In Praise of Biblical Illiteracy

Surveys repeatedly show that Christian populations, when left to their own devices, do not seem too interested in Bible reading unless convinced otherwise by their authorities. As it is, note the paradox of publishers citing inflated sales figures for Bibles as proof that the Bible matters, and religion professors complaining that few people are actually reading the Bibles being sold.

By Hector Avalos
Iowa State University
April 2010

It is no secret that I have proposed to end biblical studies as we know it. Biblical studies, as we know it, is still largely a religionist and apologetic enterprise meant to serve the needs of faith communities. It is still part of an ecclesial-academic complex.

Having presented a detailed case in my book, The End of Biblical Studies (2007), my purpose here is to show how concerns over biblical illiteracy are historically recent and cyclical. The historiography of biblical illiteracy is omitted in the comments of Philip Davies ("Whose Bible is it? Anyone's?"), Stephen Prothero, and Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza.[1] However, knowing this history has implications for the future of biblical studies. My main point is that biblical illiteracy should not always be regarded as a bad thing.


Stephen Prothero, in particular, views early America as a sort of Edenic Age from which we have fallen, and even titles his Chapter Three as "Eden (What We Once Knew)." The truth is that biblical illiteracy has been normative for most of Christian history. For most of the last one-thousand years, many Christians, especially in Catholic traditions, were discouraged from reading the Bible in the vernacular languages. The noted historian of European literacy, Robert Allan Houston, observes, "[b]oth clergy and laity normally equated illiteracy with orthodoxy."[2]

Although the Bible was translated into Anglo-Saxon in the Middle Ages, few laypersons or peasants actually could read in Anglo-Saxon England. Such Bibles were meant principally for clerics and monks. The Oxford Constitutions of 1408, promoted by Thomas Arundel, the Archbishop of Canterbury, prohibited the translation of the Bible into English. Translations were deemed as "dangerous" (Latin: periculosa) to the faith.[3]

A hero of modern biblical literacy advocates would be Thomas Cranmer, the Protestant archbishop of Canterbury during the English reformation of King Henry VIII and Edward VI. Cranmer's preface to the 1540 edition of the Great Bible had this directive: "When ye be at home in your houses, ye apply yourselves from time to time to the reading of holy scriptures."[4] Bible reading as an obligation for everyone was, therefore, a new phenomenon in the English and broader Protestant Reformation. The idea of universal biblical literacy originated from the upper echelons of Protestant power.

Accordingly, modern biblical literacy advocates usually offer a historically Protestant view of biblical literacy (Cranmer, not Arundel). Cranmer's directives also demonstrate that reading the Bible often has been part of an imperialistic top-down agenda. That is to say, Bible reading was encouraged by those in power in order to further Protestant agendas rather than because there was some clamor among the populace for more Bible reading.

Yet, Cranmer's encouragement to read the Bible did not seem to have helped all that much by the mid-1700s. The fact that biblical illiteracy was a worry at that time is evident in the work of Bishop Robert Lowth, the famous proponent of "parallelism" in Hebrew poetry. In his book, On the Sacred Poetry of the Hebrews (1753), he lamented:

"It would not be easy, indeed, to assign a reason, why the writings of Homer, of Pindar, and of Horace should engross our attention and monopolize our praise, while those of Moses, of David, and Isaiah, pass totally unregarded".[5]

Lowth, indeed, was worried about a declining knowledge of the Bible, and the ascent of non-biblical authors.

We see a similar lamentation in 1903, when Herbert Horwill published an article on "The Bible in Public Schools," in the revered Atlantic Monthly. Horwill cited a report of the National Educational Association indicating that "familiarity with the English Bible as a masterpiece of literature is rapidly decreasing among the pupils in our schools."[6] Not surprisingly, Horwill's solution was to have more biblical education in schools. Now, in the twenty-first century, we have similar lamentations from Davies, Prothero, and Schüssler Fiorenza.

So, it looks as if biblical illiteracy has been normative for about two thousand years, and that we have had only a few oases here and there where one can point to biblical literacy as a highly valued commodity. Surveys repeatedly show that Christian populations, when left to their own devices, do not seem too interested in Bible reading unless convinced otherwise by their authorities. As it is, note the paradox of publishers citing inflated sales figures for Bibles as proof that the Bible matters, and religion professors complaining that few people are actually reading the Bibles being sold.


