Why most Christians have never read the Bible—and maybe you shouldn’t either
When we think about reading the Bible, it is interesting to remember that throughout Christian history, most people have not read it. Consider these barriers:
- The list of books that are considered “biblical” was not finalized until the 400s.
- Until the invention of the printing press in 1450, written manuscripts were expensive to produce and few in number.
- Even after the printing press, most people—including Christians—were illiterate. It was not until the 18th century that literacy started to become widespread in Europe and the American colonies.
- It was not until the 19th century Industrial Revolution that printed books became truly affordable for most people.
- Even today, low literacy levels and expensive materials are barriers to Bible reading in some of the fastest growing Christian regions, such as Asia, Africa, and South America.
Why should you read the Bible?
Today in the United States, most people own a Bible. Or if they don’t own one, someone in their household does. Not most Christian households, but most of all households. Even atheists own Bibles, it seems. “Owning” and “reading” are two different things, however. Studies vary, but it is clear that very few U.S. Christians have read the entire Bible, cover-to-cover.
That’s not all bad. There are many ways to read the Bible, and beginning on page one may not be the best way. The Bible is not one book with a lot of chapters that tell the history of God and the world. The Bible is a collection of books from different eras. The books were written by many different people, and they are written in many different styles. Some books, especially in the New Testament, are placed out of order chronologically. To try to read the Bible from page one to the end would be similar to walking into a library, picking up the first book you saw, and beginning to read the entire library in the order the books were shelved.
My grandmother and my mother were actually discouraged from reading the Bible when they were growing up. In their day, the thinking was that church teaching was based on Scripture and that the church would teach Catholics everything they needed to know that came from God’s word. While that’s true, it probably wasn’t a good idea to suggest Catholics avoid reading the Bible directly.
Today, the church strongly encourages Catholics to read the Bible. But, as we said above, we aren’t necessarily supposed to read it the way we read other books. We need a different method or plan if our Bible reading is going to be effective.
How to read the Bible the way the saints did
To come up with a reading plan, you have to first have a goal. Why do you want to read the Bible? Many Christians have a vague feeling of guilt that they haven’t read it. If the Bible is God’s word, and we believe in God, shouldn’t we spend some time finding out what God has to say?
That sounds like a good idea. But the fact is, God speaks in many ways. The Bible is an important and fundamental way of encountering God’s word, but it is not the only way.
St. Bernard, a 12th-century Scripture scholar and theologian, said that Christianity is not a “religion of the book.” The word of God is “not a written and mute word, but the Word which is incarnate and living” (see Catechism of the Catholic Church, 108). In fact, Catholics, and many other types of Christians, believe the primary way we encounter the living word of God is in the proclamation of Scripture in the liturgy.
For Catholics, then, a great reading plan would be to read the Bible according to the outline of the liturgical year. The church has created a list of readings from Scripture for every day of the year. These are meant to be read at Mass, but you can also read them at home. In fact, reading the Sunday readings before you go to Mass is a great way to prepare yourself for the liturgy.
Where to find the readings for Mass
You can find the list of readings for Mass in lots of places. Click here to go the the United States Catholic Bishops’ website, which provides you with the readings for today. You can click on the calendar on that page to get the readings for other days in the year.
If you prefer to read hard copy instead of on a computer screen, there are several periodicals and booklets that provide you with the readings of the day. Here is one of the best ones:
- Give Us This Day: Daily Prayer for Today’s Catholic (The Liturgical Press)
If you would rather listen than read, here is a link to a daily podcast of the readings.
And if you want to read the readings on your iPhone, you can purchase an app for 99 cents at this link.
Create your personal plan for becoming a Scripture virtuoso
If you are serious about reading the Bible, here are some steps to get you started:
- Make a commitment to yourself to read at least the gospel of the day, everyday, for two weeks.
- Begin your reading each day at a set time.
- Read every day in the same chair, in the same place.
- Begin your reading with this prayer from St. John Chrysostom—“O Lord Jesus Christ, open the eyes of my heart, that I may hear your word and understand and do your will.”
After two weeks, evaluate how you have done, and decide if you are going to continue reading Scripture every day.
In an upcoming post, we will talk about the best translation of Scripture to use for your biblical reading.
See also these related articles: