On New Year’s Day 2010, I posted some initial thoughts on the subject of Bible reading. In that first post I sought to offer some considered reflections on the purpose of daily Bible reading and on the ascetical dimension of reading the Scriptures in a disciplined fashion, as well as some practical suggestions on how to embark on a reading program for beginners that takes into account the preeminent place of the Gospel and the Psalter in the Church and the vital need to avoid biting off more than one can chew. I have learned that these initial thoughts have proved useful to some, and for this I am grateful. Now the purpose of this post is to detail a more comprehensive Bible reading plan that builds on the foundation of the basic program described earlier. Needless to say, the points addressed in the first post are simply assumed here, and those who have not read the previous discussion should take a few minutes to do so.
III. Taking the Next Step: The Rest of the New Testament
Once a person has solidly established a regular daily discipline of reading the Gospel and the Psalter in the manner described earlier, it is perhaps time to start thinking of how to move from this bare minimum of Scriptural reading to a fuller program that can, in due course, lead the reader through the vast swaths of otherwise unexplored Biblical literature. Since abrupt change is ultimately detrimental to growth in the disciplines of the Christian life, and since, as we have seen, the Gospel and the Psalter should not be neglected in our daily reading of Scripture, it is probably best not to give up the program to which one has thus far become accustomed, but rather we should seek ways to sensibly add to it. Once again we must resist the temptation to do either too much or too little: one is a sure prescription for burnout, and the other simply caters to our complacency. So here, too, we must do only as much as we can, while we strive to grow in our discipline, which will in turn allow us to do more.
A first step might be to add a daily reading from the rest of the New Testament: Acts, the Epistles, and Revelation. If one has followed the Gospel reading program laid down in the “Cell Rule of the Optina Monastery,” which was warmly recommended in the first post, the easiest way to accomplish this would be to add the Epistle reading program appointed by the Rule, which is designed to match it. Readers will recall that the Optina Rule calls for reading one chapter of the Holy Gospel every day. There are 89 chapters in all when we take all four Gospels together, and so one reads through them once every three months. The Rule further calls for reading two chapters from the rest of the New Testament every day, with last seven chapters of Revelation being read at the rate of one per day. In this way, the reading of these books is completed also in 89 days, together with the reading of the Gospel.
A few years ago I prepared a reading plan in four columns whose purpose is to assist those who wish to conduct their reading of the New Testament according to the Optina Rule in keeping track of their progress. Our good friend Kevin Edgecomb has graciously hosted the plan in his website from the beginning, and it may be found here.
Now 89 multiplied by 4 is 356, so if one is using the program laid down by the Optina Cell Rule as a yearly reading plan, this leaves 9 days at the end of the year that would fall outside the reading cycle. Nothing prevents a reader, of course, from turning to the first chapter of St Matthew’s Gospel on December 23 and starting over, but I suspect many of us would prefer to start anew at the beginning of the year. Personally, I find that those days give me some elbow room in case I am unable to fulfill the reading plan on any given day. For instance, the intensity of the services from Holy Thursday to Pascha, and frankly, the sheer exhaustion from the long hours in Church, leave me with little time or inclination to read. Every year, then, I simply read for the last time on Holy Wednesday, and then pick up again on Bright Monday. That uses 4 of those additional 9 days. On the remaining 5 days, if I haven’t been ill or have otherwise needed to make use of them, I will often read through the Gospel of St Luke, whose extended birth narrative is singularly appropriate for season, and which at 24 chapters may easily be read at a rate of roughly 5 chapters per day.
IV. Reaching for the Goal: Reading the Old Testament
The rather minimal addition of two chapters from the rest of the New Testament to our daily Gospel and Psalter regimen brings us closer to our goal of reading through the entire Bible, but we yet have quite a bit of ground to cover. Again, once we have firmly settled into the exercise of this expanded discipline, we will be ready to add the final layer of our reading program, which will see us through to its completion. In this final and all-important step, we add a daily reading from the Old Testament.
Since we have been reading daily from the Psalter from the beginning and will continue to to do so, our plan will comprise the rest of the Old Testament read in sequential order over the course of the entire year. This can comfortably be done at a rate of roughly 3 chapters per day. Some years ago our friend Kevin Edgecomb prepared a reading plan covering the entire (N)RSV Old Testament, including the full Anaginoskomena, basically by dividing the number of chapters by 365. Then a while back I followed his plan for a year (excluding the Psalms), reducing the length of the daily readings to 2 or 3 chapters, and trying not to break up larger narrative, poetic, and prophetic sections. Again, Kevin kindly agreed to host the revised plan on his website, and it may be found at the very bottom of this page.
The plan is rather straight-forward, and it includes readings for all 365 days of the year. However, as I mentioned earlier, I usually skip the daily readings at least 4 times every year. This causes a bit of difficulty with this reading plan, since there is no elbow room to miss any readings. My own solution to this small problem is to read the book of 4 Maccabees, which is in an appendix to the Greek Old Testament and is not included in the Slavonic Bible, perhaps every other year and outside the reading plan. This may not be an entirely satisfactory solution, but it does open up 6 days at the end of the year.
And so we complete the 4 stages of our progressive reading plan for the entire Bible. I should mention that Kevin has prepared a PDF document that features all four reading plans side by side, and aligned with the day of the year. He has also an alternative version of this document that adapts the OT reading plan to the book names and versification of the NETS.
Again, all of the above is offered in the sincere and earnest hope that it may prove useful to someone in carrying out their desire to read the Holy Scriptures. And as has often been noted by Kevin and myself, these plans are under continuous revision, and suggestions for improvement and both encouraged and welcome.