Interim Bible report: no poetry in sight

July 30, 2012 • 1:00 pm

You thought I’d given up, didn’t you? If so, you don’t know me. Yes, I’m still reading the King James Bible, and am at the end of The Book of Ezra (p. 471). That means I still have 637 pages to go. When I think about that, my heart sinks to my feet.

My pace has slowed not only because I have other tasks, but also because the parts of the Bible I’ve read so far are so leaden, so dull and deadly, that I’d rather do anything, including ironing, than read another chapter.  This part of the Old Testament, at least, is an endless and tedious recounting of the history of the kings of Israel.  It’s always the same: one of them takes the throne, worships Yahweh properly, and dies (“sleeps with his fathers”) covered with glory. The next king abjures the proper God, breaks out the golden statues of Baal, and worships the Rong God.  Yahweh is, as ever, furious, and wreaks havoc on either the king (sometimes turning him into a leper) or his people, smiting them with plagues or war.  You’d think that after twenty or so of these incidents, the Israelites would learn which god to worship.  I guess they aren’t as smart as I thought.

At any rate, I will persist to the end of Revelation, but my main conclusion is this:  in at least in the first half of the Bible, there is virtually no poetry or literary beauty on tap. If people realized that this book were pure fiction (as it indeed is), nobody would read it.  There is no lovely language so far, no striking images, nothing but tedium, boring (and largely false) history and the tales of a megalomaniac deity.

Perhaps things will pick up when I get to Psalms, Proverbs, or the New Testament, but I can say with conviction that the first half of the King James Bible is not great literature.  Those who say it is either haven’t read it or are smoking something.

133 thoughts on “Interim Bible report: no poetry in sight

  1. I think this is beautiful and wise:

    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 favor to men of skill; but time and chance happens to them all.

    Ecclesiastes 9:11

    1. That’s lovely, but I ain’t there yet. I guess all the good stuff is in the second half.

    2. If you like your bible in classic rock form, you’ll like Ecclesiastes 3:1. “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven…” The only thing missing is the “turn, turn, turn” refrain.

      1. IIRC Ecclesiastes actually is literary, basically, it’s a series of “best-of” quotes from the works of a great Hebrew scholar and poet identified only as “Qoheleth” (a title, not a name, roughly “the sage/the master/the preacher”). Qoheleth seems to have anticipated Cynicism (or perhaps the Cynics ran across translations of his works, who can say?)

        Unfortunatley for literalists Qoheleth seems to have been pretty unorthodox and perhaps even a borderline atheist. Seeing them try to shoehorn Ecclesastes into their grand narrative is always edifying and usually unsettling.

        1. Or maybe it was the other way around. Cynicism appeared in the 5th Century BC; Ecclesiastes was authored in the 4th or 3rd Century BC.

    3. I was going to point to Ecclesiastes being worth reading too. It’s one of the few parts of the Bible that I still really enjoy reading since I gave up Christianity (I’ll admit I still like Revelation too, just because it is so crazy).

    4. that the race is not to the swift… neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favor to men of skill…

      A sorta anti-intellectual stance, I’d say. Just be a plodding clod, you have just as much chance. Oh, and praise Jeebus!

      1. Excellent point! I always wondered about that “that the race is not to the swift” bit. If a race isn’t “to the swift” then what is the point of the race? What on earth would a race be if the one who was the fastest wasn’t the winner?

        More religio-babbling. Stick a few words into meaningless sequences and call it profound.

  2. “I’d rather do anything, including ironing,”

    Oh, really? OK. I think I’m about to send you this week’s copy of “The Watchtower.” Please, let me know how you feel after reading it.

      1. Yes, tis true. But it’s 1000x mire mind-numbing.

        Oh, the poor saps that read that insane bullshit amnd actually walk away feeling inspired. Dear gawd! I feel really sorry for them. Their brains are fried beyond repair.

        1. I don’t know what y’all are talking about. All Along the Watchtower is a masterpiece. Y’all need to relax.

          *takes another long pull off the bong and turns up the volume…

  3. When I used to be a Lutheran, we’d have two Bible verses (from Old or New Testament) and a verse from the Gospels every Sunday… I presume other churches do likewise. But it always felt like they simply reused the same ones every year around the same time, and ignored vast, vast swaths of the Bible.

