The Bible is a pretty large book. Although we might not immediately think of it as such, how many other 2,128-page1 books do you have laying around your home? Or which reader has four different versions of the Complete Works of William Shakespeare on their bookshelf? The Bible is unique, not only for its contents, but also for its construction and history.
Though rightly regarded as the most important book you could ever own or read, modern Christians often fail to recognize the unique place in history we inhabit when it comes to accessing and understanding the Bible. For much of history, most Christians did not have access to the entire Bible. The first pandect (Bible in one book) was produced in the 8th century.2 Even after the invention of the printing press and the proliferation of Bibles in vernacular languages, many Christians only had access to particular books or collections of books in the Bible.
This reality got me thinking: what if I only had access to a couple of biblical books? Which ones would I want to have? My particular fondness for Luke and John would make those gospels priorities for me. Genesis, Exodus, and Deuteronomy are vital for understanding God’s covenant with Israel, so those would be useful too. I might be a terrible theologian if I did not have a copy of Romans and a terrible 21st century Christian if I did not at least consider having Revelation. Simply imagining life without the whole canon serves as an important reminder of how blessed and privileged we are to live with access to multiple copies and versions of the entire Bible.
However, as anyone who has read extensively in the biblical text knows, no biblical book contains within its scope the entire story of God’s People, the whole history of salvation, or even every key doctrinal point.3 Having access to certain books, therefore, might still leave a reader relatively uninformed about the biblical metanarrative, the overarching story of the Bible. This reality led me to reflect further: what if, instead of whole books, we only had access to certain chapters of the Bible? What if we only had access to, say, thirty chapters of the Bible: which ones would we want to have?
Before proceeding, I want to note a couple of things about what follows. First, this is an exercise in theological reflection. Far be it from me to suggest stripping the Bible down for parts or ignoring chapters which do not appear on this list. Second, I hasten to note the importance of reading all portions of the Bible in their literary contexts. Chapters in the Bible were not original to the text, having only been added in the 13th century.4 Even though this exercise is somewhat arbitrary, then, the process of focusing and limiting the Biblical text does reveal much about our theological commitments.
Finally, this list arises from my own concerns and contexts. The foci of these chapters are the biblical metanarrative (creation, fall, redemption, restoration), the history of Israel, the life and work of Jesus, and the message of the Church. Of course, there are plenty of other themes and messages to be highlighted by this type of exercise. Without further preparation, these are the thirty chapters I would use to summarize the Bible:
The Bible in Thirty Chapters
Genesis 1-3: Creation, Fall, and Curse
Genesis 12, 15: Call and Covenant with Abram
Exodus 12: Passover Initiated
Exodus 14: Crossing of the Red Sea
Deuteronomy 5-6: Ten Commandments and Heart of the Torah
Psalm 23: The Good Shepherd
Psalm 106: Summary of Israel’s History
Isaiah 53: The Suffering Servant
Ezekiel 37: Dry Bones and Restoration of Israel
Matthew 5-7: Sermon on the Mount
Luke 22-24: Lord’s Supper, Passion, Death, Resurrection, and Ascension of Jesus
John 3-4: Born Again of Living Water
Acts 7: Summary of Israel’s Rebellion and Stoning of Stephen
Acts 26: Life of the Apostle Paul
Romans 9: God’s Continuing Covenant with Israel and Inclusion of the Gentiles
1 Corinthians 11(17)-12: Lord’s Supper, Spiritual Gifts, and Ecclesiology
Galatians 3: Abraham, the Law, and Faith in Christ
Hebrews 1: Christology and Superiority of Jesus
1 John 3: Children of God and Law of Love
Revelation 21: New Heavens and New Earth
What do you think of this list? Which chapters would you remove? What other chapters would you include?
1 The number of pages the in NRSV Bible on my desk.
2 Codex Amiantinus, a Vulgate edition prepared as a gift for Pope Gregory II.
3 Arguments for a Protestant reading of Paul’s Epistle to the Romans or a liturgically-informed reading of the Gospel of John fail to entirely convince me here, as both of these approaches present considerable contextual problems and often neglect important components of Israel’s story.
4 Alternative systems were devised by Archbishop Stephen Langton and Cardinal Hugo de Sancto Caro, with modern Biblical chapters deriving primarily from Langton’s system.