To survive in public academia, biblical scholars must address the larger issues that are now being discussed on a more philosophical level. These issues involve the role of academics in constructing canons that are meant to further the interests of an academic professorial class.

Drawing on Pierre Bourdieu's concept of "cultural capital," the literary critic John Guillory characterizes cultural capital thusly: "If there exists a form of capital which is specifically symbolic or cultural, the production, exchange, distribution, and consumption of this capital presupposes the division of society into groups that can be called classes."[7]

Guillory argues that constructing a canon creates "cultural capital" because mastering a particular set of books distributes power in a society. It has little to do with literary quality, which itself is a social construct. Furthermore, those who construct the canon are not the authors, but rather the mass media (e.g., Oprah Winfrey's book club) and the professoriate, who create the curriculum and select what they deem to be representative works.

So, from a Guilloryian perspective, Shakespeare's works are read not because they necessarily have any higher literary value than many other works we could name, but because "knowing Shakespeare" might function as a credential in elite circles. Indeed, when asked what differentiated the Bible from Shakespeare, Phyllis Trible, the renowned biblical scholar, could only reply "I ask myself that question, and if I had a clear answer, I would give it to you."[8]

In fact, biblical scholars forget how new English literature is in our university curricula. As Gerald Graff reminds us, in 1895 it was possible, even at Yale, to go through four years of college without hearing the name of a single English author or the title of a single English classic.[9] Indeed, Biblical aesthetics is really another form of bibliolatry (i.e., we must the study the Bible because of its supposed superior literary beauty).

Furthermore, this effort to promote biblical literacy depends on the illusion that there is such a thing as "THE Bible." Just consider the fact that the text of our New Testament is a hypothetical reconstruction that is identical to no single manuscript extant in the first few centuries of Christianity. Our canon could have been made of many combinations and include books we don't consider part of "biblical studies."

Therefore, "the Bible" is partly the construction of scholars (ancient or modern), and today the power to define the Bible still resides mostly with ecclesiastical authorities, as well as with academic biblical scholars. So, even if believers hold "the Bible" to be relevant, it is because clerics and scholars have not divulged how much of it is constructed by scholars.


The near closing of the biblical studies program at Sheffield is just a harbinger of what is to come. I support Sheffield's program as a model of how biblical scholars can help demythologize biblical history. However, I don't think biblical studies programs in the United States will survive easily in public universities precisely because biblical studies has been successful in showing how little relevance biblical history, values, and ethics have for our world.[10]

Most of those who think the Bible really matters are in schools with religious affiliations. Prothero is at Boston University, which has a school of theology. Schüssler Fiorenza is at Harvard Divinity School. At these places, there is little questioning of the place of the Bible or religious studies.

That is not the case in public universities. In those institutions, biblical scholars constantly have to convince administrators and faculty in other departments that biblical scholars belong in academia. The reasons are both economic and social.

Economically, universities are in a major period of downsizing. This downsizing is related in dolorous detail by Frank Donoghue, The Last Professors: The Corporate University and the Fate of the Humanities (2008). According to Donoghue "the last academic year in which 50 percent of students graduated with a traditional liberal arts major was 1969-70."[11] Students now flock to business majors instead.

Because of the declining popular demand for humanities programs, of which usually biblical studies is a part, it is even more difficult now to go to a dean and make a plea for a scholar of the Hebrew Bible, when the our country is clamoring for alternative fuels experts or business entrepreneurs. Although Robert N. Watson argues that the humanities actually are profitable university departments, the truth is that biblical studies brings in little money to most universities.[12]

At the same time, there is the growth of for-profit universities catering specifically to a consumerist mindset. The University of Phoenix, which enrolls 400,000 undergraduates and 78,000 graduate students, now has the largest enrollment of any American university. According to Donoghue, "in 2000-01, the entire for profit, postsecondary industry graduated 28,000 Business and Management A.A.s [Associate of Arts] and B.A.s, 11,500 A.A.s and B.A.s in the health professions, and not a single English major."[13] More importantly, The University of Phoenix has no program in biblical studies. Jobs in biblical studies face extinction if this trend holds in public universities.

On a social level, biblical studies is deemed a ministerial program by faculty members in other departments. In other words, a principal problem in academia is that we are not viewed as secular enough. It does not help that many biblical scholars do reinforce this notion. When not touting the supposed ethical superiority of the Bible, some professors of biblical studies may also be busy attending to pastoral duties in their churches. They don't treat the Bible as another ancient document like Homer's Iliad or the Epic of Gilgamesh.

