How to Read the Bible
For whatever things were written before were written for our learning, that through patience and through encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope. Romans 15:4
I was nine years old the first time I tried to read the Bible all the way through from front to back. I got up to halfway through Exodus, which is the second book out of the 66 books of the Bible. In other words, I didn't get that far. Worse still, I only remembered a tiny amount of what I read. I was reading an old copy of a translation called The Living Bible which was very popular in the 1970s, and very easy to read (though meant for adults, not nine-year-olds).
If You're New to Reading the Bible
The Holy Bible is more like an entire library than just one book. In fact it's made up of many individual books bound together into the one volume. In the ancient past, each book was a separate document written on it's own scroll.
So the first thing to know is that you don't have to read it all the way through from front to back like an ordinary book. That would be a bit like going to the library and thinking you have to start reading from the first book on the first shelf closest to the front door... And then keep reading each book, on each shelf, in the order that the library keeps them.
Before You Start
There are a few other things that are good to know before you start reading the Bible. One is that it's an ancient document, and has been translated from the original languages into English. So the way it's written and some of the language and phrasing used can seem strange. It can take a while to get used to that, and to get the full meaning out of it. After a while you get more used to the language, and the way some words are used, and it gets a lot easier.
To help with this, there are versions of the Bible that are made to be really easy to read. The most popular example currently is called The Message Bible. However with these there's also a loss of original information, since it's just one person's idea of what the Bible says. Some people like them better than others. I like them for what they are, which is a way to get into the text easily. They're called "paraphrases" which means they're a re-write of the biblical text, as opposed to a "translation" which is much closer to the original text.
Another way to approach is to read a "study Bible" which is a copy of the Bible that's got extra study notes at the bottom of the page which explain things. There are a great many varieties of these. Some have particular themes (such as the archaeology of the Bible). Some of them have pictures and maps, which I like a lot. In some study Bibles, the study notes can be longer and take up more writing space than the Bible text itself.
And for really in-depth study, there are Bible commentaries. With many of these, a whole actual physical book (some of them quite large, and occasionally even more than one physical book per Bible book) is written that describes just one book of the Bible, verse-by-verse, and discusses it in depth. There are also commentaries that cover a few books of the Bible, or a section, or the entire Bible.
Differences in Culture
Another thing that's important to realise is that the modern world and modern culture are very different from the ancient cultures of the Bible. And many of the different ancient cultures are a lot different to each other. So if you learn about those cultures, and some of the history, it can help understand the Bible.
Just Go For It
All this isn't meant to be a discouragement, in the sense that from now on you absolutely need to spend the rest of your life studying. It's meant as a reassurance that when you start reading the Bible, it's normal for some (or a lot) of it to read strangely, and to have the feeling like you don't understand it all. That's completely fine, you can just go with it and read on...
Where to Start?
If you're new to reading the Bible, I would recommend starting with one of the "Gospels". Which are the four books that tell the story of the life of Jesus Christ. You could pick any one really. Some people say Mark and Luke are written more for non-believers, Matthew for newly converted believers and John for longer-term believers.
Mark is the shortest and has the most action. It's probably the best one to read first. Click here to start reading.
Luke is usually regarded as the only Gentile (non-Jewish) author in the entire Bible. He also wrote the Book of Acts, which tells the story of the early Christian church after Jesus is Crucified and resurrected. Click here to read Luke.
Matthew is very good reading for new believers. It's my favourite book out of the entire Bible. If I was stranded on a desert island and could only choose one book from the Bible to have with me, it would have to be Matthew. You can start reading Matthew here.
John is quite different to the other gospels. The other three have a lot of overlapping material. John is different and somewhat more abstract (with less stories given by Jesus), deeper and more "spiritual" in content. Having said that, John is still a wonderful book, and one of the most loved and most often read books in the Bible.
The book of John includes two of the most famous verses in the Bible, including the most famous of all, John 3:16.
For God so loved the world, that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life.
The other is John 14:6, which I had on one of those sliding square puzzles when I was six years old. Because of that, John 14:6 is probably the first Bible verse I knew by heart.
Jesus said to him, "I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father, except through me.
