Biblical Illiteracy

FSMThe latest double issue of Newsweek (dated 01-06-2015) contains some interesting facts about the Bible and the Bible’s unassailable adherents, especially in the United States. Although Newsweek presents better and more up-to-date evidence for issues that have (for some) been common knowledge for years, it’s still refreshing to see a major publication validating (yet again) your own understanding and belief.

Before continuing I am required by journalistic laws first codified in the Hammurabi Code to disclose my background and biases. When in college I took one or two courses in the Bible where in order to pass the course, I actually had to read the Bible. One of the courses was called, “The Bible As Literature.” Later in life I became quite interested in the variations of the Bible and while looking into the variety of Bibles available at the bookstores an enormous fat volume that presented the key editions in parallel, four (or was it six) across the open pages. I was fascinated both by the different books included in some Bibles and left out of others, and especially by the differences in the parallel texts (some subtle, others hugely disturbing).

One other Bible aid I truly enjoyed was Issac Asimov’s two volume Guide To the Bible. Asimov, notwithstanding his own beliefs, gave me a good historical foundation for the events in the Bible. Just recently Reza Aslan further focused my historical interest with his excellent book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.

So, unlike almost everyone else, I have actually read the Bible and I have several editions of that book on my iPad and iPhone at all times (Asimov is there too).

I have always found the Bible and the people and events depicted in the Bible interesting. I accept the Bible for its history, poetry, and mythology: I do not believe in a Higher Power unless a certain fascination with the Flying Spaghetti Monster counts.

The article starts out with a rather strong introduction:

Ten CommandmentsThey wave their Bibles at passersby, screaming their condemnations of homosexuals. They fall on their knees, worshipping at the base of granite monuments to the Ten Commandments while demanding prayer in school. They appeal to God to save America from their political opponents, mostly Democrats. They gather in football stadiums by the thousands to pray for the country’s salvation.

They are God’s frauds, cafeteria Christians who pick and choose which Bible verses they heed with less care than they exercise in selecting side orders for lunch. They are joined by religious rationalizers—fundamentalists who, unable to find Scripture supporting their biases and beliefs, twist phrases and modify translations to prove they are honoring the Bible’s words.

This is no longer a matter of personal or private faith. With politicians, social leaders and even some clergy invoking a book they seem to have never read and whose phrases they don’t understand, America is being besieged by Biblical illiteracy. Climate change is said to be impossible because of promises God made to Noah; Mosaic law from the Old Testament directs American government; creationism should be taught in schools; helping Syrians resist chemical weapons attacks is a sign of the end times—all of these arguments have been advanced by modern evangelical politicians and their brethren, yet none of them are supported in the Scriptures as they were originally written.

The Bible is not the book many American fundamentalists and political opportunists think it is, or more precisely, what they want it to be. Their lack of knowledge about the Bible is well established. A Pew Research poll in 2010 found that evangelicals ranked only a smidgen higher than atheists in familiarity with the New Testament and Jesus’s teachings. “Americans revere the Bible—but, by and large, they don’t read it,’’ wrote George Gallup Jr. and Jim Castelli, pollsters and researchers whose work focused on religion in the United States. The Barna Group, a Christian polling firm, found in 2012 that evangelicals accepted the attitudes and beliefs of the Pharisees—religious leaders depicted throughout the New Testament as opposing Christ and his message—more than they accepted the teachings of Jesus.

Then it makes what seems to be an undeniable observation.

No television preacher has ever read the Bible. Neither has any evangelical politician. Neither has the pope. Neither have I. And neither have you. At best, we’ve all read a bad translation—a translation of translations of translations of hand-copied copies of copies of copies of copies, and on and on, hundreds of times.

James Joyce published Ulysses earlier in the last century and the controversy over the various editions continues today. Marcel Proust rewrote extensively right up until the presses took over. What would we expect from a text cobbled together from deteriorating clay tablets (no printing presses) and more than 1,500 years of what Newsweek likens to a vast game of Telephone. So even if all these folks actually read their favorite version of the Bible, it surely isn’t the same book as they use down the street at another church, and it’s so full of transcription errors and discrepancies, it’s really not kosher to suggest any passage from the Bible is infallible.

In fact, suggesting that an infallible God wrote the Bible might be considered blasphemous.

Still, a little voice reminds me of those right-wing zealots who defended the language of this country against the influx of Spanish speaking peoples by suggesting that if English was good enough for Jesus, those illegal immigrants had better learn it like all good Americans.

Get the special issue of Newsweek on the Bible and read it through with an open, critical mind. Even if you don’t include the Bible in your list of religious artifacts (there are religions that don’t, you know), there’s a lot to learn in reading about such a well-known book: Expand your mind!


In conclusion, remember that the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster only has one commandment:  Don’t Be An Asshole.

3 thoughts on “Biblical Illiteracy

  1. I agree, there’s a problem of Biblical illiteracy and especially with those who practically worship the book. I also believe literalism is a huge injustice to the book. Christianity, the Bible, is supposed to be a spiritual process, not an allegiance to a list of fundamentals decided a generation ago or unchallenged dogmas. People claim to believe the Bible while simultaneously showing a severe lack of understanding of the book and that can be disturbing to a person of faith.


  2. I took some bible courses in college similar to the ones you discuss. If we take the bible literally, then we are to believe that the world used to be this magical, wonderful place where there was a man who walked on water and turned water into wine, and another man that entered the mouth of a whale and lived to tell the tale, another man who gathered two of every animal on an ark and waited out a flood…and then all of a sudden all that magic stopped. There’s some great moral lessons in there, there’s also some things that have become outdated as time went on.

    Kurt Vonnegut had a great quote, and I wish I could remember it exactly, because I’ll probably butcher it, but it was something about he and his family were people who didn’t go to church but overall tried to be good people. Darn, now I will have to go look that up.


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