Overcoming Religious Illiteracy: Not as Simple as A, B or C

A Bible History Daily-exclusive contribution by "Bible in the News" author Leonard J. Greenspoon

Leonard Greenspoon

Leonard 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.

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof.

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof.

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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  • JANA says

    I do not agree that reading the Bible directly with no prior knowlege of it, is what constitutes biblical literacy. The Bible is a collection of books covering different time periods, cross cultural references, opinions of differing authors, arguments among priests and prophets, stories located in different geographical regions, fictitous and non-fictitious characters, and a wide range of Hebrew and Christian theology. Would you recommend a person read all the books in a library before being considered literate? And adding to the confusion are innumerable complicated translations from original languages, many of them not in use today (it was not written in English). A seriously interested reader of the Bible needs to do some preliminary work in order to understand its content. Meaning cannot be dervived from one reading alone. 9/4/15

  • GENE says

    When referring to the passing away of the Mosaic Law, does the Bible directly say that the Ten Commandments(or Ten Words) were included in what came to an end?

    Romans 7: 6, 7: “Now we have been released from the Law, because we have died to that by which we were being held fast….What, then, are we to say? Is the Law sin? Certainly not! Really, I would not have come to know sin had it not been for the Law, For example, I would not have known covetousness if the Law had not said: ” You must not covet.” (Here, immediately after writing that Jewish Christians had been “released from the Law,” what example from the Law does Paul cite? The Tenth Commandment, thus showing that it was included in the Law from which they had been released.)

    2 Corinthians 3:7-11: “If the code which administers death and which was engraved in letters in stones, came about in a glory, so that the sons of Israel could not gaze intently at the face of Moses, because of the glory of his face, a glory that was to be done away with, why should the administering of the spirit not be with even greater glory? …For if that which was to be done away with was brought in with glory, how much greater would be the glory of what remains.(Reference is made here to a code that was “engraved in letters in stones” and it is said that “the sons of Israel could not gaze intently at the face of Moses” on the occasion when it was delivered to them. What is this describing? Exodus 34: 1, 28-30 shows that it is the giving of the Ten Commandments; these were the Commandments engraved on stone. Obviously these are included in what the scripture says “was to be done away with.

    Does doing away with the Mosaic Law, including the Ten Commandments, imply the taking away of all moral restraint?

    Not at all; many of the moral standards set out in the Ten Commandments were restated in the inspired books of the Christian Greek Scriptures. (see Matthew, Chapters 5 through 7; [The Sermon on the Mount,] and Galatians 5:18-24) No everlasting life in heaven or earth for those violating the Law of the Christ without repenting and exercising faith in the shed blood of Jesus Christ. Better to accept the New Covenant, written on hearts, and accepting God’s merciful provisions, than trying to gain salvation by works of Law (the Mosaic Law).

    Reference:”Reasoning in the Scriptures” (1985) Pages 345-351

  • William says

    I believe I can address your post in a thought provoking way:

    A P’rushim (Pharisee) who was Torah expert (a lawyer/legal expert: νομικός nomikos) asked Yeshua (Jesus) a sh’eilah (technical question about Jewish halakhah) to trap him:

    Mattityahu (Mathew) 22:36 (CJB)
    36  “Rabbi (Teacher), which of the mitzvot (commandments) in the Torah is the most important?”

    Yeshua answered by quoting part of the Sh’ma:

    Mattityahu (Mathew) 22:37 (CJB)
    37  He told him,

    “‘You are to love Adonai your God
    with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.’

    He then goes on to say:

    Mattityahu (Mathew) 22:38 (CJB)
    38  This is the greatest and most important mitzvah (command).

    But Yeshua doesn’t stop there . . . He says a second is similar to it:

    Mattityahu (Mathew) 22:39 (CJB)
    39  And a second is similar to it,

    ‘You are to love your neighbor as yourself.’

    The final statement sets the stage for explaining biblical illiteracy:

    Mattityahu (Mathew) 22:40 (CJB)
    40  All of the Torah and the Prophets are dependent on these two mitzvot (commandments).”

    Since there was no B’rit Chadashah (New Covenant/New Testament) written at this point, Yeshua is literally saying:

    “All of the Bible (The Torah and the Prophets)
    is dependent on these 2 commandments”

    Dependent on: Learning it – understanding it – applying it. Hillel said something similar when he said:

    “Love your neighbor as yourself, the rest is just commentary – go and learn it.”

    So here are the questions that need to be asked to address the root of biblical literacy:

    1. Do you know where in the text the (2) MOST IMPORTANT commands are? If not, WHY not?
    2. Have you memorized the (2) MOST IMPORTANT commands? If not, WHY not?
    3. Have you memorized them in their entirety? If not, WHY not?
    4. Do you filter the text through these 2 commands or do you filter it through some man-made theological supposition/doctrine/dogma?
    5. Do you APPLY these commands to your life – daily?
    Are the words ALWAYS on your heart?
    Do you talk about them when you get up?
    Do you talk about them when you go down the road?
    Do you talk about them when you sit down?
    Do you talk about them when you lie down?
    Do you teach them CAREFULLY to your children?

    I meet very few that know where they are in the text. I meet fewer still that have memorized them . . .

    How can you have a relationship with the Living God and say you follow Him if you don’t KNOW or APPLY the very things He said are “the most important commandments in the text?”

    How can you have a relationship with the Living God and say you follow Him if you don’t KNOW or APPLY the very things He said that “the ENTIRE Torah and Prophets are DEPENDENT on?”

    Be blessed my Brothers and Sisters,
    Shalom (Peace)!

  • whitney says

    This is so sad and true, I live in a diverse and oppionated church community where we really don’t need to study the bible,just be happy about what we believe in and see Jesus in everything we do.We all were upset about the Noah movie, because it didn’t reflect our beliefs. Our ministers will keep us self centered and self affirming,but contributing. And should there ever be anything of a critical importance for us to understand in the good book, they will dumb it down to a form we will like. And of course they will always guide us in a godly way through voting and social issues. Aloha Jesus and me are having a great day! I don’t need to read, the spirit will just move me.

  • John says

    It amazes me that Christians today believe God’s 10 commandment law has been done away with. Only a universalist could believe that because without the law, there is no sin and hence all will be saved and inherit eternal life. Heaven will simply be a continuation of Earth with murder, adultery, stealing, blaspheming God etc. What government can function without laws? Paul is clear that we ESTABLISH the law through faith. The law that was done away with was the ceremonial law. An angel of God tore the veil separating the holy from the most holy because God’s presence was no longer there. Had it been, everyone who looked inside would have been killed. The new covenant that God makes is the writing of the 10,commandment law on our hearts, not the doing away of the law. What Christ’s sacrifice accomplished was forgiveness of sins. If the law could simply be done away with, Christ died for no reason.

    Christ warns against those who teach that His law, the one written with His own finger, was done away with.

    Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. Matt 5:19

    Note that you are not in Heaven. Those in Heaven refer to these unsaved people as the least.

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