Demographic changes must be taken into account. I teach both biblical studies and U.S. Latino Studies. U.S. Latinos (aka Hispanics), numbering some 45 million people, are the largest ethnic agglomeration in the United States. U.S. Latinos are people living in the United States whose roots come from the Spanish-speaking countries of Latin America.

Latinos also are part of perhaps one of the greatest revolutions in the history of Christianity insofar as their rate of conversion from Catholicism to Protestantism may exceed what happened in Europe in the sixteenth century when Protestantism first arose.[14] These changes are already affecting everything from the recent presidential elections to the cultural fabric of small towns in the Midwest.

The growth of these groups also is affecting the literary canon. In the 1940s "American literature" meant mostly that composed by New Englanders. By extension, literature meant "Shakespeare" and other greats of the British Isles. Today, my Latino students want to know as much about Gloria Anzaldúa and Rudolfo Anaya as they want to know about Shakespeare, when they want to know the latter at all.

The current generation of students in America also is increasingly "minimalist" insofar as students wish to do the minimum required to receive the credentials needed for the real purpose of a college education: making money.

More alarmingly, fewer students are willing to learn ancient languages (e.g., Hebrew, Greek) indispensable to biblical studies. And don't be fooled by large enrollments in introductory Bible classes if those students don't want careers as biblical scholars. And where will the next generations of biblical scholars come from when few undergraduates are taking anything beyond popular Bible introductory courses?


James Crossley is right.[15] I do not necessarily wish to eliminate the study of the Bible. I want biblical scholars to adjust their approaches and goals given a rapidly changing socio-economic environment where the Bible competes in a highly diversified global textual market.

We must content ourselves with a smaller piece of the pie in that global textual economy. There will be thousands of other texts that will be more fascinating and more interesting for our students to read in such a market. Biblical studies, however, may flourish in Asia, Africa, and other places where we did not expect it before because of the increasing Christianization of those areas. Yet, the Bible competes there too.

We must adjust to the fact that the Bible should be no more important than Homer (cf. Lowth's time). Unlike Homeric studies, however, we should emphasize the dangers of relying on the Bible as an authority in the modern world. Promoting interest in biblical studies paradoxically entails equalizing the Bible's ethical and aesthetic value with other ancient texts.

Biblical literacy is an agenda that thrived, at best, in a window between the Protestant reformation and the dawn of the post-colonial era. Biblical illiteracy was not always regarded as a bad thing, and "our civilization" has survived just fine. Now, "our civilization" must be conceived more globally, and so biblical illiteracy is returning to the normative role it had in most of Western history.


[1] Stephen Prothero, Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know—and Doesn't (New York: HarperOne, 2007); Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, Democratizing Biblical Studies: Toward An Emancipatory Educational Space (Louisville, KY: Westminster JohnKnoxPress, 2009). Philip Davies, "Whose Bible? Anyone's?" Bible and Interpretation (July, 2009) at

[2] Robert Allan Houston, Literacy in Early Modern Europe: Culture and Education 1500-1800 (London: Pearson Education, 2002), 161.

[3] Thomas Arundel Constitutions of Oxford (1408) at

[4] Thomas Cranmer, "Preface to the Great Bible." English text at

[5] Robert Lowth, Lectures on the Sacred Poetry of the Hebrews (1839; reprint, Whitefish, MT: Kessinger Publishing, 2004), 22.

[6] Robert Horwill, "The Bible in Public Schools." Atlantic Monthly (September, 1903): 296-304, my quotation is from p. 296.

[7] John Guillory, Cultural Capital: The Problem of Literary Canon Formation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), viii.

[8] Phyllis Trible, 'Wrestling with Scripture [interview with Hershel Shanks],' Biblical Archaeology Review 32, no. 2 (March/April, 2006):49.

[9] Gerald Graff, Professing Literature: An Institutional History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987).

[10] In the End of Biblical Studies, I define "relevance" and challenge the usual arguments given for "relevance" (e.g., the number of Bible sales, influence on our culture, etc.). So please read those comments before flooding me with alarmed cries of "how can he say the Bible is not relevant"!!!

[11] Frank Donoghue, The Last Professors: The Corporate University and the Fate of the Humanities (New York: Fordham University Press, 2008), 91.

