The Year of Living Biblically, by A.J. Jacobs

495395I’ve been looking forward to reading this book since I heard that A.J. Jacob’s was going to do another one of his projects. (When it came out, I read his book The Know-it-All and enjoyed it a lot.) The Year of Living Biblically is just what it sounds like: Jacobs decided to follow the rules of the Bible as literally as he could. He read the Bible, and made a list of everything that was considered a rule. He also assembled a spiritual guidance team–rabbis, preachers, scholars–who could help answer any questions he might have.

One of the first questions I had was, how do you separate religion from the Bible? It’s the holy book of several religions. The Jews have thousands of years of commentary (midrash) to draw upon and they and the Christians, Samaritans, etc., all have thousands of years of tradition and interpretation to draw on when they want to know how they should behave. Jacobs wanted to go beyond that, and get to what the Bible really said about how we should live.

I have a lot of problems with this, that Jacobs tends to gloss over in the book. I actually had to make notes as I read this to keep track of the things that bothered me. First, the Bible was written a long time ago, in a culture that was radically different from our own. One would think that there are rules that applied to them that are no longer relevant, simply because hygiene is easier for us. Jacobs does right that there is a separation between moral laws and ritual laws, and that a lot of the ritual rules are no longer followed by Jews or by Christians (for different reasons). But I have to wonder, does not cutting  your sidelocks really make you a better person? Also, as a corollary, I think that interpreting the Bible the way that Jacobs does is particularly hard, because he’s not living with a group of people that are also following the rules in the same way. I think this is part of where literalists go wrong: they expect other people to play by their rules.

Second, it was written by a bunch of different people at different times, who didn’t collaborate. Why should it be taken as a document with a coherent plan? After all, the various versions of the Bible (Hebrew, Catholic, Protestant, Samaritan, Ethiopian, etc.) have changed over the years (see the Biblical canon). Third, we have to read the Bible in translation. Even people who can read Hebrew have a hard time with some of the words, because the meaning has changed over time or the word dropped out of the language entirely.

I freely admit that I am a relativist, and that I am probably agnostic. My experiences have turned me into a person who rejects literalist interpretations of the Bible. My approach to the Bible is a lot like what Jacob’s describes as “Cafeteria Christianity.” I pick and chose what I want to believe and which rules I want to follow.

It’s a derisive term used by fundamentalist Christians to describe moderate Christians. The idea is that the moderates pick and choose the parts of the Bible they want to follow. They take a nice helping of mercy and compassion. But the ban on homosexuality? They leave that on the countertop. (p. 327)

This is definitely how I treat the Bible. I exercise the free will that I was given to create my own moral compass. (Is it any wonder that Dr. Faustus is one of my favorite works of literature?) When Jacobs followed the purity laws and the penal laws, it really bothers me. I don’t think that women are impure for part of the month just because of our biology. And I don’t think that we have the right to judge others (unless we are actual sitting judges or are on a jury). We definitely don’t have the right to chuck stones at people.

There is one thing that Jacobs and I agree on. We have the same favorite book: the Book of Ecclesiastes.

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