If you feel like you would appreciate some guidance before diving into the Bible, we’ve put together a short ‘crash course’ for you. In this section, you’ll find seven key points to help you get the most out of your time with Scripture. The Bible isn’t always the easiest book to get your head around but trust us, it’s definitely worth it!
One of the most important things you can do before leafing through the Bible is to pray. The famous Bible translator St Jerome wrote that
‘we cannot come to an understanding of Scripture without the help of the Holy Spirit who inspired it.’St Jerome
Each time, before you begin, ask the Holy Spirit to help you understand the meaning of the text you have in front of you.
First of all, reading the Bible isn’t like picking up any old book. In its pages are personal messages from God for each of us. Scripture is a means by which God – if we let him – can speak to us today. When we prayerfully read Scripture, the biblical word is at work, speaking into our lives.
Many Catholics have heard the voice of God speak to them through the Bible. So powerfully did he hear from God, St Dominic used to nod, whisper, laugh and cry while meditating on Scripture. After reading Luke 4:16-19, St Vincent de Paul felt God call him to start a religious order focused on helping those in need. And St Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, a Jewish Catholic who was murdered at Auschwitz, felt God speak to her through the story of Queen Esther in the Old Testament.
By spending time with the Bible, we too can allow God to speak to us. Over time, the words we read will shape our outlook on life – for the better. As St Bernard of Clairvaux said:
‘The Word of God is a living bread, the food of the soul. Let it sink into your inmost heart and pass into your affections and way of life. Eat plentifully of it and your soul will rejoice.’
To begin with, the Bible can be a difficult book to navigate. However, there are some simple hints and tricks that will help you to get the hang of it. If you have a hard copy of the Bible at home, ordering or making some biblical index tabs will enable you to find your way around. Sticking the tabs on the first page of each book will also help you get a sense of the overall structure of Scripture as you flip through.
In terms of getting the gist of the message of the Bible as a whole, there are a number of things you can do. One way to get familiar with the key people and stories of the Old Testament, as well as their religious significance, is to read the series of useful summaries found throughout the Bible. (Nehemiah 9:5-37; Psalms 78, 105 and 106; Ecclesiasticus chapters 44-49; Acts chapter 7 and Hebrews 11:1-39). Similarly, the speeches of St Peter and St Paul - recorded in the book of Acts - will also give you the ‘headlines’ of the gospel story as well as some basic teachings (Acts 10: 34-35; 13:17-39; 17:22-31).
Some versions of the Bible also include a little introductory blurb before each book. These are definitely worth reading and will provide some basic orientation. If your copy doesn’t include these, don’t worry. The New Revised Standard Version (Catholic Edition), the Good News Bible (Catholic Edition), the Christian Community Bible (found online) and New Jerusalem Bible all present the texts in a readable format.
Although today it’s conveniently bound together in one volume, it’s important to remember that the Bible isn’t just one book. Catholics believe it’s a collection of 73 books – 46 in the Old Testament and 27 in the New. These books were written in various parts of the world, in three different languages, over the course of several thousand years. Although there is definitely an overall thread, there is also a real mix of material.
Since it’s broken down into chapters and verses, it’s easy to make the mistake of thinking of the Bible as a kind of instruction manual. Of course, Scripture contains lots of life advice, as well as many ‘dos and don’ts’ in the form of laws. However, the majority of the Bible is actually made up of other kinds of literature – stories, songs, personal reflections, histories, genealogies and so on.
In the main, Scripture tells us stories of how God has intervened in the lives of individuals, families, towns and nations. Throughout the Bible, you’ll find tales of single mums and dying dads, corrupt politicians and brave soldiers, welcome births and painful bereavements, sick kids and squabbling siblings, soulful singers and famous artists, rich landowners and penniless farmers. All of human life is there, in a series of timeless stories.
