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Against "Cover-to-Cover" Bible Reading

It is common for new Christians, or newly serious Christians, who want to deepen their relationship with scripture to set out to “read the whole Bible cover-to-cover.” This practice, while well-intentioned, can lead to one of two problems.


First, many Christians make it through the exciting, narrative story of Genesis and Exodus before losing interest somewhere in the legal sections of the Pentateuch.


This is unsurprising. As a lawyer familiar with legal treatises and codes, I can tell you that even the best jurist usually does not intend his treatise to be a pleasant cover-to-cover reading experience even for other lawyers, let alone the lay reader. A legal treatise is designed to be consulted, not read like a novel.


Because all legal treatises are boring to read, Christians at first riveted by the generational drama of Jacob, Joseph, and Moses usually founder in discouragement when they collide with Mosaic dietary and agricultural laws. Sadly, this prevents many Christians from ever truly discovering biblical narratives that are as compelling and rich as Genesis-Exodus—including Judges and the books of Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles.


Secondly, some Christians who do succeed in making it through the Bible cover-to-cover do not seem to profit much by the experience. I’m reminded here of the Christian musician Shannon Low, who—as I recall the story, at least—publicly repudiated his faith after a skeptic directed him to read the story of Elisha killing 42 young boys in 2 Kings 2. Low recalled that he was shocked to read the story despite having previously “read the whole Bible.” “How did I miss this?,” he asked himself. I’d wager that Low was a “cover-to-cover” Bible reader.


The fundamental problem is that some Christians—informed by a naïve oversimplification of sola scriptura—implicitly assume that the various books of the Bible were directly ordered by God into a coherent structure, that all components of the Bible are intended to be understood by the ordinary person with no external assistance, and that the Bible as a whole is meant to be read in a sequential narrative form.


These assumptions have no basis in the Bible itself and little basis in church history. They instead seem to reflect the creeping, unconscious influence of Islam’s theology of the Quran. Unlike Christians, Muslims have historically held that their central text was dictated verbatim by an angel and existed as a coherent, single text from eternity past.


In contrast, Christians since before the time of Jerome have understood the Bible as a library of individual books, in different genres, created in a variety of ways and in different historical circumstances. The precise scope of the canon has always been considered an appropriate subject for inspired councilor deliberation and/or scholarly debate.





To take just one dramatic illustration, consider the fact that Martin Luther was a passionate advocate for removing the book of Esther from the Bible. While most Protestants today would rightly consider Luther’s position to be bizarre and presumptuous, few Protestants would say that it amounted to a heresy—an error putting Luther outside the genuine body of Christ.


Unlike Luther, there is no book of the Bible that I would propose removing from the canon. But I do want to raise a related, if less revolutionary topic: the order in which the books in our Bibles are arranged.


If the canon has long been a subject of debate, the specific arrangement of the biblical books does not seem to have merited much attention in church history at all. While various church fathers and councils have presented the books of the biblical canon in list form, I have never seen any historical authority give any reason—whether spiritual or merely rational—that the books are in their current order. This leaves us free to consider the possibility that the order of the books in our Bibles is largely a matter of convention.


Perhaps one reason that Christians like Low can “read the whole Bible” and come away so uninformed and confused is that the narrative components of today’s Bible, including the histories and prophets, are not in any kind of chronological order. Nor are they arranged in any other order that is likely to help a first-time reader deepen his knowledge of scripture.

Take a look at the book of Hosea. In my Bible, the book begins on page 751—fairly close to the New Testament, which starts on page 807. Yet Hosea, far from being a chronologically late book, takes place during the period of the Kings and Chronicles, which together run from pages 279 to 388.


When the cover-to-cover reader begins Hosea, he will see in Hosea 1:1 that the book is set during the reign of Jeroboam II, king of Israel. An attentive reader will remember that Jeroboam II reigned over 419 pages ago in his reading.


A lot has happened in those pages. After finishing 2 Chronicles but before reaching Hosea, our reader has passed through thirteen books including Job, the Psalms, Ecclesiastes, Jeremiah, and Daniel.


If the reader desires a robust understanding of God’s Word, shouldn’t he turn back to Kings and Chronicles to revisit the period of Jeroboam II’s reign? But if the answer is yes, then why didn’t he simply read Hosea while he was reading about the time period in which Hosea lived?


There is also another, different problem. Even the dedicated reader—who might be trying to read the Bible according to a devotional calendar or other pre-determined schedule—may choose to simply “power through” Hosea despite having forgotten key events from Kings and Chronicles that could help him understand Hosea’s prophecies.


To understand how chronologically chaotic our Bibles are, let’s assign chronological numbers to various sections of the Old Testament, dividing it roughly into seven parts.


Job is probably set before many of the events of the Pentateuch—including most of Genesis—so we’ll assign Job the number 1.


This means our Bibles begin with section 2, the Pentateuch, followed by 3, the long Deuteronomistic history of Joshua through 2 Chronicles.


Next, however, we pole-vault all the way to section 6—the early postexilic books of Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther—before leaping dramatically backwards to Job and the Psalms.


Next, we proceed to section 5—a mix of late-kingdom-to-postexilic books including Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel—before taking another step backwards in time to section 4: Hosea, Amos, and Nahum, set in the pre-exilic Second Golden Age of Israel and Judah.


