A week ago I finished a two year journey of reading the Bible from Genesis to Revelations. The Bible is a long and difficult book; yet, it is the most widely printed book in history. As any book publisher would know, “long and difficult” is rarely a promising description of a book that will receive wide readership (and hence a good profit); yet the Bible’s magnetism is global and timeless. There is no more important book in the world.
Because of its importance, I undertook its reading with the goal to finish in two years. Here is how I read the Bible from cover to cover in a way both effective and enjoyable. I began reading Genesis in November 2019, but not without a plan.
Because I was still finishing my Ph.D. with a family of 4 (now 5!), time was very limited. My plan was to wake up earlier in the morning to read the Bible before work, targeting a measly 2 pages per day, Monday through Friday. How long would it take to finish the Bible? Let’s do some quick math.
There are 52 weeks in the year, each with five work days, giving me 260 days to read each year. Reading two pages a day, that meant I would cover 520 pages in a year and 1040 pages in two years. This amounts to covering about three or four chapters per day, though the length of biblical chapters varies quite a bit. In my version of the Bible (RSV, 2nd Catholic Ed.), the Old Testament is 845 pages, and the New Testament is 220 pages. Most Protestant Bibles will be a little shorter (nominally 7 books shorter – but some include these books at the end in an “Apocryphal” section). Hence, my Bible has 1065 pages overall, meaning my Monday through Friday readings would fall short in two years by 25 pages. No problem. I would simply extend my reading into some weekends or read an extra page or two on some holidays to cover the remainder.
That’s it for the plan: just read two pages a day Monday through Friday, plus a few oddball weekends, and reading the Bible is as good as done in two years or less.
Admittedly, planning is much easier than executing, but luckily two pages a day is far from intimidating. Nonetheless, simple things can be quite hard to make into habits. Habits are always hardest at the outset. Coupling this fact the with relative monotony of some early chapters of the Old Testament (e.g. Leviticus), the first few weeks are the hardest.
A habit should be treated like a (good) law; there is no choice in the matter. No decision to turn us back from doing what we set out to do. I woke up roughly 30 minutes earlier than normal, showered, ate a quick breakfast, and brought my coffee downstairs to the basement to read in peace. Then, it was off to work for the day – which for a significant fraction of the past two years meant simply switching my brain to “work mode” without moving from my desk at home.
One of the difficulties about reading in short chunks is that finding a convenient place to stop reading isn’t always obvious, especially when my daily goal was merely to read two pages. Of course, no one would stop reading mid-sentence after the second page. Instead, I began and ended on chapters. What does this look like? I begin reading on the first chapter on the left page and read through the right page. If the the last word on the right page is magically the last word in a chapter, then so be it. But most of the time that chapter runs onto a third page, and so I read through until that chapter is finished. The next day, I repeat the process.
When halfway through Proverbs, I got the idea to write down passages that struck me for their beauty, wisdom, historical value, profundity, or strangeness during my daily readings. The verse that so struck me was Proverbs 17:6: “Grandchildren are the crown of the aged, and the glory of sons is their fathers.” And so, there my notes on verses began. No doubt, when I re-read the Bible, I will find many verses to write down before Proverbs as well. Evernote (not a sponsor or affiliate) is a great note-taking tool that I used to keep a running list of Bible verses organized by book. If I had a thought, question, or hypothesis regarding the meaning or context of a Bible verse, I would write that and the verse into my notes to revisit later. Typing up notes on a computer is a lot faster than handwriting for most people, meaning saved time for our busy days. The downside to my approach was that I was generally stuck reading the Bible in front of a computer, which can be distracting and less comfortable. If reading away from a computer, I would write the verses down in a notebook (slower!), then translate them to my master list later.
Regarding time, I generally read 10-20 minutes a day. I consider my reading speed quite average, if not a little slow. Writing down important verses or notes on top of this added anywhere between 1 – 10 minutes, so I generally planned to spend a maximum of 30 minutes per day on my Bible-reading.
So, through reading about two pages every day for two years, I read every word of the Bible, from start to finish.
The key takeaway is to approach reading the Bible as a habit not the thing itself. The goal is not “finish the Bible”, but “read X pages a day” instead, where X is whatever number you can afford time-wise. By completing the much more manageable latter goal, the larger goal of reading the Bible comes for free in time.
My time was very limited, so I needed to read small chunks; two pages was just right for my short morning readings. Some might think two pages is too little. Perhaps for you, it’s putting the bar too low. However, I much prefer successfully integrating an “easy” habit into my routine than none at all.
Secondly, most of the workday, I’m sitting at a desk and using my brain. I didn’t want reading the Bible to significantly extend my sedentary hours nor tax me mentally. I wanted it to be something I looked forward to in the morning – and it was. On top of that, writing down meaningful passages consumed quite some extra time. However, I found this note-taking helps to remember certain verses better as well as provide a library of my favorite Bible verses to peruse later.
Lastly, there’s no rush. Whether reading the Bible takes six months or six years makes little difference in how studying the Word will bring you deeper into your Christian faith.
I imagine many people who finish reading the Bible the first time might be left wondering at the end, “Now what?”. When a mountaineer has already climbed Mount Everest, I wonder if any of them feel the same way.
Philosopher and writer (also curator of much of the Great Books of the Western World set) Mortimer Adler claimed that one couldn’t really understand a book until the third reading. The first reading is cursory – just getting the simple facts of the book. The second reading pulls apart the details and meanings in the book. The third reading is a conversation with the book, where one’s ideas meet the book’s ideas to either wrestle or shake hands. Adler said such multiple readings were necessary for any of the “great” books; without a doubt the Bible is chief among them.
So, the obvious answer to “where to next?” is to begin again: read the Bible a second time, with a magnifying glass on the details and meanings in each line and between the lines. However, I don’t view this second reading as a monotonous re-read of the same material in the same order. Have fun with it.
My plan is to return specifically to the Gospels, as presented in the Word on Fire Bible, which provides significant commentary (and artwork) along the way. Tour the Bible again in whatever order or method that suits your interests. This is where the habit formed in reading the Bible the first time continues into a lifetime of reading. And now, each day’s reading is not so much geared toward the admittedly pointless goal of “reading the Bible” like a box to be checked, but instead reading the Bible for spiritual growth and knowledge of our Creator.