It was a simple email. The writer said that she was committed to reading and studying the Bible. For her first time through, she wanted to accomplish it in a two-year period. She had already researched the internet for Bible study plans and discovered there are tons of plans, lots of perspectives, and advice a plenty. So much so, it was hard to sort through it all. And such was the genesis of the email asking for advice on “the plan.”
There are two books I would recommend you acquire: (a) the “Catholic Study Bible” edited by Fr. Donald Senior and Fr. John Collins, two preeminent Catholic scripture scholars, and (b) “Every Catholic’s Guide to the Sacred Scriptures” published by Thomas Nelson Publishers. The Catholic Study Bible often is available in our parish Book & Gift Store – and always available on Amazon. The other book is out of print but available on Amazon and other sites that offer used books.
I recommend the “Catholic Study Bible” because it has great footnotes and the Sacred Scriptures are preceded by a 480-page “study guide” for each book of Scripture that offers an introduction to each book, sets the context in history, and outlines the key points. It is a great way to get the big picture for any particular book before reading the book.
I suggest these two books so the first-time (or nth-time) reader can have a sense of where each book fits in to whole of history and salvation history. In all my years of leading Bible studies, when folks have a grasp of the context, the stories offer deeper meaning for personal reflection.
Where to begin? The main thing is to ensure that the main thing remains the main thing. When it comes to Christian Bible study, the main thing is Jesus. And so, I always recommend starting with the four gospels. Mark, Matthew and Luke are similar – in fact they are called “synoptic” because they “see with the same eye.” The Gospel of John is very different in the way it tells the story of Jesus.
Begin with prayer. Always ask the Holy Spirit to guide your reading. Then open the Gospel of Mark. It is the shortest. Use one of the study guides to get the big picture and then read the Gospel. Set aside time to read, reflect, and pray. Always begin and end with prayer. When you’re ready, then read Matthew and Luke along with one of the study guides. And then read John. As you read, write notes to yourself in the margins of your bible, highlight passages – make it a working book, well-worn, and well-considered.
When you are finished with the gospels, make a list of your “top 10” stories of Jesus that you are going to tell, in your own words, “over the backyard fence.” I would offer to you that this is the original gospel. The Apostles spent almost their entire active ministry without a single book of the New Testament having been written. St. Thomas did not have a New Testament, but he carried the stories to Persia and India. Long before the first written New Testament arrived in India, the faithful already had been telling and re-telling the stories of Jesus. Be the one who can tell the story of Jesus and let the story and Spirit carry the power.
The other great companion to storytelling is curiosity. Along the way, be curious. Read the footnotes. If they reference Isaiah, a prophet of the Old Testament period, then open the Bible to those passages and read a little before and after to see what’s going on and imagine why the passage is referenced. Take a quick look at the study guide for Isaiah. This way, you are slowly dipping your toes in the waters of the Hebrew Scriptures.
That should get you started.