“How do I get more out of my Bible reading?”

“How do I get more out of my Bible reading? What was going on during the gap between the Old and New Testaments? How do all the books of the Bible fit together as a whole?”

It is the aim of Understanding the Picture of the Bible: A Guide to Reading the Bible Well to answer those questions and put “clear, readable Bible study aids at your fingertips.” (All quotes from back cover and also found here.) Here I review the book for another installment of Magnificent Monograph Mondays.

The book begins with “An Overview of the Bible’s Storyline,” then continues with three parts, one for the Old Testament (subdivided into OT Theology, Pentateuch, Historical Books, Poetry/Wisdom Literature, and Prophets), one for New Testament background (intertestamental history and literature), and one for the New Testament (NT Theology, Gospels/Acts, Epistles, and Revelation). Each author gives a thorough yet concise overview of the section of the Bible he (all authors are male) treats. Each also discusses themes within a given section of the Bible and how they connect with the larger Biblical narrative.

What first stands out in Understanding the Big Picture of the Bible is that almost every author has a knack for simply explaining important concepts and terms. The summary overviews of sections of the Bible provide the reader with a firm foundation for better understanding the purpose and scope of that section. For example, Paul House’s excellent chapter on the prophetic books has an excursus on “pronouns in the prophets.” He begins: “As prepositions are to the letters of Paul, so pronouns are to the oracles of the prophets: crucial for meaning, but often puzzling” (72). In the five following pages he does much for the reader to make prophetic pronouns (and how they often shift person and gender) easier to understand. Other highlights are Gordon Wenham’s chapter on the Pentateuch and Dennis Johnson’s essay on Revelation.

Timelines and charts throughout are a great feature. In addition to timelines in the back of the book covering all of Biblical history (including intertestamental times), there are charts throughout the book that aid the reader. Thomas Schreiner lists all the Epistles, their authors, dates, place of writing, and recipients. Johnson uses nine separate figures to visually (and clearly) display the differences in how Christians interpret Revelation. And House has a table that lines up the prophets with the kings during whose time they prophesied. (A couple of similarly simple and clear maps could be a great addition to future editions of this book.) Here’s an example (taken from a pdf sample of the book):

And then there’s the middle section, part two of Understanding the Big Picture of the Bible. That section alone makes this book worth more than its purchase price. It contains the following:

  • “The Time between the Testaments,” by J. Julius Scott Jr.
  • “The Roman Empire and the Greco-Roman World at the Time of the New Testament,” by David Chapman
  • “Jewish Groups at the Time of the New Testament,” by John Delhousaye

Take just this short quotation from Chapman as an example:

Amid this history, Jesus Christ launched his ministry in a Galilee governed by a Roman client king, a Judea under Roman procurators, and a Judaism tinged with Hellenism. After his crucifixion by the Romans and his resurrection, his gospel was carried by the apostles directly into the heart of Greek culture and Roman power. (94)

Having this background in mind when approaching the New Testament will greatly advance the efforts of any Bible reader. Most Bible overview guides that I’ve seen go right from Old Testament to New Testament. But what about all that time in between? I’ve written more here about why that time period is essential to NT understanding. This book really gets that, and covers that period well. Someone with no knowledge of NT background would find this section easy to follow, and even a budding scholar would appreciate the clarity of the historical overview.

While it’s hard to discern what is the work of the editors (this book has three: Wayne Grudem, C. John Collins, and Schreiner) and what is the work of the writers, this book could have benefitted from a little more careful editorial oversight. There are a few little typos scattered throughout the book (tehillah instead of tefillah for Hebrew prayer, e.g.). I found the use of the sex-specific “man” to refer to all of humanity–even when not quoting the ESV–distracting (although this may not bother other readers).

But there is a bigger editorial oversight. While the book excellently helps the reader to better understand the “big picture” of the Bible, it never directly answers the question it seeks to answer of “How do I get more out of my Bible reading?” The authors present all the necessary information to better understand the background (context) and foreground (content) of the Bible, yes. But understanding context and content is only necessary and not sufficient for “reading the Bible well.” I wish the editors would have made sure the book gave more attention to how one can read the Bible, for example, devotionally… or for transformation rather than just the receiving of information. In other words, I wanted this book, based on its title, to answer: How can I grow closer to God as I read the Bible? How can I allow the Bible to convict me of my sin? What about the importance of reading Scripture in community and corporate worship? David Reimer’s essay gets closest to this when he says, “[T]he art and craft of the Bible’s poems offers an invitation to read slowly, to have one’s vision broadened, once’s perception deepened… to see literary reflection in the service of worship and godly living” (54). I wanted to hear more about this. The key question for me is: Is overview knowledge of the Bible’s context and content sufficient to read the Bible well? Necessary, yes. Sufficient, no.

However, even if the book doesn’t execute its aim listed in the subtitle, it is still a valuable work to have in hand while reading through the Bible. Its unique contribution to works of this kind is in the middle section. I’d imagine this book sitting well on someone’s shelf next to his/her Bible and notebook. (It has on mine these last few weeks!) It would benefit a serious Bible reader to read, say, Darrell Bock’s essay on the Gospels and Acts before reading those Biblical books through.

Thank you to Crossway who provided me with a review copy of this book in exchange for an unbiased review. You can find Understanding the Bible Picture of the Bible at Amazon here.

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