Does anybody still read the Bible?


My old friend Steve, who teaches English at a community college, says most of his students have incredibly detailed knowledge of the origin myth of Spider-Man, but draw a blank when asked about Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.   He thinks this is a big gap in their education, and I agree.

The decline of Biblical literacy is not limited to the young or the poorly educated.  I know people who are fascinated by Reza Aslan’s Zealot or Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code who do not read the Gospels for themselves.  My experience is that the main groups of people who study the Bible intensely are hard-core Protestant Christian fundamentalists  who are trying to follow it and hard-core atheists (or rather anti-theists) who are trying to debunk it.

The American Bible Society did a national survey of what they call Bible-mindedness, based on the percentage of people who told a pollster they had read the Bible within the past seven days.   The chart above shows how American cities rank in Bible-mindedness (my own city, Rochester, NY, is 83rd of 100), but does not show how Bible-minded they are; that is, it doesn’t show the percentage of Bible readers in each city or in the nation as a whole.

I think it is too bad that so many Americans haven’t read the Bible because:

  • The Bible is the key to understanding American and English literature.  Without Biblical literacy, you can’t understand expressions such as “forbidden fruit” or “prodigal son”.
  • The Bible is one of the two foundations, along with the civilizations of ancient Greece and Rome, of American and European culture.  The heritage and values of the Bible mold the thinking even of people who don’t believe in it.
  • The Bible is so damn interesting.

As a boy growing up in the 1940s, I was taught Bible stories in Sunday school and encouraged to memorize Bible verses.   But I never read the Bible itself in a serious way until I was an adult.  I think this was good, because the Bible is an adult book.  Its raw but truthful account of human nature, especially in the Old Testament, is not for small children.   Abraham Lincoln is supposed to have said that the Old Testament is the most honest history ever written, meaning that no other national epic is so frank about the moral failings of great leaders.

I have not read the Bible in the past seven days, but I dip into it every now and then.  I have read the New Testament several times, and I once read the whole Bible from Genesis to Revelation over the course of a year.   As with many other great classics of literature, it was fascinating but very different from what I expected.   I think the best way to read the Bible is to read it as literature, like the Odyssey or the stories of King Arthur, and leave for later the question of whether it is historical fact.

The Genesis creation story is important not as a scientifically accurate account of the origins of the world and humanity, but as a way of looking at the relation of human beings to existence which affects even people who don’t know the story.  The Abraham-Isaac-Jacob-Joseph saga and the Samuel-Saul-David-Solomon saga are like freeze-dried multi-volume historical epic.  The great German novelist Thomas Mann unpacked the former in his Joseph and His BroTthers series, and I hope that some equally great novelist will do the same for the latter.

The Psalms describe every possible emotion – thankfulness, guilt, special pleading, awe, even resentment – that human beings can have in relation to a deity.   Proverbs is still a great source of practical wisdom (although written as if only males would read it).  The Song of Solomon is a celebration of human sexuality.   Ecclesiastes is a classic description of existential despair, and the Book of Job of the limits of human understanding.

The prophetic books are eloquent demands for social justice, and probably were the origin of the concept of social justice.  The ancient philosophers, from Aristotle to Confucius, told rulers they had a duty to be just, but only Isaiah and Amos spoke in the name of poor, oppressed people demanding justice.

The Gospels are best understand as four separate accounts of the same events, and not components of a blended story, as I was taught as a boy.   Saint Paul is often made a scapegoat for the elements of Christianity that various people don’t like, but his writings show me a person who is sympathetic and wise.  He had a profound, life-changing experience that he wishes, but is unable to communicate it, try as he might.  Meanwhile he has to deal with congregations of difficult, quarrelsome people, not greatly different from people today.

It is true that there are passages of the Bible that are boring, morally objectionable or contradictory.  Every Bible believer takes a “cafeteria” approach to the Bible, whether they admit it or not.  In my opinion, the more you read the Bible and try to grasp it as a whole, the more you will see this is so.

I recommend reading the Bible one time without the benefit of commentators, so you can tell what the Bible says to you when you read it without preconceptions.  You can read the commentary afterward and decide whether it helps.   I hope this doesn’t make reading the Bible seem like a daunting task.   The Gospels and Genesis are relatively brief and not difficult reading.


The Most and Least Bible-Minded Cities in America by the American Bible Society.

The Problem With Ranking Bible-Minded Cities by S. Brent Plate for Religion Dispatches magazine.

Hat tips for the links to The Dish and my friend Steve.

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6 Responses to “Does anybody still read the Bible?”

  1. Notes To Ponder Says:

    The map isn’t surprising – rather like the mayonnaise miracle whip line, (as in division of salad dressing preference by geographical location – but I digress)

    I’ve never read the bible. My mother tried half heartedly by reading us children’s bible stories, but then I was kicked out of Sunday school at 5 for asking too many questions and upsetting the other children. I went back to reading Greek mythology.


