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Known and Unknown

Americans say that the Bible is central to them—a divine instruction manual for life on earth. How is it, then, a new book asks, that they know so little of it?

Adam Kirsch
February 15, 2011
A billboard of an open Bible stands next to a Amish schoolhouse August 7, 2002 in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.(Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
A billboard of an open Bible stands next to a Amish schoolhouse August 7, 2002 in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.(Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

America and England, an old joke has it, are divided by a common language. In the same way, you could say that Judaism and Christianity are divided by a common Bible—except that, historically speaking, the consequences of that division haven’t been a laughing matter. It is exactly because Jews and Christians agree on the divine status of the Hebrew Bible that their disagreement about the New Testament has been so fraught. To a believing Christian, a Hindu who venerates the Vedas would simply be an unbeliever, a heathen, and so he would present no particular theological challenge. But a Jew, who accepts part of the Christian Bible but not the whole, is something more troubling—a critic, a breeder of doubts. From the Jewish perspective, meanwhile, the Christian demotion of the Hebrew Bible to the Old Testament is especially bitter: The suggestion that Judaism has been superseded is more objectionable than the idea that it was never true in the first place.

In America today, thankfully, the ancient theological ire between Christians and Jews has been almost forgotten. But as Timothy Beal shows in his personal, accessible new book, The Rise and Fall of the Bible: The Unexpected History of an Accidental Book (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $25), there is still a profound difference between the ways the two faiths read their Bibles. The kind of Jewish education that most non-Orthodox American Jews receive leaves us familiar with the major biblical stories; and of course, many Jewish holidays revolve around biblical episodes, from the Exodus on Passover to the Maccabees on Hanukkah. Jews who receive a traditional Orthodox education learn the Bible much more thoroughly, but the core of their study has to do with the Talmud and commentaries—a way of thinking about Torah that treats the original divine text primarily as a subject for interpretation.

Neither of these Jewish approaches to Torah has anything in common with the fundamentalist, Bible-centered Christianity that is so potent in the United States—especially the parts where Jews do not live. Beal, a professor of religion at Case Western Reserve University, is now an academic scholar of the Bible, accustomed to thinking of it as the work of historically situated human beings. But he was raised in an evangelical Christian home, where the Bible was held to be quite literally the Word of God. He hastens to explain that this does not mean his parents were naive or uneducated: “My parents’ biblical faith … was as seriously intellectual as it was devout.” His mother, who studied Greek in college, would “sometimes … pull out her old Greek New Testament to see how else the text might be translated.”

Still, growing up in this bibliocentric culture gave Beal an early sense that the Bible was “the go-to book for any serious question we might have, from sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll to heaven, hell, and why bad things happen to good people.” The Bible was “God’s book of answers, which if opened and read rightly would speak directly to me with concrete, divinely authored advice about my life and how to live it.” In short, to use an evangelical acronym that I, for one, had never heard before, it was “B.I.B.L.E.: Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth.”

The Rise and Fall of the Bible is Beal’s attempt to shatter this popular understanding of the Bible as a combination of divine instruction manual and self-help book. While there’s no denying that the Bible remains central—Beal quotes polls indicating that “65 percent of all Americans believe that the Bible ‘answers all or most of the basic questions of life,’ ”—he, at the same time, notes that Americans are surprisingly ignorant of what is actually in it. “More than 80 percent of born-again or evangelical Christians believe that ‘God helps those who help themselves’ is a Bible verse,” he writes. Less than half of all adults can name the four Gospels; only one-third can name five of the Ten Commandments. In his own experience as a college teacher, Beal says, students “come to class on the first day with more ideas about the Bible derived from … The Da Vinci Code than from actual Biblical texts.”

What explains this disparity between Americans’ absolute faith in the Bible and their evident ignorance of it? To Beal, the problem lies with the notion that the Bible is “a divine guidebook, a map for getting through the terra incognita of life.” For as soon as you open it and start reading, it becomes troublingly apparent that the Bible is no such thing. It does not offer answers to problems, especially not 21st-century problems; only in a few places does it even offer straightforward moral counsel. Depending on where you open it, the Bible might give the impression that it is mainly composed of genealogies and agricultural regulations.

