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The Bible can be an intimidating book to begin reading at first. An ancient collection of books with varying genres, it spans thousands of years and contains varying aims as a sacred text. Knowing what to read begins with knowing about the overall story of how the Bible fits together.

The Bible comprises 66 books, 39 in the Old Testament and 27 in the New Testament. Each book is a varied collection of experiences of humanity’s encounter with God. Some of it records who God revealed himself to be and what people did as they worked out life in light of their faith.

The Bible offers wisdom, insight, guidance, cultural experience, history, revelation and spiritual nourishment. It also tells the bigger story of God’s creation and humanity’s place.

So, should you begin at the beginning and work your way through? It might surprise you that the book is not written chronologically but in collections of topical categories. For instance, the first five books of the Bible are Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. These are known as ‘The Law’, or ‘The Pentateuch’ meaning 5 law books or ‘The Torah’, Hebrew for ‘Law’ or ‘Instruction’.

The oldest, and therefore first written, book in the Bible is the Book of Job, which is 18 books into the Bible. Galatians is the earliest book in the New Testament, even though the Gospels appear before it.

So, where to begin?

 

First, let’s look at the Bible’s make-up, then discuss the overall big picture, and that will help us decide the best place to begin reading the Bible for the first time.

 

How Is The Bible Ordered?

The Bible is broadly organised into topical genres within two large bodies of work known as the Testaments. The Old Testament comprises the books of Law, Prophets, Wisdom, Poetry, Apocalyptic, and NarrativeThe New Testament consists of the Gospels, Acts of the Apostles, Letters (known as Epistles), and further apocalyptic writings.

Consequently, there is no correct order to read the Bible. I would recommend beginning with the Gospels as this is the heart of God’s bigger story. First, look at the tables below to get an idea of the big picture; after that, I’ll guide you on where to start and what to expect.

Below is a handy table to help you see how it is broken down across the Bible. You can then see how it fits together and what genre each book roughly fits into, guiding you in what to expect from reading each book. As you can see, it is not a simple thing to understand. And yet, if you jump further down in this article, there are some straightforward things you can do to begin understanding the Bible for yourself.

The Order Of The Old Testament

Pentateuch (Torah):

#BookThemeApproximate Date of Authorship
1GenesisCreation, Patriarchs, Origins10th century BCE
2ExodusLiberation, Covenant, Law10th century BCE
3LeviticusHoly Living, Rituals, Worship06th century BCE
4NumbersWilderness Journey, Laws, Census05th century BCE
5DeuteronomyCovenant Renewal, Final Instructions05th century BCE

Historical Books:

#BookThemeApproximate Date of Authorship
6JoshuaConquest of Canaan07th century BCE
7JudgesLeadership, Cycles of Apostasy10th century BCE
8RuthLoyalty, Redemption10th century BCE
91 SamuelSamuel, Saul, David10th century BCE
102 SamuelReign of David10th century BCE
111 KingsSolomon, Division of the Kingdom6th-5th century BCE
122 KingsIsrael, Judah’s Kings6th-5th century BCE
131 ChroniclesGenealogies, David’s Reign4th century BCE
142 ChroniclesJudah’s Kings, Exile, Return4th century BCE
15EzraReturn from Exile, Rebuilding5th-4th century BCE
16NehemiahRebuilding Jerusalem’s Walls5th-4th century BCE
17EstherPersian Queen, Deliverance5th-4th century BCE

Wisdom Literature:

#BookThemeApproximate Date of Authorship
18JobSuffering, God’s Sovereignty10th century BCE
19PsalmsPoetry, Worship, Praise10th-5th century BCE
20ProverbsWisdom, Practical Advice10th-6th century BCE
21EcclesiastesVanity of Life, Wisdom Reflections3rd century BCE
22Song of SolomonLove Poems10th-6th century BCE

Major Prophets:

