Reading the Bible can be intimidating, no matter where you are in your faith walk. Made up of individual “books” ranging in subject matter from history to instruction, from poetry to prophecy, this all-time global bestseller is frequently considered confusing, by first-time—as well as seasoned—readers.
Bible Gateway interviewed Dr. William H. Marty and Dr. Boyd Seevers about their book, The Quick-Start Guide to the Whole Bible: Understanding the Big Picture Book-by-Book (Bethany House, 2014).
As Bible school teachers, describe the average Christian student’s Bible knowledge when they first arrive on campus.
Dr. Marty: Students come with a wide variety of biblical knowledge. Some know many of the popular stories in both the Old and New Testaments. Others, however, know very little about the Bible. They may be relatively new believers, or for various reasons have not received systematic teaching. In many churches teaching is mostly topical. The emphasis is on life-related issues. Because of this, very few believers know the story line of both the Old and New Testaments. This is not necessarily wrong, but an unfortunate consequence of topical teaching.
Though students come with varying degrees of biblical understanding, my overall impression is that most of them are eager to learn. I also have found that with current students, I need to do more to help them understand what the Bible says about life and not merely study the Bible to pass an exam.
What do you recommend churches and parents should be doing to foster better Bible awareness among students?
Dr. Marty: I think we need more emphasis on the story line of the Bible. Churches should offer opportunities to study large units of Scripture in its historical and cultural background. I was once challenged when I recommended an emphasis on the biblical history. The individual said they thought history was boring. I said, “Absolutely not!” History is about people, and people are not boring. The Bible contains fascinating stories about people and their faith struggles. Even in the Epistles, which focus on teaching, there is a story behind the text. Parents should become informed about the story line in the Bible, and then tell their children biblical stories in their historical context.
There are also organizations that emphasize teaching “the big picture” of the Old and New Testaments. Some of these programs are for both adults and children.
What makes your book a “quick-start guide” as opposed to another kind of guide?
Dr. Seevers: The Quick-Start Guide to the Whole Bible gives the reader a quick-start to understand each book of the Bible because it explains the background, contents, and application of each book in just a few pages. In easy-to-understand language, it explains the big picture for each book, and treats all 66 books of the Bible in one inexpensive paperback—no need for multiple, expensive reference books.
Why is it important for readers to know the setting or background to a book of the Bible?
Dr. Seevers: God wants his people in all ages to understand and apply his Word, but he didn’t originally have it written to a modern audience. In one sense, we’re reading someone else’s mail, written thousands of years ago, on the other side of the world, in languages we don’t speak, in cultural contexts that are sometimes quite foreign to the world we know. The better we understand the background to the books of the Bible, the better chance we have of understanding the authors’ intended meanings and making proper applications in our world.
How can differences in meaning of a Bible book pertaining to the original audience and the reader today be clearly discerned?
Dr. Marty: In answering this question, I think it would be more helpful to reword it. There is only one meaning in a text, so the question is how we determine the difference in application to the original audience and the reader today.
We do this by first determining the issue or question the biblical author was addressing. Second, we identify an eternal truth in the passage. Third, we look for points of similarity between the original audience and people today. Fourth, we apply the truth of the passage to a current situation.
How should a reader of the Bible understand and apply the Old Testament versus the New Testament?
Dr. Seevers: Both the Old and New Testaments gave God’s revelation to his people in ways that were completely relevant for their situations and times. Some biblical principles and commands are timeless and appear in both testaments (live holy lives, live in harmony with God, treat others graciously). Other teachings and commands have changed over time (sacrifice animals to cover your sins, believe in Jesus’ death to make you right with God). For Christians who live after the ministry of Jesus, the New Testament best tells us what God’s people today should believe and do. When that differs from what we find in the Old Testament, we need to understand that God has “updated” some of his revelation for his people.
What are a few of the significant principles you identify and highlight from some of the books of the Bible you examine in your book?
Dr. Seevers: The book of Genesis gives the origin of the world, humanity, sin, and the people of Israel. Its stories of these origins does not tell modern readers all that we would like to know about the beginning of the world, but it does tell us timeless truths about God and about life. Genesis shows that God controls history as well as the events in each of our lives. He orchestrates events on both a grand and a personal scale. He controls and uses the weather, rulers, and armies to work his purposes, and knows and directs the things that concern us—finding a spouse, having children, and dealing with conflict in our families. He controls these things in concert with our choices, so the better we make godly choices, the better life works.
Dr. Marty: Paul wrote Romans to a church he had never visited, and perhaps that’s why it’s the most theological of all his epistles. In reading Romans, people will discover that doctrine is not boring and useless. Paul emphasizes that Jews and Gentiles (everyone) need righteousness (to be made right with God). Righteousness is not earned; it’s a gift, to those (both Jew and Gentile) who put their faith in Christ; therefore, no one should boast thinking they’re better than anyone else. Believers should love one another and do their best to build up those who are weak in their faith.
In his first epistle, Peter wrote to encourage Christians who were the targets of vicious verbal and physical abuse. In America we’re not threatened by persecution, but suffering and even death are the harsh reality for believers in some places in the world today. Peter’s pastoral words are a reminder to all who suffer for their faith that persecution is not a threat to our salvation. Rather, it gives us an opportunity to witness about our Savior and the glorious hope of eternal life, which is kept safe in heaven by God himself.
Is there anything else you’d like to say?
Dr. Marty: My wife has been reading the Old Testament prophets and has used The Quick-Start Guide to the Whole Bible to help her understand the historical context and purpose of the books. She confessed that for a few of the books, she didn’t know anything about the context, so she read The Quick-Start Guide. My hope is that she’ll find the New Testament, which I wrote, as helpful as the Old Testament, which Boyd wrote.
Bio: Dr. William H. Marty is professor of Bible at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago. He teaches and writes on both the New and Old Testaments and is the author of the bestselling The Whole Bible Story, The World of Jesus, and co-author of The Quick-Start Guide to the Whole Bible. Dr. Marty lives with his wife in Chicago, Illinois.
Dr. Boyd Seevers is professor of Old Testament Studies at University of Northwestern, St. Paul, Minnesota. Dr. Seevers studied and lived in Israel for eight years and is the author of Hidden in Plain Sight and Warfare in the Old Testament, and co-author of The Quick-Start Guide to the Whole Bible. He lives with his wife and four children in Minneapolis, Minnesota.