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Friday Column: The Root of All Sources

Just a short while ago I finished Gunter Grass’s novel The Tin Drum, a book whose Christ imagery is at points so unequivocal that it is apparent to even a Bible dolt such as myself. Though many of the Biblical references were far too obvious even for me to miss, I had my suspicions that many more were flying right by.

The Tin Drum brought to mind a thought that I find myself entertaining from time to time: I really should read the Bible. No, I haven’t suddenly gotten religious on you. Nor do I think it will be that great a read (many people have assured me of its general dullness). Quite simply, this is a matter of being a better reader of literature.

For better or for worse, the novel is a Western invention that has swept the world, and, to paraphrase Northrup Frye, the Bible is the foundational text of Western literature. It’s a good rule of thumb that the more familiar you are with the great books of the past, the more closely you’ll be able to read today, but in order to get to the root of the references built on top of references on top of references, you really need to star with the Bible. This isn’t just a matter of Biblical references being found everywhere in the great books; it’s a matter of knowing your sources, of knowing where they came from and what they originally meant. It’s about having a working familiarity with the ultimate fount of the Western literary tradition.

Take, for instance, that question many of us enjoy debating: Which books deserve to be in the Western literary canon? The word canon, of course, has a Biblical source, as in the books that have gained admittance to the Bible are canonical, while those that haven’t aren’t. (Although some Bibles list them in an Apocrypha section, which helps source another interesting word.) So we can’t even have a basic conversation about which books are the best of the best without referencing the Bible. And even before canon came to represent the books of the Bible, it referred to a collection of books approved for public reading. So when we’re talking about the literary canon we’re talking about a sort of meta-bible for Western society, a list of "approved" reading based on the work of its best writers.

See? It’s this fun?

Just thinking about where canon came from and what it actually means begs all kinds of interesting questions that I’m not going to try and get into right now; I’d rather just reiterate that the more I muddle through the Bible, the more I’ll trip myself up on interesting facts like that.

This is all good, but what about those two problems with reading the Bible: it’s long and it’s dull. Much as I love the encyclopedic works of authors like Pynchon and Gaddis (which many readers find both long and dull) I don’t think I have the stomach to read the Bible front to back. What else can I do?

Turns out there are wikis to help Biblical information become free. Thinking that perhaps I could pick up some passing information about the Bible I tried out the Bible Study Wiki, which is built around a question and answer format. It seems like a good idea gone awry. The popular questions, for instance, tended to leave me wanting:

Is masturbation a sin?
How many times does "amen" appear in the Bible?
Is sex before marriage a sin?

The site also has a list of unanswered questions, and although many of them seemed to deserve their fate, others were bristling with interesting thorns:

Why does God curse the serpent if it was only a form of the devil and not the animal itself?
What happened to the wives of Jesus’ disciples when the disciples left their families to follow Jesus?
Does God know if we will be saved or lost?

This was fun for a while, but the wikis eventually lost their juice, so then I had little choice but to confront The King James Bible Online. This is the Bible, broken down section by section to help make the task a little less daunting.

After a bit of the King James I decided that the indirect approach was working better, so I went to see which books incorporate the big book, but are hopefully a little shorter and a little less dull. You can read St. Augustine’s Confessions, and if you do you don’t only get bits and pieces of the Bible itself; you also get the man philosophically struggling through the difficult questions implied by the book itself. This, to me, is far more interesting than just reading the book straight-on.

Or you could try The Decameron, which isn’t terribly short but makes up for it by having roughly 2/3 or its 100 stories revolve around some kind of sexual encounter. This books sports references (and elaborate punning jokes) to not only Christian texts but also to those of the other two great religions to come out of Asia Minor. Of course, an annotated edition helps you spot them.

And then, once I had seen the Bible-study wikis and looked at Augustine and Boccaccio, what was left to do but read the Wikipedia entry on the Bible? Actually, it’s not one page but many: the Bible page links to pages and pages more full of fairly well-written articles about various parts of the Bible. You can easily content yourself for an hour or so dipping in and out of these articles, picking up some fairly useful information along the way. Did you know, for instance, that pre-dating the ten ethical commandments were ten ritual ones, admonishing humans away from such practices as cooking a baby goat in its mother’s milk? (According to Wikipedia, this refers to a ritual of a competing sect.) You’ll also find some fairly interesting information about how the Bible was originally written and standardized, stuff that seems to have a fair amount of relevance for the so-called death of the author.

And there’s also just some plain fun stuff, like:

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the word bible[4] is from Anglo-Latin biblia, traced from the same word through Medieval Latin and Late Latin, as used in the phrase biblia sacra ("holy book"—"In the Latin of the Middle Ages, the neuter plural for Biblia (gen. bibliorum) gradually came to be regarded as a feminine singular noun (biblia, gen. bibliae, in which singular form the word has passed into the languages of the Western world." [5]). This stemmed from the term (Greek: Ta biblia ta hagia, "the holy books"), which derived from biblion ("paper" or "scroll," the ordinary word for "book"), which was originally a diminutive of byblos ("Egyptian papyrus"), possibly so called from the name of the Phoenician port Byblos from which Egyptian papyrus was exported to Greece.

The scary thing about this stuff is that once you start learning it, you start seeing it everywhere: from movies to commercials to billboards to rap music to casual conversation. You see it so much that you begin to think that in a lot of cases it’s being used without the slightest realization of where it ultimately came from. That’s perhaps one measure for the ultimate success of any text.

