Again: Is there poetry in the Old Testament?

UPDATE: Over at Choice in Dying, Eric MacDonald has his own take on the Bible as literature. He finds other passages of literary merit, but pronounced the book like a “curate’s egg,” i.e., good in parts. As a former Anglican priest, he is far more familiar with the Bad Book than I am, and his essay is worth reading.


I am pleased to announce that I am halfway through the King James version of the Bible: p. 554, which contains Psalm 76.  (I am painfully aware, as I slog through the text, how far I am from the end, and always have in mind that there are 1108 pages.)  Things have improved a bit, but I still don’t find it great literature: that is, if someone found this in a used bookstore as an undiscovered text, it would not be touted as a work of ineffable beauty.  To me, its significance rests almost entirely on its huge role in Western culture, not on the beauty of its prose.

That said, I have found bits that are stirring, but only bits. Here are a couple from Job:

  • “Yet man is born unto trouble, as the sparks fly upward.” (Job 5:7)
  • Chapter 38 of Job, which includes “Where was thou when I laid the foundations of the earth. . . whereupon are the foundations thereof fastened? or who laid the corner stone thereof? When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy? Or who shut up the sea with doors, when it brake forth, as if it has issued out of the womb?”
  • “Behold now behemoth, which I made with thee; he eateth grass as an ox, Lo, now, his strength is in his loins, and his force is in the navel of his belly. He moveth his tail like a cedar; the sinews of his stones are wrapped together.” (Job 41:15-17).  [Note: the placement of italics in the Bible seems idiosyncratic to me, though I’m sure scholars have an explanation.]

But really, these are cherry-picked among a gazillion more dreadful verses, and aren’t all that lovely.  The tedious bits predominate.

I know that other readers have pointed out passages of “beauty” that I’ve ignored, and perhaps I can’t see that beauty in light of the dreadful message imbued in every book.  Job, for example, is a horrible chapter about how Satan gets God to test an upright man by killing his kids, taking his livestock, and then afflicting him with boils.  This is an abusive relationship between Job and God: a man is made to suffer for no reason other than to test his faith. What kind of God would do that? If anyone finds morality in that book, let her speak!

My point is that it’s hard to appreciate beauty imbued in such a horrible message, just as it would be harder to appreciate Shakespeare’s prose had he also written Mein Kampf. But maybe that’s only me.

And the Psalms are no better. With the exception of Psalm 23 (and I’m not sure I would have appreciated it had it not been the most familiar Psalm), they take the following form:

  1. Praise to God for his power and benevolence
  2. Affirmation that the psalmist is a sinner and a worthless worm
  3. Request that God smite and confound the psalmist’s enemies
  4. Request that God give favors to the psalmist
  5. More blessings to God and promises that the psalmist will be a good boy from now on.

Psalm after psalm after psalm—150 of the bloody things! I’m hoping matters will pick up when I get to Proverbs.

A week ago, Peter Mullen, and Anglican priest and rector of a church in London, wrote a piece in the Telegraph defending the beauty of the Old Testament: “The Old Testament isn’t hogwash, Jeremy Paxman. But Newsnight often is.” (It’s a response to a quote by Paxman that children were being indoctrinated by “religious hogwash,” even though Paxman was apparently goading Richard Dawkins to clarify his ideas.)  At any rate, Mullen defends the beauty and inspiration to be found in the OT:

No – the Old Testament is not all hogwash, religious or not. It is one of the greatest examples of human creativity and inspiration.

He then points out to Paxman some of its beauty:

But, come off it Jeremy, even such a sophisticated secularist as yourself must admit that there are whole sections of the OT possessed of a rare and strange beauty:

“And Adam heard the voice of God walking in the garden in the cool of the day….”

Not only is that not beautiful, but it’s grammatically incorrect.  There’s an unclear antecedent here: was God’s voice walking? The proper prose would be, “And Adam, walking in the garden in the cool of the day, heard God’s voice.”  Mullen goes on:

And passages of numinous spiritual insight, making the hairs stand out on the back of your neck:

“Take off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the ground whereon thou standest is holy ground…”

Mullen must have unusually erectile neck hairs. That’s supposed to be beautiful? Give me John Donne over that any day.  Mullen goes on:

And such combinations of pity and love as this:

“And Ruth said, Intreat me not to leave thee, or to return from following after thee; for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge; thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God. Where thou diest, will I die, and there will I be buried. The Lord do so to me, and more also, if ought but death part thee and me.”

That one is okay, though hardly world class prose.

Or visionary poetry:

“In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord, high and lifted up, and his train filled the temple. Then said I, Woe is me for I am undone, for I am a man of unclean lips and dwell among a people of unclean lips…”

That’s from Isaiah, and I haven’t gotten to it yet. It is okay, but again, only one sentence out of 845 pages.

There are boring bits. But there is the matchless musicality of the Psalms – “Like as the hart desireth the water brook” – and the erotic beauty of The Song of Songs . .

Again, I haven’t gotten to it, but I’m prepared to believe that the Song of Songs could be lovely. But if that’s the best one can glean out of the huge Old Testament, it doesn’t speak well for its beauty.  The Dead, by Joyce, contains far more beauty in a longish short story than I’ve read in the first half of the Bible.

At least regarding that half, then, I’ll have to disagree with Professor Dawkins that it is “a great work of literature.” Really, if this didn’t have iconic status in Western literature, would anybody pick it up at the bookstore?

h/t: Kevin


  1. gbjames
    Posted August 8, 2012 at 5:20 am | Permalink

    Bless you, JAC, for voluntary suffering so that I need not. May Ceiling Cat smile upon your countenance and guide thee to the end of these pages of woe.

    • Dominic
      Posted August 8, 2012 at 5:23 am | Permalink

      ‘Thy’ countenance!

      • gbjames
        Posted August 8, 2012 at 5:39 am | Permalink

        Woe is me. My incantation went awry. Now we’ll get a hurricane for sure.

        • gravelinspector
          Posted August 9, 2012 at 5:23 am | Permalink

          In the immortal words of Private Frazer, “We’re doomed ; doomed I tell you!”

    • Posted August 10, 2012 at 6:36 am | Permalink

      Jerry, your eyes must be glazed by now. I’ve tried to read the book three times in my life & never have been able to get out of the Book of Moses.

      I’m now 72 years old, so I don’ know if I’ll ever make it. There’s just too much interesting stuff to read out there to waste my time on this book.

  2. Dominic
    Posted August 8, 2012 at 5:22 am | Permalink

    Well, a translation is what Mullen is gushing over, not the original Hebrew (or Aramaic?), & just because we associate ‘thee’ & ‘thou’ with poetic language by virtue of so much 16th/17th century poetry (outside Yorkshire or other parts of the English northern counties that is, where they are still in common use), that alone does not make it poetry or “a rare and strange beauty”. Indeed, “a rare and strange beauty” is quite clearly based on Mullen’s view that this is the book of his god.

    What about the a rare and strange beauty of Hesiod, or Lebor Gabála Érenn, or the Epic of Gilgamesh, among many others? Hmmm… I detect a strong bias.

    • James Walker
      Posted August 8, 2012 at 5:26 am | Permalink

      Hebrew, if it’s the Old Testament. Jesus would have spoken Aramaic, but the New Testament was written in Greek.

      • Josh
        Posted August 8, 2012 at 5:35 am | Permalink

        Maybe it is more poetic in Hebrew and Greek than in English? Perhaps a fluency in these languages would bring a deeper understanding of the Bible?

        • gbjames
          Posted August 8, 2012 at 6:17 am | Permalink

          Perhaps. I find it disappointing that the Supreme Being couldn’t figure out a way to put his divine inspiration into a form that didn’t require readers to learn ancient foreign languages.

        • gr8hands
          Posted August 8, 2012 at 7:24 am | Permalink

          No, the scriptures are not significantly better in Hebrew, Aramaic or Greek. The “original” languages (there is continuing debate about sections) will provide context, but not quality.

          • Dermot C
            Posted August 8, 2012 at 8:03 am | Permalink

            Bart D. Ehrman tells a story of some OT multi-lingual scholar telling him that to read it in the original languages was like reading in colour rather than in black and white.

            I like the image but I’m not sure whether the bloke was referring to poetry, clarity, quality, as you say, but I can appreciate how it might illuminate the writers’ world-view.

      • Greg G
        Posted August 8, 2012 at 7:09 am | Permalink

        In John 3, Nicodemus asks Jesus how to get to heaven. Jesus’ response leaves Nicodemus thinking he must come out of his mother’s womb again so Jesus explains that he meant he had to be born from above. That is because a word used can mean either “again” or “from above”. This pun can only work in Greek because there is no Aramaic word that could cause that confusion.

        Either Jesus spoke Greek or somebody who spoke Greek made up the whole story. The Christian mantra, John 3:16, is part of the conversation.

        • gbjames
          Posted August 8, 2012 at 7:13 am | Permalink

          What does “born from above” mean? How is that any more clear than “born again”?

          • Posted August 8, 2012 at 10:37 am | Permalink

            If the writer of John wanted it to be unambiguous, he could have used the Greek word “pali[n]” which only means “again”.

            Born from above is explained as being born from water and spirit; as in, being an authentic child of god. Above = god.

            • gbjames
              Posted August 8, 2012 at 10:44 am | Permalink

              IOW, typical religious obfuscation meaning nothing. Are there inauthentic children of god?

    • Posted August 8, 2012 at 9:15 am | Permalink

      I think the random-seeming italics that Jerry noted are meant to indicate words that do not appear literally in the original text but were interpolated by the translator. Or something like that.

      • Posted August 8, 2012 at 9:17 am | Permalink

        Oops, see fuller discussion by Ken MacLeod under Comment 4.

    • Posted August 8, 2012 at 2:37 pm | Permalink

      The Epic of Gilgamesh beats the bible hands down both in beauty and in content:

      “Life, which you look for, you will never find. For when the gods created man, they let death be his share, and with-held life in their own hands.
      Gilgamesh, fill your belly, day and night make merry,
      let day be full of joy, dance & make music day and night,
      and wear fresh clothes
      and wash your head and bathe,
      look at the child that is holding your hand, and let your wife delight in you embrace. These thing alone are the concern of man “

      • Posted August 10, 2012 at 6:52 am | Permalink

        Didn’t Gilgamesh precede the Bible? If so, isn’t that book be more likely to be the authentic word of any god that might have existed?

  3. Brett
    Posted August 8, 2012 at 5:23 am | Permalink

    “And Adam heard the voice of God walking in the garden in the cool of the day….”

    Not a good translation. It is a hyper-literal rendering of the Hebrew word ‘qol’ usually meaning ‘voice.’ However, in this context, it is clearly an idiom which means “And they heard the sound of Yahweh-Elohim walking in the garden…” (Gen 3:8). I suspect that such a translation of ‘voice’ is a common religious maneuver intended to downplay the blatant anthropomorphism of God ‘walking’ about.

