A Bible History Daily-exclusive contribution by "Bible in the News" author Leonard J. Greenspoon
New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof is among today’s best journalists. His courageous and principled campaigns against human trafficking, among other evils, assure that his views will receive a serious, respectful hearing. All the sadder, then, that he has added his stature to a misguided, if well intentioned, campaign to improve religious literacy.
In his column of Sunday, April 27, he bemoans the fact that “only one-third [of Americans] know that Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount and 10 percent think that Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife.” I suspect that this latter number—not really so bad when we realize that three times that number of Americans don’t know the name of the current vice-president—will decrease with the release of Darren Aronofsky’s “Noah” movie. Even a casual viewer of that film is sure to notice that Noah never asks “Joan” to make the coffee or complains when “Joan” asks him to take out the trash.
This is not to say that on average Americans display great depth or breadth of knowledge in regard to religion in general or the Bible specifically. And we have a great deal of room for improvement in our knowledge of science, politics, or any number of other vital subjects. So I affirm that Americans should undoubtedly be more literate about religious communities and religious texts.
But what exactly does that mean? After forty years of teaching religious studies at public and private universities, I have yet to meet anyone who thinks that Joan of Arc was Noah’s better half. Such an identification is silly, but I don’t think it is a major cause for alarm.
For Christians not to know that, as recorded in the Gospel of Matthew (but nowhere else in the New Testament), Jesus spoke the Sermon on the Mount is unfortunate—and also shows a shocking lack of familiarity with Monty Python. But isn’t it actually more important to know the contents of the Sermon than to know its author?
The religion section of most bookstores includes an amazing array of Bibles. In our free eBook The Holy Bible: A Buyer’s Guide, prominent Biblical scholars Leonard Greenspoon and Harvey Minkoff expertly guide you through 21 different Bible translations (or versions) and address their content, text, style and religious orientation.
Herein lies the problem: Is achieving Biblical literacy the same thing as acing a multiple-choice or true/false quiz that mixes important insights with trivia and even strained interpretation? I don’t think so.
To explore this further, let’s look at some of the other “mistakes” Kristof illuminates: “Moses climbs Mount Cyanide and receives 10 enumerated commandments.” Doesn’t everyone know that it was Mt. Sinai, even if no one knows exactly where the mountain was or is? And yes, it’s true that the “ten commandments” are not enumerated in Exodus or Deuteronomy, but frankly I have no idea where Kristof got the idea, which he passes on as fact, that “there were 12 (unnumbered) commandments.” Nor is it correct, as Kristof asserts, that “Jews, Protestants and Catholics have different versions depending in part on how they compress them into 10.” This is wrong, and Kristof does no favor to proponents of religious literacy by passing these statements off as true.
Does anyone really think, as Kristof reports, that the epistles are the wives of the apostles or that Sodom and Gomorrah were the Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen (remember them?) of their day? Is either the Roman Catholic doctrine of Mary’s immaculate conception or Armenia’s early adoption of Christianity a bedrock issue in defining a person as religiously literate? I don’t think so.
At the same time, Kristof does correct the apparently still widespread and surely significant misconception that English is the original language of the Bible (Kristof alludes to, without mentioning by name, Texas governor “Ma” Ferguson as an outstanding proponent of that view). And he sagaciously castigates those who mistakenly believe that Jesus was the victim of serial crucifixions, from which he resurrected and re-resurrected himself repeatedly.
All of this is to say that all bits of information about religion are not equally valuable or, for that matter, equally valid. If we are serious about religion being taken seriously in the world, then we’d better be sure where our pedagogical (and other) priorities lie. I for one would breathe easier in a world where the Ten Commandments play a meaningful part in people’s lives even when most people can’t recite them in order or distinguish the Exodus version from the wording in Deuteronomy.
