Originally created 10/24/98

Testaments: The Bible? 'Don't Know Much'



Decades ago, there was a silly radio game show called It Pays To Be Ignorant.

Ignorance certainly pays off for writer Kenneth C. Davis. Not his own, but that of customers who snap up his Don't Know Much About ... books. Topics in the series include "History," "Geography" and "the Civil War." And Davis even has a Web site: www.dontknowmuchabout.com.

Davis' latest book, Don't Know Much About the Bible (Morrow, $25), which is also available in audio formats, should find a ready market, too, since polls show consistently that many Americans are ignorant about Scripture.

Don't know, however, that Don't Know Much is the best choice for folks who don't know much.

Davis, who was raised Protestant, calls himself a "historian," which uses the term loosely. Not a college graduate, much less a scholar or professor, he's more accurately described as a popular writer. Don't Know Much depends on classier popularizations such as Biblical Literacy by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin (1997) and The Good Book (1996) by Harvard chaplain Peter Gomes. Davis freely admits his indebtedness.

One of Davis' aims is to show "which biblical teachings may have been just fine for an ancient, seminomadic world, and which may still apply to life at the dawn of the 21st century." That's an important ambition, but beyond the limitations of this sort of book.

Pondering the dictum in Proverbs 13:24 often paraphrased as "spare the rod and spoil the child," Davis asserts: "In an era of commonplace child abuse, even hinting that the Bible condones such behavior is a grievous mistake."

The Davis book zips right along, but the relentless cuteness gets annoying after awhile. Do people really think of God as the "Cosmic Ward Cleaver"?

A more serious problem is that Davis cloaks the complexity of biblical issues with rhetorical flourishes and flatfooted declarations. The continual omission of options is likely to mislead the Don't Know Much level of reader.

For instance, Davis reports on the modern rediscovery of extra Gospels written by the Gnostics, whose beliefs were declared heretical by the early church. He says these Gnostic writings "make one thing clear: The earliest Christians did not agree on what we call the New Testament." That assumes the Gnostic Gospels were written as far back as the four New Testament Gospels, an interesting theory that experts dispute and for which there's no hard evidence.

Or take the book of Jonah. Davis says "most scholars" agree that it was a parable rather than literal history (true) and that it was written about 350 to 320 B.C. (no such consensus; the dating is a complicated problem).

Speaking of Jonah, Don't Know Much points out that the prophet wasn't swallowed by a "whale" but an unspecified "big fish," and that Adam and Eve ate an unspecified "fruit," not necessarily an apple.

Other oft-noted Bible tidbits: Moses likely led the Exodus through a marshy "sea of reeds," not the Red Sea. Two Bible books, Esther and Song of Solomon, never mention God. And the designation "666" for the beast in Revelation 13 seems to be a coded reference to the Roman Emperor Nero.

Rather than turn to books like Davis', people who don't know much are much better off reading the Bible itself with the help of explanatory essays and comments of the sort found in, for example, The New Oxford Annotated Bible, edited by Bruce Metzger and Roland Murphy (Oxford University Press, 1994). Davis himself commends this as a "fine study Bible" with "excellent notes."

But how many people in the age of the boob tube and the Internet are willing to take a serious look at the most influential book in human history?

Don't know.