The gulf between what readers expect to find in the Bible and what they are actually given produces a kind of paralysis, Beal writes. “For many Christians, this experience of feeling flummoxed by the Bible … [produces] not only frustration but also guilt for doubting the Bible’s integrity.” The Bible-publishing industry feeds on this anxiety, he argues, by endlessly repackaging the Biblical text in ever more watered-down and over-explained forms. Most Jewish readers will probably be unfamiliar with the world of Christian “Biblezines,” in which biblical texts are interspersed with magazine-style articles and quizzes: “There are Biblezines for just about everyone. Becoming targets college-age and young professional women. Explore is for preteen boys, and Refuel is for teenage boys. Blossom is for preteen girls, and Revolve is for teenage girls.”

What troubles Beal about these publications is not just the way they dumb down the Bible—Blossom is a long way from Beal’s mother reading the New Testament in Greek—but the way they translate and interpret the text according to an undeclared social and political agenda. Beal shows how the Manga Bible turns Eve into a simpering temptress (“Hee hee … girls can make guys do anything,” she titters in one panel), while the Life Application Study Bible makes Leviticus sound like an anti-gay tract.

All these quasi-Bibles are designed to eliminate what Beal regards as the Bible’s most inspiring feature—its refusal to speak with a single voice. The Bible isn’t really “a book” at all, but a library of books (the Greek word biblia, Beal points out, is a plural), written over a span of centuries, in a wide range of genres—myth, history, law codes, poems, proverbs. The middle section of The Rise and Fall of the Bible is devoted to a capsule history of the writing and editing of the Bible, designed to show readers new to the subject that the book in the hotel nightstand is not a divine artifact.

In asking “What Would Jesus Read?” Beal also ends up explaining what is still apparently unknown to many Christians—the fact that Jesus was a Jew, and Christianity initially a Jewish movement. The episode in Luke 4 where Jesus preaches in a synagogue leads Beal to discuss Torah reading and Shabbat services. Later on, he examines the Hebrew text of the Bible to demonstrate how every English translation is inevitably an interpretation—sometimes, a Christian apologetic interpretation, as when the Hebrew word almah in the Book of Isaiah is translated as “virign,” rather than “young woman,” in order to produce a Christological reading (“Behold, a virgin will conceive and bear a son …”)

By insisting on the Bible’s human making, however, Beal does not want to convince Christians to stop reading it—the way Christopher Hitchens or Sam Harris would. Rather, he wants them to read the Bible with more tolerance for ambiguity, recognizing that the text cries out for interpretation. In short, as Beal puts it, Christians need to read more like Jews:

Here again we may find insight from Jewish tradition’s understanding of Torah. One legend says, ‘When the Holy One, blessed be He, gave the Torah to Israel, he gave it only in the form of wheat, for us to make flour from it, and flax, to make a garment from it.’ The idea is that God depends on the community to fulfill biblical meaning. The Torah is incomplete without its interpreters who make something new of it.

Naturally, the kind of interpretation Beal has in mind is not the kind the rabbis had in mind. Talmudic interpretation is based on the premise that, since the Torah is God’s word, every meaning that can be found in it is divine. That is how a whole legal system, and then, in Kabbalah, a whole mystical system, could be deduced from the biblical text. Beal’s reading of the Bible depends, conversely, on the premise that the Bible is not divine writ, but rather a precious human inheritance, which can be used to support and enhance contemporary moral intuitions. As he puts it, the Bible “hosts the human quest for meaning without predestining a specific conclusion.”

This is not talmudic, but it is exactly the same spirit in which liberal Jewish theologians now interpret the Bible. Like Beal, the authors of a book such as Jewish Theology in Our Timeare attempting to salvage the vocabulary of faith they grew up with, while discarding the dogmas in which they can no longer believe. The Bible, read this way, is historically and emotionally primary, but not theologically primary—not, in fact, essentially different from the sacred texts of every faith, or the great works of secular literature. Perhaps it is on these ironic terms that Jew and Christian, after so many centuries, can agree to read the same Bible after all.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.

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