    What’s even better is that in the very next verse, God yells out to Adam: “Where are you?!” Some omniscience! These verses all clearly derive from the ‘J’ source of the Pentateuch, which envisions a very personal, human-like deity, in contrast to the ‘P(riestly)’ conception of a distant and detached god.

    • Dominic
      Posted August 8, 2012 at 5:25 am | Permalink

      Thanks! A nice reminder of the human origins of the religionS that became Judaism, inter alia…

    • gbjames
      Posted August 8, 2012 at 5:45 am | Permalink

      “And they heard the sound of Yahweh-Elohim walking in the garden…”

      Any word on what this sound was? Does Yahweh-Elohim clomp through the bushes like a rhino? Or is he quiet like, say, a dik-dik? Or perhaps he roars like a Harley-Davidson Super Glide?

      Just wondering.

      • Brett
        Posted August 8, 2012 at 5:51 am | Permalink

        I’m sure it keeps many a theologian up late into the night.

      • TJR
        Posted August 8, 2012 at 5:52 am | Permalink

        God would clearly sound like a Harley-Davdison with Steppenwolf playing over the top……

        • TJR
          Posted August 8, 2012 at 5:52 am | Permalink


          • gbjames
            Posted August 8, 2012 at 6:15 am | Permalink

            My keyboard doesn’t work right in the morning, either.

            • Dermot C
              Posted August 8, 2012 at 6:27 am | Permalink

              TJR’s a Brit, GBJ; nevertheless, a good line, I wish I’d said that. You will, Oscar, you will.

              • gbjames
                Posted August 8, 2012 at 7:14 am | Permalink

                The interesting thing is that often my keyboard also fails me in the afternoon. 😉

              • TJR
                Posted August 8, 2012 at 7:30 am | Permalink

                Mine failed me just after a heavy lunch.

              • HaggisForBrains
                Posted August 8, 2012 at 9:26 am | Permalink

                I can’t get mine to wrok any time of the day.

      • Greg G
        Posted August 8, 2012 at 7:14 am | Permalink

        I imagine God setting foot on Earth would sound like a whoopie cushion.

      • MadScientist
        Posted August 9, 2012 at 1:58 am | Permalink

        I just assumed that it was the Snuffalupagus music.

  4. Posted August 8, 2012 at 5:24 am | Permalink

    To clear up the puzzle about italics: in the KJV, they indicate words not in the original text but added by the translators. Sometimes this is reasonable, to clarify the meaning, but not always: see, for a glaring example, 2 Samuel 21, 19.

  5. James Walker
    Posted August 8, 2012 at 5:24 am | Permalink

    “And Adam heard the voice of God walking in the garden in the cool of the day…” may be ambiguous but it’s not ungrammatical. Another way of resolving the ambiguity would be to add “while” before “walking”.

    • Posted August 8, 2012 at 10:55 am | Permalink

      But that would then raise the question who was doing the walking: Adam or God?

      • James Walker
        Posted August 8, 2012 at 12:42 pm | Permalink

        That’s why I said it’s ambiguous, not incorrect.

  6. Posted August 8, 2012 at 5:29 am | Permalink

    The question: “the Bible is great literature, isn’t it?” is similar to “the Bride is Beautiful, isn’t she?” or “isn’t my kid’s 1’st grade drawing great?”

    Of course, the Bible is highly influential, familiar (though many who “love it” haven’t read much of it) and should be understood if one wants to understand western history.

    • RWO
      Posted August 8, 2012 at 12:00 pm | Permalink

      The Bible is influential in western history because many people who did not, and do not, read it carefully or even very extensively, or know much about its history, too often believe in and follow leaders who cite it as authority for their exhortations and dictates. To me, it is this utilization of the book that is the primary thing to understand about its relevance. I believe that little contained between its covers is all that useful for understanding history, and in fact one hell of a lot of the content is quite misleading.

      • Posted August 8, 2012 at 5:40 pm | Permalink

        Here is what I mean: many of our sayings “cast the first stone”, “writing on the wall”, “cross to bear” (etc.) come from the Bible. Also, some post Biblical fiction use the “suffering servant” as a model for their characters.

        It has influence even today as well: why else would two groups of people spend so much blood and treasure fighting over the same pile of meaningless rocks in a nondescript part of the world?

        • Notagod
          Posted August 8, 2012 at 8:30 pm | Permalink

          Many of the concepts contained in the christian bible predate the notion of christianity. The idea that those concepts come from the christian bible isn’t necessarily wrong but is incomplete as to origin.

          As few actually read the bible and get descriptions of its content through secondhand accounts wouldn’t it be more correct to say the word ‘bible’ is highly influential but the book not so much?

          • Posted August 9, 2012 at 6:27 pm | Permalink

            That might be a good way of putting it.

            And yes, much of what is there isn’t original.

  7. agentwhim
    Posted August 8, 2012 at 5:32 am | Permalink

    It often appears as though even the people who say they believe the contents of the bible haven’t read it. That doesn’t exactly make it sound like the irresistible literary classic that people make it out to be.

  8. Posted August 8, 2012 at 5:33 am | Permalink

    The Old Testament should be looked at in terms of an ancient historical narrative/text rather than a modern day work of poetry in my view – agreeing with you basically. What looked at in it’s historical context I think the work becomes more interesting in that it sheds light on ancient Jewish culture and history, although not necessarily more interesting to read however.

  9. jeffery
    Posted August 8, 2012 at 5:33 am | Permalink

    Just wait until you get to all of the conflicting Proverbs!

  10. Posted August 8, 2012 at 5:40 am | Permalink

    proverbs and ecclesiastes are better, but all in all it’s lipstick on a particularly vile and primtive pig.

    • Aj
      Posted August 8, 2012 at 6:14 am | Permalink

      Indeed, I do quite like ecclesiates 9

      10 Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, whither thou goest.

      11 I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

      … but for all the good bits there’s still vast amounts of utter arse to wade through.

      • Tulse
        Posted August 8, 2012 at 6:46 am | Permalink

        I like the Byrds version of Ecclesiates.

      • gbjames
        Posted August 8, 2012 at 7:09 am | Permalink

        For the life of me I don’t understand how a race that is “not to the swift” can be a race at all. Seems like a married bachelor sort of thing to me.

        • Occam
          Posted August 8, 2012 at 10:40 am | Permalink

          Random events. Time and chance. The slowest runner has an outside chance if the fastest one trips up.

          Ecclesiastes 9:11 used to be frequently quoted in statistical papers, following the lead of the great Maurice Kendall (Kendall’s tau, Kendall’s W), who put it on the title page of his Advanced Theory of Statistics.

          At a time this fad spiralled so out of control that one of my stats profs declined to read any papers if they contained any Ecclesiastes quotes.

          • gbjames
            Posted August 8, 2012 at 10:47 am | Permalink

            By definition the one who won (despite the chances) was the fastest runner, not the slowest. The fact that the favorite competitor tripped on his shoelaces doesn’t make the winner the slowest.

            • Occam
              Posted August 8, 2012 at 11:27 am | Permalink


              One might evoke the Aristotelian concept of quality, with which the author of Qoheleth was probably familiar, if indeed the current form was written down circa 200 BCE.

              One might argue, statistically, that “swift” refers to the statistical record of a runner in past races, hence the predicted outcome based on an empirical probability distribution, versus the occurrence in one single race, where both a “swift” and a “slow” runner may register extreme outliers at opposite ends of their individual data point sets.
              Infrequent, hence improbable, but not impossible. A function of time and chance.

              • gbjames
                Posted August 8, 2012 at 11:35 am | Permalink

                One might do all of those things. One might also ask what the point of the line is in the first place.

                Do we seriously think that the author was making a statement about probability distributions? Unlikely. Far more probable that the author was engaged in typical religious rhetoric, where-by “profundities” are cranked out by deepity generating machines. He who is first shall be last, and all that jazz.

              • Occam
                Posted August 8, 2012 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

                You are so right.
                There. Happy, now?

              • gbjames
                Posted August 8, 2012 at 12:28 pm | Permalink

                No. You didn’t bring me ice cream.

  11. Dermot C
    Posted August 8, 2012 at 5:48 am | Permalink

    Hitchens, on page 689 of ‘Arguably’, Atlantic Books, 2011, rather makes the point that the KJV was devised by the monarch as an exercise in nation-building; a proto-Bonapartist attempt to balance the arguments of worldly Bishops and the Puritans.

    That the academics coined so many ringing phrases without the contribution of Shakespeare has always struck me as intriguing. Was he consulted? We’ll never know.

    Regarding JAC’s rather grudging appreciation of Job, I think it worth doing a comparative study with Gilgamesh, the Iliad; all three address the theme of the capriciousness of God, the gods, loss and suffering. They address us from the dawn of civilisation as our void-terrified wail against our own impotence. I find Job genuinely moving, like The Iliad and Gilgamesh.

    • gluonspring
      Posted August 8, 2012 at 9:43 am | Permalink

      Agreed. I also think of Job as written by a skeptic who is essentially making the point that, if there is a God he must be a fiend because good people really do befall calamity just like everyone else. The dialogue between Job, who accuses God flatly of being unjust, and Job’s friends, who insist that Job must be the one at fault, is the conversation between believers and skeptics. Everything Job’s friends say will sound very familiar to anyone who has talked to believers or been raised to be pious themselves. Believers make excuses for anything God does. Skeptics won’t have it.

      The tell that the book was written by a skeptic, to me, is that in the end God actually says that Job’s friends didn’t speak the truth about God, that it was Job who spoke the truth about God. Also, the frame story of the book makes it plain that the friends are wrong, that Job actually is innocently tormented by God (or allowed to be) on nothing more than a dare.

      I sort of feel like it’s inclusion in the Bible was a mistake, someone didn’t understand it and thought the book made the pious argument of Job’s friends and included it. Now it’s stuck there as a glaring indictment of the rest of the Bible.

      Or that’s how it strikes me.

      • Posted August 8, 2012 at 11:16 am | Permalink

        strikes me that way too, someone didn’t quite get the point of Job and thought the argumetns the god had were valid, someone who was a classic sycophant. The book of Job shows a particularly stupid braggart god that has to cover up his idiocy by giving Job a brand new familiy and more money.

        Job comes out as a scared man at best, accepting these “gifts” out of fear or a total ass for accepting them and not caring about his first family at all.

      Posted August 8, 2012 at 10:16 am | Permalink

      Dermot C:

      I am with you on this.
      The Bible was a document written with the mindset of a time and a given audience. Judging its aesthetic quality by the standards of our time is a curious, sterile exercise.

      We could review all literature and art of the past in this kind of re-evaluation.

      Plus, poetry as such is untranslatable. It gets its flavor and charm from the very physicality of the original language. There’s no way to preserve any poetry in translation. At best you can create another kind of poetry.
      Read some French poetry in English. Feels like rewarmed soup. Read some Keats or Donne in French. Absurd and abominable. You call that poetry?

