You're Doing It Wrong: Reading Entire Books of the Bible

Reposted from DBTS blog.

Have you ever read one of the Gospels in one sitting? I believe many Christians have not. Have you ever read Romans in one sitting? How would such a reading change your perspective on the book?

I require my students to read the Bible in large portions. For instance, in the Gospels class, I require students to read an entire Gospel in one sitting. While most choose Mark (it’s the shortest!), I usually encourage them to read John or Matthew.

Why would I require such an onerous task? Well, actually, students generally do not find it onerous. In fact, I have had students indicate their appreciation for the assignment (by the way, that’s pretty rare!). Let me mention a few reasons people should read large portions of Scripture.

First, it is the way the books of the Bible were originally written to be read. Imagine being in Rome when the book of Romans was first delivered. Now imagine the reader only reading for three minutes (corresponding to the end of chapter one) and saying, “Well, that is enough for today, we will read some more tomorrow.” The crowd would be outraged and would demand the man continue reading. In the same way, sometimes we need to be reminded that this is a wholistic book, which is only artificially separated.

Second, reading large portions gives us a broader context for the overall writing. One major lesson I have learned over the course of my study is that one can never underestimate the literary skill of the authors of Scripture. Often there are connections between the beginning of a book and its conclusion, but if we never read the whole thing at once, we may never see those connections.

Third, some lessons can only be gleaned when reading large portions of Scripture. For instance, Revelation is clearly designed to be read in one sitting. We can sometimes get bogged down in the details of the text, seeking to understand every nuance. It seems to me, however, that the message of Revelation is best captured when we see the whole sweep of the text in one sitting. By reading it all together one gets the full sense of God’s power and purposes.

In another post, I will talk about reading strategies, as well as discuss why I think it seems unnatural for most Christians today to read entire books of the Bible.

(N. T. Wright makes a similar argument about longer reading: see this video.)*

* N.T. Wright is a polarizing figure. The challenge is not so much that he holds to some erroneous doctrine—many do that—but that he is so eloquent in his presentation. Hardly do I read or listen to Wright without considering his considerable rhetorical skill. Of course, Wright gets a lot of things right, and when he speaks on something that I agree with, I am usually impressed with his insight. In this case, I appreciate his perspective on this question (not his new perspective J).

Tim Miller bio


Dr. Tim Miller is Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics at Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary. He received his M.A. from Maranatha Baptist University, his M.Div. from Calvary Baptist Theological Seminary, and his Ph.D. in historical theology from Westminster Theological Seminary.

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Jim Welch's picture

I do encourage the church to practice this habit with me as we work through most of the books of our Bible.  I look forward to the author's suggestions for the longer books like Genesis, Isaiah, etc.

BTW, he is right about people showing appreciation.  Over the years, so many have thanked me for suggestng that they read Revelation or Romans at one sitting.

Great article.

T Howard's picture

I can buy the argument that the epistles were meant to be read in one sitting, but I don't think the other books of Scripture were meant to be read that way. I could be wrong, but I don't think that was the practice in the OT on a regular basis, nor did they read entire OT books in the synagogues during second temple Judaism.

Bert Perry's picture

Regarding whether people would listen to longer works, the historical record is full of cases where these works were recited in their entirety in times of yore.  You've got the bards of the Dark Ages and Middle Ages reciting the Nibelungenlied, Chaucer, and legends of Robin Hood, the bards of previous ages reciting the stories of the old pagan "gods", the fact that the Qu'ran was handed down orally for a generation or so before being written down, and the like.

Closer to now, there are a lot of people who can recite "shaggy dog stories" like the "Ballad of the extra red Roman Brick", the "Green Gorilla Joke", or the "green Banana story."  You've got pastors who recite 45 minute sermons, and politicians who do the same.

Back to the Scriptures, the numbering schemes we have for Scripture date back only to the Middle Ages, so it would be somewhat difficult for readers to re-start in the middle of a book.  Wasn't the entire Torah, or at least Deuteronomy, read during Hezekiah's spectacular Passover celebration?  And there was a king who read a large scroll of Jeremiah--while cutting off what was read and burning it.

Did they all the time?  Perhaps not--there are a lot of times when Israel made it clear that they either did not know, or did not respect, God's Word.  But I can't exclude the possibility that they could have, either.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

T Howard's picture

Bert Perry wrote:
Wasn't the entire Torah, or at least Deuteronomy, read during Hezekiah's spectacular Passover celebration?  And there was a king who read a large scroll of Jeremiah--while cutting off what was read and burning it.

Did they all the time?  Perhaps not--there are a lot of times when Israel made it clear that they either did not know, or did not respect, God's Word.  But I can't exclude the possibility that they could have, either.

Bert, I'm certain that the Jewish religious leaders memorized large portions of at least the Torah. But, whether they read / recited entire books or the complete Torah on a regular basis is not likely. The few times when the OT records such an event seems to me to prove it was the exception not the rule. Further, we do have a decent understanding of how synagogue worship was conducted, and they didn't read/recite entire books there either (except, maybe a minor prophet). So, other than the epistles (which we know were read in their entirety), I'm not sure why we now assert the books of Scripture were written to be read in one sitting.

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

I don't know how common or uncommon the practice of whole-book reading was. What I do know is that we need all the help we can get grasping the flow of Scripture and keeping it front of mind, and using thematic readings (pulling many passages together), small readings, large readings--it's all good.

Clearly, when we read entire books, you don't get to be analytical. You can't meditate on one rich phrase. But you do see each statement in its larger context. So we all need both.

In my experience, teaching of narrative is often overly fragmented, and more reading of larger portions would help with that... whether in study or when gathered.

So it's a matter of what's helpful, not so much a matter of what everybody used to do.

T Howard's picture

Aaron Blumer wrote:
So it's a matter of what's helpful, not so much a matter of what everybody used to do.

Aaron, my response was based on the argument in the article that the books of Scripture were written to read in their entirety in one sitting. Other than the epistles, I see no evidence of that either in Scripture itself or in Jewish practice.

Now, whether it's better or more helpful to read them in their entirety is a different matter.

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

I haven't researched that.

Given how people generally passed their time in pre-industrial settings, it seems very likely to me that there was quite a bit of oral recounting of biblical stories, if not reciting of actual Scripture.

Probably studies of ANE culture is where I would go digging for answers on that, if I were to get around to it.

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