#BookThemeApproximate Date of Authorship
23IsaiahProphecy, Messiah8th-6th century BCE
24JeremiahProphecy, Judah’s Exile7th-6th century BCE
25LamentationsMourning, Jerusalem’s Destruction6th century BCE
26EzekielProphecy, Visionary Experiences6th-5th century BCE
27DanielProphecy, Exile, Apocalyptic Visions6th-2nd century BCE

Minor Prophets:

#BookThemeApproximate Date of Authorship
28HoseaProphecy, Israel’s Unfaithfulness8th century BCE
29JoelProphecy, Day of the Lord8th-5th century BCE
30AmosProphecy, Social Justice8th century BCE
31ObadiahProphecy, Judgment on Edom6th-5th century BCE
32JonahProphecy, God’s Mercy to Nineveh8th century BCE
33MicahProphecy, Social Justice8th century BCE
34NahumProphecy, Judgment on Nineveh7th century BCE
35HabakkukProphecy, Questions to God7th century BCE
36ZephaniahProphecy, Day of the Lord7th century BCE
37HaggaiProphecy, Temple Reconstruction6th century BCE
38ZechariahProphecy, Messianic Visions6th-5th century BCE
39MalachiProphecy, Covenant Renewal5th century BCE

The Order Of The New Testament

Gospels:

#BookThemeApproximate Date of Authorship
40MatthewGospel, Life of Jesus1st century CE
41MarkGospel, Jesus’ Ministry1st century CE
42LukeGospel, Jesus’ Compassion1st century CE
43JohnGospel, Jesus’ Divinity1st century CE

Historical Book:

#BookThemeApproximate Date of Authorship
44ActsEarly Church History1st century CE

Pauline Epistles:

#BookThemeApproximate Date of Authorship
45RomansEpistle, Justification by Faith56-58 CE
461 CorinthiansEpistle, Church Correction55 CE
472 CorinthiansEpistle, Paul’s Defense55-56 CE
48GalatiansEpistle, Justification by Faith49-55 CE
49EphesiansEpistle, Unity in Christ60-62 CE
50PhilippiansEpistle, Joy in Christ60-62 CE
51ColossiansEpistle, Supremacy of Christ60-62 CE
521 ThessaloniansEpistle, Encouragement51 CE
532 ThessaloniansEpistle, Second Coming of Christ51-52 CE
541 TimothyEpistle, Pastoral Advice62-64 CE
552 TimothyEpistle, Encouragement64 CE
56TitusEpistle, Instructions for Leaders62-64 CE
57PhilemonEpistle, Paul’s Appeal for Onesimus60-62 CE

General Epistles:

#BookThemeApproximate Date of Authorship
58HebrewsEpistle, Christ’s Superiority60-70 CE
59JamesEpistle, Faith and Works45-50 CE
601 PeterEpistle, Perseverance in Suffering60-64 CE
612 PeterEpistle, Warning Against Falsehood60-68 CE
621 JohnEpistle, Love and Assurance85-95 CE
632 JohnEpistle, Warning Against Deceivers85-95 CE
643 JohnEpistle, Commendation and Warning85-95 CE
65JudeEpistle, Warning Against Apostasy70-90 CE

Apocalyptic Book:

#BookThemeApproximate Date of Authorship
66RevelationApocalyptic, End Times Visions90-95 CE

What Is The Bible About?

Knowing something about how each genre fits into the Bible will help you better understand your faith and the God of the bible.

The Bible is the collective writings of God’s love for humanity, the problem of sin, redemption of humanity’s failing and restoration to a close relationship with God. It captures the joy and pain of human experience in love, loss, longing, wisdom, foolishness and forgiveness.

The Law

Genesis shows humanity’s state of being and God’s relationship to us. The books of law establish God’s standard for the people he chose first to reveal himself to ⎯the Hebrews.

History

The historical books capture the times when God’s people continually fell short of his perfect standard, and they covered their struggle for survival as they repeatedly turned away and back to God across the generations.

Wisdom & Poetry

The Wisdom Literature brings powerful insight into God’s nature and how people understood Him. They reveal truth, struggle, joy, and sorrow as the writers experience all levels of human emotion. This is then captured in praise, worship and reflection on meaning and purpose. These books are highly poetic and extenssential.

