Author and mathematician David Berlinski is no Christian, yet he’s a big proponent of the Bible. He calls the Old Testament “the greatest repository of human knowledge and wisdom in the history of civilization.” He also notes that few people actually open it.
Berlinski said that when he polls his students, many claim to have read the Bible. Yet when he asks them even the most rudimentary questions about it, the truth becomes apparent. They have a Bible. They’ve never read it.
Let’s say we grant Berlinski his point about reading the Bible. In this Age of TikTok and Instagram, wading into a book that size is daunting. Where do we even begin?
Beyond that, we stumble into big problems once we do start. The Bible contains storylines unfit for Sunday school consumption. It should come with a warning label: this book provides an unfiltered view of the human condition and contains material many readers may find disturbing.
I know several people who are not Christians precisely because they have read the Bible. They seek neat, clean answers to the world’s problems, and they simply don’t find them here.
I can’t make up anyone’s mind for them, nor would I disrespect them by trying to do so. But here’s what I have learned.
There is no other book like the Bible. Sounds clichéd, but it’s true. From start to finish, an unmistakable thread holds the Bible together. Written by at least thirty-five authors over a span of 1,500 years, its sixty-six books share a remarkable cohesion that tells us something else is at work here. If you read only one book, it should be this one.
The Bible can’t be divorced from its cultural context. Each individual book was written at a specific time for particular reasons and to specific people. Yet we can still learn a great deal from its message today. That’s a big part of beginning to understand the Bible.
Read the Bible with an open mind. Check your presuppositions at the door and let the Bible speak for itself.
Some of its stories will disturb you precisely because of their accuracy. We want superheroes who banish evil, eliminate poverty and exploitation, and usher in an era of peace, love, and perpetual green energy. The Bible gives us something else—the truth. Instead of ridding the world of oppression, the protagonist gets nailed to a cross. Then, when he rises from the dead (if you can believe that), he leaves us here to deal with everything. That’s unsettling.
If you’re careless or selective with your interpretation of the Bible, you can defend almost anything. Even a cursory look at the polarizing topics of today reveals both sides using the Bible to support their worldview. This tells us that people value what the Bible says, but common sense tells us both sides can’t be right. Someone is abusing the text—perhaps both sides.
You can quibble about the Bible’s accuracy, but you can’t dismiss it. The Bible has never been proven historically inaccurate by archaeological discoveries. Any legitimate arguments about its veracity are over technical details, not substantive assertions. Regardless of what we believe about the origin of things and our ultimate destination, we can trust the Bible for what we know to be verifiable.
And lastly, if you don’t ever read the Bible for yourself, you’ll depend on what other people tell you to believe about it.
But back to that first question: Where do we begin?
Start with a sampling. For instance, just read Genesis. If its fifty chapters seem too much, try reading the first chapter only. Then, read the first chapter of the New Testament book of John. You’ll notice in John 1 that the writer echoes Genesis 1. Why is he doing that? Seems pretty important.
Then you’ll notice that John references two prophets, specifically Elijah and Isaiah. Again, why? That ought to spark some interest in learning more. You’ll start to form a framework for understanding the larger story, and you’ll begin to ask informed questions.
Or maybe try reading both the books of Judges and John. Why those two? By tracing ancient Israel’s tragically sordid history, Judges graphically shows us how human beings behave when left to themselves. The writer concludes with this brutally honest statement: “In those days Israel had no king; all the people did whatever seemed right in their own eyes.”
John, by contrast, tells us about the one person in history who can change that behavior. As you read his account, you’ll notice John is showing us different aspects of Jesus’s identity—aspects diametrically opposed to natural human behavior. You’ll also notice that Jesus’s disciples were quite confused about what he was doing. You might relate to their confusion. The big question is, will you also come to the same conclusions about Jesus as they ultimately did?
“There is nothing new under the sun,” says the ancient wisdom book of Ecclesiastes. Technological advances only give us the illusion of something new. Scientific discoveries and improvements prolong and enhance life, but they also bring us vastly more efficient ways of doing awful things to each other. The human condition hasn’t changed a bit.
The Bible addresses this depravity in astonishingly relevant ways. We don’t find quick, simple answers to our questions (take that, Twitter) because we lead messily complex lives. The Bible does offer us a plausible answer to the question of where we came from. It tells us why we are so prone to committing and permitting horrifying deeds. It informs us where to find ultimate meaning in life, even—especially—when it isn’t making sense. It tells us our true identity, and where we are going.
Those are some of the reasons why we should read the Bible.
But you have to read it for yourself.
A recommendation: read a newer translation, not one steeped in archaic language that has long passed out of fashion—unless you’re into that sort of thing. Personally, I like the New Living Translation.
Berlinski source (First Things, September 2011):