How to Read the Bible: A Progressive Christian Guide

Here I offer a set of assumptions and suggestions for reading, understanding, and making creative spiritual use of the Bible.

1) The Christian Bible includes the Jewish Torah and prophetic and other scriptures, along with a selection of Christian texts, assembled in roughly its present form in the 4th century AD by the emerging Catholic Church as it became the state religion of the Roman empire. It is the work of many human beings over thousands of years, dating back to early Near Eastern civilizations that existed before the Jewish people. It is called “holy” because of the spiritual intentions of the people who composed its books and the devotion of readers. None of its authors had any idea that their works would be part of what we now know as the Bible. There were other early texts used in the early Christian church but left out of the “canon”, or official church list of scriptures. An important one is the Gospel of Thomas, a book of quotations attributed to Jesus.

2) The Hebrew scriptures, or the Old Testament, represent a religious tradition that is independent of the later Christian faith. The Hebrew scriptures aren’t about Jesus, although the Christian scriptures include many references to the Hebrew scriptures. To honor the fundamental differences between the two sets of scriptures doubles the spiritual significance of the entire Bible.

3) Anything in the Bible that looks miraculous or contrary to the normal functions of the natural world is not factual, but rather is mythological. In ancient times, the distinction that now exists between fact and fiction did not exist in the same way as it does now. The Bible does not ask us to “believe” it as if it were a collection of facts or a set of legal prescriptions that necessarily make sense outside their original cultural contexts. Rather, it challenges our spiritual and moral imaginations, inviting us to use it as a rich language for expressing our journeys of faith. Ancient biblical myths can have great power in positively transforming our lives today.

4) Hardly anything in the Christian gospels has a verifiable basis in history corroborated by sources outside the New Testament. The Gospels were almost entirely products of the spiritual imagination of first-century Christians. There is no way to separate the Christian scriptures from early Christians, who were a diverse community of beliefs and practices. To understand the figure of Jesus, to make sense of the New Testament and of early Christianity, we must understand the spirituality of people in the first-century Christian church. This requires grounding in non-doctrinal, academic scholarship.

5) There is much to be discovered in the Bible by engaging it with religious traditions outside the Judeo-Christian heritage. Exploring texts in other religions that resonate or differ with passages in the Bible can raise enlightening questions. The Bible is best understood and appreciated from the perspective of religious pluralism – the idea that other religions can be as good for others as mine is for me. In this context, the Bible can be seen as a vital part of the great global conversation throughout history about the relationship of human beings to ultimate reality. For example, read the Dhammapada (sayings of the Buddha) and the Sermon on the Mount (in Matthew and Luke) side by side.

6) Rabbi Jesus used the Hebrew scriptures freely and creatively. His “midrashic” method of interpretation, still used by Jewish rabbis, is instructive for Christians in interpreting the New Testament. Following Jesus’ understanding of the scriptures of his native tradition, the entire Bible becomes precious raw material, providing us with imagery, aphorisms, pithy parables, poetry, and narratives that we can use to awaken ourselves to higher levels of consciousness and kindness.

Reading the whole Bible is daunting – and not just because it is a long book! So here’s a selection of passages that give a feel for the whole document, and can whet your appetite for more. It’s best to read these passages alongside books that give an historical, spiritual, and textual background.

For the Hebrew Scriptures, I recommend The Beginning of Desire by Avivah Zornberg and The History of God by Karen Armstrong, and for the New Testament, The Five Gospels by the Jesus Seminar and The Gnostic Gospels by Elaine Pagels. The many books and articles published by the Westar Institute (Jesus Seminar) provide excellent non-doctrinal, academic analyses of the backgrounds of the biblical texts.
Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament):
Genesis (whole book – essential to comprehending the whole Bible)
Burning Bush: Exodus chapter 3
Ten Commandments: Exodus 20:1-4,7-8,12-17
The Aaronic Benediction: Numbers 6:24-26
Ruth’s Promise: Ruth 1:16-17
Elihu’s Speech: Job 37:14-24
Psalms: 8, 23, 46:1-2a, 10, 92:1, 95:1-2, 100, 118:24, 121
Holy Mother Wisdom: Proverbs chapter 8
There Is a Season: Ecclesiastes chapter 3
Celebrating the Sensual: Song of Solomon (Song of Songs) (whole book)
Prophetic Justice: Isaiah 2:2-4, 11:1-3a, 11:6-9, 40:1-11, ch’s 27-31, 61:1-2 – Amos 5:21-24 – Micah 6:8
New Testament:
Jesus: Beatitudes: Matthew 5:3-10
Jesus: Light: Matthew 5:16
Jesus: Love Enemies: Matthew 5:43-48
Jesus: Lord’s Prayer: Matthew 6:9-13
Jesus: Do Not Be Anxious: Matthew 7:25-34
Jesus: Asking: Matthew 7:7-12
Jesus: With You Always: Matthew 28:20
Jesus: Children: Mark 10:13-16
Jesus: Communion: Mark 14:22-25
Mary: Magnificat: Luke 1:46-55
Simeon’s Blessing: Luke 2:29-32
Jesus: Golden Rule: Luke 6:27-31
Jesus: Law of Love: Luke 10:27
Jesus: Parables of Mustard and Leaven: Luke13:18-21
The Word: John 1:1-5
For God So Loved the World: John 3:16
Jesus: Love One Another: John 13:34-35
Jesus: Lay Down His Life: John 15:12-13
Paul: Hope: Romans 8:18-28
Paul: Hold Fast to the Good: Romans 12:9-12
Paul: God of Hope: Romans 15:13
Paul: The Body of Christ: 1 Corinthians 12
Paul: The Love Chapter: 1 Corinthians 13
Paul: Be Kind: Ephesians 4:25-32
Paul: Armor of God: Ephesians 6:10-17
Paul: Put on Compassion: Colossians 3:12-17
James: Doers of the Word: James 1:19-25
John: God Is Love: 1 John 4:7-12
John: He First Loved Us: 1 John 4:19-21
John of Patmos: River of Life: Revelation 22:1-5

Rev. Jim Burklo is the Associate Dean of Religious Life at the University of Southern California. He is the author of OPEN CHRISTIANITY: Home by Another Road (2000) , BIRDLIKE AND BARNLESS: Meditations, Prayers, and Songs for Progressive Christians (2008) and SoulJourn (2013) His blog site: MUSINGS – his personal website: www.jimburklo.com .

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