When this article was originally published on May 16, 2014, it elicited a great deal of commentary from our readers. In a follow-up submitted to BAS on May 26, 2014, author Leonard J. Greenspoon expounded on the concept of Biblical literacy in a response to the first 22 Bible History Daily readers’ comments. Greenspoon’s response was published below on June 2, 2014.—Ed.
I am gratified to see that my post on Biblical literacy has elicited almost two dozen responses. At the same time, it is necessary to observe that a number of the responses have little to do with the issue of what constitutes—or does not constitute—a Biblically literate individual or society.
To return to my post: there are two main points I had in mind. First is a negative one; namely, that measuring Biblical literacy as if it were equivalent to a giant multiple-choice quiz is wrong-headed. Among other problems, this approach misconceives the actual way in which we learn, or in my view, should learn, the Bible. If I know the different orderings of the books of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, it is not because I set out to learn them, but because this is useful information to anyone who is conducting serious research on this material. The same holds true for the names and order of the kings of Judah or Israel. In fact, the same holds true in almost any field: I asked a scholar of American history whether there is any special value to knowing the names and order of our presidents. He affirmed that not only that this wasn’t especially valuable information on its own, but that he knew the order of presidents only for the periods of American history in which he specialized.
As I sought to demonstrate briefly in my posting, a lot of what passes for “secure information” about the Bible is anything but. Those with a very long memory may recall that I dealt with this matter in in great detail in the Bible Review article “What America Believes About the Bible.” If what you want to test people on is (for example) as straightforward as, “Who was Solomon’s father?” then you probably won’t have too much of a problem. But anything much beyond that raises all sorts of questions simply within the context of the Bible itself.
This leads to my second main point, the positive one: If you are truly interested in what the writers of the Bible wrote, first read the text itself (in its original languages or in a translation that you find suitable for your purposes). Commentary, whether faith-based or secular, is useful, often obligatory for full understanding of a Biblical passage or concept. But, in my view, there is no substitute for—or shortcut to—a reader’s direct engagement with the text. It is for this reason that I prefer for my students to begin with a Biblical text as “naked” as possible; that is, with no or only a few footnotes or marginal notes. In my experience, too many people resort to the notes instead of trying first to work out a textual or exegetical problem on their own.
For more than a dozen years, Leonard J. Greenspoon’s “The Bible in the News” column has been one of the most popular sections of Bible Review and Biblical Archaeology Review. A new volume, developed exclusively for eReaders, this book brings together Greenspoon’s “The Bible in the News” articles and columns into a single collection, from his August 2000 feature article “Extra! Extra! Philistines in the Newsroom!” up to his column in the November/December 2012 issue of BAR. Read more here >>
This procedure does not lead to unanimity of opinion, but, then again, I don’t think that is what the writers of the Bible sought. When carefully read, many Biblical passages encourage, or perhaps even demand, active interaction with their readers, who should always be open to surprise, dismay and on occasion (I hope) encouragement.
Reading the Biblical text itself then is the beginning of Biblical literacy. Someone who never does this is Biblical illiterate, no matter what else he/she does or what facts he/she knows.
There are, I suppose, at least two ends toward which Biblical literacy points. The first is the acquisition of insights based on reading the text, supplemented by commentaries of all sorts. The second is the incorporation of these insights into our lives, individually and communally.
I do not have THE answer as to how to accomplish these two ends or goals, which in my view are complementary. All serious discussion of the Bible—positive, negative and all points in between—must be anchored in a reading of the text itself, which constitutes the appropriate context for all subsequent analysis, interpretation and application of the text. Those who enter into discussion informed in this way are Biblically literate—no matter how we measure it. Those who do not are, simply put, Biblically illiterate.
Leonard J. Greenspoon is the Philip M. and Ethel Klutznick Chair in Jewish Civilization at Creighton University in Omaha. He is editor-in-chief of the Studies in Jewish Civilization series, which is publishing its 24th volume this fall. He also co-authored, with the late Harvey Minkoff, BAS’s free guide to modern Bible translations, The Holy Bible: A Buyer’s Guide.
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