You’ve probably heard of the Gideons. Even if you haven’t, you’ve probably at least seen one of the Bibles they’ve placed in hotel rooms, doctors’ waiting rooms and elsewhere. An evangelistic organization with a particular goal of personal evangelism coupled with getting Bibles into the reach of as many people as possible (and especially at times and places they might be inclined to read it), they’ve placed over 10 billion copies of the word of God in a variety of places around the world.
I’ve lost track of the number of people I’ve spoken to over the years who have at some point in their life picked up a Bible, thinking they should read it. Not all of them had pick-up-the-Gideons’-Bible-in-a-motel-room moments. Some were responding to a particular crisis in life; others just had a general sense of searching or questioning. Some found a Bible while travelling. Some picked up a Bible given to them decades ago by a godparent.
But in pretty much every case, they opened it up and began reading from the beginning. Which makes sense. That’s where books start. So too with the Bible.
I mean, Genesis is definitely the beginning of the account of God’s work, his creation, his interaction with his creation. Genesis is very much the beginning of the Bible.
But I’ve often thought that if I were talking with these people who are new to the whole Bible-reading thing, I would usually recommend something different. I would most likely point them towards the biographies of Jesus at the start of the New Testament. When I start reading the Bible with someone, Mark is a good place to kick off.
Many of these personal stories I’ve heard suggest that when people start reading the Bible from the very beginning they give up pretty quickly, as it seems to get irrelevant fast. Making it to Leviticus is the mark of a very committed reader, but I can hardly fault them if they give up at chapter after chapter of sacrifice offerings in ancient Israel. Without Jesus as a frame of reference it is difficult to see the significance of all of that detail.
So allow me to float a slightly-oddball idea. Why don’t we just print Bibles in a different order? Why don’t we rearrange the books inside?
Put the Gospels first. Get people reading about Jesus straight-up. That’s what we generally do with people if we read the Bible with them one-to-one, so why not prompt others to do likewise?
We could do other things too, such as putting Luke and Acts together. Acts is the sequel to Luke, by the same author—why not have them together?
Here’s one possible arrangement:
- Pentateuch (Genesis-Deuteronomy)
- New Testament letters
- Old Testament history
- Old Testament prophets
- Old Testament writings/wisdom
This could present Jesus to the reader first-up, from a few different perspectives. Romans has often been regarded as laying out the fundamentals of Christian belief, so put that next.
Now in all of this I don’t want to underplay the importance of the Old Testament for a second. The core of Israelite belief is fundamentally important to understanding what goes on the New Testament, so at this point we go back and read the Law (the Pentateuch, Genesis-Deuteronomy), and reflect on it specifically through the letter to the Hebrews.
What do you think?
There are a few downsides, of course. Principally, the distinction between testaments, or covenants, is much less clear, as books from the old and new testaments are interspersed. There’s a danger in communicating that the Old Testament is less important by tucking it down the back. We also stand to lose a certain historical heritage. Tradition has been that certain books stand in certain positions, often for good reasons.1 Most of us, however, don’t really know what those reasons are.
Do we stand to gain more than we lose?
- This, however, is complicated. English translations have a different ordering tradition to the original Hebrew Scriptures. The Hebrew Bible was divided into the Law (or Torah, Genesis-Deuteronomy), the Prophets (what we would call the history books—e.g. Joshua, Samuel, Kings, etc.—plus what we refer to as the prophets—e.g. Isaiah, Ezekiel, Amos, etc.), and the Writings (the rest: Psalms, Proverbs, Daniel, Chronicles, etc.). Our ordering reflects a slightly different tradition, that of the Greek translation of the Old Testament, which had a different, more chronological, ordering of certain books. ↩