Reading the Whole

A couple of weeks ago I ran an event in Birmingham called ‘Reading 2 Timothy‘, where we did exactly that: read the book of 2 Timothy over the course of a Saturday morning.

It’s a Bible study, which probably doesn’t seem that revolutionary. It probably isn’t that revolutionary, to be honest, but I’ve not seen it done like this elsewhere.

The aim is to read all of the book, within the timeframe we’ve given ourselves so that we can read it in context.

There are six reasons why that’s a good idea:


When we read a particular passage in the context of the surrounding sentences, we understand get insight into what that particular passage does or doesn’t mean.

We can widen the same principle out to the book as a whole: when we read a passage in the context of the whole book we get insight into what it means.


But, more importantly, when we read books of the Bible as a whole we start to understand the thread of the argument they’re making. Most people I know struggle to grasp a sense of a book as a book, there are multiple reasons here, but one of them is that we read in an atomistic way. When we read as a whole, we can follow the story that’s laid out for us.


We also then get to ask questions like, “why did the author put this paragraph here” assuming that the structure of the book itself will teach us.

It’s also difficult to notice the literary artistry of a book without being able to read it through in a sitting (or in four gulps across a morning in this specific case).

Scripture interprets Scripture

We usually use this principle to mean different parts of the Bible help us read the one in front of us, but honestly if the chapter after helps us to understand this chapter that we’re reading, we get to notice these things for ourselves when we read the whole as a whole. It’s easier to understand something when you read all of it than when you read a few sentences.

How they were originally read

Putting aside that it’s easier to understand a text when you read it all, it is how they were written. Paul expected his letters to be read as a whole and for the church to hear them like this. There’s nothing wrong with reading shorter passages and expounding them—the Bible itself does this frequently—but if we do so without ever catching the whole then we are missing something we’re supposed to have.

Public reading of Scripture

I’m in a church context that has remarkably little public reading of Scripture compared to most Christians in history. The idea of gathering on a Saturday morning to hear the Bible read probably doesn’t brighten many of our souls, but we should be aware that the problem here is with us.

How do we read Biblical books as ‘wholes’?

You could attend or organise an event like the one I’m running, or indeed book me to come and do it at your church. They’re great, but we can only tackle some of the Bible’s shortest books in this manner.

For slightly longer books you can work through them over several evenings—I run a regular Bible reading group where we do this around my dining table. To do the very longest in this way you have to take very large chunks at a time, which is not ideal for close reading.

You can, of course, read the books of the Bible yourself as wholes, on your own. This is a great idea. It’s easiest in what they call a ‘readers’ Bible without all the technical apparatus cluttering the page.

Of course, the answer—if we’re committed to reading the Bible in community, in our churches, to reading your way through the longest books of the Old Testament with others—is one of two things: you either need to meet very regularly and keep going for a long period of time, or you need to set aside intensive time, probably several days, to do so as an event.

The regular reading with others is to be preferred because of its effects in building community but it’s honestly difficult for many of us in the modern patterns of life we typically inhabit. The intensive time—think of it like feasting at the end of your fast, I suppose—should be easier to organise in theory. I must admit I’ve never seen anything like this outside of the context of formal education.

If anyone likes the idea of taking several days with me to go through, for example, the Book of Exodus in lots of detail, focusing on reading do let me know. There would need to be a few interested to make something like that viable, and it would have costs, so who knows if it’s possible; but, you don’t ask, you don’t get.

Photo by Yoab Anderson on Unsplash

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