      And if you want to judge the quality of the Hebrew Bible by today’s standards, it is a strange choice to pick the King James Version and its archaic words. Why not something like the ESV which tries to keep some flavor of the KJV without the ridiculous accroutements.
      By chance I was reading some Isaiah, Isaiah 60 for instance, and in the EVS version could not deny its certain power.
      “Arise, shine, for your light has come,
      and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.
      For behold, darkness shall cover the earth,
      and thick darkness the peoples;
      but the Lord will arise upon you,
      and his glory will be seen upon you.
      3 And nations shall come to your light,
      and kings to the brightness of your rising.”

      In fact, both Donne and Shxpr simply adapted in the language of their time, whole passages of the Bible. Some sonnets of Shxpr are nearly literal adaptations of some Psalms or other passages. They were all raised with the images and the rhythm of key portions of the Bible, and some specific models of its style. And they could immediately spot what the sources were.
      They were versed in rhetorical expansions of ideas, and often their sources were the ancient classical texts they had studied in school, not just Homer, Pindar, or Virgil, but also the Bible.

      Perhaps “poetry” is the wrong word. “impact” or “clout” or “inspiration” are more appropriate.
      What about the Wisdom of Solomon 1 and ff? What about Sirach?
      What about Mark? Who reads like a movie script.

      Also about the KJV writers: Shxpr was not the only one of his time able to mint interesting sentences and coin arresting phrases.

      Any educated man of the time was trained to value and seek such creative use of the language. Christopher Marlowe, John Donne, and all writers of that time were striving for effect and memorability.

      They all wrote pretty well because expertise and control of the language was the key to power, social prestige and influence, and the ability to hold general attention.

      Language was the primary tool of pre-eminence in civil society, besides military prowess, of course, and even military men showed they could be first-class writers. The command of high-flown language was a must for the educated classes. In those days there were few other basic stimulants for neuronal activity.

      • Occam
        Posted August 8, 2012 at 10:59 am | Permalink

        On style, translation, re-creation and archaicity: if anyone has not yet read the brief piece by Jorge Luis Borges, “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote”, they should do so now.

        Therein, Pierre Menard, a fictional French fin-de-siècle literatus, has a fantastic and impossible secret ambition: to re-create Don Quixote.

        He did not want to compose another Quixote — which is easy — but the Quixote itself. Needless to say, he never contemplated a mechanical transcription of the original; he did not propose to copy it. His admirable intention was to produce a few pages which would coincide — word for word and line for line — with those of Miguel de Cervantes.

        Cervantes’ text and Menard’s are verbally identical, but the second is almost infinitely richer. (More ambiguous, his detractors will say, but ambiguity is richness.)

        It is a revelation to compare Menard’s Don Quixote with Cervantes’. The latter, for example, wrote (part one, chapter nine):
        . . . truth, whose mother is history, rival of time, depository of deeds, witness of the past, exemplar and adviser to the present, and the future’s counselor.

        Written in the seventeenth century, written by the “lay genius” Cervantes, this enumeration is a mere rhetorical praise of history. Menard, on the other hand, writes:
        . . . truth, whose mother is history, rival of time, depository of deeds, witness of the past, exemplar and adviser to the present, and the future’s counselor.

        History, the mother of truth: the idea is astounding. Menard, a contemporary of William James, does not define history as an inquiry into reality but as its origin. Historical truth, for him, is not what has happened; it is what we judge to have happened. The final phrases — exemplar and adviser to the present, and the future’s counselor — are brazenly pragmatic.

        The contrast in style is also vivid. The archaic style of Menard — quite foreign, after all — suffers from a certain affectation. Not so that of his forerunner, who handles with ease the current Spanish of his time.

    • Mark
      Posted August 9, 2012 at 6:36 am | Permalink

      Large parts of the King James Bible — and especially those catch-phrases that worked their way into wider English usage — appear to be cribbed from William Tyndale’s earlier translation. Tyndale is also responsible for some now-famous phrases in the English Book of Common Prayer including “earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust” and “for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do us part.”

      The man had a way with words, needless to say. And he was burned at the stake for his efforts.

      • Dermot C
        Posted August 9, 2012 at 6:50 am | Permalink

        Yeah, Mark. Hitchens reveals on the same page of ‘Arguably’ that Tyndale’s name, in early life, was William Hychyns. Doesn’t seem to have done the poor bloke any good. They’d have burned him, no matter what he was called.


  12. Posted August 8, 2012 at 5:55 am | Permalink

    The Old Testament’s alternate title: How to Grovel and Act like You Love Doing It

  13. Posted August 8, 2012 at 5:59 am | Permalink

    Well done Jerry, for reading as much as you have bearing in mind all the other jobs on your to-do list. The bible is such a weird book to get ones teeth into. So many bibles are sold, yet so few are ever read in full. This bible-god is lacking in so much that I can’t understand where the ‘God is Love’ phrase came from. This kind of ‘me, me, worship me god’ is more akin to a controlling, overbearing narcissistic parent never satisfied by anything good that the child may do.

    • truthspeaker
      Posted August 8, 2012 at 7:10 am | Permalink

      Controlling, overbearing narcissistic parents tend to tell their children they love them and that their abusive actions are expressions of that love. I’m seeing a parallel.

    • Greg G
      Posted August 8, 2012 at 7:24 am | Permalink

      Those that do read it use a plan that has them read a certain amount everyday so they can read it in a year. It is like a chore. It’s hard to put down a good book but you have to force yourself to pick up the Good Book.

      Posted August 8, 2012 at 10:24 am | Permalink

      You forget that they were Jewish parents, with their special cultural idiosyncracies.

  14. Cathy
    Posted August 8, 2012 at 6:00 am | Permalink

    Have you made it to Psalm 137:9? One of my personal favorites, not for beauty but for supporting the hypothesis that people don’t actually read this book. I believe this is part of “the Lord’s song in a foreign land,” although the context isn’t entirely clear to me.

    • Posted August 8, 2012 at 6:53 am | Permalink

      Oh my. Charming, that one.

    • HaggisForBrains
      Posted August 8, 2012 at 9:35 am | Permalink

      from the NIV: “Happy is the one who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks”.

      I don’t remember that from the Boney M version.

  15. Posted August 8, 2012 at 6:02 am | Permalink

    Just a brief note about italics. The italics usually indicate an interpolation of a word that is not there in the original language — in this case Hebrew — but which is necessary to translate the passage into intelligible English.

  16. Posted August 8, 2012 at 6:03 am | Permalink

    Don’t raise your hopes too high that Proverbs will be an improvement.

  17. ForCarl
    Posted August 8, 2012 at 6:21 am | Permalink

    Apparently Barack Obama thought that Psalm 46 was important enough to read at the last 9/11 ceremony despite Mayor Bloomberg’s request that there be no clergy prayers. Remember the raft of shit Bloomberg had thrown at him for that courageous stand? I was disgusted with the President’s deaf ear to Bloomberg and his inconsideration of those who died in 9/11 who were not Jews or Christians.

  18. Posted August 8, 2012 at 6:33 am | Permalink

    Blessed art thou, Dr. Coyne, for setting thy feet upon this path of tribulation…

    My favorite poetry is in Psalm 139. Think of the speaker as addressing Life or Nature instead of God, and it works pretty well:

    9 If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea;

    10 Even there shall thy hand lead me, and thy right hand shall hold me.

    11 If I say, Surely the darkness shall cover me; even the night shall be light about me.

    15 My substance was not hid from thee, when I was made in secret, and curiously wrought in the lowest parts of the earth.

    Verse 15 is mysterious, but as a geologist/blacksmith, I find the idea of myself being made in the earth’s core quite appealing, even if it’s not accurate!

    But for ancient poetry, I much prefer Vergil’s Georgics, especially this:

    Felix, qui potuit rerum cognoscere causas,
    atque metus omnis et inexorabile fatum
    subiecit pedibus strepitumque Acherontis avari.
    Georgics II, 490-492

    • truthspeaker
      Posted August 8, 2012 at 7:16 am | Permalink

      “My substance was not hid from thee, when I was made in secret, and curiously wrought in the lowest parts of the earth.”

      Sounds like Tolkien’s dwarves addressing their maker.

    • HaggisForBrains
      Posted August 8, 2012 at 9:39 am | Permalink

      My frame was not hidden from you
      when I was made in the secret place,
      when I was woven together in the depths of the earth.

  19. Greg G
    Posted August 8, 2012 at 6:44 am | Permalink

    In Isaiah (KJV), there is a cockatrice, which is like a crocoduck but with a chicken head and a serpent body. One verse has it flying up into the air and the imagery is spectacular. Modern versions translate it as a snake thus destroying the imagery.

    Reading the Old Testament is more interesting after reading Friedman’s Who Wrote the Bible. The subtext and history comes through the seams of the different versions that are sewn together with redaction.

  20. Aelfric
    Posted August 8, 2012 at 6:48 am | Permalink

    Bible-loving atheist here. I know, that’s odd, but I was raised non-theist, didn’t so much as a see a bible until my teens, and have been fascinated every since (to the point of studying Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek). Anyway, Chapter 38 of Job is truly beautiful, and kind of amazing. To me, it is no less than biblical atheism. God shows up, asks Job a bunch of questions he can’t possibly answer about the profoundest things in the universe, and then asks how he dares question him. The only upshot I can take away is quite simply this: is there any difference between a completely incomprehensible god and no god at all? Is a God who acts with seeming complete randomness any different from lack of a god? The obvious answer to me is that there is no difference. Even Job’s famous answer, “I repent [turn away], being but dust and ash” seems to me double sided. God has just said that Job doesn’t matter at all in the grand scheme of things. And, to my reading, in his own passive-aggressive way, Job has just said the same thing about God. My two cents.

  21. BilBy
    Posted August 8, 2012 at 6:49 am | Permalink

    As others have pointed out, it’s all down to translation: I don’t read ancient Greek, struggle feebly with Latin with constant reference to old school books (the benefits of a classical education m’dear), wouldn’t recognise Aramaic etc etc, so I must read in translation – all of the guff about the ‘beauty’ of the OT really means a kind of vague pleasure in certain archaic sonorous phrases in the language of the KJB. This is like arguments over whether E.V. Rieu was the best translator of The Iliad or that George Chapman was the apogee etc. The King James version has certain lovely phraseology – it means nothing about the ‘beauty’ of the Bible.

    • gr8hands
      Posted August 8, 2012 at 7:33 am | Permalink

      I’m guessing that people were persuaded it was important/beautiful literature due to the speaking skills of their religious leader.

      I’m reminded that Sir Richard Burton (the actor) would do dramatic readings from the phone book.

      Same thing. Except the phone book is about real people that exist.

      • Dermot C
        Posted August 8, 2012 at 8:45 am | Permalink

        That would be The Book of Numbers, ba-bum.

        • HaggisForBrains
          Posted August 8, 2012 at 9:46 am | Permalink

          We’ll let you know.

