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Reading The Bible

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I regularly advocate that people read the Bible s-l-o-w-l-y, prayerfully. I encourage the practice of Lectio Divina where I suggest “Use only a small passage of scripture. This is not drinking beer it is sipping a liqueur.” I have been creating a series going through Matthew’s Gospel line by line, word by word (start here).

But, I also regularly advocate that people read a whole book of the Bible at one sitting. Depending on your reading speed, it takes about, say, an hour to read Mark’s Gospel. Some of the New Testament letters were surely written with the intention that they be read aloud in one sitting.

Some people memorise large portions of the Bible. Rev. Bert Marshall, for example, has been telling the whole Gospel of Mark in performance from memory for a dozen years now.

Examples of others doing this are here and here.

Bishop Kelvin Wright has been writing about reading the Bible, basically a book in one sitting, and from a version without the later additions (chapters, verses, headings, interpretive footnotes…):

For years, I now realise, I have studied the New Testament, but not actually read it. Every time I’ve sat down with those familiar passages, as I have done pretty much every day for decades, it has been with a text divided up into chapters and verses by Erasmus 1500 or so years after they were written. Every version of the Bible I own, except one, has copious footnotes and cross references to which I turn when befuddled. So now, I am reading it, not studying it, in the exception, my one version from which all that stuff has been deleted. It’s just me and these old words. I’m reading each of the documents of the New Testament in one sitting, and leaving a few days between each one to give a bit of thinking space. … Reading them, as we usually do, piecemeal, in small shards wrapped liberally in interpretation, means that all sense of the flow of the text is lost, and we become engaged in an odd exegetical spiral. …

Each of the Gospels tells a story of Jesus, and I had never quite noticed before the extent of the differences between them. There is Mark, for whom Jesus bursts into history and for whom everything happens suddenly: “and straightway” is his very favourite phrase. There is Luke with his meandering interest in story and whose definitive account of the resurrection does not happen at the tomb but on the road To Emmaus. There is Matthew taking pains to weave his account of Jesus into the Old Testament narrative. There is John with his lengthy monologues, placed into the mouth of the writer and of Jesus. I read each of these, and the person of Jesus of Nazareth has never seemed more clear. Or more enigmatically hidden….

The version Kelvin is using is Bibliotheca. This is a reworking of The American Standard Version (I was in from the Kickstarter beginnings). This “American Literary Version” changes archaic forms (“firmament” to “vault”; changes “thou”, “doth”; replaces LORD with YHWH; and fixes ASV errors and mistranslations).

There are other translations trying to encourage reading longer texts. The Kingdom New Testament, a translation by N.T. Wright, reads more easily than some. He has this in mind. He writes,

It’s good to read right through chapters, sections, and entire books at a single sitting. The “books” which make up the New Testament weren’t written to be read in ten-verse sections at a time; imagine what would happen if you tried to listen to a symphony that way, or to read a novel at the rate of a single page once a week. I hope this present translation will make it easier for people to do this, to feel the flow and pull, the energy and power, of large chunks at a time. (Preface xiv).

I wouldn’t go as far as N.T. Wright’s claim that all the New Testament “books” weren’t written to be read in sections at a time. The synagogue tradition of reading portions of the scriptures was already well established, and Jesus is presented as following this tradition. Most scholars, in fact, would hold that the Gospel stories were communicated in well-polished stories (pericopes). There are scholars who would even see some pericopes as standing in relation to readings from the Hebrew scriptures. So it is not too difficult to imagine a meeting of First Century Christians reading sections from the Hebrew scriptures and following this with a well-known, at-that-stage-not-yet-written-down story from the life of Jesus.

I do encourage you to a both-and approach: read large swathes of the scriptures at one sitting and practice slow reading of very small sections.

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7 thoughts on “Reading The Bible”

  1. A few years ago a youth club I was helping my to lead determined to do a sponsored reading of the New Testament in one night. Knowing the complexity of the text and that it would come on about 2am, I put myself down to read Romans.

    It transformed the way I approach the scriptures, reading the whole letter out loud and trying to make the argument in Romans comprehensible for the few still listening. The sweep of the argument becomes clearer, in a way little segments really don’t allow.

    Read a book in one sitting – yes! But I would add, read it out loud if you can.

    1. Thanks, Harvey! What a very helpful addition to this thread. I’ve just found out that there’s a new translation in the pipeline by David Bentley Hart that promises to give a feel for how original Greek speakers found on their hearing the original texts. I’ll be getting it – and will review it here once I do. Blessings.

  2. I’m a bit late to this article, but I enjoyed it a lot. The approach of “Reading the Bible as Literature” has been a big change in my experience of the Bible and really helped to open my eyes to things that I missed completely when reading in the past. I’ve actually taken to my own project with some friends to publish the Bible in this reader style. The difference with ours is that they’re also pocket-sized. The feedback from people on how it’s improved their Bible reading has been pretty amazing.

    1. Thanks, Jesse. I’ve had a quick look at your link. I really like the concept. I would need to study the NAS further to see what I think of the choice of that version. I don’t like the changing of the font from black to red – why would you do that if you are reading the Bible as literature? What other literature would do that? And I don’t like the addition of subheadings. It means someone else has inserted what they think the next bit is about rather than the text being the source of that to the reader. It also means that someone (again other than the text) is deciding where the divisions come. The same is true for your inclusion of the chapter numbers – these are later additions not part of the original text. Blessings.

      1. Woops, the notification for this reply showed up in my spam. We opted to include red-letter and chapter headings because it is our preferred reading experience (certainly subjective). I think our books cater to the shorter attention span of millenial readers. We’ve found that these headings and red-letter for Jesus words make the text feel much more dynamic and easier to read for longer periods without losing focus.

        I do like the thought of the books being laid out without any of the additions and modifications that have been added through the years. I suppose it would then be even closer to the original manuscript form.

        1. Thanks, Jesse. The changing to red letters for words by Jesus can encourage a particular approach to the Bible. In the original, of course, as there is no concept of “quotation marks”, it is often unclear if a person is saying the words or if it is the author’s reflection. Choosing to put Jesus’ speech in red makes a call on that, yet there may be no difference in importance between the words in red and the words that follow in black. Blessings.

          1. You’re right, any adjustment to the text, whether it be in formatting or translation, has an effect on the approach taken. Our prayer is that whatever we create is an aid and not a stumbling block to those who read from it. Thanks Bosco.

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