Draft of an abridged Bible reading challenge

I have, at this point, tweeted my way through most of the Bible. The project has got me thinking about Isaac Asimov’s old line that, “Properly read, the Bible is the most potent force for atheism ever conceived.” There’s something too this, but the Bible has at least one drawback as a book to get people to read to turn them into atheists: it’s long and mostly boring. And honestly, whatever benefits might come from reading the Bible, they’re not going to come from reading through all the “begats.”

So I’m trying to create an abridged Bible-reading challenge, a list of which chapters of which books to read if you want to get most of the benefit of reading the Bible with none of the boring. The list I’ve come up with is, itself, fairly boring, and ended up mostly just matching what parts of the Bible are well-known (I suspect it’s much harder for boring material to become well-known), especially for the Old Testament.

In picking selections from the New Testament, I ended up being guided heavily by modern scholarship, and admit to having made a somewhat mischievous choice with James. Otherwise, I’ve made no particular effort to include the bad stuff in the Bible. I resisted the temptation to include Numbers 5 and Judges 19-21. (Those interested in taking the challenge can consider them extra credit, but should be warned that Judges 19-21 is not for the faint of heart… though neither is much of what I’ve included in the main challenge.)

In some cases, I’ve even gone out of my way to include the “social justice” material of the Old Testament that some beliefs are so proud of (they shouldn’t be, it’s dwarfed by the vengeful and bloodthirsty passages). And perhaps most importantly, the mandate to exclude the boring stuff means excluding lots of repetitious descriptions of how God has punished or will punish people for disobeying him.

Not counting Psalms (which I recommend just skimming), this list contains 546 chapters of the Bible total. At a very doable rate of 3 chapters per day, it will take you almost exactly half a year.

This isn’t just a challenge to fundamentalists (or “evangelicals”) who believe the Bible is totally without error, whether moral or factual. It’s also a challenge to liberal believers and fence-sitters with vaguely positive notions about the Bible. In fact, they may find such an exercise especially valuable–it’s easy to point a fundamentalist to a few egregiously flawed passages in scripture, much harder to convince someone who recognizes the Bible has some flaws that those flaws are not isolated.

I call this a draft, though, because I may tweak it as my Bible-tweeting project progresses, and I’m hoping knowledgeable readers will have suggestions for how to improve it.

Old Testament:

  • Genesis; Exodus 1-24 and 31-35; Leviticus 19-27; Numbers 11-31; and Deuteronomy: The first five books of the Bible, also known as the Torah. They have a lot of important material, but also some very boring parts that I’ve indicated how to avoid.
  • Joshua 1-7: The famous story of the fall of Jericho. The rest of the account of Joshua’s conquests is kind of boring and repetitious. Violent, too, but not that shocking if you’ve read the genocidal commands in the Torah.
  • Judges 13-16: The story of Samson.
  • Ruth
  • 1 Samuel 15-31 and 2 Samuel 1:1-19:8: The story of David, the most famous of the Biblical kings. I’ve omitted some less interesting stuff that happens after the death of Absalom.
  • 1 Kings 1-11: The story of Solomon, David’s son. Just skim the stuff about building the temple.
  • Esther
  • Job 1-2 and 38-42: Most of Job consists of a series of long speeches in which Job argues with his friends. I recommend reading just the initial narrative and God’s speech at the end.
  • Read/skim Psalms until you get bored. It’s got some interesting material, but there are a 150 of them and aside from a few that are especially popular among believers (like the 23rd Psalm), nothing in particular stands out.
  • Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Solomon
  • Isaiah 1-22 and 58; Jeremiah 1-19 and 34; and Ezekiel 1-23. Books that are well-known, and with good reason, but which all get boring after awhile. I’ve included one later chapter apiece from Isaiah and Jeremiah, because they contain some noteworthy verses that appear to condemn slavery–in contrast to what much of the rest of the Bible says on that subject.
  • Daniel 1-8 and 12: Daniel’s story is famous, and the prophecies in Daniel bear interesting similarities to the book of Revelation, but some chapters can be skipped unless you really want to get into debating Biblical prophecy.