        • Hempenstein
          Posted August 8, 2012 at 10:01 am | Permalink

          +1 !

  22. J
    Posted August 8, 2012 at 6:55 am | Permalink

    I’m currently reading The Silmarillion & am really enjoying it. I found it completely impenetrable when I tried to read it at 13 because of its KJV style of prose, particularly early on, but have really got into it this time. Some of the imagery in the book is beautiful & does an excellent job of showing up the Bible; the word of Tolkien is much better than the alleged word of Yahweh!

    • Graham Martin-Royle
      Posted August 8, 2012 at 7:04 am | Permalink

      It’s also a much better creation story, the universe created out of a song.

      Sorry to have to tell you Jerry, you’ve got heaps more dross to wade through. What little beauty there is in the bible is surrounded by mountains of terrible prose, some of it so bad, it could have been written by me! This is why christians cherry pick at it, it is just sooooo bad, to read it all the way through, you have to actually force yourself.

      • gr8hands
        Posted August 8, 2012 at 7:36 am | Permalink

        Along that line, you’ll like the verse Zephaniah 3:17

        The LORD thy God in the midst of thee is mighty; he will save, he will rejoice over thee with joy; he will rest in his love, he will joy over thee with singing.

      • J
        Posted August 8, 2012 at 8:47 am | Permalink

        Yes, that was one of the sections I particularly had in mind! Also, the creation & overall theme of Telperion and Laurelin, the light-giving trees in Valinor, & how they remain so central to the races of elves who beheld them.

    • Greg G
      Posted August 8, 2012 at 7:29 am | Permalink

      I tried to read Silmarillion when it first came out. Maybe now I’m ready for it. I’ll move it up the list of things to read before I die.

      • truthspeaker
        Posted August 8, 2012 at 8:06 am | Permalink

        I found it helpful to refer to the index of names whenever I came across a character I didn’t remember.

  23. Posted August 8, 2012 at 7:00 am | Permalink

    Just to shamelessly point to my own blog, I recently put the text of the KJV through a program that looks for sentences that could be haikus (i.e. 17 syllables). So yes, there is “poetry” in the bible, for some values of poetry.

  24. Greg G
    Posted August 8, 2012 at 7:37 am | Permalink

    Forget the poetry of the Bible. Ezekiel 23 has pornographic literature. I can’t define pornographic literature but I know it when I see it. The Sophisticated Theist ™ might say, “B-b-b-ut it’s a metaphor.” Of all the metaphors one could use, why use the type that incites ideas that we find out in the New Testament is a thought-crime equivalent to adultery without the happy ending?

    • HaggisForBrains
      Posted August 8, 2012 at 9:52 am | Permalink

      NIV V20:
      “There she lusted after her lovers, whose genitals were like those of donkeys and whose emission was like that of horses”

      I must have missed Sunday School that day.

      • Noadi
        Posted August 9, 2012 at 2:51 am | Permalink

        There’s a whole book of the Bible like that: The Song of Songs.
        “Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth—
        for your love is more delightful than wine.
        3 Pleasing is the fragrance of your perfumes;
        your name is like perfume poured out.
        No wonder the young women love you!
        4 Take me away with you—let us hurry!
        Let the king bring me into his chambers. ”
        Some Christians try to argue that it’s a metaphor for the Church’s love for God but that’s rather a stretch.

  25. Brian Breczinski
    Posted August 8, 2012 at 7:43 am | Permalink

    When you finish the bible, you should read “Small Gods” by Terry Pratchett, a parody of monotheism.

    • John Scarborough
      Posted August 8, 2012 at 3:52 pm | Permalink

      Oh yes.
      My favourite is the goddess of things that get stuck in drawers.
      Her followers’ worship involves rattling their kitchen drawers every day.

  26. Claimthehighground
    Posted August 8, 2012 at 7:54 am | Permalink

    You ask, “would anybody pick it up at the bookstore?” Well, a nicely bound edition would make a perfectly adequate door stop.

    • Posted August 8, 2012 at 9:26 am | Permalink

      Indeed, in an alternative universe, the curious bookworm would pick it up and say “Holly Bibble?” I wonder who she was.

  27. Jayso
    Posted August 8, 2012 at 7:58 am | Permalink

    I also admire and enjoy parts of Bible. For me, the key is to think of God as just another literary character, one who’s jealous, violent, and possibly insane, a little like Hamlet. We don’t look for a moral message in Hamlet (“drive your girlfriend insane by killing her father, and you too could have your revenge”) and we shouldn’t in the Bible. Here’s one of my favorite lines from Genesis. When Joseph, who was kidnapped and sold into slavery by his evil brothers, returns home after many years, he falls on his father’s neck and cries and his father says, “Now let me die, since I have seen thy face, because thou art yet alive.”

    • Jeff D
      Posted August 8, 2012 at 8:37 am | Permalink

      In addition to the first two quotes that JAC cited from Job (the second was a favorite of Gregory Bateson, a second- or third-generation atheist), I like Psalms 90:12 (“So teach us to number our days, that we may get a heart of wisdom”) and a longer tidbit at Ecclesiastes 9:5-7, because both essentially deny that any sort of afterlife awaits us after death.

      The [cherry]-pickings are slim, but with monumental patience and a little creative quote-mining, the Bible will yield a little something now and then that a non-believer or a humanist can embrace.

    • Dermot C
      Posted August 8, 2012 at 8:38 am | Permalink

      cf. The Iliad: Priam, Hector’s father, is begging Achilles, Hector’s assassin, to desist, in his insane blood-lust, from desecrating his son’s corpse. Priam says, ‘I kiss the hand of the man who killed my son.’ Pitiful.

  28. Greg Fitzgerald
    Posted August 8, 2012 at 8:18 am | Permalink

    In your quotation about Behemoth, you mistakenly wrote “strength in his lions” instead of “strength in his LOINS”.

    Keep up the good work, Prof. Coyne!

    • Greg Fitzgerald
      Posted August 8, 2012 at 8:21 am | Permalink

      Ah! I just realized that the second sentence sounds snarky coming after the first. I genuinely think you’re doing good work. 🙂

  29. jackdaw
    Posted August 8, 2012 at 8:27 am | Permalink

    Cough, err Job 40:15 et seq.(not 41 in my KJAV) talks about loins, not lions. I’ll grant lions are more interesting imagery though…

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted August 8, 2012 at 8:41 am | Permalink

      You’re right, of course, and I’ve fixed it.

      That reminds me of a story: a friend and I were both groomsmen at a wedding in Texas in 1972 and were lodged at the home of the groom’s friend. Roaring drunk after a pre=wedding bash, we went to bed. About an hour later my friend woke me up, insisting that I had to come to the refrigerator because he’d found LION STEAK in there.

      “You’re nuts,” I said.
      “No! He responded. Really–they have STEAK MADE FROM LIONS!”
      Groggy and tipsy,I got out of bed and stumbled to the fridge. My friend pointed to a paper-wrapped package on which was written:

      “Loin steak.”

  30. Caroline52
    Posted August 8, 2012 at 8:34 am | Permalink

    Presumably, some people find certain passages goose-bumpy because they originally heard them while in an emotional state of awe and devotion, possibly induced by ceremony, group hymn singing, etc., perhaps repeatedly –so hearing the words triggers those same emotions, and they attribute their reaction to the language of the passage rather than to the associations they have with it.

    • truthspeaker
      Posted August 8, 2012 at 9:52 am | Permalink

      I have a similar experience with Ronnie James Dio lyrics. They’re just more profound when you’re a lonely 14-year-old kid in your dark bedroom with the headphones on.

  31. BilBy
    Posted August 8, 2012 at 8:38 am | Permalink

    Incidentally, the choice of the behemoth verse (it’s ch 40, not 41) made me go online to compare my Gideon Bible with the KJV. Gideon translates ‘stones’ as thighs, but the online version of the KJV has a note claiming a dinosaur is described (they are convinced that the ‘tail like a cedar’ must mean a sauropod)! The association of ‘stones’ (testicles) with ‘tail’ in v 17 suggests to me that ‘tail’ really means ‘penis’ and that the KJV was being euphemistic here (or mistranslating): this makes sense in the verses being about a ‘powerful’ animal and is about its virility. Anyone with better knowledge able to confirm this or shoot me down? It has to make more sense than a freakin’ dinosaur.

    • HaggisForBrains
      Posted August 8, 2012 at 10:03 am | Permalink

      I don’t know if it’s a better translation, but the NIV has:

      15. Look at Behemoth,
      which I made along with you
      and which feeds on grass like an ox.
      16. What strength it has in its loins,
      what power in the muscles of its belly!
      17. Its tail sways like a cedar;
      the sinews of its thighs are close knit,
      18. Its bones are tubes of bronze,
      its limbs like rods of iron.

    • Maverick
      Posted August 8, 2012 at 12:24 pm | Permalink

      Apparently its talking about a hippo. If you consider that hippos are massive, fast, can open their big-toothed mouths over 100 degrees wide, and, if you step into water where there’s a hippo (which can be very territorial, and can stay underwater for a very long time) they will grab you with the aforementioned giant mouth and drown you to death…they can be pretty scary. Yahewe’s point is “I made that. Can you beat it? I thought not.”

      Oh, yes, the “tail” is its penis.

  32. Posted August 8, 2012 at 8:59 am | Permalink

    Okay, you win. I’m going to the library now to get a copy of The Dead.

  33. Greg Peterson
    Posted August 8, 2012 at 9:10 am | Permalink

    Song of Songs is notable for being a not-religious text at all. It’s as if the redactors working on the Hebrew canon were like, “Oh, can’t we put this one in…it’s got some steamy bits?” And one of the priestly scribes probably said, “Hell no we can’t, precisely because of the steamy bits.” But most of the guys were like, “Come on. So far most of the sex in here has been rape and drunken incest and shit. Can’t we have one book with a little romance in it?” And the priestly scribe relented because he realized his wife would kill him if they left out the “Fifty Shadeths of Gray” from their anthology.

    And for what it’s worth, there are forms of poetry in Hebrew that simply don’t translate into English…acrostic poems, for example, or sensory poems (including the part of Song that says that the girl’s breasts are like twin fawns. English readers used to reading poetry that is often more restricted to visuals might not get that this is a reference to how the breasts MOVE. It’s not a huge stretch–English poems use similes for all senses as well. But the Hebrew poets seemed to have a way of mixing the senses up very impressionistically, leaving it to the reader to figure out exactly what the relationship between a tail and a quaking cedar was, and so forth.

    It is in fact mostly a dreadful book, but I give it credit for being a sort of first draft of a lot of things. This might not be a popular analog, but I liken it to early rock-n-roll, which I pretty thoroughly hate, giving way to some great stuff that I truly love. Or the way Freud got the ball rolling in some interesting directions, even though his own “insights” turned out to be mostly garbage.