  2. violetwisp Says:

    Given that I spend a lot of time criticising the Bible these days, I would like to try reading it the whole way through instead of dipping in and out. You make an interesting point about Proverbs, although I would say that extends to the whole Bible. If the gender pronouns were reversed in the Bible, it would be referred to dismissively as ‘chick-lit’ and no self-respecting person would read it. And the emphasis on all-that-is-male seriously makes it difficult for me to trawl through. I have a similar problem with The Hobbit. I read Ruth and Esther recently, just to check, but they were even worse than I could have imagined for being the bits of the Bible where women are in the spotlight.


  3. thetinfoilhatsociety Says:

    I have read the bible from cover to cover. More than once. Without benefit of commentary, and without breaking it up into verses; I read each book as a book in its entirety, moving onto the next as a new chapter, or a new book in a series. And that is why I am not a Christian. If more Christians would actually do so perhaps there would be fewer fundamentalists.

    I agree with Violet wisp, the bible is so hostile to females and female sensibilities except where those females and their sensibilities assist men to achieve their goals it’s depressing.

    After reading the bible I became an amateur historian and archeologist, and discovered the fantastic variety of religions that didn’t fear and loathe the feminine half of our human heritage. It’s too bad that Judaism and its children Islam and Christianity are still afraid of it. Control is more important than understanding in many, it seems.


  4. trueandreasonable Says:

    I agree with the blog except I think the commentary is important to understand what you are reading. Too many people just pick it up and read it as if it were written in the last few years and it makes little sense.

    Don’t be afraid to learn from the commentaries.


    • philebersole Says:

      To make myself clear, I agree that good commentaries can be valuable. I have learned a lot from reading books by a Bible scholar named Bart Ehrman. But I think you probably would agree that you shouldn’t be afraid to read the Biblical text for yourself and forming your own impression.


  5. Steve in Texas Says:

    Hi, all!! I second Phil’s recommendation of the works of the scholar Bart Ehrman, a master of accessible but reliable scholarship. Of his (too) many books, I especially recommend Ehrman’s “Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium.”

    (Reza Aslan means well, but Jesus was certainly NOT a Zealot, and Dan Brown deserves a tin-foil hat–to go with his millions.)

    In this book, in an easygoing but not patronizing style, Ehrman recreates the world Jesus lived in, and makes a plausible case for how Jesus saw himself and how he would have been seen by his contemporaries–things quite different, of course, from the ways Jesus has usually been presented to the many Americans who grew up inside a traditional Christian church.

    I didn’t myself. I certainly appreciate the commentary of Phil’s readers who reject many claims made in the Bible and on behalf of the Bible by all sorts of people–AND reject the many retrogressive attitudes that appear in the Bible, not just about women. (I do myself.) The Bible, after all, as someone has said, is a “polyphonic anthology.”

    But decades down here in Mexican-American Texas, and a lot of reading for pleasure (I now even have a smattering of self-acquired Biblical Greek) have led me slightly to shift my emotional reaction to, in particular, the New Testament–WITHOUT altering my essentially rationalist’s view of miracles and the supernatural.

    For one thing, down here in Mexican culture, I soon enough realized that the people saying to me “Bless you!” or “Te bendiga!” weren’t trying to score theological, let alone political points. There’s a Spanish-language church on the corner, and I’ve come to recognize that folk religion down here gestures, vaguely, at something out there conceived of as Bigger Than All of Us, but that embraces us all.

    No street-corner Christian I know sweats the theological doctrines, and, most of the time, I’ve stopped worrying too much about them myself. Virtually no one ever asks, but when someone does, I now describe myself as “inside the Christian inspiration. But outside the church.” Questioners seem satisfied.

    My personal Jesus is about the poor and the outcast, the women and the Samaritans, rather than the rich, and preaches that the last shall be first. In 60s days, I had a poster on one wall of my room, a reproduction of one from the 1920s (I guess) by the International Workers of the World (the “Wobblies”): a wanted poster for a bearded scruff identified as “The Radical Working-Man, Jesus Christ.”

    The poster listed some of this radical working-man’s doctrines, and even in 1967–forget about 2020–they DID seem radical.

    I’m Phil’s friend who taught the Bible, or rather tried to, to the Spiderman-Instagram generation. Endearing people, but, man,
    they had never heard of ANYTHING. Everybody though, rationalists
    and believers, in all of our Bible classes, got along. The universally acknowledged stand-out in one class was my friend Loi Luong, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk, whom the local Vietnamese community had brought to Texas to help local Vietnamese young people stay connected to their roots.

    Loi Luong, at our request, did an in-class presentation on Buddhism, aided by the only worthwhile PowerPoint slides I have ever seen, a presentation that students at the time told him they would remember for the rest of their lives.

    Reading the Sermon on the Mount is a stretch for all of us, no doubt, for various reasons. Loi Luong had to struggle with the English, plus the utterly unfamiliar cultural context. His conclusion: “If the Buddha had known Jesus . . . they would have been friends.”

    I warmly recommend the book “Old Path, White Clouds: Walking in the Footsteps of the Buddha” by Thich Nhat Hahn (nominated by MLK in 1967 for the Nobel Peace Prize). I cherish the copy that Loi Luong gave to me and my wife. THANKS to Phil–and to everyone else who commented.


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