I’ve been spellbound by the Bible for as long as I can remember—by its stories, by its world, by its language, by the God who shows up like a jack-in-the-box throughout its pages.
When I went to college, I took Hebrew and Greek classes because I wanted more. I went to seminary because I still wanted more, thinking I’d teach Bible at a university some day. I took every Bible class they’d let me.
I love the Bible.
I live in Tulsa, and we have a pretty great skyline. You can walk downtown and soak in the beauty of the architecture and the history of streets that sprung up during the oil boom of the 1920s. You can enjoy all of that all on your own.
My friend Kelly gives tours downtown. She tells stories of the colorful characters who shaped Tulsa in the early days. She points out details in the ceilings and doorknobs. She illustrates the intentionality of the architecture and their context in the local character of the place. And because she’s shown me around downtown, I love it even more.
Books about the Bible should be like this. We don’t need a mediator to read Scripture. Anybody and everybody should pick up the Bible and read. So many characters in history like Augustine and John Wesley have had their lives flipped upside down because they read it. But at the same time, reading is a skill we develop over time, and we need mentors and teachers in how to read well—how to notice the details of plot, story, and characters, how to pay attention to the nuance and movement of storytelling, how to understand differences in culture and language from our own.
All different kinds of books are helpful when it comes to the Bible. There are commentaries (of infinite kinds), atlases, surveys, group studies, study bibles.
Here are some of the books I’ve found most helpful in tackling questions like, What is the Bible? What is it for? How do I encounter God in the Bible? How do I understand the cultures that the Bible comes from to make sense of what it means today?
We read the Bible, not for information, but for the transformation of our whole beings. So, some of these books exercise our minds while some exercise our hearts.
For general reading
The Art of Biblical Narrative by Robert Alter
Let’s admit it: reading the Old Testament is difficult, to say the least. This book shows the intricate artistry of storytelling that the writers of the Bible utilized. You won’t read Genesis or 1 Samuel the same way again, and you’ll likely be persuaded to start learning Hebrew.
Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes by Kenneth Bailey
Culture is one of our greatest obstacles in interpreting the Bible. In the West, we often take for granted that reading the Bible is a cross-cultural experience. This book takes a variety of selected stories from the gospels, highlighting the Middle Eastern cultural assumptions at work in them.
The Art of Reading Scripture edited by Ellen Davis and Richard Hays
This collection of essays explores ways of reading the Bible in today’s world. The essays spring from “Nine Theses” outlined at the beginning that provide a framework for faithfully interpreting Scripture. Few books I encountered in seminary impacted like this one.
Life with God: Reading the Bible for Spiritual Transformation by Richard Foster
This book focuses on bible reading as a spiritual discipline that forms our Christian character. Foster helps show how the ancient practice of lectio divina helps spur our Christian growth.
The Story of God, the Story of Us: Getting Lost and Found in the Bible by Sean Gladding
This is a great book for beginner’s to the Bible. It tells the whole story of the Bible like a novel—the Old Testament from the perspective of a family around a campfire during the Babylonian exile and the New Testament from the setting of a Roman house church dinner.
The Blue Parakeet: Rethinking How You Read the Bible by Scot McKnight
Why do we need the Bible? And why do Christians get such different things from reading it? These are just a few of questions raised by this book.
Eat This Book: A Conversation in the Art of Spiritual Reading by Eugene Peterson
Like Foster, Peterson writes not so much to fill our head but to shape our soul. From the imagery of Ezekiel and Revelation, Peterson shows what’s possible when the God of this Bible gets inside us, and shares from his experience producing The Message.
The Epic of Eden: A Christian Entry into the Old Testament by Sandra Richter
This is my favorite resource for telling the story of the Old Testament. Richter uses the image of a disorganized closet to describe the experience most of us have with the Old Testament. We know the stories of Daniel and Noah and Elijah, but most of us have never been taught how these stories are organized into one coherent story about the God who is redeeming the whole world.
(re)Aligning with God: Reading Scripture for Church and World by Brian Russell
What I love about this book is that it answers the “So what?” question one might raise regarding all this Bible stuff. We’re not out to win any Bible trivia contests. Russell illustrates how the story of God from Genesis to Revelation shapes our imagination for God’s mission in the world.
Scripture and the Authority of God: How to Read the Bible Today by N.T. Wright
The issue of the authority of the Bible is a controversial one, and Wright suggests that what we really mean in that phrase is “the authority of the God revealed in the Bible.” Wright talks about how we read, understand and live out the Bible on this side of the European reformations of the 16th century and the philosophy of the Enlightenment.
For a reference library
An Annotated Guide to Biblical Resources for Ministry by David Bauer
For thousands of years, people have been writing books about the Bible. So how do you know what to read? That’s what makes this an invaluable resource for pastors and teachers. Imagine this post as an encyclopedia and that’s this book.
Inductive Bible Study: A Comprehensive Guide to the Practice of Hermeneutics by David Bauer and Robert Traina
Inductive Bible Study is a highly structured method for reading and studying the Bible. While not the only way to read the Bible, this method can train us in skills for slowing down and paying close attention as we read.
A Survey of the Old Testament by Andrew Hill and John Walton
Surveys are useful for your library for seeing the 10,000-foot view of the whole Old or New Testament. I confess, I’m partial to this one as it features photos that I took while touring Israel.
How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart
Two of our most important considerations in reading the Bible are context and genre. This book details the various literary genres found in the Bible, along with helpful approaches for understanding each genre, whether poetry or narrative, wisdom literature or law, epistle or apocalyptic literature.
How to Read the Bible Book by Book: A Guided Tour by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart
This is a permanent fixture on my desk, never out of arm’s reach. It provides introductions, key themes, and general outlines for each Bible book. It’s an essential resource for teaching.
NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible: Bringing to Life the Ancient World of Scripture
I’m not a fan of all-in-one study bibles. Like a Cheesecake Factory, they may do a whole lot of things, but nothing particularly well. But if you really prefer having everything in one single volume, I recommend this one. I’m a visual learner, so I love the maps and pictures.
The Old Testament for Everyone series by John Goldingay & The New Testament for Everyone series by N.T. Wright
These aren’t quite commentaries and not quite devotionals. They are deeply unsightly and engagingly practical. Great for individual study or for small group reading.
Much like the scenario in the film Arrival, opening the pages of the Bible is an encounter with the living God and should arouse in us a deep sense of wonder. Do we catch our breath? Does our jaw drop?
Whether you’re brand new to the Bible or you’re a pastor or teacher, I hope something here increases your capacity for wonder at the God in the Bible.
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