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The Bible is probably one of the most historically significant books for the Western civilization, so it should be a worthwhile read for many a literature geek.

In which order should it be read, then? Cover-to-cover is hardly a good order, as the New Testament is more significant for western culture and Christianity than the Old Testament (which comes first). I'm looking for the preferred order for a first-time reader.

For reference, the books of the Bible are listed on Wikipedia. Answerers may assume a Protestant Bible, but ones based on others with two testaments are welcome, too.

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closed as not constructive by dancek, David Stratton, Pavel, Caleb Dec 8 '12 at 14:38

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Not an answer - The Book of God by Walter Wangerin Jr. is a novelization of much of the Bible and roughly chronological. Quite an interesting read. –  Matthew Read Aug 23 '11 at 18:16
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Please bear in mind that The translation is very important as well. Some translations are much easier than others for people with no Biblical background, e.g. NIV or particularly The Living Bible. –  Wikis Apr 27 '12 at 7:22
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There are probably as many answers as there are answerers, so I don't think this is a terribly useful question going forward. The one bit of advice I have is to read a gospel first (Mark is a good candidate since it's a short, easy read that requires little previous knowledge) since the life of Jesus is absolutely central to the Christian faith. –  Jon Ericson Dec 5 '12 at 19:04
    
I made a mess of this one @JonEricson: I closed but that locked/deleted the entire thing because it was originally a migration from Lit.SE. I have cleared that and restored everything, but I'm hesitating to close it unilaterally again even though I see your point. I think it COULD work as a subjective question ... what would it take to make it Good Subjective? –  Caleb Dec 6 '12 at 8:11
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@Caleb: Two things I can think of are specifying some sort of criteria (say, the best order for a new believer to read in order to get the core of Christian belief as soon as possible) or asking about what criteria makes sense. Peter's accepted answer gave the order a book might be read in order to follow the narrative. That's not what I read the question as asking, but maybe it can be edited to use that criteria as a way to judge the answers. (They all seem to revolve around this idea or just give reading plans.) –  Jon Ericson Dec 6 '12 at 8:35
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6 Answers 6

up vote 26 down vote accepted

Reading the Bible as a story is a good way to get a lot out of it and broaden your understanding.

The narrative books in order are:

  1. Genesis
  2. Exodus
  3. Numbers
  4. Joshua
  5. Judges
  6. 1 Samuel
  7. 2 Samuel
  8. 1 Kings
  9. 2 Kings
  10. Ezra
  11. Nehemiah
  12. 1 Maccabees
  13. Luke
  14. Acts

This is what T3 Bible timeline uses (which we used in our parish Religious Ed. teacher formation), and it was the first time I ever saw the bible as a cohesive story. Everything else is still good for teaching, refutation etc... but those 14 books have the story.

Genesis is the story of the Primordial History and the Patriarchs, Exodus - Judges is the beginning of the Mosaic law and the cohesive part of Israel. 1 Samuel - 2 Kings is Saul, David, Solomon and their awful (and occasionally good) descendents.

Ezra and Nehemiah chronicle the exile and return.

Maccabees is the story of the further persecution of the Jews a few hundred years before Christ.

Luke and Acts are the two volume set Chronicling Jesus's life and ministry and the early church.

One thing to point out which struck me as very interesting is to see the folks who show up in Luke's and Matthew's genealogies pop out at you as you work through the story of the Bible. It makes seemingly unimportant people, like Rahab and Ruth, seem much, much more important when you get to thinking about it.

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Why not 1-2 Chronicles and Esther? –  Travis Christian Aug 23 '11 at 14:43
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I'm not terribly familiar with all the ins and outs of that part of the Bible, but I thought Chronicles was mainly is a recapitulation of Samuel and Kings. Esther, however, is one of my favorite stories (and favorite veggietales) and I'd really suggest reading it too. Ruth and Daniel too. It's not my timeline and I'm not really giving my opinion about good books in the in the above post. –  Peter Turner Aug 23 '11 at 15:20
    
I'm in the same boat as @Peter: both Chronicles are more or less recaps of Samuel*+*Kings; if you're reading solely for narrative purposes, you can skip it. –  J. M. Aug 24 '11 at 5:28
    
@Peter Turner, the 1-2 Chronicles contain many kings and stories and incidents not recorded in 1 - 2 Kings –  Cryst Aug 24 '11 at 7:39
    
Ruth is sometimes thought to be an appendix to Judges and it's pretty critical for understanding both David and Jesus. Luke/Acts is an excellent suggestion for this purpose since these are as accurate histories as you will find in Roman literature. I would recommend at least the first half of Daniel, though the prophetic second half turns out to be important in Jesus' teaching. –  Jon Ericson Dec 5 '12 at 19:19
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Cover-to-cover is definitely not a good option. I would suggest starting from the New Testament first. Read the Gospel of Mark, which is the second book of the New Testament. Then, read Acts. When you've got the gist of the whole story (there is a story going on), you can either read the rest of the Gospels, or read about the very beginning, Genesis onward.

Genesis, is about the Creation, and the early beginnings of the Israel nations. Skip Leviticus, as it's all about technical stuff. Read through till Ecclesiastes, then stop. The rest are the books of prophets, and contain prophecies concerning matters of the past and the future, and you probably won't be interested in that.

If you feel like it, you could read all the other books I've left out, but the reason I've left them out is because they're more of the doctrinal sort, whereas the ones I've listed are more of the narrative type.