  34. Dianne Saichek
    Posted August 8, 2012 at 9:17 am | Permalink

    Really, Dr. Coyne, why are you wasting your time? Just read Harold Bloom’s Book of J and you’re done. It’s the ur-text for the Old Testament and much more authentic than the King James version. Plus, Bloom has interesting things to say about it. You’ll enjoy it and it’s much shorter! (It’s summer vacation, grab a brewski and take a load off!!)

    • markkoop
      Posted August 8, 2012 at 12:11 pm | Permalink

      Based on this comment, I just made my way over to Amazon and bought Book of J. Awesome premise; thanks for recommending it!

  35. Posted August 8, 2012 at 9:22 am | Permalink

    I think Gob is the most honest book in the Bible; life’s a bitch, deal with it. Of course, if a supposedly loving god is behind it, that’s bullshit.

  36. MNb
    Posted August 8, 2012 at 9:40 am | Permalink

    What bothers me much more than the eventual beauty of OT-language is the story – or the collection of stories. No matter how poor and free the translation, no matter how much reworked, the ancient Greek myths remain thrilling, even if retold on the level of children. The characters are far more interesting and recognizable; the authors understood human psychology much better. Just compare the two stories of sacrificing kids: Agamemnon versus Abraham.
    Or take Psalm 137 – the first 6 lines are a moving lament indeed, but then it descends to cheap revenge sentiment a la the Death Wish series.
    The character I typically like best is the anti-hero Judas Iskariot, because his character is the most human. The story of the decapitation of John the Baptist provides a nice plot for a crime novel.
    But the chapter I like best overall is definitely Revelation, as it is the only one that displays a sense of humour. That’s probably unintentional though. Still it makes me laugh.

    • Greg Peterson
      Posted August 8, 2012 at 9:53 am | Permalink

      Douglas Adams has the best take I’ve ever seen on Revelation, in “Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agnecy”:

      “‘Did you know, young lady,’ said Watkin to her, ‘that the
      Book of Revelation was written on Patmos? It was indeed. By
      Saint John the Divine, as you know. To me it shows very clear
      signs of having been written while waiting for a ferry. Oh,
      yes, I think so. It starts off, doesn’t it, with that kind of
      dreaminess you get when you’re killing time, getting bored, you
      know, just making things up, and then gradually grows to a sort
      of climax of hallucinatory despair. I find that very
      suggestive. Perhaps you should write a paper on it.'”

      • gr8hands
        Posted August 8, 2012 at 11:37 am | Permalink

        Or Robert Heinlein’s Job: A Comedy of Justice . . . the rapture scene was very well written in particular.

      Posted August 8, 2012 at 10:59 am | Permalink


      No doubt, Ancient Greek literature and mythology were vastly more varied and psychologically subtle and humane than the one-dimensional story of the Old Testament and its cruel, wrathful main character. The Greek gods had variety, passions, and lots of action. They were never boring, always interesting and intriguing. And they included some very beautiful women, too. For the Jews, women barely existed, except as companions and housekeepers.

      It was the great tragedy of the West that a Jewish sect, by luck and accident, got first, the endorsement, and, second, the annexation by two Roman Emperors, Constantine and Theodosius, and resolved to eliminate all the competition, especially the Greek gods and their culture, and the Egyptian gods too in the same process, ending destroying the whole Greco-Roman civilization. The world had never seen such systematic destruction of a whole culture as vast as the Roman Empire.

      And the West has never recovered fully, even though it finally pulled out of this cultural nightmare. But that was the doing of the Roman Emperors, not just that of ambitious Christian bishops.

      However, coming back to the Bible, it has some powerful passages. And when you read Mark afresh, forgetting all the memories accumulated about this story, it too has formidable power. No wonder that Mark outdid Paul in spreading the character of Jesus. Mark became the popular propagandist of the ideal Christ revered by Paul in his new mystery cult.

      • Sawdust Sam
        Posted August 9, 2012 at 2:06 am | Permalink

        ‘And the West has never recovered fully.’
        I’m assuming that you believe there was something of the Greek/Roman world that was lost that could have made the world a better place.
        Women were just as much second-class citizens (can you name a prominent woman from the Graeco-Roman civilisation that doesn’t have an equivalent from the fertile crescent?). Legal frameworks were pretty much on a par in the region and the development of the sciences and arts seem to be fairly balanced, thanks to the cultural exchanges that were as common then as now.
        What did you have in mind?

        • Dermot C
          Posted August 9, 2012 at 2:52 am | Permalink

          Hypatia, (ca. CE 350 or 370–415)female mathematician, butchered by a Christian mob on accusations of witchcraft and atheism; and of causing religious dissension.


          • Steve in Oakland
            Posted August 9, 2012 at 4:00 am | Permalink

            Nothing like a mob butchering someone to prevent religious dissension. I would call that Christian logic, but that would be a contradiction in terms.

        • Noadi
          Posted August 9, 2012 at 3:04 am | Permalink

          Do the Dark Ages not ring a bell? That period of time that set the West back a good 500 years? It’s not that the civilization was so much better but that it’s destruction set us back so far. The reasons for the fall of Rome were varied and more of them were systemic than religious but the attitude of the Church exacerbated the decline and the destruction of so much knowledge. It would have been worse if a handful of people hadn’t done what they could to preserve a few shreds of knowledge.

          • Dermot C
            Posted August 9, 2012 at 3:53 am | Permalink

            Gibbon’s ‘Decline and Fall…’ is worth a dip, Noadi, if you have a spare 3 months. Saint Hilary of Poitiers – whose name, of course, means happy, cheerful – fl.4th century, and a leading Hammer of the Arians, on behalf of his Athanasian creed, was appalled at the the internecine blood-bath following Christianity’s seizure of the state power in the Roman Empire. And Hilary was a leading participant in these events, in favour of the Church’s take-over of the temporal power.

            Gibbon’s point strikes me as acute, regarding the men of talent changing to a career in the Church, rather than in the Imperial bureaucracy or army – thereby leaving the Empire organisationally and militarily vulnerable.

          • Sawdust Sam
            Posted August 9, 2012 at 7:28 am | Permalink

            The fall of Rome didn’t stop the clock – it enabled other cultures to flourish. C20th historians have shed such a lot of light on this period and haven’t comfortably used the phrase ‘Dark Ages’ for some time.
            True, a lot of classical literature, philosophy and science were lost for a time. We were fortunate that the Arab Empire was there to save so much.
            Had the Roman Empire not collapsed in the way it did, we probably wouldn’t be considering the poetic (or otherwise) literature of an obscure – and virtually invisible to history – group from the middle east.
            Funny how things turn out.

            • Dermot C
              Posted August 9, 2012 at 7:49 pm | Permalink

              I’ve just noticed this thread, Sawdust Sam, but I’m sorry so much of what of what you say is plain wrong. Briefly, most, not ‘a lot’, of classical literature, philosophy and science were lost, not ‘for a time’, but forever. Yes, we are fortunate that the Arab, effectively Muslim, empire was there to save, not ‘so much’, but some.

              The Western Roman Empire collapsed in the 5th century CE after its conversion to Christianity; had the cataclysm occurred before the Empire’s adoption of the new faith, then, yes, we might expect never to have heard significant interpretations of the Christian message; but we probably would have heard some, which I’ll get to later.

              You write, in this context:

              Had the Roman Empire not collapsed in the way it did, we probably wouldn’t be considering the poetic (or otherwise) literature of an obscure – and virtually invisible to history – group from the middle east.

              I don’t really understand what you mean – ‘in the way it did’; how does this ‘way’ affect the transmission of ancient Christian texts to us? Your meaning is completely obscure to me.

              The Roman Popes were able, very broadly, to influence their conquerors to respect Christian ideas; they clung on. It was left to the illiterate, but urbane, Charlemagne, crowned Holy Roman Emperor by the Pope, around 800 CE, to patronise the monkish copying of texts Christian, and occasionally pagan; if, and only if, they were considered of merit, consonant with the Christian Weltanschauung.

              But the Roman Empire, Orthodox, Christian, did not finally collapse until May 29th 1453, when Constantinople finally fell. We would be considering a form of Christianity, whether or not Rome was sacked in 410CE. We have Greek, Russian Orthodoxy, the spread of the religion to Bulgaria; the Armenian Church, claiming the most ancient line of national Christianity. Think Eastern Europe and Western Asia, and the influence of the Roman Church is minimal, that of the Eastern Roman Empire and Fertile Crescent sects maximal.

              The visibility of Christianity to us moderns does not solely depend on the fall of the (Western) Roman Empire: Marco Polo mentions the Nestorians of China; the reference may be legendary, but we do know that they flourished beyond the frontiers of the Roman Empire. Irrespective of the Western Empire’s Götterdämmerung, we would probably know something of Christianity.


    • Mark
      Posted August 8, 2012 at 11:05 am | Permalink

      Good point about the Greek myths. I grew up in a somewhat religious household and remember my parents expressing concern at one point that my brother and I seemed to spend more time and showed more interest in Greek mythology than in the Bible. There is just something inherently appealing about the Greek myths, especially to children. They are arguably equally important to the Bible in terms of influence in “Western civilization” as well.

      • gr8hands
        Posted August 8, 2012 at 11:38 am | Permalink

        The Greek myths didn’t have the arrogance to presume their gods were infallible or ultimately moral.

      • JonLynnHarvey
        Posted August 8, 2012 at 2:44 pm | Permalink

        My religious grandmother was equally vexed I was spending a lot more time with Tolkien than the Bible when I was 12. I’m now 57, and I STILL spend more time with Tolkien than the Bible.

    • Posted August 9, 2012 at 2:52 pm | Permalink

      I’ve always thought that Judas should be regarded as a hero by Christians – I mean, getting all this crap dumped on you, and yet the story “requires” a betrayer, right? So, he should be remembered as a guy who submitted to his role in history and fate and such – a martyr, even. If I recall, there’s even a non-canonical gospel with this point. Not to mention an episode of M*A*S*H (“Quo Vadis, Captain Chandler?”
      ) which seems also to allude to this point.

      • RWO
        Posted August 9, 2012 at 3:48 pm | Permalink

        Judas didn’t submit to anything. He was created for a sole purpose and had no choice, no say in the matter at all. His role was vital, and no less important than those filled by Herod, Pilate, the Sanhedrin, or Jesus. It required all the actors to carry off the play.

        And all of them but the hero are scorned as vile, with Judas in particular an eternal villain.

        And not only are all the above reviled, but also are all the Jews who did not follow Jesus but continued to practice Judaism. Until quite recently (still, truth be told, in many cases), all descendents of Jews of the era have been screwed hard by some Christians.

        Not ever do the people who choose to judge Judas & co. ever seem to take into account they were just programmed robots, manipulated to satisfy a whim of the most powerful entity ever dreamed up.

