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 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." ). 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.