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Why Mark first? –  Ben Williams Aug 23 '11 at 12:24
    
Because Mark packs all of Jesus' life into sixteen short chapters, so it's full of action, and less of doctrine and beliefs –  Cryst Aug 23 '11 at 12:27
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Mark was also the first of the canonical gospels to have been written. Good advice. –  Adam Rackis Aug 23 '11 at 14:24
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I don't disagree that Mark is a good place to start or that getting a picture for the story is a good way to get rolling, but I don't think this answer does a good job of representing Christian thought on the matter of the Bible. It treats it like some novelists trilogy where some parts are better or worse than others. Leaving out sections from the list because they are doctrinal is not at all a Christian concept, and the background of OT prophecy is of the utmost importance to really make sense of the NT. –  Caleb Apr 30 '12 at 7:58
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I would actually recommend starting with the Old Testament, because it provides the background that makes the New Testament make sense. The story of Jesus, and later his apostles, traveling around preaching and doing good is certainly very significant to our culture, but it has a lot more meaning when you understand the culture that it itself is set in, and that is laid out in the Old Testament.

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I'd take a similar approach to Thursagen, with some tweaks. Start with a Gospel: I recommend Luke since he covers more of Jesus' life than Mark and is the same one who wrote Acts. Now you have the historical context of early Christianity. While you're in the New Testament, check out Romans which lays out a lot of the core beliefs and gives you a better perspective on the gospels.

Now go back to the Old Testament and learn your history. Start "in the beginning" with Genesis and Exodus, skip to Joshua (avoiding lots of dense legal material), and continue through Esther (or Job, if you feel like it). If you're really into poetry continue through Psalms and Proverbs, otherwise skip to Ecclesiastes and finish up with Lamentations and Daniel, which is a book of prophecy that also includes a good narrative. Isaiah is worth checking out too, since it's a major prophetic book that is referred to quite a bit in the New Testament. By now you have a pretty solid base of the Hebrew scriptures.

Then go back to the New Testament and read Hebrews, which puts the Gospels into more of an Old Testament perspective, and some of the other Epistles, or Revelation if you're interested in the apocalyptic writing. Finally, go back and fill in anything you missed.

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There are various ways to read the Bible. Quite a few websites provide reading plans that can help you with that. Among the best of them, I'd recommend:

There are tons of others if you just search for "Bible reading plans" on your favorite search engine!

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My advice is to not view the Bible as Testaments or sections. View it as one big thing. As far as order is concerned, I'd treat it like this:

Genesis a mythology about the beginning of time, a worldwide disaster, and the founding of a nation [think Romulus and Remus when reading about Abraham]

Exodus an escape story; the true believers of a deity are held captive by a nation and a man who don't respect the god of the slaves; therefore, the god of that nation shows his power by destroying the former slave-masters and rescuing his believers...pretty riveting

Leviticus not as literary; think of it as a rulebook given to those that god saved. basically, "I saved you from a life of slavery; now you owe me. Do this and don't do that, etc."

Numbers retells some of the Exodus story, while documenting the time Israel spent wandering in the wilderness for disobeying god already.

Deuteronomy Moses' pep talk to the Israelites before they're finally allowed in to the land that god promised them; basically reminding them of what they've been through, encouraging them to be faithful to god, and energizing them for the coming task.

Joshua continues the story, as Joshua (not Moses) takes Israel into their Promised Land. Cool stories abound, especially one about walls of a city toppling down.

Judges a book that reminds me of Seutonius' 12 Caesars, in a way...basically the judges were the men/women that god chose to govern over his people during the time of their first years in their new land. there are good ones and there are bad ones, but most of them are pretty entertaining

Skip Ruth for now.

I/II Samuel tells the story of the last judge, Samuel, and the beginning of the kings of Israel. Starts with Saul, who was a great warrior but not so holy of a man and finishes with David, who was pretty much the Odysseus/Achilles/Aeneus of Jewish culture.

I/II Kings tells the story from David to Jehoiachin, the 400 year dynasty of kings in Israel. Mostly not so good kings, and Israel gets conquered by another nation, supposedly because they fell away from god again.

Skip ahead to Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel and read those. Then go ahead and go to Hosea and read down through Malachi. Now, you have a basic chronological account of the history of Israel. Now, let's read some poetry.

Read Psalms (a huge list of poems and songs), Proverbs (a sort of Benjamin Franklin almanac of wise sayings), and Job (a sad story about how god allows those who love him to be tested, seemingly as some part of a cosmic game). Then read Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, and Esther. Next, read Daniel, Ezra, and Nehemiah. (Warning: Daniel is crazy). I'd skip the Chronicles. This is the order of the Tanakh, in case you were wondering. I think it gives the best order to read the 'Old Testament'.

Now, for the 'New Testament'. I would read Luke and then Acts (even though they're probably not by the same author, as once thought, they chronologically fit pretty well). After Acts, avoid the New Testament order and read Paul's epistles in the order he actually wrote them, rather than by size (how they're ordered now).

  • I Thessalonians
  • Galatians
  • II Thessalonians
  • I Corinthians
  • Romans
  • II Corinthians
  • Philippians
  • Colossians
  • Philemon
  • Ephesians
  • I Timothy
  • Titus
  • II Timothy

Then, go ahead and read Hebrews through Jude. Give yourself a break. Refocus. Then give Revelations a go. After all that, if you want to read the other gospels, go ahead and do so.

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Very nice answer. Re "Judges (a book that reminds me of Seutonius' 12 Caesars" - Yeah, never thought about it that way, but without the juicy parts... –  Avi Aug 23 '11 at 22:13
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