The Vanishing Bible

18 07 2009

I recently had an interesting article drawn to my attention by Jack Sasson, via his “Agade” mailing list. The article is by Philip Davies, author of (amongst other things) Whose Bible is it Anyway?. In that book, first published in 1995, Davies argued against the “confessional” approach to Biblical scholarship and suggested that the Bible belongs to the general population and not to the religious alone. As he notes in this new article (aptly titled, “Whose Bible? Anyone’s?”), there is a tremendous irony here. Secular academics can rant for all they like about the Bible not being a religious text but if religious people stop caring about it, we’ll all be out of a job.

The tone of Davies’ article is a sombre one, as he takes the opportunity to reflect on the general decline of Biblical literacy. He claims (curiously!) that secular Jews tend to know a great deal more of the Bible than do Christians. I cannot comment on Biblical literacy amongst non-Jews, but it must be sorry indeed. I am continually surprised at how little the people within my own community know about the Bible: an indictment that can be broadened to include a number of religious Jews as well. While most people are familiar with the pre-patriarchal narratives (Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah and his sons, the tower of Babel), and have a more-or-less passable knowledge of the patriarchs, the average person (in my experience) knows very little of the events that occurred in the wilderness, and almost nothing about the period that spans from Moses’ death to the rebuilding of the Temple.

Here is an interesting question, and one that Davies does not consider: is that a problem? He suggests that, unless we secular academics unite with the faithful believers to bring the Bible to the people, it will simply disappear. For the life of me, I cannot work out why that’s a bad thing. I love the Bible and I identify with it very strongly, but what kind of love-sick fool insists that everybody should share the object of his affections? Does it bother me if other people feel luke-warm about the things that make me passionate? Not a bit. Does it bother me if Jews are basing their identity around the State of Israel, or around Jewish food, or around contemporary Jewish literature? Not really. I don’t share any of those particular interests but, just as I do not believe that I am missing out, I also don’t think that they are missing out by not having the Bible, the reams of Rabbinic commentary, nor the halakhic system.

Don’t get me wrong: I am not advocating some kind of intellectual surrender. I shall continue to engage in those matters that give my life substance and meaning, and I shall continue to teach them both to those who know they love them, and those who have not yet had the pleasure of discovering that fact. When people shrug the material off (as they sometimes do), I do not see that as a loss. You can’t please everyone and I’m not dogmatic enough to suppose that this is something they have to appreciate. For the foreseeable future, the Bible will have both its detractors and its admirers, so its extinction is a long way off. Nonetheless, even though I know that I won’t live to see the Bible vanish from the face of the earth, I do know that it is inevitable that it eventually will. And, when that day comes, I am sure that people will have learned to cope with the loss.

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