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  2. Friday Column: Deep Stacks I’ve more or less accepted that the days when I read whatever I wanted will probably never return. It wasn’t always like this. I remember...
  3. Friday Column: Reading with Fresh Eyes Recently, some Brits and Aussies have played tricks on unsuspecting publishers by submitting classic works from famous authors. The hapless publishers, of course, fell right...
  4. Friday Column: Martone As a member of the LBC, I was greatly impressed by Michael Martone, our Summer 2006 Reah This! selection. For those who haven’t read...
  5. Friday Column: Real Connections James Wood interviewed in the Kenyon Review. I then began to think of Smith’s novel in relation to a number of other large books: Underworld...

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9 comments to Friday Column: The Root of All Sources

  • Hi Scott – I am in complete sympathy with your dilemma. I’ve long been in despair about the sources upon sources of texts I do not know, and feel certain I ought to. I’ve taken a couple of half-hearted passes at the Bible itself, with little success–I’ve also found it dull, etc. But I’ve increasingly come to believe that simply reading it for information, to plug that info into our brains so that we can “get” references, etc, largely misses the point (and not just the religious point; I’m not interested in becoming religious either), and probably also misses the actual weight of the references, if that makes any sense.
    I think you should try to track down Gabriel Josipovici’s The Book of God: A Response to the Bible. Josipovici persuades me that the Bible is not dull, and that how it is written is crucial to the experience. Granted, I have not yet taken the time to experience the text for myself, but I did pick up a copy of the King James Bible in anticipation of doing so (it is my belief that reading something like the Bible online is not the way to go). Regardless, though, Josipovici’s book is wonderful, fascinating, beautiful. Among other things, he relates the concerns of the Bible with the concerns of Modernist writers like Proust and Kafka. Since you’ve expressed this interest in the Bible, I urge you to read this book (really, I cannot recommend it highly enough). I believe it’s out of print, but you can find it for incredibly cheap online (I got it for $1 through Amazon).

  • Great post. Over at my blog, I posted some suggestions for where to start with the Bible. My experience with the Christian/Hebrew scriptures dates practically from birth. There’s no substitute for living with the Bible in that way. On the other hand, learning the Bible doctrinally as I did can be nearly as blinding as complete ignorance.

  • I recommend Richmond Lattimore’s translation of The New Testament, published in 1962 by FSG. Read the first volume, The Four Gospels and The Revelation, in one sitting and it is fast-paced as a novel by, say, James Cain; or as avant-guard as, say, Robbe-Grillet. And this is an exact translation, for this is the same Richmond Lattimore who translated Greek plays, etc. The second volume, Acts of the Apostles (my favorite) is sensational narrative, as wild as, say, Phillip K. Dick. Think also of the movie Roshaman (sp.) (tale told four ways).
    There is something to the argument made by both GK Chesterton and CS Lewis that the New Testament is still coming into it’s own, viewed first as literature–and, considering when and how it was written, that puts a different light on how it might be regarded also as related to truth.

  • I read the Bible when I was a sophomore in college, studying with a Jesuit priest who was also trained in the White Plum lineage of Zen Buddhism. It was a full-year theology course, and so, after Revelations, we moved on to Dante, Joyce, Hobbes, and Rousseau. Probably similar to what you’re calling your indirect approach, but it was fascinating to see allusions and references among the texts.
    The real fun, though, is noting the Bible’s third characteristic; it’s not just long and boring, but also just about completely derivative. Most of its stories (concerning Jesus’ becoming the Christ) have foundations in mythological archetypes (Baldur, for one. Also: Dionysus and Osiris, I believe).

  • Great post, Scott.
    I have more than a passing familiarity with the Bible having been raised in and with the Bible Belt. I learned Hebrew and Greek and Latin in grad school and read a number of the books in their original language. There is indeed a continuum between the ancient myths in response to which the Bible arose and contemporary Western lits.
    What bothers me is the way people sacralize the text. The Bible contains myths, history, military history, legal codes, cool stories, incest, rape, kidnapping, murder, poetry (erotic and sacred/communal), proverbial wisdom, prophecy (which, understood properly, is no more than speaking unvarnished truth to officialdom), moral teaching, theology, wacko visions, political rhetoric, etc. I could go on. The point being: it is not monolithic. However, when people read it as if every word were a ‘revelation’ of some eternal truth it gets a little hairy for me.
    There’s much good criticism (from a literary point of view), not the least of which is Harold Bloom’s book about Job. I’ve posted some thoughts on the use and abuse of the Bible over at my blog: Wisdom of the West, especially in my comments under the label “Authority”. Drop by.

  • Jordan

    May I make a suggestion? If you insist on King James, I highly suggest the lyrical working of the text by David Norton found in The New Cambridge Paragraph Bible, with the Apocrypha. Holy Bible. It’s easy on the eyes and smooth to the inner-ear.
    The most often used is either New International Version, which will feel conversational compared to KJV, and the New Revised Standard, which sometimes feels like warmed-over KJV. Still, both of these avoid many anachronisms in vocabulary that make the text such a challenging read.
    Also, perhaps without going cover to cover, you might focus on a few books/scenes important for literature. I suggest starting with –
    Genesis
    Exodus
    skipping to 1 & 2 Samuel
    skipping to Job
    skipping to Ecclesiastes
    skipping to Daniel
    skipping to Gospel of John
    skipping to Acts
    skipping to Romans
    skipping to Hebrews
    skipping to Revelation
    Then, read 1 or 2 Psalms or Proverbs every day. Better to let these soak in.
    Once you get through this considerable reading, at least you’ll have some elements to help you get through sections that seem more obscure (law, prophecy, and doctrinal debates).

  • Little to add, except that I’d very much second Richard’s suggestion that you read Josipovici’s awe-inspiring “The Book of God” and having just very positively reviewed David Norton’s “The New Cambridge Paragraph Bible” I agree with Jordan that that is the version to run with.

  • Everyone,
    Thanks for these suggestions! This is some great stuff, and I’m going to use it to map out a plan of attack on the Bible and secondary sources.

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