  37. gluonspring
    Posted August 8, 2012 at 10:10 am | Permalink

    As others have noted, even the most ardent of believers have to force themselves to read it, even to the point of making it a daily chore with a plan that aims at slogging through it in a year. The vast majority of them fail and settle for the bits that trickle out of sermons. Contrast that to the way people, children even, devour other books, like the seven Harry Potter books. Many read even the longest in a weekend of intense devotion. Every five cheap paper-backs equals one Bible, and even my not-very-bookish relatives have read many dozens of paperbacks but have still failed to slog through the Bible even once. When you consider that contrast among even the devout, you can start to get a sense of just how bad the Bible is as literature.

    However, I think the impenetrable awfulness of the Bible works in it’s favor as a “holy book”. Given that authority figures say the Bible is wonderful, I think a lot of people assume that they find the Bible difficult because it is deep, or because they are not smart enough to comprehend it, not merely because it is badly written. If it were easy to read and understand people would read it and understand it and reject it for it’s ridiculousness. Being a difficult book that people have reverence for keeps it’s contents shrouded in a cloud of obscurity that protects it somewhat from widespread critical thought.

      Posted August 8, 2012 at 11:15 am | Permalink

      The comparison of the Bible with a Harry Potter book, or any other book written by a story teller, who has a plot in mind and invent action to advance the plot and give it cohesion, is simply absurd.

      The Bible was never meant to be a single book. It never was written by one writer with a plot in his mind, and a succession of chapters to keep the story moving and intriguing.
      Yes, Mark Gospel was written exactly like a Harry Potter book or a Hemingway story. But that’s about it.

      All the rest is a huge collection selected from an even vaster world of diverse writings by editors who had an encyclopedia of religious writings in mind.

      The idea of reading the Bible en suite is bizarre, if not demented.
      It’d be like trying to read the Canon of Western Literature, set together by Harold Bloom, as a single entity, from beginning to end.

      Or reading the dictionary en suite, from the first word to the end. There are some people who are known for having exactly done this. What about reading the Encyclopedia Britannica from beginning to end?
      All of them bizarre and demented ideas.

      • whyevolutionistrue
        Posted August 8, 2012 at 11:18 am | Permalink

        Thanks for calling your host demented. Apologize, please, or go elsewhere.

        • Greg Peterson
          Posted August 8, 2012 at 11:51 am | Permalink

          Roo makes a very good suggestion. Really the only way to read the Bible is to read one book of it and then never read another. Or shuffle them and read them randomly. Or…no, you know what? I just don’t see what’s even a little bit wrong with reading it cover to cover. The fact that it wasn’t a series written by a single author seems completely irrelevant, and since the vast majority of people who take the Bible seriously do in fact treat it as a single work, often reading it from Genesis through Revelation themselves, that would seem to be absolutely the most rational approach to understanding what THEY see when reading it.

          Now Roo’s point is not utterly useless–though it is pretty damned rude. It is true that if one were to arrange, for example, the New Testament books in the order in which they were most likely written, the contradictions would fly off the page even more than they already do. My Bible scholar friends and I speculate that the folks who pulled together the canon knew exactly what they were doing by putting the books in the most obfuscatory arrangement possible. Be that as it may, if one wishes to see what believers see when they read their Bibles–as it appears Jerry’s exercise is at least partly intended to do–it makes the most sense to read the books pretty much as a believer might read them. Not using whatever unspecified and possibly demented approach Roo would advocate.

          • gr8hands
            Posted August 8, 2012 at 1:43 pm | Permalink

            Except the faithful claim it WAS by only one author — an invisible author who telepathically possessed 66-ish amateurs and forced them to put ink to parchment (or whatever). But it is all “perfect” and “beautiful” and “inspired” and …

      • Posted August 8, 2012 at 11:59 am | Permalink

        it is indeed bizaare, but that’s how the bible is sold, as a “book” of uniform ideas and one whole story. Christians have to make it this way, or their lies of “context” fail even faster.

      • Darth Dog
        Posted August 8, 2012 at 2:32 pm | Permalink

        You do raise a point that the Bible can’t be compared exactly to a long novel in terms of the interest that it can sustain. But collections of well written pieces, on a similar theme, can be engaging. Last week I read an anthology of short stories cover to cover on a long flight and enjoyed them. I’ve sat down and read a magazine cover to cover. Shouldn’t the Bible, God’s message to the faithful, be able to compete? After all, per gr8hands comment, the Bible supposedly has a single source of inspiration.
        The fact that it is such a total mess strongly argues against it’s divine inspiration.

      • JonLynnHarvey
        Posted August 8, 2012 at 2:47 pm | Permalink

        The assemblage of the book of the Bible is actually more like the writing of a television series, specifically NOT an “anthology series” like “The Twilight Zone”.

        Over a dozen writers may contribute to it, but still the series is intended to have a broad arc and have later books follow-up on earlier ones.

      • gluonspring
        Posted August 8, 2012 at 5:53 pm | Permalink

        I suppose that depends on what you think the Bible is. For non-believers it is a collection of ancient writings of various purposes compiled over centuries by pious, primitive, wrong-headed believers in an evolving religion. For non-believers it would be a kind of miracle if it did turn out to be great reading on par with paperback novels or, say, wikipedia, not only because of style and culture differences but because of difference in intent, as you note. From the perspective of a non-believer, it is completely unfair to compare it to Harry Potter on multiple levels.

        For believers, however, it is a profound and enduring mystery why it should be so completely opaque and difficult to read. My own family regards it as the Word of God, an infallible collection of books (they do regard it as a collection) dictated by an infinitely wise Author and intended as a guide for our lives. From that perspective, it would appear to be the Worst Guide Ever since believers themselves can not agree on even the simplest of matters. A simple FAQ would have saved the world from centuries of bloodshed in Europe alone, but the infinitely wise author didn’t think to put one in or did think of it but is so pernicious that he decided not to do it anyway. From the viewpoint of a believer that it should be so difficult and even boring to read, worse than the newspaper even, which is dashed off daily by hurried reporters, is almost as big a mystery as the problem of evil generally (and, indeed, seems almost a part of it). My relatives are not unaware of this problem but my impression is that they have decided that the Bible’s opacity is a sign of depth,rather than, as is the case, a sign of antiquity, disparity of purpose, poor quality, pious editing, and so on. They seem to regard it perhaps as they might regard an advanced math text. Someone understands it, they think, just not them. This simultaneously shrouds the Bible in a fog of mystery and empowers preachers who claim it is all clear to *them*. From the believer’s perspective, it should be a real mystery why it is so easy to put the Bible down and pick up that paperback instead. Shouldn’t our designer, endowed with the considerable resources that omnipotence and omniscience provides be able to at least pen a work, whatever it’s necessary form, compares with the pile of fully read newspapers that used to collect by our couch? Shouldn’t such an author, so endowed, perhaps even be able to compete with the likes of Rowling for one’s attention?

        • Greg Peterson
          Posted August 9, 2012 at 10:34 am | Permalink

          Gluonspring, that was an excellent comment, which I have now copied into a document to use as a reference. Seldom have I seen those ideas put forth more powerfully in so few words.

          • gluonspring
            Posted August 9, 2012 at 12:20 pm | Permalink

            Thanks. I should credit the one phrase in it I’d be proud of if I’d coined it, then:

            “the considerable resources that omnipotence provides” comes from Borges, The Three Versions of Judas. The sentence in that reads (in translation):

            “He admitted that Jesus, ‘who could count on the considerable resources which Omnipotence offers,’ did not need to make use of a man to redeem all men.”

          • gluonspring
            Posted August 9, 2012 at 12:24 pm | Permalink

            Oh, and it should have said:

            necessary form, *that* compares

        • Posted August 9, 2012 at 11:47 am | Permalink

          Are the family members that you’re describing as “not-very-bookish” a good data point, though?

          I think of my own “not-very-bookish” family who read solely thrillers and law drama bestsellers who not only have never read the Bible from cover to cover, but also have never read The Iliad, the Odyssey, Bleak House, or any literary classic cover to cover, except when they were in school. I wouldn’t conclude they’re unable to read and enjoy the Bible because it’s bad literature, but rather because they aren’t interested in reading Great Literature or literature that is more difficult than a typical paper back bestseller.

          • gluonspring
            Posted August 9, 2012 at 12:16 pm | Permalink

            True enough. The Bible could be great literature even after failing the relative-reading-test. Nonetheless, the point stands that one would think that an all-knowing author would be able to make decent literature that is readable. After all, not ALL great literature is difficult. This is especially so since, at least in the view of my relatives, the Bible is actually meant to be a guide for us.

            • Posted August 9, 2012 at 2:22 pm | Permalink

              The point only stands if one is assuming it was written by an all-knowing author. Generally, when one speaks about it as literature (with the exception of hardcore believers), they are not necessarily beginning with the assumption that it was written by God, but fallible human beings.

              The second half of the point that it is incomprehensible and unreadable are mere assertions.

            • Steve in Oakland
              Posted August 14, 2012 at 1:28 am | Permalink

              It could be because it’s been so long since I read it, but I never thought of it as “great” literature. It seemed so archaic, and the priorities were shocking even to my 13-yr-old mind. For instance, the Ten Commandments: “Thou shalt not kill” isn’t even in the top ten. But what is in the top ten is “Thou shalt not take God’s name in vain.” So, if someone should shoot you, and in that last nanosecond of life you shout out, “GOD DAMN IT!,” you are the one going to Hell. A strange concept of justice.

  38. HaggisForBrains
    Posted August 8, 2012 at 10:16 am | Permalink

    I like Eric’s “Curate’s egg” comment, but feel that the true meaning of this simile has been lost. Think about it: if you were eating an egg that was “bad (ie rotten) in parts”, would you not abandon the whole egg as rotten, even if some parts were apparently not rotten. So with the bible.

      Posted August 8, 2012 at 11:18 am | Permalink

      How about abandoning your whole brain because of its bad ideas?

      • Mark Fuller Dillon
        Posted August 8, 2012 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

        How about considering the tone of your comments? They might not be aggressive by intent, but they can seem that way by your choice of words.

      • HaggisForBrains
        Posted August 8, 2012 at 3:40 pm | Permalink

        ROO –

        I’ll assume that that remark was not intended as a personal insult, even though that’s the way it reads.

        In the context of an egg one plans to eat, “bad” means rotten. If part of an egg is rotten, then the whole egg is inedible.

        I have plenty of bad ideas, but I believe that does not mean my whole brain is rotten.

        In the context of the bible being a curate’s egg, I would be quite happy to treat the whole thing as “inedible”, because distinguishing the good parts from the bad parts is far too open to interpretation.

    • gr8hands
      Posted August 8, 2012 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

      Well, if you put a turd into the punchbowl, I’d have to say that the whole thing is then unfit for drinking.

  39. Posted August 8, 2012 at 10:17 am | Permalink

    I have to say, as others have, most of Mullen’s examples are terrible. Fuck, I could name more beautiful Bible verses than that!

    And in any case, I agree with Jerry that, while the Bible has it’s aesthetically pleasing parts, they are not nearly so profound that if the book were “discovered” without its historical context that anybody would give half a shit.