[12] Robert N. Watson, "Bottom Line Shows Humanities Really Do Make Money," Chronicle of Higher Education (March 21, 2010) at

[13] Donoghue, The Last Professors, 92.

[14] See Hector Avalos, ed., Introduction to the U.S. Latina and Latino Religious Experience (Leiden/Boston: Brill, 2004); idem, Strangers in our Own Land: Religion in U.S. Latina/o Literature (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 2007).

[15] James Crossley, "Bible Scholars of the World Unite," Bible and Interpretation (April 2010) at

Comments (7)

Excellent article Dr. A.

#1 - Jonathan - 04/30/2010 - 20:39

I could - and do - agree with a lot of this, in fact. But what it ignores is that for many people, and especially in the USA, accord the Bible considerable authority. When such a huge investment is coupled with such a huge ignorance of the contents as a whole, and with an inability to understand the various ways in which it has been read and can be read, we have a problem. Confessional biblical scholarship (a term I am unhappy with, but it conveys what I am referring to) can be a hindrance in presenting the Bible as a text of value and interest only to believers; on the other hand, it may have have a better chance of engaging those crazy fundamentalists (worse than those in Iran, I think) for whom it is simply the literal word of God. What else other than a dose of proper biblical literacy can provide a remedy for this cultural disease?

#2 - philip davies - 05/04/2010 - 09:15

I certainly agree with Philip Davies that it is important to challenge extremist view of the Bible. However, I would add that we probably have plenty of biblical scholars who can do that.

Bart Ehrman, with his best-sellers, has done an excellent job educating the public about the historical/ethical problems with the Bible, but he cannot do it alone.

The problem is not supply but deployment. The problem is that more biblical scholars are not speaking up enough. If we had just 50 Bart Ehrmans or Philip Davieses, about 10 percent of the SBL's "full members," I bet that it would make a difference.

#3 - Dr. Hector Avalos - 05/06/2010 - 16:44

This may be a little harsh, but I don't much care for Ehrman. I find he is stuck in the 80's, when he was doing grad work. He still cites C.H. Talbert for Gospel genre questions--his book was published in '77, a lot has changed in New Testament genre studies since then. The same goes for Luke-Acts; there is a whole Acts Seminar devoted the challenging the question of its terminus a quo, and I believe that Joe Tyson would raise an issue with Ehrman constantly placing Luke-Acts c. 70 CE.

We need scholars more vocal, but more fluent in the modern, recent academic trends, who are not afraid to extend themselves beyond the former boundaries of certain fields. Secluded fields can not grow. New Testament scholars would do better to talk with Classicists, and so forth; we can do without the isolationists.

That said, we certainly need more Davises, Lemches, Thompsons, and Avaloses, for sure.

#4 - T.S. Verenna - 07/30/2010 - 21:47

I find the Eurocentricity of this article amusing. Americans do not smuggle Bibles across the Canadian border. Why? Is it because there is no demand for Bibles in Canada? Certainly not; business is brisk at the Canadian Bible Society. Yet Americans continue to smuggle Bibles at great expense into China, even though business is even brisker at the Amnity Publishing House. But while there are five times as many Christians in China as there are people in Canada, the Chinese government insists that there are fewer, and limits production. Thus the demand for Bibles in China is insatiable.

Where come these Chinese so desperate to study the Bible that they will risk a 3 year prison term just to get one? Not, I can assure you, from universities with Biblical Studies departments. Their hunger is not literary, but spiritual.

#5 - Daniel B. - 08/04/2010 - 22:51

I'm not sure if i totally agree. Bible studies will be a topic mostly for seminaries and Christian colleges. Even when offered in non religious institutions the Bible is presented as merely an important piece of sacred literature. Nothing life changing.

#6 - wilfredo R - 11/04/2012 - 02:04

Great article - don't agree completely but the historical stuff is very close to my own thinking about the normality of biblical illiteracy. I'm not so sure that that's a good thing and would want to explore Brueggemann's concepts of the Church as a community telling the God-narrative. But reifying a corporate identity is different from knowing a text - sociological expression of biblical patterning absorbed by the community rather than intellectual knowledge learned by the communities knowledge/power brokers. But I still think biblical literacy is tied up with the Evangelical Revivals and thats why we think illiteracy is a sign of decline. BTW one big problem with your Protestant Reformation and Power line is that you miss out the importance of the (lower status) Lollards...I think. Thanks for the stimulating thoughts.

#7 - Peter Phillips - 02/05/2014 - 17:15

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