How to approach reading the Bible

old Bible

When reading the Bible, many of us get bogged down.



It is a simple fact.  The Bible can be scary to approach, and it is wonderful to take it on with serious intent to learn about its content, its authors, its literary devices, its history, and so on.


The Bible is not one book.  It is many books, letters, collections of poems or sayings, short stories and much more pulled together under one cover.  This is material written in dozens of different styles, by many varied people, over hundreds of years. And it is incredibly diverse in content and style. We do not expect Shakespeare to sound like Tom Clancy, and we do not expect Maya Angelou to sound like Bob Dylan. Neither should we expect some sections of the Bible to resemble others in any way. The Bible is full of different works.  It has been edited, revised, amended, and re-organized for 2,500+ years.


Thinking about reading the Bible:

It might be useful to think about reading the Bible in a variety of ways.  Dr. Jeanne Petrolle[1] helps set this up for us:




There are examples in the Bible of:

  • poetry
  • short stories
  • letters
  • laws
  • oracles
  • royal decrees
  • historical narrative
  • religious ritual
  • genealogies
  • instructions for building  
  • parables
  • apocalypse
  • proverbial wisdom
  • love songs
  • tribal lists
  • prayers  
  • speeches
  • sermons
  • prophetic messages
  • conversations
  • exaggeration/jokes


And more.  

So you see, reading this all as if it were a novel, to be read from beginning to end, starting at the beginning of the story and ending at the end just won’t work.


Key Takeaway from an excellent Bible as Lit text:

“Reading the Bible as literature should not be uncomfortable for people who hold the religious view, although it may seem a little strange at first, and it places no demands on the many persons who, for reasons of their own, take a skeptical or noncommittal view of the Bible.  The Bible is the common heritage of us all, whatever our religious beliefs, and we should be able to study it, up to a point, without getting into religious controversy.”  The Bible as Literature: An Introduction, by Gabel, Wheeler, and York.


We are going to look at the Bible as work that was written as an expression of the writers’ faith, ideas, impressions, desire to instruct, and concerns.


Let us use an example of differing Biblical perspectives on the same basic oral tradition material:


In each of the gospels of Matthew and Luke there is a section of writing called the Sermon [on the Mount] (Matthew ) or the Sermon [on the Plain] (Luke).  These two accounts are very similar in intent, content, and setting.  The two accounts differ a bit in style, certainly, and even more in some of the wording of the content.  Any two writers writing the same basic thing will differ a bit in how they present their materials. But it is also seems pretty clear that in spite of this unified presentation of sayings and wisdom by these two authors, that these sayings were not all delivered in a group. These are, instead, in the context of the gospels, collections of important sayings and teachings of Jesus that these two authors obtained from a common source, and wanted to emphasize in their writing. But lists aren’t very interesting on their own, even if they are fairly important lists. So the authors wrote a story about a huge crowd of people all sitting at the feet of the Teacher, hearing words of wisdom.


Could it have happened just like this?  Sure.  Did it?  There is no way to know, or have any way of knowing for sure.  Does it matter if these words were preached on the plain or on a hill?  No.  Does it matter if it is a collection, and they weren’t all said at the same time?  No, once again.  The importance of these accounts is that the writers wanted to emphasize, by the context that this material was placed in, that these are very important sayings, very important words of wisdom, and that the reader should pay attention, as the listeners in the story did.  Neither of these people who wrote the gospels were likely there.  The gospels were written down 40 years after Jesus was even around!  But the writers wrote in such a way as to catch the reader’s attention, and emphasize the importance of what they had written.  And it works!  This “sermon”, in each gospel, is gorgeous–a flowing narrative of wonderful teaching that sticks with the reader.


This textbook starts by looking at the creation stories.  Some call these myths. There are two creation stories, because at least two different authors wrote about the creation. One is a liturgy, like a call and response that might happen in a church. It was probably written by a temple priest. The other is a short story, as vivid as anything written by Steinbeck or Poe. This story might have been told by a rabbi.  Editors wanted them both to be in the Bible–perhaps one to emphasize the majesty and power of the God that created everything, alone and from nothing.  Then it seems that the other account emphasizes the relationship between this God and the people God created.  These are very different reasons for these two accounts to both be in the Bible.