New Testament:

  • Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John: The four gospels
  • Acts
  • Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, and Philemon: There are serious doubts about the author ship about most of the epistles (or letters) in the New Testament; see Bart Ehrman’s excellent book Forged for details. However, scholars generally agree that these epistles really were written by Paul.
  • James: Martin Luther had some doubts about whether James should be accepted as part of the Bible. Read it and see if you can guess why.
  • Revelation
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  • smrnda

    Something worth noting is that many Catholics will look at this as a particularly Protestant/Evangelical approach to Christianity, and that properly it’s the church who authorized the Bible and therefore, you can’t be well-informed until you’ve read all 2000+ years of obscure scribbling by various theologians and other church personalities. To me, I see it as just an argument from obfuscation and a refusal on the part of Catholic Christians to just make clear, concise statements of what they believe, but they often feel that unless you’ve refuted Catholic doctrine line by line, you haven’t addressed the issues.

    Of course, I think that with what you’ve chosen, you’ve picked spots that will definitely show that, unless one takes such a liberal view of the text that it is no longer authoritative at all, you can’t possibly account for all the nonsense in it.

    • http://exconvert.blogspot.com Kacy

      I think you’re spot-on about Catholics. If I had a dime for every time a Catholic said, “You just don’t understand Church teaching,” or some variation on that phrase, I’d be rich.

      • smrnda

        I call the Catholic case “argument by prolific and verbose assertion.”

    • http://thebronzeblog.wordpress.com Bronze Dog

      I don’t have as much experience with Catholics in particular, but I’ve seen an implicit version of that with many of the various fundies I’ve seen over the years. They take the Bible literally, but if you find something plainly evil, moronic, or otherwise bad, that’s because you’re not interpreting it correctly in light of the layers of context developed by spinning passages in terms of other passages interpreted according to church doctrine. There’s a lot of overlap between denominations, like the old favorite of interpreting the garden of Eden story as if it was foreshadowing Jesus.

  • http://exconvert.blogspot.com Kacy

    I’m glad you included Acts. The account of Annanias and Sapphira disturbed me, even in my most Conservative Christian days.

    • Chris Hallquist

      Wasn’t even thinking about that, just thinking, “it’s the one canonical account of Christianity’s early history, better include it yo.”

  • Silentbob

    How about Jonah? (You know, the whale guy.) It’s a very short book, about a page and a half in my bible, and apart from being a famous story it has an unusual ending in which the Old Testament God goes all New Testament and shows compassion and mercy.

    God has promised to destroy a city for its wickedness but – much to Jonah’s disgust – “God repented of the evil, that he had said that he would do unto them; and he did it not”. God tries to mollify Jonah by explaining that in the city “are more than sixscore thousand persons that cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand; and also much cattle”.

    • Chris Hallquist

      Good point. Jonah belongs in there.

  • Skepticali

    Thanks for the recommendations. It’s been 35+ years since I completely read the NT (I was a believer then), although I did a bit earlier this year.  I’m happy to get remotivated.

    I’ll skip the OT because I just read the whole thing last year. I have to admit, most of the OT after Deut was a dreadful bore, but your inclusion of Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Solomon are a nice balance. The prophetic bits are of course worthwhile. I was going to mention Micah and some others, but there’s hardly anything there! It was an eye-opener to see again how sparse and vague these prophecies are – worse than Nostradamus!

  • Pierce R. Butler

    … vaguely positive notions about the Bile.

    Brilliant! Deliberate?

    • Chris Hallquist

      Ooops! Unintentional, and now fixed.

      • http://thebronzeblog.wordpress.com Bronze Dog

        I find that unintentional humor is often some of the best. :)

  • eric

    What, no Philemon? Shortest book in the bible at less than one page. Its a letter from Paul saying, essentially, “Dear Philemon, I’m sending your escaped slave back to you. But you should treat him really nice now because I converted him.”