After years of studying Americans’ biblical literacy, pollsters George Gallup and Jim Castelli concluded, “Americans revere the Bible—but, by and large, they don’t read it. And because they don’t read it, they have become a nation of biblical illiterates.”
The Barna Group’s 2014 “State of the Bible” survey found 82 percent of Americans identifying as highly, moderately or somewhat knowledgeable about the Bible. But only 43 percent could name the first five books. Sixty percent couldn’t name even half of the Ten Commandments. “No wonder people break the Ten Commandments all the time,” said George Barna, president of the research firm. “They don’t know what they are.” Another poll found that 12 percent of adults think Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife.
Why does it matter? For one thing, the Bible remains a cultural touchstone of America, influencing our sense of ethics, our political discourse, and our very language. Politicians and faith leaders thump and wave the Bible to defend their beliefs and polemicize those of their opponents. Atheists and secularists pillory the Bible as an irrational, nefarious influence on our private and public life.
What we all have in common is how little we actually know about it. Some biblical illiteracy stems from simple ignorance; some, from misinformation like poor translations. And unlike most other books, we tend to approach the Bible already having decided what it says, rather than studying it to find out. Time spent with the text will reveal surprises to believers and non-believers alike.
For example, there’s a common misconception that Adam and Eve ate an apple from the Tree of Knowledge. But the text never says “apple,” and exploring what fruit it might have been leads to a rich and meaningful conversation about the human condition. Similarly, we tend to think the Ten Commandments includes the command, “Thou shalt not kill”—but that’s because the King James Bible mistranslated this verse. There are places elsewhere in the Bible that permit and even prescribe killing—so the Ten Commandments must mean something else. Trying to get at that meaning will take us on a deeper journey into questions of justice and retribution.
The Bible is waiting to reveal truth and wisdom to us, but we first have to unload many of our assumptions about what it means, taking it less seriously as a monolithic museum piece and more honestly as a dynamic collection of great literature.
Out of Context: Misunderstanding the Bible with Rabbi David Segal begins Thursday, March 26 at 1:00.
Image: The Garden of Eden with the Fall of Man by Jan Brueghel de Oude and Peter Paul Rubens, 1615