The Bible is made up of two major sections – the Old Testament and the New Testament. The Old Testament was mostly written in Hebrew and covers the life and history of the Jewish people up until the time of Christ. The New Testament, written mostly in Greek, speaks of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus and how those in the early Church were empowered to spread his teaching across the world.
Sometimes, people can find reading the Old Testament a bit of a struggle. It can feel very unfamiliar, even off-putting. However, skipping straight to the New Testament is like missing the whole first series of a TV programme. The New Testament helps us to understand the Old better, and vice versa. As the Church tells us:
‘God, the inspirer and author of both Testaments, wisely arranged that the New Testament be hidden in the Old and the Old be made manifest in the New.’ (Dei Verbum 16 – Vatican document on the Bible)
Quite often, you’ll find that the New Testament provides added meaning to the stories and sayings of the Old Testament. For example, consider the following passage from the Old Testament:
‘The young woman is with child and will give birth to a son, whom she will call Immanuel.’ (Isaiah 7:14)
While this verse may have had a particular meaning at the time of writing, the New Testament tells us that it is also a prophecy about the birth of Jesus. (Matthew 1:20-23). So if you’re a bit lost when reading the Old Testament, a good rule is to see if the New Testament can shine any light. This way of reading will help you find the thread of meaning that runs right through the Bible.
To help you further as you explore the Bible, we’ve put together this quick summary of the sub-sections of both the Old and New Testaments:
A. The Pentateuch (or ‘The Law’)
Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. These contain some of the classic stories of Scripture, about the creation of the world, the Fall of Adam and Eve, the call of Abraham and Moses leading the Israelites out of Egypt.
B. The Histories
Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings, 1 and 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Tobit, Judith, Esther, 1 and 2 Maccabees. These books tell the story of the history of Israel, including the entry to the Promised Land, the reigns of various kings, the exile to Babylon and eventual return, as well as struggles against foreign empires.
C. The Wisdom books
Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Wisdom, Ecclesiasticus (also known as Sirach). This collection of songs and proverbs contains both practical and religious wisdom.
D. The Prophets
Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Baruch, Ezekiel and Daniel as well as the Twelve Minor Prophets (Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi). The role of the prophets was to share messages from God with both people and politicians. Their challenging words were not often welcomed.
A. The Gospels
Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. The Acts of the Apostles is also included here as it’s considered to be a ‘part two’ of Luke’s gospel. Since they reveal the life and words of Jesus most directly, the Gospels are the most important part of Scripture.
B. The Epistles of St. Paul
Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon, Hebrews. St. Paul wrote these letters to Christian communities throughout the Roman Empire (such as Ephesus and Thessalonica), as well as to some individuals (Timothy, Titus and Philemon).
C. The Catholic Epistles
James, 1 and 2 Peter, 1-3 John, Jude and Revelation (the Apocalypse). They are known as the ‘Catholic’ Epistles because they were written to the wider Church rather than primarily meant for specific communities.
Sometimes, people can have questions about the truth of the Bible. Are we meant to take it literally? How does it fit with science? What are we supposed to do with ‘dark passages’ that describe violence or other kinds of disturbing behaviour? These kind of questions are important if we are to understand how the Bible relates to us today.
The Church tells us that the Bible, because God is its author, is true. Its truth, however, is expressed in a variety of ways. Some of it can indeed be taken at face value. Other parts, however, need to be understood differently. For example, Psalm 98:8 says
‘Let the rivers clap their hands, let the mountains sing together with joy’.
The Psalmist didn’t literally mean that the rivers would break into applause. He was using symbolic language, just as we might sometimes say that it is ‘raining cats and dogs’. This kind of language communicates the truth, but it would be a mistake to interpret it literally.
It’s also possible to approach the interpretation of the Bible from different angles. For example, Scripture itself tells us that some of its symbols have several meanings (Revelation 17:9-10). And St Paul tells us that some of the stories in the Old Testament actually have meaning hidden beneath the surface, in that they also tell us something about Christ or about the moral life. (1 Corinthians 9:8-10; 10:1-3). This is why the Church talks about the two ‘senses’ of Scripture – the ability to understand it both literally and spiritually. (The Catechism, 115-118).
