I’ve written several times over the past couple years of blogging about ways that Christians can, should, and/or do read the Bible. But lately I’ve been reminded of the reality that there are Christians who’ve never read much of the Bible at all, as well as non-Christians who are interested in taking a look at this book we keep going on about.
For those who have never read much of the Christian Bible before, but want to get through the whole thing, it often seems logical to read it straight through from cover to cover as its contents are arranged. And although the arrangement of the Bible does have a consistent internal logic, it must be understood that the Bible is an anthology of writings from various authors in various points in history, and not all of it is arranged chronologically, and many of its individual books overlap, telling the same stories from multiple perspectives.
As such, to maximize comprehension of the overall message of the Bible, it can be helpful to read through its constituent books in a different order than they are presented. Additionally, many “read the Bible in a year” plans already exist for the benefit of practicing Christians who are pursuing the discipline of reading the Bible on a daily basis. Instead, this is an approach for the non-Christian or new Christian who wants to read what’s in the Bible in such a way that its contents are more comprehensible.
The following order of reading the books of the Bible is broken into 16 groupings, each providing a different literary genre or theological purpose.
Part 1 is the book of Mark. It is one of the of the four Gospel books (so-named because they directly tell relate the Gospel: the story of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus). It is also the shortest of the four, giving a fast-paced crash course in who Jesus is and what he has done, which is the center of the Christian faith.
Part 2 contains the books of Genesis and John. Both are books about beginnings. Genesis is about the creation of the universe and the earliest history of God’s people. John is another one of the Gospel books, which takes a particular focus on the eternal existence of Jesus as the Son of God, and opens in much the same way as the book of Genesis.
#2 Genesis, #3 John
Part 3 goes back to the “Books of Moses,” which includes the book of Genesis. These books chronicle the formative events of the Israelite people and the covenant and law that God gave them.
#4 Exodus, #5 Leviticus, #6 Numbers, #7 Deuteronomy
Part 4 is the book of Galatians, a letter written by an early Christian leader, St. Paul. This book has a particular focus on the contrast between the law of the old Israel and the freedom afforded by the Gospel, thus helping the reader understand the purpose and usage of the Books of Moses in Christianity.
Part 5 contains a long stretch of historical writings. The books from Joshua through 2 Kings relate the rise and fall of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah. The book of Luke (another Gospel book) relates the rise and fall and resurrection of Christ, and the book of Acts relates the rise of the Church thereafter. Luke and Acts share a common author, and thus form a sequential pairing of writings.
#9 Joshua, #10 Judges, #11 Ruth, #12 1 Samuel, #13 2 Samuel, #14 1 Kings, #15 2 Kings
#16 Luke, #17 Acts
Part 6 focuses on the interrelations of the Hebrew Old Testament and the Christian New Testament. Isaiah is one of the most richly prophetic books pointing ahead to Jesus, and Matthew is the Gospel book most attentive to pointing back to earlier prophecies that were being fulfilled in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
#18 Isaiah, #19 Matthew
Part 7 turns to three of the major documents of Christian theology. The book of James has a no-nonsense approach to Christian ethics. Romans is often considered the most comprehensive treatise on salvation in the Bible. Hebrews is arguably the most insightful examination of the Jewish roots of Christian doctrine and practice.
#20 James, #21 Romans, #22 Hebrews
Part 8 is a collection of shorter letters written by early Christian leaders St. Peter, St. Jude, and St. John. They are often referred to as “general epistles” because they are letters written to large groups of people, rather than to a specific individual or local church.
#23 1 Peter, #24 2 Peter, #25 Jude, #26 1 John, #27 2 John, #28 3 John
Part 9 steps away to the books of Psalms, which is itself an anthology of 150 songs and prayers written over a period of hundreds of years of Israelite history.
Part 10 gathers up the remaining letters written by St. Paul written to churches and individuals in various locations. Many of them deal with local questions and issues from which all Christians can learn important lessons of doctrine and practice. They are listed here in chronological order: Thessalonians and Corinthians were written early in Paul’s ministry, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon were written during his years of imprisonment, and Timothy and Titus were written towards the end of his life.
#30 1 Thessalonians, #31 2 Thessalonians, #32 1 Corinthians, #33 2 Corinthians,
#34 Ephesians, #35 Philippians, #36 Colossians, #37 Philemon,
#38 1 Timothy, #39 2 Timothy, #40 Titus
Part 11 gathers up the writings of two of the major prophets: Jeremiah and Daniel. Jeremiah was a prophet during the fall of the kingdom of Judah, writing the book of Lamentations upon the destruction of Jerusalem. Daniel was a prophet while God’s people were living in exile in foreign lands.
#41 Jeremiah, #42 Lamentations, #43 Daniel
Part 12 takes the twelve minor prophets (so-called simply because their books are shorter) and presents them in chronological order. Jonah, Amos, and Hosea were prophets in the kingdom of Israel. Obadiah, Joel, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, and Zephaniah were prophets in the kingdom of Judah. Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi were prophets after the Hebrew captives were allowed to return home and rebuild Jerusalem.
#44 Jonah, #45 Amos, #46 Hosea,
#47 Obadiah, #48 Joel, #49 Micah, #50 Nahum, #51 Habakkuk, #52 Zephaniah,
#53 Haggai, #54 Zechariah, #55 Malachi
Part 13 turns to a special type of prophetic writing called “apocalyptic literature.” This type of prophecy is focused on the unveiling (literally, revelation) of God to the world in a complete and final manner. As such, these two books, Ezekiel and Revelation, are heavily symbolic in their content, and extremely vivid in their imagery. Without familiarity with the majority of the Bible already in place, these two books are very difficult to make proper sense of.
#56 Ezekiel, #57 Revelation
Part 14 takes a break from the prophetic and turns to the practical: these books all focus on wisdom literature. Proverbs is “prudential” wisdom, essentially a collection of godly advice for holy living. Job and Ecclesiastes are “speculative” wisdom books, tackling some of the heaviest questions of life, the universe, and everything. The Song of Songs, finally, is a celebration of love. While focusing primarily on the beauty of marital love, both ancient Israelites and Christians have seen an additional layer of meaning: the love God has for his people.
#58 Proverbs, #59 Job, #60 Ecclesiastes, #61 Song of Songs
Part 15 Turns to one last run through historical writings in two slightly overlapping parts. The Chronicles re-tell much of the story of 2 Samuel and 1 & 2 Kings with a slightly different emphasis. Ezra and Nehemiah tell the story of the Israelites who returned home when their exile was over, and Esther is the story of some Israelites who remained in foreign lands. Then, Baruch goes back to the early days of the exile. Tobit and Judith are stories from the exile years, and the books of Maccabees are parallel histories of the Hebrew people dealing with the Greek Empire. Starting with Baruch, all of these remaining books are found only in the Greek translation of the Old Testament, and not the Hebrew.
#62 1 Chronicles, #63 2 Chronicles, #64 Ezra, #65 Nehemiah, #66 Esther,
#67 Baruch, #68 Tobit, #69 Judith, #70 1 Maccabees, #71 2 Maccabees
Part 16, finally, consists of two more books of wisdom literature not found in the Hebrew Old Testament, but only in the Greek. They reflect Jewish thought in the final couple centuries before Christ.
#72 Wisdom, #73 Sirach
A downloadable version of this article is here: Bible 1st Read