Should the Bible be read and studied in the order it was written?

Q. Should the Bible be read and studied in the order it was written? I’ve just gotten back into reading and studying. I’ve read Deuteronomy, then the first three gospels, then Genesis. Also use Zondervan study guide. Wondering what to read next?

One problem with trying to read the biblical books in the order in which they were written is that we aren’t exactly sure what that order was. For example, some interpreters believe that Joel was the earliest prophetic books, while other interpreters believe it was the last one written! We have a good idea of when the events described in the Bible took place, but we aren’t always sure when the books that relate those events were written.

As a whole, the Bible tells one continuous story, from the first creation to the new creation. If you read the books of the Bible in the order that has become customary since the advent of printing (most Bibles published these days present them in that order), you will read this story roughly in order from Genesis through Esther, hear about various parts of it again, at many points not in chronological order, from Job through Malachi, and then get the rest of the story in the New Testament.

However, many people find this approach difficult because the narrative of the story is frequently interrupted at length by other genres such as law and genealogy. The typical person who tries to read the Bible straight through from Genesis to Revelation gives up somewhere in Leviticus!

So I would not recommend reading the biblical books for the first time either in their customary order or in the order in which they were written, to the extent we can determine that. Rather, I would follow the principle, “Understand the whole from the parts, and then understand the parts in light of the whole,” beginning with the parts that can be understood most readily. I would encourage anyone who was reading the Bible for the first time to start with the gospel of John. Jesus is the center and the climax of the biblical story, and John’s gospel introduces him in a way intended to be accessible to people everywhere. From there you might read Luke and Acts, which together give an overview of most of the New Testament period. Then you could read some of the shorter letters, such as Philemon, James, Jude, 1 and 2 Peter, and 1, 2, and 3 John. After that you could take on some of the more challenging books, such as Revelation and Paul’s longer letters, picking up the other two gospels, Mark and Matthew, along the way.

You could then turn to the Old Testament. Since you have already read Genesis and Deuteronomy, I would suggest reading Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1–2 Samuel, and 1–2 Kings. Those books are mostly narrative and they will fill in much of the story of the kingdom of Israel. You could read Psalms and Proverbs a little at a time while doing that. Once you have read the entire Old Testament, I’d recommend reading the New Testament again. You will understand much more about it when you know its background in the Old Testament.

You may also find it helpful to read the Bible in a format such as Immerse, a multi-volume edition of the New Living Translation that has no chapter or verse numbers in the text, presents the biblical books according to their natural literary divisions, and provides introductions to each book to orient the reader. I was a consulting editor for that edition, and I believe that it makes the Bible very accessible to readers. Often people read it in groups in a book-club format, and interestingly they read the New Testament first, then the rest of the Bible, then the New Testament again

I would also mention that you can download study guides to many of the biblical books for free from this blog. Here is the link. (Or just click on “Free Study Guides” at the top of this page.)

I hope these suggestions are helpful. May God bless your reading and study of his word!

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is an an ordained minister, a writer, and a biblical scholar. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the New International Version (NIV) that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He was also a consultant to Tyndale House for the Immerse Bible, an edition of the New Living Translation (NLT) that similarly presents the Scriptures in their natural literary forms, without chapters and verses or section headings. He has a B.A. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: