8 Tips for Reading the Bible (Smartly)

Andrew Springer
12 min readFeb 11, 2024
Stock photo: Dariusz Sankowski/Unsplash

When people find out that I’m a long-time student of the academic study of religion, I tend to get a lot of questions about the Bible. For being such a ubiquitous object in our lives — personally and culturally, materially and spiritually — there’s nothing else quite like it.

What’s frustrating is how many Christians misuse or misunderstand the Bible. They adopt a simple-minded “plain text” reading, blithely accepting lies that have been disproven long ago (e.g. no, Moses did not write its first five books [1]), confusing ignorance for faithfulness.

When we understand the Bible and its writings in context, we get a much fuller picture of our humanity, our struggle to understand our place in the world, and our relationship to both our creator and Jesus. We also start to see just how universal this struggle is: it spans time and space, perplexing generation after generation.

To help you do that, for this week’s note I came up with eight tips for reading the Bible (smartly). My hope is that they help you reach a deeper understanding of the text, ultimately bringing us closer to God and each other — because that’s the whole point, right?

1. Understand that the Bible isn’t a single book — it’s a collection of writings.

Despite propagandic efforts to make you think that the “good book” is one book with one story and one point, the truth is — it’s not. Our English word for Bible is actually based on the Greek word biblía (βιβλία) which means “books.” Each of the writings contained in the Bible are separate writings, from separate times, with separate intended audiences, with differing intended effects. And sometimes those writings are further divided: for example, scholars believe the book of Isaiah is not one book, but at least two (possibly three), while it’s generally accepted that 2 Corinthians is a composite of several of Paul’s letters (maybe three, possibly seven). [2]

2. Know that there isn’t even one set “Bible.”

When we speak of the Bible, which Bible are we talking about? Of course there are many translations of the Bible, because it’s written in Hebrew and Greek (with a few, small parts in Aramaic). But there are differences between Protestants, Catholics, other Christians, not to mention Jews, as to which books are considered holy and what order they come in.

For example, since the Reformation, (most) Protestants have rejected a handful of books called the Apocrypha that are considered part of the canon by Roman Catholics. These books were accepted by the early church because they were part of the Greek version of the Hebrew Bible, the Septuagint, but were later taken out of the Jewish canon by non-Greek Jews. As such, Martin Luther placed them as an appendix to his own Bible. In response, Catholics confirmed their status as holy at the Council of Trent in 1548, while Puritans rejected them completely in the Westminster Confession of 1646. [3]

And needless to say, the Hebrew Bible lacks the Christian New Testament, but that’s not the only difference between the two religions’ holy scriptures. Books in the Jewish canon are arranged differently than in the Christian Old Testament. For instance, in Protestant and Catholic Bibles, Malachi and some other “minor” prophets come last in the first testament, as they are generally interpreted as pointing toward the messiahship of Jesus. In the Hebrew Bible, however, they are lumped together as one writing, שנים עשר, “the twelve,” and come before the Psalms. [4]

Just a few of the Bibles I keep handy at my desk.

As such, there’s no one Bible.

3. Know that these writings weren’t written for you.

Every person who wrote something that we read in the Bible had an original, intended audience, and that intended audience was not you. Admittedly, some of the writings were intended for perhaps several generations (like the Torah, the first five books of the Bible, and maybe the Gospels), but it’s highly doubtful that any of the authors or composers could have imagined that we would be reading their words some two or three thousand years later. Nor could they even possibly imagine what our world would be like. Can you try guessing right now, with any probability, what human life will be like some two or three thousand years in the future?

For example, the authors/composers of the Torah (better called composers, because scholars believe they took several traditions and wove them all together) were writing to a small, obscure group of people in the highlands of ancient Palestine. [5] The Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts were written for someone whom the author labeled as “theophilus” (Θεόφιλε), which literally means “friend of God.” [6] Meanwhile, Paul, who authored a good chunk of the rest of the New Testament, was writing to early, individual groups of Christians in modern day Turkey and Rome.

None of these people were writing to you, in the 21st century United States.

4. As such, we need to read the Bible three dimensionally.

With that in mind, to understand the Bible in context, we have to read three dimensionally. To do that, we must understand that when we read and study it, we’re actually encountering three distinct worlds: the world that’s written in the text, the world that produced the text, and the world that has come after the text, i.e. the world that’s shaped our own understanding of the text. In scholarly terms, this would be literary criticism, historical criticism, and reception history.