    It would be interesting to make a color chart of such things and see just how much of the Bible is actually used in church services every year. I’m guessing not more than 10%.

    1. They do reuse. In fact, I believe they go so far as to have a yearly schedule, i.e. “use verses a (OT), b (NT), and c (Gospel) on liturgical week y.”

      There may be a few options given, but even a few options per week would only lead to using 150 or 200 or so selections.

      1. It’s a lectionary and it is in a three year cycle (though some bits get reused more often). As a rule each year focuses on one of the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke) and a full service will have an Old Testament reading, a psalm, a reading from an epistle, and a gospel reading.

        And yes they omit bits. For one commonly used lectionary, the list of readings can be found at

    2. I’ve seen people of various denominations reading little snippet books of various kinds. Given their length, they can’t contain more than around one twentieth of the original. Sure, a condensed version of any tome can be a useful study aid, but, really, talk about distorting …

      (Arguably of course many clergy *want* this, that one is supposed to have expert guidance when reading …)

  4. Wait till you get to Chronicles: “And Herpaziah begat Derpzibar, and Derpzibar begat Herpderpshihad, and Herpderpshihad begat…” for 100 pages or so.

  5. I’m sure that I remember a king that did everything that was right in the eyes of The Lord and brought his people back from all that wrong god worshipping. Later writers then decided that he was a bad guy and brought down the wrath of The Lord on him and his people.

    Ecclesiates has some merit but if you haven’t read Psalms, Proverbs or Lamentations you are far from over the worst. Did you know that a sharp axe cuts better than a blunt one? Good job that you had a revelation from God to enlighten you then.

    1. I went into Proverbs looking for more wisdom like the sharp axe bit, and after 5 chapters saying basically “be wise (like me)” I came across this:

      Prov 6 23-29
      23 For this command is a lamp,
      this teaching is a light,
      and correction and instruction
      are the way to life,
      24 keeping you from your neighbor’s wife,
      from the smooth talk of a wayward woman.

      25 Do not lust in your heart after her beauty
      or let her captivate you with her eyes.

      26 For a prostitute can be had for a loaf of bread,
      but another man’s wife preys on your very life
      27 Can a man scoop fire into his lap
      without his clothes being burned?
      28 Can a man walk on hot coals
      without his feet being scorched?
      29 So is he who sleeps with another man’s wife;
      no one who touches her will go unpunished.”

      Am I mistaken, or is God (?) saying, “use prostitutes, they’re cheap, that’s no adultery”?

      1. I think the idea put forth is that, knowing how inexpensive it is to engage a prostitute, do no think that boffing someone’s wife is simply an inconsequential matter, as of equal value as say, coming home and finding you lost your loaf of bread on the journey; i.e. << losing a loaf of bread is not a game changer, nor (of equal value) screwing someone's wife.

        Screwing someone's wife is a game changer, for all the immediate people involved.

      2. Hm, the bit about the coals is interesting, I had forgotten about that. I wonder if that’s where (out of context, of course) the obsession over firewalking comes form (in part).

  6. The real problem is that (apologies to Paul Krugman), the Very Serious People all told me that “the Holy Bible is the greatest book ever written”. Seriously…this included my British Literature teachers in high school.

    So I always thought that something was wrong with me when I found it…well, very boring, tedious, stupid and grossly immoral!

    (A sheep’s coat pattern is determined by what it is looking at when its parents mated? Really???)

    I am not saying that there is nothing good in it, but the “worthy message to nonsense” ratio approaches zero….

    1. (A sheep’s coat pattern is determined by what it is looking at when its parents mated? Really???)

      It’s a damn good thing that doesn’t work on humans. People would be a lot more ugly than they are now.

        1. In addition to being irrational (flocks that “conceive [spotted lambs] when they came to drink” because of some herbs), Genesis 30 has also a highly “moral” message: if you’re the Lord’s favourite like Jacob, you can cheat everyone.

          Isn’t that great?

