is an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Seattle. Send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.