You’ve got your new Bible, you’re in your favorite chair and you’re ready to get started. Now, I’m going to go on the assumption you’re completely, totally new to this whole business — so many people are wholly unfamiliar with the Bible, these days. If you know more, count your blessings and get to reading. Otherwise..
The Christian Bible is divided into two sections: The Old Testament and the New. The Old Testament tells the history of Creation, the workings of God through His Chosen People, the Hebrews, through their earliest days as a small family, through the various stages of their history, up to about 300 years before the birth of Christ. The New Testament contains the biographies of Jesus (the Gospels), a history of the very early Church (The Acts of the Apostles), and various letters (Epistles) written to encourage the Church in the various cities where it took a toehold in those earliest days.
The Old Testament contains 46 Books, or 39 if you bought a Protestant Bible. The difference is a set of works called the “deuterocanon” or the “apocrypha.” These works were written in a language other than Hebrew, and were eventually ejected from the Hebrew canon for that reason — but they were part of the canon at the time of Jesus’s life, and they are quoted, paraphrased, or alluded to more than 100 times in the New Testament. In fact, the earliest editions of the King James Bible were required by law to contain these books! And all Protestant translations contained these books (and sections of a couple of prophetic books still in the Protestant Bibles) until the 1880s!
(A word of warning: the second source, above, is Protestant, and isn’t exactly honest about what motivates or inspires the Catholic Church. But I figure an admission about their own history has to be taken seriously, so I’ve included it.)
Each Testament is divided into Books. You see, the Bible isn’t one Book, it’s a small compact library: history, law, poetry, prophecy, biography, letters… Each Book has its own author (or authors), and its own purpose. But there is an overlying theme to the whole: God’s revealing Himself to humankind, and calling them to sanctify themselves to Him.
Take a little while to thumb through your Bible. Begin to get a sense of where things are. The Book of the Psalms are about as close to the center of the Bible as it’s possible to get. The histories and Law come before; the prophetic works follow, and the New Testament. Let your eyes wander through the pages. Read a few verses here and there. You’ll notice that different books have a different tone or voice.
By the way – those chapter and verse divisions are a relatively new invention. They aren’t perfect markers for divisions of thought and topic in the text, but they do help us keep our place. Just be aware you don’t have to be slavishly confined to them when you read, okay?
So for a couple of days, just relax and browse, and develop a sense of how your Bible is arranged, and what it “sounds” like as you read.
Remember: lectio is not a competitive sport.