          Desnes Diev

          1. Not quite. On the striped and spotted lamb things, Jacob outcheated Laban, but Laban won on the wives.

        2. @blueollie:

          Yes I did wonder about that.

          Suffice to say, so high is my expectation that anything in the bible would be utter nonsense, that it never even crossed my mind that you might have misquoted. 😉

  7. The best thing, in my view, about this post is the image I now have in my head of Jerry ironing. Frankly, pics or it didn’t hapen.

  8. Having been fully “drilled” in the bible, as I am part Jewish and part Southern Baptist by the begetting processes. I don’t think there is much worth the reading in the KJV. I would expect more from Sir Francis Bacon. There is some poetry in one part, as you will soon discover. For the greatest literature of man kind, not even close to being good literature.

    This is a much better beginning:

    At start, no has lyte. An Ceiling Cat sayz, i can haz lite? An lite wuz. An Ceiling Cat sawed teh lite, to seez stuffs, An splitted teh lite from dark but taht wuz ok cuz kittehs can see in teh dark An not tripz over nuthin. An Ceiling Cat sayed light Day An dark no Day. It were FURST!!!

  9. “The Bible is full of great poetry and inspiration…” etc. I have, for years seen this line of crap, even from non-believers, so often that I came to assume that maybe I simply could not appreciate the great poetry therein.


    The King James version, the one with the most fervent following, was written in language that was outdated and pretentious even then. Today, many English-speaking Christians feel they are not really praying if they use modern English. Addressing their deity as “you” rather than “thee” just doesn’t do it for them. Speaking like a Quaker does have a certain limited charm, but it ain’t poetry.

    1. Modern Quakers, those who think God is the kind of being you can address, certainly call him “you”. The liberal wing (not Nixon’s wing) are very big on “that of God in everyone” rather than the sky fairy.

      The Plain Speech was introduced when people addressed their “betters” as “you” (the plural, cf the royal “we”) and Quakers believed all people were equal before it was fashionable, so they addressed everyone as “thee” – to the annoyance of their “betters”. The world went the other way, and when “thee” became an affectation they abandoned it. (They also eschewed honorifics, for the same reason, hence first-name+last-name.)

      1. I recall reading somewhere (think it was The Economist) that the French “tu/te/toi” fell out of use around the same time that “thou/thee” did in English, but was later brought back by a successful revival movement that included several influencial writers. It would be kind of neat to have all the 2ps conjugations back, dost thou not agree?

        Today, many English-speaking Christians feel they are not really praying if they use modern English. Addressing their deity as “you” rather than “thee” just doesn’t do it for them.

        In theory at least, they’re all actually “tutoyer”-ing the supreme ruler of the Universe.

    2. Were you to look into the matter more closely, you’d find that it’s quite common among the religions of the world to have a special lingo for addressing the Deity.

      I’m not 100% sure, but have a dim recollection that there are languages with four distinct registers: the one used for your social inferiors, the one used for your social equals, the one used for your social superiors, and the one used for Dog.

  10. That’s funny, I was just going to ask whereabouts you were up to. It’s true, ironing is way more fun than reading the bibil. Job will be like a small oasis for you, I reckon. Hang in there!

  11. Song of Solomon gets pretty hot in places. Once when I was a kid, our Sunday school teacher insisted that we all memorize Bible verses that we found inspirational, and share them with the rest of the class the next week. I choose a passage from Song of Solomon and managed to inspire most of the class, but not in a way that the Sunday school teacher appreciated. She decided to end this activity after one week. To this day, I have retained a fondness for pomegranates.

  12. If I had to read the bible like you are, I would probably beat myself on the back with a branch. Oh wait, wrong book.

  13. This part of the Old Testament, at least, is an endless and tedious recounting of the history of the kings of Israel. It’s always the same: one of them takes the throne, worships Yahweh properly, and dies (“sleeps with his fathers”) covered with glory. The next king abjures the proper God, breaks out the golden statues of Baal, and worships the Rong God.

    That’s exactly the point. It’s a morality tale.

    Just wait till you get to Hezekiah and Josiah. The latter is the one who likely wrote the Bible, and then you’ll see why he’s out to paint his Northern predecessors in as bad a light as possible.

