Wednesday, January 19, 2011

(Not Yet) Reading the Bible, pt 1

What to read immediately after Gilgamesh is a somewhat difficult question.

There is an argument that reading the Hebrew Bible is the next step--but I'm not going to do it.  In this post and the next one, I want to talk about why a reader might read the Bible here, why I am choosing not to, and what I plan to read when I eventually do read it.  In the following two posts, I'll talk about two new books that discuss the history of the Biblical text and why it is important for a any survey of Western literature to include a serious non-religious reading of the Bible.

Let me start by saying that although the I know the Bible is a religious text read by people with a tremendously wide variety of beliefs, I do not plan to discuss it from that perspective at all.  I will refer to it occasionally from a historical perspective and primarily from a literary perspective.  (If you would like to find out more about my own personal place in the world of religion, you can read some of the posts on my old blog with the labels "judaism" and "atheism.")

Orthodox Jewish rabbis date the giving of the Torah (the first five books of the Bible) to about 1300 BCE--roughly the same time or slightly earlier, as I'll discuss in a future post, as the Trojan war which served as a central subject of early Greek texts.  Those who believe that the Bible is true say that God dictated the text to Moses, while others argue that it was divinely inspired.  On the other hand, more secular Biblical scholars who trace through the text of the Torah find evidence that it was composed by a variety of authors over time--some writings as early as 950 BCE and others centuries later.  The assorted writings were not compiled until years later--with some scholars placing the completed Torah as late as the last two centuries BCE.

When we look at the entire text of the Hebrew Bible (aka the Old Testament), it might have been even later.  The Dead Sea Scrolls (dating to roughly the beginning of the Common Era) contains much of Hebrew text.  The oldest complete text in existence dates to the 4th Century CE (aka AD) and is in ancient handwritten Greek.

So one reason I am choosing to delay reading the Bible is because it is a bit unclear where it fits historically.  Another is that it makes sense to me to read the Hebrew Bible immediately before the New Testament since that text grows out of it so directly.  The writings in the early centuries of the Common Era are heavily shaped by both the Old and New Testaments.

Another reason is that I have read the Bible before, albeit more than twenty-five years ago when I was still quite young.  Although I've read it, I do think it would be extremely profitable to read again in its entirety.  At the time, I read it primarily as literature as well, but I had not yet sharpened my literary skills at all.  Nor did I have any teacher to guide me in my reading.

My final reason for postponing my reading of the Bible is that I am quite nervous about how you my readers will respond.  Talking about the Bible can be a pretty dangerous thing.  I know that anything I say might offend someone.  I thought it might be a good idea for y'all to get to know me a bit first.

Next time: the translations I will--and will not--be using when I do eventually start reading the Bible.


  1. Yeah I can understand the reluctance to write stuff that might offend some readers. :/

  2. I've actually read the Old Testament and parts of the New Testament. As a Catholic, I find it difficult to analyze the Bible from a "literary" perspective, but I want to try. I'm looking forward to your future posts. :)

  3. Amanda: Yep. I'm hoping that once people get to know me a bit more, they'll feel a little more comfortable with what I say. Perhaps I am dreaming...

    Darlyn: No promises that I will succeed! On the other hand, the stories and language and imagery of the Bible have had such an important influence on future writing and the development of literature that I think it is essential to try.

  4. I'm looking forward to reading your thoughts on the Bible once you begin reading it. I understand your hesitance to get into the religious arena - as even something as basic about this part of your project (approaching from a literary rather than religious perspective) will probably offend some people. Still (and I say this despite my own hesitance to ever mention my own lack of religious beliefs on my blog) I think/hope most people will find the reading interesting rather than an opportunity to bash your way of approaching the Bible.

    I read parts of the bible a few years ago (literary approach - why I'm so interested in your reading) and have been meaning to read the whole book since. It's an intimidating one, as you know...

  5. Ellen: Thanks for your support. I don't want anyone to feel that my own lack of belief is a condemnation of their faith, and likewise I really don't want to be told that my lack of belief is a personal failing. A delicate line. I am so glad you stopped by.

  6. I like to pretend that readers tend to be more open minded than non-readers. This is not always the case, but it makes it easier for me to write things I am afraid to write. I do sometimes use disclaimers, I don't know if that helps or not.

  7. Amy: Ha! I think you are right. I guess I'm more worried that I'll unintentionally insult someone else than that I will be attacked. I think you're right that disclaimers may be the way to go.

  8. Am I alone in having been assigned Genesis and Exodus (at least--my memory is hazy here) in a public high school English class? We read the texts as literature. This was in the 1960s.

    I want to know what you're going to read next. Have you decided?

  9. I've only ever read the King James translation of Job, which I thought was utterly beautiful, so I'm very much looking forward to your reading of the whole thing! I feel vaguely that I ought to read it in its entirety (I would probably go with the King James just because it was so influential in the language and writing of English-language lit for centuries afterward), but no concrete plans as of yet.

    Like other commenters, I can understand your reluctance to broach these waters, but know there are plenty of other humanist/atheists out there who will be learning along with you or sharing your basic approach. And plenty of religious folks who can appreciate the Bible from both a literary and a faith-based perspective. :-)

  10. P.J.: I'm planning to review two books about the King James bible on Monday and Tuesday of next week, then turning to the Greeks as the Classics Circuit gets underway. Wednesday will be about Homer, and Friday I'll start discussing The Iliad. Care to join me?

    Emily: I'll be focussing primarily on the King James Version--which is celebrating its 400th birthday this year! A terrific time to read it, I think. (BTW, I'm putting together a post for Friday where I'll talk about various translations.)

  11. I have never read the Bible, having been raised by atheist parents. I would like to read it, and from the same perspective that you would. So I would think it very inspiring to read your posts. But, I can see how difficult it might be to post about it, given that the topic can be very controversial for some people. I would find it difficult too. Actually, I am not sure if I would dare to post about it, if I ever read it.

  12. Iris: Thank you so much for your support. Maybe I can talk you into reading at least bits along with me!


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