Some people do say that John is intended for non-Christians to read. (While some non-Christians and new Christians find John a bit "out there" for them). The best way to decide for yourself is to read some and see. If you really love the book of John you could certainly start reading the Bible by reading John as your first book. Click here to read John.
The Gospel of John works well as a movie. The pictures and background music help fill in and make up for the text itself not being mostly action and stories like the book of Mark. If I remember correctly (I'll check this later) this movie script is the word-for-word Good News Bible version of the Gospel of John.
Note also that there's more than one person called John, which can be confusing at first. John the Baptist (who appears at the start of this book and the book of Mark) and the Apostle John (who wrote the Gospel of John, three short letters, and the book of Revelation) are two completely different people.
How to Read the Whole Bible All the Way Through
At some point, you might want to read the Bible all the way through from front to back, in order. Perhaps you've been a Christian for years already and already know the basics quite well. Perhaps you just really need to feel like you've read everything, and haven't missed out on anything.
If you're a new Christian and really want to read the whole Bible, at least start with reading the New Testament all the way through before the Old Testament. For one thing, the New Testament is only one third as long. But mainly because it's what applies specifically to Christians. Also, the first three books (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) contain a lot of overlapping material. Much of it is nearly word for word the same. This means that if you read all three books, because of the repetition you will remember far more than if you only read something once.
One Year Bibles
There are Bibles made specially for reading over one year that can make this much easier. One example is "The Daily Bible" (edited by F. LaGard Smith), which is the New International Version (NIV) translation of the Bible. It's split up into sections for each day of the year, with the date at the start of each section, starting from January 1. Each day's reading is about six pages long and takes around half an hour. That's reading reasonably fast, too fast to really think about and understand and remember most of what you read. But fast enough to give you an overview. Perhaps also to give you the feeling like you haven't missed out on anything — except that you have really, since you can't possibly remember nor understand much of the Bible when read this way.
As a new Christian I read The Daily Bible pretty much over one year, for my new years resolution, in 2008. By "pretty much", I mean I bought it around the middle of 2004: I started reading something about a prophet called Nahum talking about a place called Nineveh. I only lasted a few weeks. The first time I read it for any continuous length of time was around 2006 or 2007, when I read all of the prophetic books section — because that's what part was labelled for the time of year it was when I decided to that. So the first part of the Bible I read all the way through (apart from Genesis and half of Exodus when I was nine) was The Prophets.
Then in 2008, I started from the beginning on the first of January. I was pretty keen. When I got up to the prophets though, I figured that since I'd already read them right through, I didn't need to read them twice and I'd be better off reading the New Testament twice instead. Conveniently, the Prophetic Books of the Old Testament and the entire New Testament are about the same length. So in the date range for the Prophets (around spring in the Southern Hemisphere) I read "The Message" paraphrase of the whole New Testament, and then I read it again in the Daily Bible when the dates caught up to the start of the New Testament.
In retrospect, I did forget most of what I read, especially from the Old Testament. Though it's there in my mind somewhere... And having read each book and chapter and verse already will help a bit to learn it when I get around to reading those verses again.
I don't really regret reading it like that — since I'm the kind of person with a need to feel like I've read it all, and haven't missed out on anything. Though I would definitely have learned more if I'd spent the same amount of time (a few hours a week) in other methods of Bible reading and Bible study. Also, I've always been attracted to the Bible, and read from it occasionally — even before I was a Christian. So in the years before I got through The Daily Bible in a year, I'd already read a fair bit of the Bible in bits and pieces. Mostly in a pretty random fashion (though focused more the New Testament).
The Bible as the Foundation of Your Whole Entire Life
Since I've started Bible College, I've thought much more about making the Bible my life. In a sense this idea is kind of obvious, it's what Christians are meant to be doing the whole time since Conversion. In another sense, it was never that obvious — and even though I've loved the Bible all my life (even my non-Christian life), I never really had the idea to try and make it into my whole life. To just live out of it. To look at it and think to myself, this is my life, I'm going to live out of this book, and only this book, as much as I can.
See also: The Holy Bible, A Bird's Eye View of the Bible, The 66 Books of the Bible