  40. Hempenstein
    Posted August 8, 2012 at 10:24 am | Permalink

    If it were easy to read and understand people would read it and understand it…

    Indeed, and there would be far fewer preachers, quoting some Bible verse, followed by, “What this means is…”, or, “I like to think of this as…”

    • Hempenstein
      Posted August 8, 2012 at 10:25 am | Permalink

      This was supposed to be a reply to gluonspring @ 37.

  41. HaggisForBrains
    Posted August 8, 2012 at 10:27 am | Permalink

    I have embarked upon a similar endeavour using the NIV bible kindly supplied free by an online bible society for completing a simple quiz.

    So far I’ve just got through Leviticus, and must say that it is in dire need of a good editor. How many times do we need to be told how to construct a tabernacle, for god’s sake (oops). And god clearly does not appreciate that “men are genetically incapable of having an opinion on soft furnishings” (Stephen Moffat – “Coupling” series I BBC TV).

    • TJR
      Posted August 8, 2012 at 11:18 am | Permalink

      Pretty sure that was series 2, in the Captain Subtext episode.

      Sorry, that is ridiculously pedantic…..

      “Cushions? What the hell are they for? I don’t need padding to tackle upholstery!”

      • HaggisForBrains
        Posted August 8, 2012 at 3:34 pm | Permalink

        I’ll assume that that remark was not intended as a personal insult, even though that’s the way it reads.

        In the context of an egg one plans to eat, “bad” means rotten. If part of an egg is rotten, then the whole egg is inedible.

        I have plenty of bad ideas, but I believe that does not mean my whole brain is rotten.

        In the context of the bible being a curate’s egg, I would be quite happy to treat the whole thing as “inedible”, because distinguishing the good parts from the bad parts is far too open to interpretation.

        • HaggisForBrains
          Posted August 8, 2012 at 3:39 pm | Permalink

          Oops – that was a reply to ROO BOOKAROO at 38!

          TJR – You’re probably right about Captain Subtext. A good excuse to run the whole boxed set again. Over at Jesus and Mo your remark would be classed as a POTWA (like a fatwa for pedants who are members of the United Pedants Of The World Association (UPOTWA))

  42. warren c
    Posted August 8, 2012 at 10:28 am | Permalink

    Robert Frost wrote two satirical sequels to the Book of Job. In the first, “The Masque of Reason”, God is prodded until He finally admits why he really treated Job as He did:

    I’m going to tell Job why I tortured him
    And trust it won’t be adding to the torture.
    I was just showing off to the Devil, Job,
    As is set forth in chapters One and Two.

    And Job replies:

    ‘Twas human of You. I expected more
    Than I could understand and what I get
    Is almost less than I can understand.

    Me, I’ve always regarded it a bar bet between to colleagues.

    • warren c
      Posted August 8, 2012 at 10:29 am | Permalink

      …”two colleagues”

  43. Nicolas Perrault
    Posted August 8, 2012 at 10:29 am | Permalink

    Here is what Mark Twain said about the Bible:

    “It is full of interest. It has noble poetry in it; and some clever fables; and some blood-drenched history; and some good morals; and a wealth of obscenity; and upwards of a thousand lies.”

    I would add it is the dullest document I have come across. (And I am a lawyer).

  44. Posted August 8, 2012 at 10:51 am | Permalink

    I actually think that the gospel of Mark is a good work of art. The entire thing is an extended parable, with many other parables/forshadowing in the text.

    For example, Jesus cursing the fig tree. It just so happens that the area where Jesus curses the unripe fig tree is close to a town called Bethphage… which in Aramaic means “house of unripe figs”. Jesus curses the fig tree close to Jerusalem/House of unripe figs and then cleanses the temple and then goes back and the fig tree has withered.

    Taking this section literally has led to many Christians looking for a town called Bethphage when the town was invented as a cipher for Jerusalem and the fig tree represents the Jerusalem temple.

    Bethany, also, means “House of Mourning” where a woman cries and prepares Jesus for burial.

    Or how about Jesus’ parable of the sower. In this parable Jesus talks about the “word” getting lost on “rocky ground” being a description of someone who receives Jesus’ teaching with zeal but then flees at the first sign of trouble. It just so happens that Peter wasn’t known as “peter” until the gospel of Mark; before that he was called Cephas (Aramaic for rock). People reading Mark (in Greek) would have obviously known that this guy’s name was literally “rock”. Mr. Rock receives Jesus’ preaching with zeal but then flees at the first sign of trouble. If the author of Mark hadn’t intended this diss, he would have just left Cephas’ name as Cephas; proper names are very rarely — if at all — translated literally between languages.

    And then there’s Jesus breaking the Fourth Wall at Mark 13.14.

    Of course, reading it like it is a work of art instead of a historical document renders its worth as a historical reference moot. So no Christians would actually consider the gospel of Mark a work of art.

  45. DV
    Posted August 8, 2012 at 11:10 am | Permalink

    My favorite is Ezekiel 25:17.

    “The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides with the iniquities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men. Blessed is he who in the name of charity and good will shepherds the weak through the valley of darkness, for he is truly his brother’s keeper and the finder of lost children. And I will strike down upon those with great vengeance and with furious anger those who attempt to poison and destroy my brothers. And you will know that my name is the Lord when I lay my vengeance upon thee.”

    • Tulse
      Posted August 8, 2012 at 11:40 am | Permalink

      And then you have to blast away at the stoners who stole Marcellus Wallace’s property.

    • JonLynnHarvey
      Posted August 8, 2012 at 2:51 pm | Permalink

      Sorry, that’s a bible quote ONLY in the movie “Pulp Fiction”

      • truthspeaker
        Posted August 8, 2012 at 7:23 pm | Permalink

        Thank you.

  46. logicophilosophicus
    Posted August 8, 2012 at 11:24 am | Permalink

    Psalm 8, Psalm 19 – beautiful expressions of the sense of wonder, magnificent in KJV.

    • Greg Peterson
      Posted August 8, 2012 at 12:09 pm | Permalink

      My favorite is the ending to Psalm’s a no-holds-barred complaint about his god treating him like crap, ending with a phrase of sublime (and possibly legitimate) self-pity:

      “From my youth I have suffered and been close to death; I have borne your terrors and am in despair. Your wrath has swept over me; your terrors have destroyed me. All day long they surround me like a flood; they have completely engulfed me. You have taken from me friend and neighbor—darkness is my closest friend.”

  47. James Walker
    Posted August 8, 2012 at 12:28 pm | Permalink

    Well voices generally don’t walk …

    • gbjames
      Posted August 8, 2012 at 12:29 pm | Permalink

      But, on the other hand… mysterious ways.

  48. Dianne Leonard
    Posted August 8, 2012 at 1:07 pm | Permalink

    Yeah, absolutely–I wouldn’t pick the bible up at a bookstore if I found it. I was bored by it for 3 quarters in college, and this was the RSV, a more modern version, where words haven’t changed their meanings (as they have with the KJV.)I sill keep it on my shelf for reference, but a work of great literature? I think not. Glad you’re doing the reading and not me.

  49. Mark Fuller Dillon
    Posted August 8, 2012 at 1:20 pm | Permalink

    “And Adam heard the voice of God walking in the garden in the cool of the day….”

    I’ll have to admit, I find the concept of a “voice walking in the garden” oddly evocative; a synecdoche, perhaps? It brings to mind the idea of someone unseen beyond the trees….

    But for beauty of language, I’ll take the Elizabethan and Jacobean dramatists over the bible. They were not only better poets, they had better material!

    • gr8hands
      Posted August 8, 2012 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

      Excellent! I haven’t seen “synecdoche” used in quite a long while. This website is wonderful for the vocabulary alone.

  50. Another Matt
    Posted August 8, 2012 at 1:39 pm | Permalink


    Time to take a break from this and watch 2001: a Space Odyssey.

    • Claimthehighground
      Posted August 8, 2012 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

      The gospel according to HAL

      • Mark Fuller Dillon
        Posted August 8, 2012 at 2:57 pm | Permalink

        “I’m sorry, Dave, but I can’t allow you to jeopardize my theology….”

  51. MadScientist
    Posted August 8, 2012 at 2:28 pm | Permalink

    John Donne? How could you compare him to the crap in the bible? One day I’ll manage to find my book of Donne’s poems – I’d almost forgotten about him (not my fault, there are many great poets who wrote in English).

    As for the choice of bible verses – #1 and #3 look like something a dope on acid would say/write. #2 is painfully ignorant of reality and not even tolerable fiction.

  52. Kevin
    Posted August 8, 2012 at 4:04 pm | Permalink

    Job, for example, is a horrible chapter

    I am reading a translation of The Histories, which the back cover describes as “the first great prose work in European literature”. Book One contains a horrible story. Croesus asks Solon, “Who is the happiest man you have ever seen?”.

    Solon informs Croesus that no man can be called “happy” until he is dead. As an example of “an enviable death” he gives the story of two men who died pulling their mother’s cart to the temple themselves because her oxen were late from the fields!

    Solon advises: “Look to the end, no matter what it is you are considering. Often enough God gives a man a glimpse of happiness, and then utterly ruins him”. Croesus’ son is later killed in an accident.

    The conversation with Solon is legendary rather than historical – and this is called a “classic”?

    Herodotus reads like Hitler!

    • Dermot C
      Posted August 8, 2012 at 5:01 pm | Permalink

      Oh, come on Kevin! The very fact that it survives, as far as I recall, in its entirety, is a thing to be thankful for. There are some great stories in The Histories; please stick with it, you’ll love it. Don’t confuse the repulsive content of his anecdotes with his perspective.

      Wait until you get to the story of the Scythians and the Persian invasion – an absolute hoot about how to frustrate an invader; the narration on the Greco-Persian war is fascinating and genuinely moving; believe me, and I have no time for war stories.

      There is a genuine surprise and I’m sorry to write a spoiler but I was genuinely astonished when I read it; Herodotus alleges the first circumnavigstion of Africa around BCE 500.

      Give the man his due: it’s literature’s first stab at historical writing; he mixes legend with what he could verify, yes. Natheless, his early chapters, apparently anecdotal and disconnected, are there for a purpose, to inform the reader of the cultures of the nations he depicts. And to contrast them with that of the Greeks; ultimately to attempt to explain the Greek victory in the war. But, persevere; it gets better and better. I hope you enjoy it.


  53. ConradZaar
    Posted August 8, 2012 at 4:15 pm | Permalink

    Mullen makes a very poor case for the King James Bible’s literary merit: simply quoting passages and asserting that they are great is hardly literary criticism (particularly when he misquotes one of them). But then I’m not sure how Professor Coyne gesturing towards the Bible and asserting that it is bad is supposed to be any better. The only attempt at analysis comes in the grammatical complaint about Genesis 3:8, but it is hardly impressive, first because Coyne misuses the technical term “antecedent,” and second because the translators and compilers of the KJV really could compose coherent and grammatical sentences perfectly well without tips from 21st-century biologists. Mark Fuller Dillon’s comment about synecdoche is well-taken.

