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An unusual, unexpected guide to the Bible


Marjhon Obsioma | Unsplash | CC0

Daniel Esparza - published on 04/28/22

Isaac Asimov, the prolific writer and biochemistry professor, published his own guide to the Bible. His approach is far from being hostile or anti-religious.
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Saying everyone should read the Bible is not an unreasonable claim. Sure, it should be read with adequate guidance, in a good translation, preferably in a properly commented edition, with an acute awareness of the many literary genres found in it, and of the contexts in which these texts were written, edited, and collected. Guides to the Bible are, thus, necessary.

Biblical illiteracy is a rising trend. A survey from 2021 found that only 11% of Americans read the Bible daily.

The numbers vary across demographics: Millennials are most likely to have never read the Bible, whereas the most frequent readers were those aged over 70 years old.

This was not always the case. As Josh Jones notes in this article, “even famous atheists like Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and Melvyn Bragg have argued for teaching the Bible in schools” as an essential historical document — and not exclusively in faith-driven contexts. Interestingly, Jones explains that atheists and agnostics often score higher than most believers on surveys of religious knowledge: their reading of the Bible tends to be more attentive, even if their motives for reading it have to do with, for example, the kind of contributions to literary culture found in the King James edition.

Biblical illiteracy is an issue that educators have tried to tackle for quite some time now. Literature and art scholars lament that most students lack this kind of education, and thus miss much (if not all) of the references found in the great works of the past. In his book on The Political Theology of Paul (a collection of lectures held in 1987 in Heidelberg), the noted sociologist of religion, philosopher, and scholar of Judaism Jacob Taubes shares a telling anecdote:

I think it is a disaster that my students grow up in sheer ignorance of the Bible. I received a dissertation about [Walter] Benjamin in which twenty percent of the associations were mistaken, for the reason that they were biblical associations. So the student comes to me with the finished product, I read some of it and I say: Listen, you need to go to Sunday school and read the Bible! And […] he says to me: In what translation? I say: For you, any one will do.

Chances are believers do not know that the American (born Russian) writer and biochemistry professor Isaac Asimov (yes, that Asimov, the sci-fi pioneer), atheist as he was, published his own guide to the Bible. In the introduction, we read:

The most influential, the most published, the most widely read book in the history of the world is the Bible. No other book has been so studied and so analyzed and it is a tribute to the complexity of the Bible and eagerness of its students that after thousands of years of study there are still endless books that can be written about it […] Most people who read the Bible do so in order to get the benefit of its ethical and spiritual teachings, but the Bible has a secular side, too. It is a history book covering the first four thousand years of human civilization. For most of the last two thousand, years, the Bible has been virtually the only history book used in Western civilization. Even today, it remains the most popular, and its view of ancient history is still more widely and commonly known than is that of any other.

Jones explains how Asimov’s Guide to the Bible was originally published in two volumes in 1968-69, and then reprinted as one in 1981 (which is the version one can find now for sale). The guide aims at bringing “the outside world” into the Bible, to “illuminate it in terms of the Biblical story and, in return, illuminate the events of the Bible by adding to it the non-Biblical aspects of history, biography, and geography” — which is exactly what serious biblical scholars do, from the Second Vatican Council on. In fact, Asimov’s tone is far from being hostile, or anti-religious. On the contrary, Isaac Asimov’s Guide to the Bible is an attempt to help those who appreciate how deeply embedded the book is in world culture and history, but who may not be necessarily interested in taking it on faith. In that sense, it is an interesting guide for believers too: it explains not only the contents of the books of the Bible, but also how the books themselves (and the Bible as a single book) came to be.

As Jones sharply notes, Asimov’s book “has a distinct advantage over most of those written by, and for, academics:” its approachable, readable, yet still erudite tone.

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