Session 2: Open the Book
What’s in the Bible? Why is it so important? How do I start reading it?
Q) What type of books do you most enjoy reading?
Why the Bible?
Q) Have you read any of the Bible yet? If so, what did you make of it?
Q) Why do you think the Bible is so important that we are making it the first topic in this course?
The Bible is a book of stories
The Bible consists of sixty-six books written independently by some forty different writers over a period of approximately 1,500 years (c.1450BC–AD90). It is a Library, not a single book. It contains history, prophecy and poetry, and includes the writings of kings, politicians, prophets and shepherds. All of life can be found there.
Can we trust it?
There is actually much better manuscript evidence for the Bible than for any other ancient book (for example Julius Caesar’s, Gallic War).
The Dead Sea Scrolls, which were written in the second century BC, include a scroll of the Old Testament book of Isaiah. You can see it in Jerusalem today and an eleven-year old Israeli child can still read it!
In the John Rylands Library, in Manchester there is a papyrus fragment of St John’s gospel (see photo) that has reliably been dated to c.120AD.
We can rely on the underlying Greek text being transmitted faithfully to us. Where there are slight differences in the various manuscripts due to errors in copying over the years these do not affect the meaning at all.
If you would like to find out more then I would recommend that you read a book by F. F. Bruce, ‘The New Testament Documents are they reliable?’ that is published by IVP. This gives examples of modern archaeological discoveries that support the biblical text.
What do you already know?
Q) Think about a few of the major characters you can remember from the Old Testament. You may find that you already know much more than you think.
What type of books are in the Bible?
Consider the following well known passages (remember it is OK to use the index to find them!).
- The giving of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1-17)
- David and Goliath (1 Samuel 17:1-58)
- The Song of Solomon
Q) What different types (genre) of writing do you think they are?
These are just three examples out of many I could have chosen but they give you a taste of the diversity that is to be found in the Bible.
Why read the Bible?
Let us begin by looking at 2 Timothy 3:16.
All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching the faith and correcting error, for resetting the direction of a [person]’s life and training [them] in good living. J. B. Phillips version
Q) What can we learn from this?
- Scripture is inspired (the original word has the sense of ‘breathed’) by God. This does not mean the original writers were ‘robots’ controlled by God. Rather, God worked through their individual personalities (we will learn more about the Holy Spirit later). They are witness to what they have seen as well as what God has done in their lives.
- It is useful for teaching about God, Jesus and the Christian faith
- And for correcting error. I like to think of the Bible as a plumb line against which we can measure truth. It shows us where we have become crooked.
- And training us in how to live. God is very interested in developing our characters.
Reading the Bible can change your life. It is much more than just a piece of ancient literature. It has the ability to energise and shape us as we read. Through it God can speak to us and we are invited to respond and enter into a relationship, not just believe.
The Bible and Jesus
Reading the Bible is not an end to itself. We do it to come closer (and find out more) about Jesus who is the source of all truth.
A Victorian writer, who is a favourite of mine, named George MacDonald once wrote:
Let us hold to the Bible as the moon of our darkness, by which we travel towards the east; not dear as the sun whence her light cometh, and towards which we haste, that, walking in the sun himself, we may no more need the mirror that reflected his absent brightness. Unspoken Sermons Series I, The Higher Faith.
The moon reflecting the light of the Sun is such a beautiful image. The goal of our bible reading should always be a deeper relationship with Jesus.
Q) If this has been your first experience of studying the Bible with others, how did you find it?
Q) What questions came into your mind as you read?
How to start?
The original languages in which the Bible was written were Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek and the English Bibles we use are all translations based on the best manuscripts that are available.
Q) What different Bible versions are we using in this group today?
As discussed in the previous session, I would recommend that you get hold of a good modern translation rather than using the traditional King James Version, beautiful though its language is. There are different styles of translation (some more literal, others aiming to give the sense of the original rather than translating the precise words). Have a look at different versions and find the one that suits you the best. No translation can perfectly express the meaning and subtlety of the original languages and there are valuable insights to be gained by comparing the ways different versions translate a passage. Electronic bibles on your smart phone or tablet are a popular way of doing that these days.
You can also listen to an audio version of the Bible – for example, when you are doing the ironing or taking the dog for a walk and you can watch the stories recreated on DVD. There are lots of possibilities to suit every situation.
Where to start?
Oddly enough, the best place to start reading the Bible is not at the beginning! You could try reading Luke’s gospel and the book of Acts in the New Testament for an appreciation of the life of Jesus and the story of the early Christians since they were written by the same author and complement each other well. Alternatively, I would suggest the Gospel of Mark for a different perspective, which some people think was based on the recollections of Peter, Jesus’s disciple.
When to read?
It is important for you to develop a regular habit of Bible reading, but there is no single right or wrong way to approach this. It should be a delight for you to read, not a chore. So don’t bite off more than you can chew, it is better to look at a few verses and really think deeply about what you are reading than skim through the pages quickly and not really take it in. Try to enjoy it!
Q) What time of the day and place do you think would suit your personality and circumstances best? Can you find a quiet place where you will be undisturbed?
The Bible is not a difficult book, but sometimes we do need help to understand it fully in its context. Remember that it was written for people who lived in a culture that was very different from our own and sometimes what would be obvious to them is less so to us now.
The following resources are readily available and can be helpful:
- Bible reading notes
- Bible background books, such as 'The Lion Handbook to the Bible'
- Study and chain reference Bibles
- Commentaries and concordances
I would suggest that you buy a good Reference Bible (in Chinese this is translated “chain of pearls”) that refers you to to other relevant passages that illuminate what you are reading.
The NIV Study Bible or the Life Application Bible (which can be found in various translations) are both excellent and have supplementary notes to help you understand what you are reading.
Paraphrase versions such as the Good News Bible or the Message Version can also be helpful, but I would not recommend that you use them as your main study Bible.
Hebrews 4:12 tells us that:
For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.
You will discover that the Bible is a dangerous book. It has the ability to transform your life. As you read it, you will find yourself changed by it!
Your choice (home study option)
Read the Parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10:29-37.
Q) Why do you think Jesus told this story?
Q) What do you think it has to say to us today?
We can compare our thoughts next week!