    I have resigned myself by now to the fact that people are apparently never going to get bored of atheists reading the Bible and pointing out for the fifty-thousandth time that (gasp! shock! horror!) God is not very nice; evidently there is an infinite appetite for this sort of thing. But I don’t see how this standard-issue dissaproval is even faintly relevant to the ostensible subject of the post.

    I feel a little bad that my first comment on this blog is a critical one; perhaps I am being ungracious. I look forward to more posts about biology, theology, and kitty-cats. But this series on the Bible as literature is really pretty shabby stuff. I shudder to think what a post on John Donne would look like.

    • Dermot C
      Posted August 8, 2012 at 5:57 pm | Permalink

      Correction Alert!

      ‘…how Professor Coyne’s gesturing towards…’

      ‘…firstly because…and secondly because…’

      ‘…really could compose coherent and grammatically correct sentences…’

      ‘I have resigned myself by now to the fact that people are apparently never going to get bored of atheists reading the Bible and to pointing out…’

      ‘…disapproval…’ – OK, could be a simple typo.

      Must have been a nightmare, proof-reading Eats, Shoots & Leaves.


      • Dermot C
        Posted August 8, 2012 at 5:59 pm | Permalink

        Oops, my spellcheck corrected your typo, Conrad: ‘dissaproval’. Told you that proof-reading was a nightmare!


      • ConradZaar
        Posted August 9, 2012 at 6:46 am | Permalink

        I don’t know why you are replying with grammatical corrections. It might be because I commented on Professor Coyne’s use of “antecedent,” but that a complaint about terminology and analysis, not a complaint about grammar. As it happens, Professor Coyne’s writing is pretty much impeccable in that regard.

        But since it seems that you want to play The Pedant Game, I suppose I might as well play along.

        In the phrase “Professor Coyne’s gesturing” I use the genitive case because “gesturing” is here a gerund (i.e. it functions as a noun). Compare with the sentence, “Conrad Zaar’s excessive sweating bothers me.” Here “sweating” is a gerund, and can therefore follow a genitive noun.

        “First” and “second,” as I used them, are what linguists call “ordinal numbers” and are used to indicate the positions of items in a sequence. Grammar being an imperfect system, they are often lumped under the slightly unsatisfactory heading of “quasi-adverbs.” In any case, it is perfectly acceptable either to add the “-ly” suffix or not; both usages are correct. Omitting it is somewhat old-fashioned, but the last time I checked, being old-fashioned was not a crime (even for the grammar police).

        The word “grammatical” can mean “pertaining to grammar,” but it can also mean “conforming to the rules of grammar.” This meaning is perfectly standard and dates to eighteenth century.

        Your fourth correction indicates careless reading on your part. “Pointing out” is paired with “reading” and both refer to actions performed by “atheists.” Adding the preposition “to” changes the meaning of the sentence, making it say “I have resigned myself…to pointing out…” which is obviously incorrect. In the cited sentence, “pointing out” is not something I have resigned myself to doing, but something that atheists do.

        Finally, I must concede (with all due wailing and gnashing of teeth) that “dissapproval” was indeed a typo. Well done for spotting it.

        But…oh dear! You have only succeeded in scoring one point out of five. Nevertheless, thank you for playing The Pedant Game! Better luck next time.

        If anyone wants to say something that is actually relevant and interesting, I’m still around.

        • Dermot C
          Posted August 9, 2012 at 7:11 am | Permalink

          It may not be relevant, but it seems to have interested you!

          Cheers, Conrad.

          • ConradZaar
            Posted August 9, 2012 at 8:58 am | Permalink

            I have to admit that your cheerfulness is endearing.

            • Dermot C
              Posted August 9, 2012 at 5:12 pm | Permalink

              Conrad, have been dipping into Bierce’s ‘The Devil’s Dictionary’ recently, and love his sceptical misanthropy. Thought I’d have a go at a pastiche of some of his doggerel on words he doesn’t ‘define’. Came up with this about 2 weeks ago, on ‘grammar’.

              Pedantrix, pompously composed,
              Of campussed mien and Roman-nosed,
              Imperious, beyond advisors,
              Self-authorised to patronise us,
              Commanding monarch, mortals stammer
              And grovel ‘ere your gracious grammar.
              Oh, mighty Ozymandine gent,
              How great, how grand, omniscient!


    • Posted August 8, 2012 at 6:19 pm | Permalink

      I may be going out on a limb here, but I’m hazarding a guess that you missed the orientation.

      • Dermot C
        Posted August 9, 2012 at 2:38 am | Permalink

        I don’t understand what you mean, Stephen.


      • ConradZaar
        Posted August 9, 2012 at 6:53 am | Permalink

        I must echo Dermot C’s uncomprehension. Could you please explain what you mean?

        • Dermot C
          Posted August 9, 2012 at 7:14 am | Permalink

          ‘Uncomprehension’, Conrad? Now that’s a wind-up!


  54. Steve in Oakland
    Posted August 8, 2012 at 5:57 pm | Permalink

    Pat Robertson used to do Monday morning quarterbacking about why this hurricane went thisaway, and that hurricane went thataway, with dire warnings to especially sinful cities to mend their wicked ways lest the next one come their way.

    Now he’s the poster boy for legalized marijuana in Colorado. He claims to have not smoked it himself, but that big wide grin gave him away a long time ago.

  55. Dermot C
    Posted August 8, 2012 at 6:32 pm | Permalink

    No-one seems to have directly answered your closed question, Prof. Coyne: the answer’s ‘Yes!’

    Good luck slogging through the next half. Remember, it does have a happy ending (of sorts).

  56. Another Matt
    Posted August 8, 2012 at 8:35 pm | Permalink

    On the other hand, I love the bible when it’s set by Brahms.

    (From the Four Serious Songs, Op. 121, from near the end of his life)

    His German Requiem, also taken from the Luther Bible, is indispensable.

  57. paul fauvet
    Posted August 9, 2012 at 7:10 am | Permalink

    I cannot understand the claim that the King James bible is a great work of English literature.

    To see how hollow that claim is, you just have to look at the work produced by a string of truly great English writers in the 16th and 17th centuries – such as Marlowe, Shakespeare or Middleton in drama, or Spenser, Donne and Milton in poetry.

    You want great religious poetry? You wan’t find it in the Bible, but you will in Milton. Take this poignant passage from “Samson Agonistes”:

    O loss of sight, of thee I most complain!
    Blind among enemies! O worse than chains,
    Dungeon, or beggary, or decrepit age!
    Light, the prime work of God, to me is extinct,
    And all her various objects of delight
    Annulled, which might in part my grief have eased.
    Inferior to the vilest now become
    Of man or worm, the vilest here excel me:
    They creep, yet see; I, dark in light, exposed
    To daily fraud, contempt, abuse and wrong,
    Within doors, or without, still as a fool,
    In power of others, never in my own—
    Scarce half I seem to live, dead more than half.
    O dark, dark, dark, amid the blaze of noon,
    Irrecoverábly dark, total eclipse
    Without all hope of day!
    O first-created Beam, and thou great Word,
    “Let there be light, and light was over all,”
    Why am I thus bereaved thy prime decree?
    The Sun to me is dark
    And silent as the Moon,
    When she deserts the night,
    Hid in her vacant interlunar cave.

    There’s nothing as powerful as this in the Bible.

    • Dermot C
      Posted August 9, 2012 at 7:20 am | Permalink

      You lit up my day, Paul, that’s lovely.

      • Posted August 15, 2012 at 4:05 pm | Permalink

        Agreed. This is lovely. I haven’t gotten to “Samson Agonistes” yet (still at the beginning of “Paradise Lost”) but now I can’t wait to read it.

  58. Dr. Jim
    Posted August 9, 2012 at 8:13 am | Permalink

    Being an atheist Hebrew Bible scholar I’m rather enjoying this conversation. I don’t care much for the KJV although in parts it is pretty nice.
    The one thing you have to remember is that the Old Testament was not originally a book, but is a cobbled together collection of old scrolls, many of which show signs of sloppy transmission and considerable amounts of additions, glosses and errors.

    These diverse contents became “scripture” only long after the fact and a unifies “book” only after the invention of the codex (i.e., a book with pages bound in the middle) in the early centuries C.E.

    English poetry works on rather different principles than the Hebrew style often called “poetry”. Biblical Hebrew poetry is very difficult to translate and I really think it is next to impossible to appreciate in English. The “beauty” often lies in alliteration, double and triple entendres, and a particularly laconic way of saying things, not to mention the parallelism which involves saying things twice albeit with different words.

    Basically, by the time the KJV translators were
    woking, to a large extent reworking extant translations, the idea of the Bible as a single, inspired document was preeminent and there was a serious disconnect between their views on the meaning of the documents and their original role in religious thought. And so ideological systems of ritual purity and political genealogies become “scripture” to an audience that has no concept of these things in their original setting, and generations of readers look at it all as a “book” that is supposed to be beautiful literature.

    As I tell my classes, the framing mechanism of tradition that creates The Bible out of disparate writings needs to be penetrated before one can really appreciate the contents. A lot of them get a little miffed when I tell them that this amounts to (metaphorically) tearing the covers off the thing.

  59. Posted August 10, 2012 at 3:34 am | Permalink

    I like reading the Bible. I would not say that it contains great literature, it is more often than not, boring to the extreme and written like a child’s essay with all the grammatical qualities thereof. But, it does contain the occasional imagery that can make one’s mind wander. The story of Genesis is one, Noah’s ark is another, or Solomon’s temple, including the directions on how to smear blood just about everywhere…

    It is an extremely influential book, but beautyful? No, I do not think so.

  60. Posted August 14, 2012 at 6:05 pm | Permalink

    I remember being surprised by the psalms, because Psalm 23 (the most well-known one, and one of the few I’d heard of prior to reading the Bible) really isn’t representative. That psalm sounds kind of nice (or nicer than the other ones, at least) because it’s praising God for sort of being a shelter for the person through difficult times, but so many of the psalms are very different in character. The proverbs are alright; like many other parts of the Bible, it’s a mix of good and bad advice. Proverbs 3:5 is one that is kind of infamous among critics of the Bible, because it says to trust God rather than relying on your own understanding. I’m quite partial to Proverbs chapter 8, myself.

3 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. […] of the Old Testament of the King James Bible, which he has undertaken to read straight through (the latest of which has just been posted). Here I have to digress for a moment into one of the peculiarities of Bible […]

  2. […] The Christian mantra, John 3:16, is part of the conversation. … Originally posted here: Again: Is there poetry in the Old Testament? « Why Evolution Is True ← The Questions Update: Did Death Occur Before the Fall? | BioLogos Mark Juergensmeyer […]

  3. […] he things of it so far.[2] Professor Coyne has since posted updates: one at the end of July[3] and one a couple of weeks ago.[4]  Eric MacDonald wrote about the Bible as literature in response to Coyne’s efforts.[5] Much […]

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