    I highly recommend reading this first:

    1. Kings didn’t write any part of the Bible; scribes of priests in the King’s service did.

      then you’ll see why he’s out to paint his Northern predecessors in as bad a light as possible.

      -are you referring to the Bethel shrine?

      1. And Dan and Shiloh, yes. As I recall it at least.

        Of course a scribe of priest most likely did the actual writing, yes. I think it’s called “metonymy”.

        1. The Dan and Shiloh shrines were, if existent in the late 8th-late 7th Cs BC, fairly minor affairs by the Assyrian and post-Assyrian periods. They were also distant concerns to Judah.

          1. Gah. Lost my comment.

            I may well be mixing up the various periods. Sorry.

            Bethel was of course the most important ‘enemy’ seeing as how Josiah was conveniently prophesised to destroy it. I guess Dan falls under the heading of “Look what happened to those heretics who worshiped god in the wrong way.”

  14. Come on! The history of the kings of Israel and Judah is one of the least boring parts of the Bible-you get to understand the context in which large parts of it were written.

    1. P. G. Wodehouse’s fictional anti-hero Bertie Wooster prides himself on having won a prize for scripture knowledge, by virtue of having memorized the kings of Judah.

  15. As a side note; the bibil I have here in the fiction section of my bookcase is the KJ version. As someone who is used to reading the bible in plain english, after a quick few paragraphs I have to say that reading it in ye olde English adds a whole other dimension of nasty.

  16. Revelation is, by far, the most interesting book in the Bible. Probably the most interesting book ever, actually. Maybe that’s just in my opinion, because I have a vivid imagination and I visualize the things that I read.

    Revelation is like book form of one of those trippy movies like Eraserhead, Pi, or Tetsuo the Iron Man.

  17. It’s obvious you never studied with the Jehovah’s Witnesses. They not only study that dry stuff, they write about it, explaining why it’s so important and what it really means. But important to whom, they don’t say. I found their study groups very intense and informative, but,then, who cares about some old kings that have no impact on today’s life? Better to study something useful.

  18. The secret to Biblical exegesis is the same as the secret to cold reading: the subject does the work and the supernatural gets the credit.

    What you get out of the Bible is probably going to resemble what you put into the Bible. How motivated and how creative are you? If you approach it with the conviction that this story has some deep connection to the meaning of the universe, life, and everything, then you will constantly be struck with analogies and metaphors and ways to apply messages to your life. Even the long, boring passages of “begats” and the pettifogging rules can be used to invoke a sense of ancient history or ritual — if you’re determined enough. Given that the interpretation is supposed to be guided by the Holy Ghost, it’s easy to convince yourself that such motivated reasoning isn’t a problem with bias: it’s a surrender to a peace that passeth all understanding.

    It would work with any text including, I suspect, a phone book. Approach it in fear and trembling, seeking the connections which will ‘speak’ to human values in general, and your circumstances in particular. Be patient. Be open. Be so generous with what counts as a ‘hit’ that you develop your own epic theme music to follow your ‘discoveries.’ Soon you, too, will be enlightened. The Bible is the greatest book ever written — and just as timely today as it ever was!

    I had the same problem as most of the commentariat. I started trying to read the Old Testament all the way through from the beginning shortly after having graduated college with an English lit major. I was looking at it as a literary work — and was expecting to be impressed. Instead, I was astonished and amazed at the human ability to read deep meaning into things.

    Why the hell would a God which had ONE BOOK to reveal itself to humanity have done what was, from an objective standpoint, such a piss poor job? I used to wonder why believers didn’t all read every word of the Bible at every opportunity, considering its import to them. Every word a divine revelation. Now I knew. Most of it is junk DNA. The rest of it is sadly over-hyped.

    It’s too bad, really. If the Bible had only been unearthed 50 years ago, imagine how excited we would be to gain an insight into ancient cultures from a forgotten “masterpiece” of the era. As it is, there is no way it can live up to its reputation without some major work in subjective reframing.

    1. I think you meant “eisegesis” rather than “exegesis”… (smile — yes, I know you know the difference, and am just yanking your chain).