Major & Minor Prophets

The prophets are God’s warnings, promises and explanations of future events as God’s people are urged to keep in line with His standards. The foretell and foreshadow what will happen in the New Testament and beyond.

The Gospels

There are four Gospels, each showing you a perspective on those who were with Jesus and captured much of the ministry within his life. They largely revered, and accurately so, as eyewitness accounts of the life of Jesus.

The Book of Acts

Also known as ‘The Acts of The Apostles’, Acts chronicles the events in the life of the apostles of Jesus after he had died and ascended into heaven. They are filled with stories of the early church and how it began to develop. They contain miracles, historical occurrences and insights into early church life.

Epistles

The largest section of the New Testament, the various letters known as the epistles, were written to the early church in varying locations to offer instruction, guidance and theology to early Christians. They contain great value in understanding cultural challenges as the church grew in the melting pot of Greek and Roman societies. Many life issues are addressed, and the letters still hold wisdom for many of us today.

Apocalyptic

Along with Daniel from the Old Testament, the New Testament book of Revelation is to be understood as a narrative depicting the completion of God’s plan as the world is restored from sin and everything is made right. There are many ways to understand these highly. descriptive and sometimes figurative writings and arguably should be the last books to tackle.

What Should I Read in The Bible First?

The Gospel of Mark is the best place to begin. The Gospels cover the central purpose of the Bible and how Jesus is most significant in the Bible. Mark is the shortest Gospel, and it was written to people who did not quickly grasp religious subtleties but were everyday people.

The Psalms are also a great place to begin, as they describe the character of God and how He is often worshipped through song and poetry. Psalms are often read interchangeably with Proverbs for a balance of life wisdom as well as poetic reflections.

After that, I would encourage people to read Genesis to get an understanding of some of the bigger themes at play. This will help make sense of why Jesus needed to come to humanity, as depicted in Mark.

After those three books, it’s time to explore a reading plan and brave other parts of the Bible while being mindful of the cultural challenges of understanding texts that are thousands of years old.

Begin reading today, and let us know how you get on.

Leave a comment and share your first experience of reading the Bible.


FOOTNOTES

1 Alexander, T.D. (2012) From Paradise to the Promised Land: An Introduction to the Pentateuch. Third Edition. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, p. 45.
2 Dozeman, T.B. (2000) “Exodus, Book of,” Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible. Edited by D.N. Freedman, A.C. Myers, and A.B. Beck. Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans.
3 Wegner, J.R. (2000) “Leviticus, Book of,” Eerdmans dictionary of the Bible. Edited by D.N. Freedman, A.C. Myers, and A.B. Beck. Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans.
4 Wenham, G.J. (1981) Numbers: an introduction and commentary. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press (Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries), p. 25.
5 Deuteronomy: Although most likely later, the book’s final form is thought to have settled by the 7 century BCE. Thompson, J.A. (1974) Deuteronomy: An Introduction and Commentary. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press (Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries), p. 67.
6 Hess, R.S. (1996) Joshua: An Introduction and Commentary. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press (Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries), p. 63.
7 Harris, J.G. (2012) “Joshua,” in Gasque, W.W., Hubbard, R.L., Jr., and Johnston, R.K. (eds.) Joshua, Judges, Ruth. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books (Understanding the Bible Commentary Series), p. 6.
8 Hubbard, R.L. (1988) The Book of Ruth. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. (The New International Commentary on the Old Testament), p. 34.
9 Easley, K.H. (2002) Holman QuickSource guide to understanding the Bible. Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, p. 44.
Likely to have been one of the oldest stories passed down, there is evidence that Job was told as early as 10th century BCE. The story probably predates Genesis and may be one of the oldest stories known. Brown, W.P. (2000) “Job, Book of,” Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible. Edited by D.N. Freedman, A.C. Myers, and A.B. Beck. Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans.
Bible references are taken from the NIV
Feature photo Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

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