The Bible can be an intimidating book to many people, full of unfamiliar names and places, but it is full of rich history, prophecy, poetry, instruction, and truth. Christians revere the Bible as the divinely inspired word of God and claim that it provides them immense comfort, hope, conviction, and purpose. For many others, it is a book held in high respect, even those who may be unsure if it's accuracy.
If you’ve never read the Bible before, you probably have a lot of questions, and knowing where to start can be difficult. Do you start at the beginning and read from cover to cover? Do you flip it open, close your eyes, and land your finger somewhere on the page?
Whether you’re picking up a Bible for the first time out of mere curiosity, a new Christian seeking to learn more, or studying from an academic perspective, understanding the basic framework will help you navigate through this book.
The Bible is a collection of 66 individual books, penned by at least 40 human authors over a period of 1,600 years. Despite this vast span of time and people involved, the Bible is a cohesive story of God’s creation, man’s rebellion, God’s plan of forgiveness and salvation, and ultimately about God’s Son Jesus Christ. Historical records and fulfilled prophecies both attest to the accuracy of the Bible.
How is the Bible Organized?
The Bible is divided into two major sections: the Old Testament and the New Testament. Each of these two sections is further divided into books, chapters, and verses.
You may have seen or heard someone use a verse reference such as “John 3:16.” This means the verse is found in the book of John, chapter 3, verse 16. The original manuscripts did not have chapter and verse identifiers, but these were later added for the ease of referencing specific passages.
Your Bible will have a Table of Contents in the front pages listing all the individual books and on which page they can be found. Some Bibles also have side tabs along the page edges to help you easily find a particular book. If you are using an online version or phone app, finding a book will be as simple as typing in the name you are looking for or scrolling through a list.
What Is the Difference Between the Old and New Testaments?
The Old Testament was written before the birth of Jesus Christ on earth. It contains writings of the earth’s origins, history, Jewish laws, prophecy, poetry, and wisdom. Much of the Old Testament contains prophecy and foreshadowing of the coming of Jesus Christ and God’s promises and plans for His people.
The New Testament was written after the birth of Jesus Christ on earth. It contains writings of the life of Jesus, the message of God’s grace and forgiveness through Jesus, the beginning of the Christian church, instructions for the Christian church, and prophecy of the end times.
Which Translation Should I Read?
There are a number of good translations, and for the most part, you can’t go wrong. The main difference between them is the method by which they are translated. The level of readability and ease of understanding may vary, but any differences will be minor and won’t affect the overall meaning.
If you’re not sure which translation to go with, read the same passage from a few different translations and see which one you find easiest to understand. There are a number of websites available that allow you to read the Bible in different translations for free, or you can visit a Bible bookstore and compare a few translations.
Below are some good popular translations that are fairly easy to read:
- New International Version (NIV)
- New American Standard Bible (NASB)
- English Standard Version (ESV)
- New King James Version (NKJV)
If you find yourself struggling with the above suggestions, you might try a paraphrase version such as The Message. Many find a paraphrase translation useful for an easy understanding of the overall passage, though this will be a much looser translation of the original text and may not be the best version to use for more serious study.
Where Should I Start?
Two good books to start with:
- The Gospel of John
These two books will give you a better understanding of what the Bible says about who Jesus is and God’s plan of salvation.
It might seem logical to start at the beginning and read the Bible from cover to cover, and I would not discourage anyone from doing so. However, this might not be the best plan of action for someone reading the Bible for the first time. Some of the Old Testament books, while greatly beneficial from a historical perspective and a broad understanding of the role of God throughout Biblical history, can seem a bit dry and laborious to read through. Starting with a New Testament book such as John or Romans will not only be an easier read, but will likely feel more applicable to your life.
How Do I Find What the Bible Says About a Particular Subject?
You might be reading to the Bible to learn what it says about a specific topic such as marriage, tattoos, money, faith, etc. The Bible is a big book, so it would be very time consuming to start at the beginning and read all the way through for each topic you’re interested in! Fortunately there are tools that will help you with this.
A concordance is a giant index of all the words used in the Bible and where they occur. For example, you might look up the word “faith” and find all of the verses that mention the word “faith.”
Some Bibles have a limited concordance in the back pages, but if you want a comprehensive index, you will need to seek out other resources. Websites like www.biblegateway.com or www.blueletterbible.org offer a free online concordance. If you prefer a hard copy, those are also available to purchase in a Christian bookstore, or on a site like Amazon.com.
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Keep in mind that a concordance will only give references for the exact word that occurs in the text. For that reason, it’s a good idea to use a concordance for the particular Bible translation you are using, as translations may vary slightly in wording.
Another point to keep in mind is that certain modern topics can’t be researched by the exact word, as they didn’t exist when the Bible was written. For example, if you are researching what the Bible says about “abortion,” you will not find that word in a concordance. Instead you will need to look up related topics, such as “life,” “conceived,” “children,” or variations thereof and make conclusions based on the principles involved.
What If I Don’t Understand What I’m Reading?
First of all, don’t be discouraged! Scholars and theologians have been seeking to gain a thorough understanding of the Bible for as long as it’s been around! You will find some parts very straightforward and clear, but others more abstract and difficult. Pray and ask God to help you understand what you are reading, and the more you spend time in the pages of the Bible, the more you will begin to understand.
Below are some tangible resources available to add depth and insight to your reading, and to aid in basic understanding.
This might sound overly basic, but it’s actually very helpful to look up any words you don’t fully understand. You may be surprised at how the Bible comes to life, just by having a clear knowledge of the individual words.
2. Study Bible
Some Bibles come equipped with study notes in the margins that give insight into cultural and historical significances within the text that you may not otherwise be aware of. They will also break down the meaning of certain unfamiliar words and concepts. Some even offer life applications for what you are reading.
A commentary is a much more in-depth version of the study notes you might find in the margins of a study Bible. These are written by individuals who have studied a particular book of the Bible in depth and offer their insights, knowledge, and interpretation of the material. While a commentary is certainly not necessary for a basic reading of the Bible, if you are looking for a deeper study of the material, this might be a resource to look for.
4. A Church or Christian Friend
If you want someone to talk to and ask questions of as you read the Bible, consider reaching out to a local Bible teaching church and ask to join a Bible study group or to meet with a pastor. They would be more than happy to talk with you and help you learn more. You may even meet others who are just beginning to learn about the Bible and have someone go through the journey with!
The Bible doesn't have to be an intimidating book that collects dust on the shelf, and you don't need to blindly take the word of other people when they make claims, good or bad, about these writings. Use the information in this article to begin navigating the pages of this ancient text, and discover for yourself the content within!
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