A careful reader might be startled by how dark some of the content is. In the Bible there are murders, rapes, many wars, a variety of terrifying events, lots of violence in general, and some peculiar ethics that none of us would live by!  Remember–this was written in a different time, in a different culture, and so try to NOT overlay modern culture onto it. Read with an ear to what each of the authors is trying to do.


  • Who wrote (or transmitted) this section?  (a scribe?  a priest?  a prophet?  a scholar?)
  • Who was it written for?  ( a specific congregation?  students? all Jews in general? a group of hidden Christians?)
  • What big point is it making?  (God created the universe?  King David was the father of the messianic family?  Christians were considered outcasts?)
  • What kind of writing is it?  (this matters–a psalm is not a family tree, nor is a parable the same thing as a letter)
  • Why is this kind of writing being used?  What does it accomplish?  What is it used for?  ( you don’t usually sing a sermon, and you don’t really pray a genealogy)
  • When was it written?  (During the reign of a king, to please him? During the persecution of the Christians?  In exile, far away from Jerusalem?)
  • Why would this be in the Bible? (If you were the editors, who were generally powerful rabbis or key church leaders, why would you pick this to be included as holy scripture?)


If you can answer these, you will have a really solid grasp on some context of what you will be reading in any given section. 

So–a few hints to help you read:

  • Use a study Bible translation, not a paraphrase.  A paraphrase is written with a specific slant, and will not always be accurate to the original wording of the written words that you are reading in English, which were originally written either in Hebrew or Greek.
  • Find a good Bible dictionary.  Sometimes a word will not be one that you know. Context matters, and so does an accurate definition.  Don’t be ashamed if you don’t know a word, and don’t guess what it means.  Just look it up!  We do this all our life.  It’s great.  There may even be a glossary in your version of the Bible.  Use it. This text has a few glossary words, too.  They will be underlined like this:  Tanakh
  • Read with some kind of highlighter or pencil.  Bibles should be written in, commented on, and underlined.
  • Read the footnotes in the Bible you have.  They are usually great, and a huge asset for your understanding.
  • Always read the introductory page or so before a new book in the Bible if your Bible has this. This will give you  some important historic and literary context, and answer some of those previous questions from above.
  • Read things more than once, or even read them out loud.  Both help comprehension.  Audio versions can be a ton of help in comprehension.
  • Check out maps in the Bible.  It is surprising what they have available to help you get a handle on what is going on.
  • Read any articles your Bible might have.  Some amazing work is in those!


Key Information

You will see that the text uses BCE to refer to the period before 0 and CE to refer to the period after 0; the Common Era and Before the Common Era.  These letters correspond to what you know as BC, Before Christ, and Anno Domini, AD, the year of our Lord. BCE and CE are a non-Christian-centric way of dating and in a lot of your secondary readings you’ll see it, too, so you should get used to it: BCE and CE, Before the Common Era and the Common Era.


Think of a mathematical timeline with negative and positive numbers:

BC/BCE (the bigger the date, the older the year, the longer ago it is)

AD/CE (the bigger the date, the more recent the year)

←-1000 BCE————500 BCE———–0————500 CE———-1000 CE→

There is no
such thing
as the year 0



  1. Jeanne Petrolle holds a Ph.D. in Literature from the University of Illinois. She is the author of Religion without Belief: Contemporary Allegory and the Search for Postmodern Faith and Dancing with Ophelia: Reconnecting Madness, Creativity, and Love. She has published essays about literature, religion, and culture in Journal of Modern Greek Studies, Film Quarterly, Image: A Journal of Art and Religion, Issues in Integrative Studies, and Hektoen International Journal. She lives with her husband and son in the Chicago area, and escapes to a farm in Connecticut whenever she can, for retreats from city life.


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Reading the Bible as Literature: a Journey Copyright © 2022 by Jody L Ondich is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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