THE BLOG
01/27/2015 10:07 am ET Updated Mar 29, 2015

Getting Started With the Bible

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Every once in a while someone asks for advice: "How do I learn more about the Bible?" In church we act like the Bible is important, but few among us feel confident we understand it -- or even that we know what's in it. Here's my best shot at the question.

I'd encourage folks not to outthink themselves. Start simple. One might begin with one of the Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John. John is most commonly recommended, but I think it's more important to just pick one and go with it. If you pick Matthew, don't let the opening genealogy get you down. The story really does pick up. And as you understand the Bible, Matthew's genealogy turns out to stand among the most interesting passages in the whole thing. In any case, each Gospel tells the Jesus story in its own distinctive way. It only takes a couple of hours to read one of the Gospels, and then you can compare them with one another if you really get interested.

Alternatively, you might begin at the beginning. Read Genesis and Exodus. Like the Gospels those books are stories, and we do just great with stories. Sure, you'll run across odd names, strange customs, and unfamiliar places. That's okay. The stories here are very powerful. The biblical authors were hardly naïve: their stories raise challenging questions about God, humanity, and the world. Keep your eyes and heart open. You might surprise yourself.

Folks often ask which translation to read -- or which of the gazillion study Bibles they should purchase. Honestly, all the major translations are fairly reliable. Yes, they differ from one another in various ways -- English style, reading level and vocabulary, and sometimes ideas -- but that's just because translation is complicated. You won't go wrong if you start with the New Revised Standard Version, the New International Version, or the Common English Bible, among others. You might go to biblegateway.com and compare translations before purchasing one. In fact, if you get hooked on the Bible you'll want to compare translations anyway.

Study Bibles are trickier, a feeding frenzy for publishers. A study Bible includes introductions to each book of the Bible along with other helps: short background essays, notes accompanying the text, maps, indices, and so forth. If you're looking for a study Bible, I recommend making sure you can identify the authors who create those materials and their credentials. And I prefer teams of scholars who come from varied religious backgrounds. If forced to recommend one study Bible, I'd refer you to the New Oxford Annotated Bible, which features highly regarded scholars and no denominational agenda, but others are just as good.

As you become more familiar with the Bible you may want a little more information on some of the details. This is where a good Bible dictionary comes into play. The Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible or the HarperCollins Bible Dictionary both offer affordable and accessible information from reputable scholars. Look through one when you get the chance, and you'll be surprised. You'll find little essays devoted to each book of the Bible, key concepts, and important places and people. You'll also see good entries on a range of topics such as the Psalms, slavery, archaeology, the Holy Spirit, and Emmaus.

You will perhaps want deeper information on the biblical books or key biblical concepts. Some helpful online resources have emerged such Luther Seminary's enterthebible.org or the Society of Biblical Literature's bibleodyssey.org. But you also might enjoy deeper discussion of the biblical books, their meaning, and the history of their interpretation. The brand new Fortress Commentary on the Bible comes in two volumes, one devoted to the Old Testament and Apocrypha and one to the New Testament. A diverse team of leading interpreters walks us through each biblical book, providing a detailed overall introduction of each book followed by comments on its major sections. What's unique about this little resource is that each section discusses the ancient meaning of the text, the history of its interpretation, and its current significance.

The one thing I'd encourage you to do -- if you have the time and the commitment -- is to find one of the in-depth church-based courses that overview the Bible. If you don't have one nearby, start one! These courses are pretty serious: they require you to commit several months and to prepare for your classes. Homework! I've experienced the United Methodist Discple: Becoming Disciples through Bible Study program and seen its benefits in people's lives. One could say similar things for Kerygma's Discovering the Bible: A New Generation or (I'm told) the brand new Covenant Bible Study from Abingdon Press. The great thing about these programs is that they all happen in community -- and that's where Bible study really belongs.

Once you begin to explore the Bible, you'll likely find yourself wanting to learn more and more -- and asking increasingly challenging questions. This is the advice I'd give to someone starting on the journey.