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handwriting How to Read the Bible

Many resolve to read the Bible front to back, but their resolution falters when they come upon interminable battles or boring lists. I'd say that one can't help but find the first book of the Bible, Genesis, engrossing, and the first part of the second book, Exodus, as well, but many readers, when they come upon the chapters of ritual prescriptions that follow the revelation of the Ten Commandments, just give up. My advice is to skip ahead whenever you get bored. It isn't necessary--or even advisable--to read the Bible in strict sequence.

For one thing, it wasn't, to begin with, a single book but a collection of scrolls which could be read in whatever sequence you liked. More than this, the sequence of texts changes from one Bible to another. Jews divide the Hebrew Bible into three sections: Torah (the Five Books of Moses), Prophets, and Writings, ending with the Book of Chronicles, which gives a summary of Jewish salvation history from Adam to the return of the Babylonian exiles to Jerusalem in the sixth century B.C. Christian Bibles, which designate the same collection of Hebrew texts as the "Old" Testament, put the Prophets last, because these are seen as prophesying the coming of the Messiah (who for Christians is Jesus). The Prophets then serve as an introduction to the last part of the Christian Bible, the New Testament--the first century A.D. writings about Jesus and his followers. Eastern Orthodox Christians and Roman Catholics admit several books to their Old Testament that are not acknowledged as inspired scripture by Jews and most Protestants.

Given such variety, it is better to think of the Bible as a library of books, written and collected over many centuries--a collection in which not all the books are of equal importance. Don't expect to be able to master this library in a few months or even a year. Nor should you turn to a classic translation--like the King James Version--for the best understanding of the texts. The King James Version belongs to the seventeenth century. To our ears, it sounds like seventeenth century England, not like ancient Israel. Just as you wouldn't choose a seventeenth-century translation of Homer if you wanted to understand the mythology of ancient Greece, you should not choose an antiquated translation of the Bible, however beautiful, if you want to understand the religion of Israel.

For reading the Torah, I recommend The Five Books of Moses (Schocken Books, New York: 1995), translated by Everett Fox. This translation gives the contemporary reader a sense of the earthy compactness and tension of ancient Hebrew, and the notes and introductions are full of marvelous insights and helpful aids. For the rest of the Bible, I would normally choose the New Jerusalem Bible in its Regular (or Study) Edition (Doubleday, New York: 1985). Though not as wonderfully nitty-gritty as the Fox translation, it performs the yeoman-like task of translating the whole of the Bible (including the New Testament and the deutero-canonical or apocryphal books that Jews and Protestants do not accept) into highly readable English. Its notes and introductions are excellent, if clearly written from a Christian bias. To become sensitive to this bias, the reader will find it instructive to compare the commentaries in the NJB's Torah (or Pentateuch) section with the commentaries in the Fox translation.

Beyond finding a translation that suits you, you may wish to explore some books about the Bible. For my suggestions on these, turn to the Notes and Sources section at the back of The Gifts of the Jews and Desire of the Everlasting Hills. These bibliographical essays--one of which may be found at the end of each of the Hinges of History® volumes--are an integral part of each book, since I hope that each book will prompt the reader to further explorations in reading.

But--and I cannot stress this too strongly--be content to read the Bible slowly, stopping often for reflection, skipping what you don't understand or don't care about. The Bible is not so much a book as a Way of Life, the ultimate wisdom that the Western world has to offer. You cannot conquer it; you must submit to it--but in gradual stages, according to your interests and abilities. Be content to be a learner.

I have a further suggestion, based on my experience at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, where I spent two years as a visiting scholar and where I was received with unfailing hospitality and good-humored warmth. My purpose was to learn enough Hebrew to be able to read the texts of the Bible in their original language and to study the Bible in a Jewish atmosphere. I had been reading the Bible all my life--in English, Latin, and Greek--but always with Christians, either Catholics or Protestants. When Christians read the Bible, they tend to look for an authority, a priest or minister or biblical expert, who will tell them how to interpret the passage under consideration. Then, the interpretation delivered, they are anxious to move on to the next passage. Jews treat the Bible like a comfortable old couch (it is, after all, their family history). They don't care about moving on and they are willing to discuss and debate a given passage endlessly. Out of this elaborate give-and-take a different kind of authority arises: a shared authority, a genuinely communal authority. I would recommend that anyone who wants to gain new insight into the Bible sign up for an "Introduction to the Bible" course at a Jewish seminary.

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