For example, when we read the story of King David in 1 Samuel, a vast, rich world is present in the text that can be analyzed for content, style, word choice, poetry, characters, motifs, etc. But if we are to fully understand the importance of King David, we need to understand that the account presented in 1 Samuel was written as much as 500 years after he actually ruled, when the Israelites had returned from exile. As such, this story was meant to have a binding effect on the people who heard it: we share this great, common history. To be ignorant of that is to reduce David to a Sunday school cartoon character, robbing us of seeing the struggle of an ancient people yearning to find their place in a cruel, hard world while remaining faithful to their God. [7]

A great example that shows how the world after a text affects our understanding of it is perhaps the writings of Paul. From the second century up through the 20th, most Christians read Paul’s writings as a complete break with Judaism. Paul seemingly declares the law of the Torah moot with the coming of Christ, like in Romans 1:17, where he writes, “For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The one who is righteous will live by faith.’”

Only — this isn’t a “plain text” reading of a very complicated theological treatise. It’s Martin Luther’s reading of a very complicated theological treatise. For him, faith in Jesus as our savior was the whole point of Christianity. [8] If you grew up Protestant or in a Protestant dominated-society like the United States, this is the world you bring with you when you read Paul’s letter to the Romans.

However, the trend among scholars in the last forty or so years is to think of Paul in his Jewish context. Here was a man who was not at all renouncing his Judaism; nor was that Judaism overly legalistic. The dominant thought within Judaism in Paul’s time, commonly called Second Temple Judaism, was not that a person found God’s grace (i.e. ‘was justified’ or ‘found righteous’) by observing the laws of the Torah. A Jew already had grace/was justified simply by being ethnically Jewish. To suggest Paul was renouncing the law in favor of Christ is absurd, at least to some very smart scholars. Their message: read Paul as a first-century Jew who never gave up his Judaism. [9]

What then does it mean for our faith — our faithfulness to God — if we read Paul as a devout Jew who was also the foremost apostle of Jesus Christ? I hope this illuminates how much depth and richness the Bible can hold when we read it three dimensionally, always challenging the narratives and assumptions we bring to the table in our study.

5. Don’t start at the beginning.

My first piece of practical advice about reading the Bible is that you shouldn’t feel the need to start at the very beginning. Genesis is an overwhelming book that is so familiar yet at the same time, when we read it three dimensionally, so foreign to us. It’s a lot to bite off all at once, and you shouldn’t feel the need to start right there.

Because this book is actually a collection of stories (see point #1), you don’t need to read them in the order presented. If you’re just diving into the Bible for the first time, or coming back to it, I suggest you start with something easy. In the Hebrew Bible I would recommend either the folk story of Ruth or the folk story of Jonah. In the New Testament, the Gospels of Mark and Luke are fun and engaging places to start. Or if you’re eager for some Paul I’d suggest his letter to Galatians. All five of these are easy reads (and if you can, best read in one sitting) and great places to get your toes wet thinking about the three worlds of Biblical texts.

Don’t do what this person is doing. Don’t start with Genesis. Stock photo: Nathan Dumlao/Unsplash

6. Don’t be afraid to skip around.

Let me put this clearly and succinctly: there is a lot of boring sh*t in the Bible. That doesn’t mean things don’t (or didn’t) have meaning for the intended audiences (or yourself, if your tradition reads it that way). But again, just as you can read things out of order, you don’t need to read everything that’s written down.

For example, the entire second half of Exodus, with its detailed description of the tabernacle and its construction, is mind-numbingly boring. (Seriously — out of 40 chapters, the description starts at chapter 25 and continues to the end of the book.) Similarly, the genealogical accounts of Jesus in Matthew and Luke are boring as hell. Both have theological meaning and significance to the original authors, but best skipped if you’re proceeding without a guide (such as a Bible study group, a teacher, or a good annotated Bible, see below).

Similarly, skip the hard stuff — at least at the start. Isaiah is long and difficult to read without a guide; so too is Paul’s aforementioned letter to the Romans. And don’t even get me started on Revelation. Know that these aren’t going anywhere and you can come back to them when you feel more ready to tackle them.

7. Don’t use the King James Version.

If I have one pet peeve about conservative Bible readers (you know, beside the misogyny and patriarchy and homophobia) it would be their ignorant refusal to read anything but the King James version of the Bible. Let me tell you right now: if you start with the KJV, unless you really have a passion for deciphering old English, you’re going to hate reading the Bible.

The first reason for ditching the KJV is practical: it’s just crazy hard to read, let alone understand. That’s not to say there isn’t beauty in it, but man, it’s just a pain in the ass to translate. I guarantee you’ll be missing the authors’ true intentions if you’re constantly translating all the ‘thee’s’ and ‘thou’s’ in your head.

The second reason is more academic. The King James Version of the Bible was originally published in 1611 and there have been several significant discoveries since then that have influenced newer translations and thus our understanding of the Bible. The most notable of these discoveries are The Nag Hammadi Library, discovered in Egypt in 1945, and the Dead Sea Scrolls, discovered in a cave in Israel in the 50s and 60s.

Instead, use a modern English translation of the Bible. Two types of translations I would recommend are a word-for-word translation (like the New Revised Standard Version, the NRSV) or a thought-for-thought translation (like the New International Version, the NIV). Know that a thought-for-thought translation will be easier to read but come with tradeoffs. The “thoughts” will be significantly shaped by how the translator interprets the text. Remember that translation is not a neutral act. The NIV, for instance, was commissioned by evangelical churches in the 80s and tends to reflect conservative Protestant theology. [10]

8. Read an introduction to the text before you start reading.

Don’t think of the Bible as a novel that needs to be read without any introduction. Diving headfirst into a book of the Bible without any preparation — especially if you’re using a word-for-word translation, or starting a difficult book — is like diving into ice cold water. You’ll jump out real fast. It’s very, very helpful to start with some basic knowledge.

Essentially, what’s helpful to know before you start reading are authorship (who scholars think wrote or composed the text), a brief sketch of the time and place the text was produced, any notes on its literary history (i.e., how the text came together in its present shape), and an overview of the text’s structure (a roadmap that’s particularly helpful when reading a longer text that can’t be read in one sitting).

Pro tip: I’ve actually found the Wikipedia pages for books of the Bible to be pretty accurate and helpful places to start. There’s a lot of conservative propaganda about the Bible out there that does not reflect modern, academic scholarship (seriously Fundamentalists and Pentecostals are like SEO experts), but thankfully, the army of nerds who police Wikipedia edits do a great job of keeping the Protestant hoards at bay.

For more advanced readers, I would suggest buying a copy of a good annotated Bible. The two go-twos for academic students of religion and seminarians are the New Oxford Annotated Bible (5th edition) and the HarperCollins Study Bible. For the Hebrew Bible, the Jewish Publication Society’s Jewish Study Bible is also an excellent resource. All three include extensive introductory remarks and footnotes. These are often my first stop when a passage leaves me perplexed before I dive into more advanced commentaries.

I probably could go on and on with more advice and thoughts, just as I’m sure any Biblical scholar could. My final piece of advice is this: the more you put into reading the Bible, the more you will get out of it. If you’re doing it right, you’ll be challenged and upset, but you may also be inspired and in awe of the ancient people who gave us these texts. There’s no right way to do it, but there are certainly wrong ways (but that’s for another day haha).

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Footnotes

1. Despite the passages in the Bible that claim Moses wrote these texts, no serious scholar today believes that to be true. See this chapter from John J. Collins, Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, 3rd ed. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2018).

2. For a basic breakdown of Isaiah and its chapters, see this article from the Encyclopedia Britannica. For why scholars believe 2 Corinthians is a composite of several of Paul’s letters, see this introduction from New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman.

3. Gordon Campbell, “Apocrypha,” The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, edited by Andrew Louth, 4th ed., vol. 1 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2022), 97–98.

4. For a good breakdown of the books of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament and how they are arranged differently for Jews, Orthodox, Catholics and Protestants, see this from Catholic-Resources.org.

5. This is called the Documentary Hypothesis.

6. Luke 1:3, Acts 1:1. Strongs Concordance 2321.

7. Steven L. McKenzie, “1 Samuel.” The New Oxford Annotated Bible, edited by Michael D. Coogan, 5th ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), 405–406. For more about David and the intended effect of his story on the newly re-settled Israelites, see Collins, Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, esp. part two. For more on reading the Bible through a literary lens, see Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative, revised ed. (New York: Basic Books, 2011).

8. Much has been written on the importance of Romans to Luther and subsequent Protestant theology. For a start, check out Luther’s own writing, specifically this preface to a commentary on Romans. Note how much of his thinking, now over 400 years old, has become our (that is, people who grew up as or around Protestants) standard thinking about the Bible and Christianity.

9. This is the so-called “New Perspective” on Paul. For an in-depth reading, see James D. G. Dunn, The New Perspective on Paul, revised ed. (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2005), and Paula Fredriksen, Paul: The Pagans’ Apostle (New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2017).

10. Here’s one internet commentor’s take on the conservative slant of the NIV. Also, here a conservative-leaning guide to Bible translations. You’ll notice the academically-favored NRSV is not on the list.

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Andrew Springer

Emmy winning journalist, producer and entrepreneur. Co-founder of NOTICE News, follower of Jesus. 🏳️‍🌈🌹 Weekly newsletter: https://bit.ly/jesusmovementemail