There are many different kinds of literature in the Bible. The collection includes poems, songs, historical accounts, symbolic stories, fictional stories (e.g. the parables), letters, proverbs, genealogies and so on. To arrive at the truth, we need to appreciate what kind of literature we are reading - and interpret it appropriately.
This is especially important when we are considering questions about the relationship between science and the Bible. For example, the Church tells us that while the first chapters of Genesis (which includes the story of creation and of Adam and Eve) describe real events, they do so in symbolic language. It’s not necessary, therefore, to worry about how to ‘reconcile’ scientific findings about the origins of the universe, or evolution, with the Bible.
Finally, it’s worth remembering - especially when it comes to ‘dark passages’ in the Old Testament – that the Bible records the good, the bad and the ugly. St Paul tells us that some of the grim reading in the Old Testament is included to show us what not to do (1 Corinthians 10.6-11). Tales of murder, rape and exploitation that you may come across show us what harm and damage these actions do and their wider impacts. In this context they are as relevant today in showing us right and wrong ways to behave with each other.
To help Catholics as we read and interpret the Bible, the Church has set out three golden rules to guide us. These are:
As the Church puts it, ‘all divine Scripture speaks of Christ, and all divine Scripture is fulfilled in Christ.’ (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 134) The ultimate aim of reading the Bible is to get to know God personally. Understanding more about what God said and did – as well as how God was awaited, listened to and followed, can help us all to build a closer relationship with him and with Christ.
Scripture and Tradition go together hand in hand. The traditions of the Church, which go back to the apostles, are not just dusty old ideas from yesteryear. Rather, they are timeless truths that can shine a light on our lives today. The Holy Spirit guides the Church so that we can appreciate how the traditions of the Church – including Scripture – apply to new developments in the world. For a broader explanation of the value of reading Scripture in context, check out our article on The Big Picture.
When reading Scripture, it’s important to consider how a verse or passage relates to other parts of the Bible. Often, themes, ideas or stories are repeated elsewhere. In some versions of the Bible, you will find ‘cross -references’ in the margin. These are references to other parts of the Bible that are similar in content, or which refer to the text. Cross-references are always worth reading. They will help you to get the big picture. The online tool www.biblehub.com can help you with this if your bible doesn’t contain them.
Regular reflection on the words of the Bible is good for us
‘Engrave on your heart the commandments that I pass on to you today. Repeat them over and over to your children, speak of them when you are at home and when you travel, when you lie down and when you rise. Brand them on your hand as a sign, and keep them always before your eyes. Engrave them on your door-posts and on your city gates.’Deuteronomy 6: 6-9
Meditating on the Bible is a key to success
God told Joshua, who led Israel: ‘Constantly read the book of this law and meditate on it day and night that you may truly do what it says. So shall your plans be fulfilled and you shall succeed in everything.’Joshua 1:8
Scripture provides direction for our lives
‘Your word is a lamp to my feet, a light for my path.’Psalm 119:105
The Word of God is a real source of strength
Jesus pointed out: ‘Scripture says: One does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’Matthew 4:4
Christ is mentioned throughout Scripture
Jesus said to two of the disciples: ‘Everything written about me in the Law of Moses, in the prophets and in the psalms must be fulfilled. Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures.’Luke 24:44-45
The Bible was written to have a positive impact on us
‘And we know, that whatever was written in the past, was written for our instruction, for both perseverance and comfort, given us by the Scripture, to sustain our hope.’Romans 15:4
Scripture is inspired by God and useful for our Christian life
Besides, you have known the Scriptures from childhood; they will give you the wisdom that leads to salvation, through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is inspired by God, and is useful for teaching, refuting error, for correcting and training in Christian life.’2 Timothy 3:15-16