Whose Bible? Anyone's?

By Philip Davies
Professor Emeritus
University Of Sheffield, England
July 2009

I once wrote a book called Whose Bible Is It Anyway? which opened with an attack on confessional biblical scholarship and suggested some lines of explicitly non-religious exegesis. I suppose I was particularly annoyed by the claims of certain eminent scholars that the Bible "belonged to the Church" and that explicitly faith-based exegesis was an integral (indeed, even the only correct) approach.

The world and I were younger then. But even non-religious scholars like me were sharply conscious of the irony of our situation: without the affection and interest of religious people, we would be out of a job. More recently, Hector Avalos, the only non-religious scholar I know of that actually seems to hate the Bible, has suggested that the Bible and its academic followers should go the way of all flesh—not his phrase, nor of course mine either.

Avalos may have his way before long if the confessional/non-confessional argument persists. I think it's time for some cooperation. As with numerous political conflicts (Northern Ireland, Palestine/Israel) the real battle is between moderate and extreme, not between those in the centre but on either side of the perceived issue. On one extreme are those who believe that the Bible is literally true, in defiance of all common sense: but scholars already spend enough of their time trying to counter this nonsense, and in any case, fundamentalists don't care about the future of the Bible, because the future is God's business. The real battle is with the other extreme, the biblically illiterate—whose ignorance is not even their own fault!

How bad are things? A recent National Biblical Literacy Survey in the UK carried out by the Centre for Biblical Literacy Communication at St John's College, Durham (http://www.dur.ac.uk/codec/about/cblc/) found that as few as 10 per cent of people understood the main characters in the Bible and their relevance. Figures such as Abraham and Joseph were unknown: hardly anyone could name even a few of the Ten Commandments. Some 60 per cent were ignorant of the story of the Good Samaritan, and of these not all knew the full story. This despite 60% of those surveyed being in favor of the Church! In the US, the Bible Literacy Report (http://www.bibleliteracy.org/Secure/Documents/BibleLiteracyReport2005.pdf surveyed high school teens and their teachers, concluding that "forty of the 41 teachers interviewed agreed that Bible literacy is a significant educational advantage." But "the majority of high school English teachers estimated that fewer than a fourth of their current students were biblically literate."

The recommendations of the report propose improvements in Bible education and its resources. Its remit did not include what churches ought to be doing. Many comments from church people I have read are more concerned with Bible knowledge inside their churches. Yet ignorance of the Bible outside churches will make their task of spreading the Gospel even more difficult.

I know a lot of secular Jews (actually, as a group, among my favorite people). Very few of them can demonstrate the degree of ignorance of the Bible that Christians do. For them, being Jewish means knowing the Bible, even if not accepting its religious authority. Secular Jews are nearly all proud to be Jewish and know that their Jewish identity is defined by the Bible. There is no equivalent commitment among Christians because they share no ethnic identity. But they do share a cultural identity that is perhaps too pervasive for them to recognize. Imagine a national art gallery without any biblical scenes. The history of Western culture collapses without the biblical backbone that keeps it erect. And that is not to mention the political shape of Europe, gouged out of religious warfare and rescued by a secular ethic that still respects Christianity.

Maybe we do need to put this biblical culture behind us, move on. But what we can we put in its place? Jews will not lose the Bible: Muslims have the Qur'an—full of stories found in the Bible, though with little of the Bible's cultural afterlife in art and literature. Maybe we don't need this kind of cultural baggage? But I'd rather we biblical scholars forget about whether we believe the Bible or not (or how) and occupy ourselves with the more urgent task of helping to preserve something that we can argue about (and here's a good start: http://juliamobrien.net/).

Or, believers and non-believers alike, we can join together in waiting for Godot.

Add new comment

This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.