Let’s face it: The Bible can be boring. Compared to the latest 3-D Hollywood action films, or even your run-of-the-mill bodice-ripper novel, it can seem dull. The language is archaic… the settings alien and rural… and the entire worldview so strange and different from our own that it takes a positive effort of will to even grasp what is being said. Also, we’ve heard most of the stories a thousand times, at least those of us who go to church or synagogue regularly. Familiarity breeds contempt, as Shakespeare said. We all think we know more about the Bible than we actually do.
Nevertheless, the Bible is worth learning about and even studying in depth. On just the most basic level, it is the foundation of western civilization and has shaped most of the institutions and ideas we take for granted – from the development of modern science to constitutional government. That is why even belligerent atheists like the late Christopher Hitchens lament the wholesale biblical illiteracy of contemporary students. We need to study the Bible for the same reason we should study the U.S. Constitution: Because both created the societies in which we now live.
In addition, for believers the Bible is the inspired Word of God. It is the revelation of who and what God is… and what God wants and expects of us. Granted, the Bible can seem like a confusing jumble, not a straight-forward philosophical tract. But at the simplest level the Bible contains our record of Jesus Christ – his sayings, deeds and teachings. As St. Jerome put it, ignorance of scripture is ignorance of Christ. So, if you call yourself a Christian and believe (in whatever way) that Jesus truly is the way, the truth and the life, at some point you have to make your peace with the Bible.
Here are a few tips and Christ gift suggestions for how to do that.
1. Get a good introduction to the Bible. The fact is, before you approach a forbidding continent like the Bible, it’s a good idea to get the lay of the land. You need an introduction to the whole, an overview, a sense of where to place the Biblical texts in history. Any good college or seminary intro course would do… or even one offered by your local church. I personally would prefer a more academic class and I would avoid a fundamentalist approach that tries to prove the Bible is a scientific textbook. But basically, you just need a good overview – what the basic divisions of the Bible are, where and when the individual books were written, the historical context of the various books, and so on. For the Old Testament, I recommend An Introduction to the Old Testament by Temper Longman III and Raymond Dillard. They provide solid overviews of both traditional Christian interpretations and more recent critical analyses. For the New Testament, I like Luke Timothy Johnson’s The Writings of the New Testament or Raymond Brown’s An Introduction to the New Testament.
2. Try to get a sense of Biblical times. For this, I recommend historical novels about Bible times. When I was young, I read a cheesy historical novel by a writer named Frank Yerby called Judas, My Brother, set in the time of Christ. Now I would recommend other, better novels – for example, Sigmund Brouwer and Hank Hanegraaff’s The Last Disciple series, Thomas Costain’s classic The Silver Chalice, Taylor Caldwell’s Dear and Glorious Physician or Sholem Asch’s Nazarene. These novels sparked my curiosity about the life and times of Christ, and I turned to books such as Henri Daniel-Rops’s Daily Life in the Time of Jesus. I quickly became fascinated by the details in the Gospels: what exactly is a denarius, for example, and how many Roman soldiers were stationed in Jerusalem when Jesus was executed? Now, there are more up-to-date works available, such as archaeologist Jodi Magness’s Stone and Dung, Oil and Spit: Jewish Daily Life in the Time of Jesus.
3. Watch Biblical movies. For the same reason, I heartily recommend movies about the Bible. Yes, most are pretty bad (the recent Exodus and Noah come to mind) but they can still hold your attention and, better yet, lead you to check the original sources. In recent years, there have been a whole slew of pretty good Old Testament films, starring major Hollywood stars, about such figures as Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Moses and the Exodus, King David and so on. There are also many films about the life of Christ. I once sat down and watched them all for a “round-up” article on Bible movies. Almost all of them are worth watching, from Ben-Hur and King of Kings up to and including Jesus of Nazareth, Jesus Christ Superstar, The Last Temptation of Christ and Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. I particularly like the recent film about Jesus’ birth, The Nativity Story, starring the haunting Maori actress Keisha Castle-Hughes. Again, these films might spark your curiosity and lead you to deeper study. For example, in Mel Gibson’s film, Pilate addresses Jesus in Aramaic and Jesus responds in Latin: What languages did they speak at the time? Would Pilate, as governor, known any Aramaic? Perhaps.
4. Get a good contemporary translation. The Bible seems dull because we’ve heard small parts of it over and over, and in the exact same words. We need to shake things up a bit. As a result, it’s a good idea to hear the Biblical stories as if for the first time – and a good contemporary translation, such as Eugene Patterson’s The Message, can do that for us. They’re shockingly different. The truth is, the New Testament at least is written in colloquial Greek – so-called koine or common Greek, the language of the people. It is about as far from elegant King James English as you can possibly get. The apostles were fisherman. Paul was a tent maker. Although they sometimes employed professional scribes to write for them, the New Testament writers wrote for ordinary people in very ordinary, very casual language. Using a more contemporary translation for our first forays into the Bible can helped relieve some of the tedium and make the texts come alive more. I personally like the Catholic New American Standard Revised Edition ($25.32) because it is moderate in its use of inclusive language and because it keeps most of the semiticisms (Aramaic words) that are stripped out of almost all modern translations. Next to the NABRE, I like the English Standard Version (ESV) because it is very literal.
5. Buy a large print edition, preferably in a single column. This is a tactic I’ve just adopted lately as I’ve grown older. But just as a fresh translation can reawaken us to the riches of the text, so, too, can a new format. Increasingly, publishers are putting out editions of the Bible that look less and less like “the Bible” and more like any other book. For example, many are publishing large print editions (from 12 to 18 point) but also single-column editions. I recently bought Zondervan’s NIV Giant Print Compact Bible ($16.99) and I love it. It’s in 16-point type in a single column and reads like a novel. (Unfortunately, I can’t find an NABRE or ESV edition like this.) For kids, teenagers and adults, I recommend Doug Mauss and Sergio Cariello’s The Action Bible – a remarkably well-done retelling of the entire Bible in full-color comic book form. My kids actually read this cover to cover… and sometimes shock me with their knowledge of Biblical incidents and battles I know nothing about.
6. Listen to Hebrew music. This is an old trick of mine. Whenever I study texts from a strange time period utterly distinct from my own, whether it’s Plato or Shakespeare or James Joyce, I like to track down the music from the period. It helps give you an emotional sense of the culture. The Bible is a chronicle of an ancient desert people in a strange land utterly unlike our own. It has much more in common with Islam than it does with, say, suburban mall culture in the United States. As a result, we need all the help we can get — and Hebrew music can aid in this. Most people don’t realize this but the ancient Hebrew biblical texts are actually musical scores and, like many ancient religious texts, were meant to be sung. You can listen either to the haunting melodies of Jewish synagogue music or, what I prefer, more contemporary Messianic Jewish music sung in Hebrew by Israelis, such as the group and CD Adonai.
7. Rediscover who Jesus was and is. This is a shameless plug for my own recent book, Searching for Jesus: New Discoveries in the Quest for Jesus of Nazareth-And How They Confirm the Gospel Accounts. In essence, my book is about how many of the things you’ve heard “scholars” say about Jesus and the Gospels – in the media or in books — may turn out to be wrong. In just the last few years, there have been numerous archaeological and textual discoveries that are overturning more than 200 years of scholarly skepticism towards the New Testament. Many top secular scholars now reject many of these older ideas – such the idea that much of the New Testament was made up by the early church. Increasingly, scholars are discovering evidence that the Gospels are based on eyewitness testimony and written sources – and that some of the sources may have been written down when Jesus was still preaching in Galilee. This would be the perfect Christmas present for anyone interested in Jesus, the New Testament or early Christianity.