Finally, we jump forward again to 7, a collection of generally later postexilic books including Haggai and Zechariah.


Let’s compare this sequence to a seven-book analogy that many people are familiar with. As far as chronological narrative goes, the order in our Bibles is akin to reading the Harry Potter series in the following manner:

 

 

While I am not suggesting that the Bible must be read in chronological order—in fact, an exact chronological order is probably not what I’d suggest—I do think that our current order is too disorienting to make cover-to-cover reading a good standard practice for contemporary Christians.


Some might have the intuition that I am presumptuously rejecting the tradition of many centuries of Christians who have come before me—something I would be loathe to do. But this criticism cannot land for two reasons. 


First, historical Christians did not share the Quranic assumptions about the Bible described earlier and, accordingly, would’ve been less likely to introduce themselves to the Bible through a cover-to-cover reading than we are. Secondly, it’s important to differentiate church tradition—a body of inspired or at least considered judgments—from mere convention, which is what we appear to have in this case. For example, Christians for many centuries read the Bible in classical Latin, but that is usually understood to be a temporal convention—even by Christians who still stand squarely within the medieval theological tradition—and not something that became a permanent requirement for all Christians through centuries of practice. 


So how did the current order of our Bibles arise? Judaism has long had at least a rough idea that what is now called the Tanakh can be divided into three sections by genre: law, prophets, and writings. Our Old Testaments likewise have a multifold division of genre—albeit a different division.


The idea of a multifold division of genre existed in some form in and before the time of Jesus. There are passing references to the general idea in 2 Maccabees,—written between 104 and 63 BC—in Ben Sirach, by Jesus in Luke 24, and in Philo of Alexandria. However, these statements are vague enough, and have enough variation between them, that it doesn’t appear there was any one agreed-upon multifold genre-division in the first century—let alone any comprehensive canon order.


Christians today also do not use the same division and order as religious Jews. If you look in a contemporary Tanakh, you will see that all of the prophets are grouped together, making up one part of a tripartite division. In contrast, today’s Christian Old Testament is separated into law, prophets, other writings, and then more prophets.


This is significant for at least a couple of reasons. First, it suggests that there was likely not one agreed-upon multifold division when Christ was preaching: if there had been, the apostles would presumably have kept the conventional Jewish division and Christians would have been unlikely to have deviated from it. Secondly, the fact that today’s Jewish Tanakh and Christian Old Testament are in different orders means that the former cannot justify the order of the latter.


In summary, it is not clear how the present Christian multifold division of scripture came about, and I have seen no rationale by a church father or council for this division or order, either of genre or text. There is no reason, then, for Christians to force themselves into cover-to-cover reading. In fact, this order may be unhelpful, especially for first-time and non-scholarly readers.


In what order do I think new readers should read the Bible? While I don’t have a dogmatic position on this, I’ll help start the conversation by offering two suggestions. First: new readers should start reading the Bible by beginning with 1 Samuel.


Starting with 1 Samuel has several benefits. It will launch you directly into an extended, chronological, and dramatic narrative which Christians often miss as a result of being shipwrecked in the Pentateuch’s law codes. It will also introduce you immediately to the Davidic, messianic theological context of the New Testament and the Gospels.


Finally, you will be entering the biblical narrative during a time period in which the biblical authors are strongly corroborated by external archaeological and textual sources. This means that, when the inquisitive reader eventually reaches the Pentateuch, he will be unimpressed by the sweeping claims of skeptics that the Bible is historically unreliable or mythological.


Given the time period and context of the exodus story, it is an unsurprising and trivial fact that there is no direct extrabiblical evidence for the exodus. To cover-to-cover readers, however, it is jarring to discover that one of the first major geopolitical events they encounter is lacking in extrabiblical archaeological support. To make matters worse, many of these readers never reach the vast sections of the Old Testament which have strong external historical support—in part because they crash and burn when the narrative thread is lost in the law codes.


Secondly, Christians who are starting to study the Bible should use at least one external historical resource—even if it is just a lecture series or a podcast—to more fully understand it. Bible teacher Bruce Gore has an excellent book and lecture series that I commend to you as a starting point.


To see why external resources are so important, consider Isaiah 44:27, in which Isaiah, prophesying about Cyrus, describes God saying to Babylon: “Be dry; I will dry up your rivers.” If you treat the Bible as the Quran, and assume it is internally all-sufficient for understanding its own text, you might assume this verse is simply a generic metaphorical curse upon Babylon. It is only from the historian Herodotus that we know that, when Cyrus invaded the Babylonian Empire, he literally diverted the Diyala and Euphrates rivers to make way for his troops.


Like any other book, the texts that make up our Bible are meant to be approached with some level of knowledge of the context surrounding them. This is all the more reason why a Christian who hopes to deepen his understanding of scripture should not place his hope in the largely arbitrary, sometimes almost random approach of cover-to-cover reading. Instead, we should make sure that we are approaching the Bible in a considered manner and with the reasoned support of the other people and resources that God has also made available to help us.


Ian Huyett is a litigation attorney and a commentator on law, religion, and technology for Staseos and other outlets. You can follow him on Twitter at @IanHuyett.

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