  19. Back when I was a Christian I used to love the books of Psalms, Proverbs and Ecclesiastes for their poetry and their insight.

    I haven’t revisited those writings for a while, but I suspect the insightful passages are actually few and far between, and my appraisal of the poetry would be far less generous now.

  20. I’m disappointed that JAC didn’t like the stories of David and Solomon which I thought were fairly engaging, thought the subsequent chronicles of kings drags a bit.

    The endless begats inspired this marvelous song by Yip Harburg from the musical “Finian’s Rainbow” entitled “The Begat”

    The Lord made Adam.
    The Lord made Eve.
    He made them both,
    A little bit naive
    They lived as free
    As the summer breeze,
    Without pajamas and without chemise.
    Until they stumbled
    on the apple trees.

    Then she looked at him,
    (hum, hum)
    And he looked at her,
    (hum, hum)
    And they knew immediately
    What the world was for…

    He said give me my cane
    He said give me my hat.
    The time has come,
    To begin the begat.
    The begat!
    The begat!

    So they begat Cain.
    And they begat Abel,
    Who begat the rabble
    At the Tow’r of Babel.
    They begat the Cohens,
    They begat O’Rourkes.
    And they begat the people
    Who believed in storks
    Lordy Lordy, how they did begat!
    How they did begat!
    Even more than that

    And when the begat got
    to gettin’ under par
    They begat the daughters
    of the DAR
    They begat the Babbits
    and the bourgeoisie,
    Who begat the misbegoten G.O.P.
    [Changed to VIP in film verions -JLH]

    It was pleasin’ to Jezebel
    Pleasin’ to Ruth.
    It pleased the League of Women Shoppers
    in Deluth.

    Thou the movie censors
    tried the facts to hide
    The movie goers up and multiplied.
    Lordy Lordy, how they multiplied!
    How they multiplied!
    How they multiplied!

    Soon it swept the world
    Ev’ry land and lingo.
    It became the rage.
    It was bigger than bingo!

    The white begat, the red begat,
    The folks who should have stood in bed begat.
    The Greeks begat, the Swedes begat
    Why, even Britishers in tweeds, begat.
    And lordy, lordy
    What their seeds begat.

    The Lats and Lithuanians, begat.
    Scranton, Pennsylvanians, begat .
    Strict vegetarians, begat.
    Honorary Aryans begat
    Startin’ from Genesis, they begat
    Heroes and nemesis, begat
    Fat Phila-busterers, begat.
    Income tax adjusterers begat
    Twas naturaler and naturaler to begat
    And sometimes a bachelor,
    HE BEGAT??
    It didn’t matter which-a-ways they begat,
    Sons of a bitch a-ways, begat.

    So, bless them all
    Who go to bat
    And heed the call
    of the begat!

    On YouTube at

  21. If you are looking for information that is historically reliable or scientifically accurate, your assessment of the Bible (KJV or not) would seem to be indisputable. And, of course, the Bible is filled with moral teaching that cannot be rationally defended.

    However, to suggest that none of the stories that you’ve read thus far qualifies as great literature is utterly absurd. Perhaps you should learn something about literature and literary criticism before sharing your rather unenlightened “convictions” on the subject. I suggest for starters that you read Robert Alter’s book The Art of Biblical Narrative.

    As Professor of Hebrew and Comparative Literature at UC Berkeley, Alter is as qualified to address the subject of biblical literature (his area of specialty) as you are to address the subject of evolutionary genetics and the origin of new species (your area of specialty according to Why Evolution Is True).

    It’s a free country, so you’re entitled to express your views. Nevertheless, your views on biblical literature are comparable to the views of someone defending intelligent design–neither one of you knows what you’re talking about!.

    If you can’t find any literary merit in the stories you’ve read, that tells your readers far more about you than it does about those particular stories.

    I’m not some religious fundamentalist trying to defend the inspiration of the Bible. On the contrary, I agree with songwriter Shelley Segal:

    I don’t believe in Jesus;
    I don’t believe in Zeus;
    I don’t believe in Allah;
    I think they have no use.

    I don’t believe in Adam;
    I don’t believe in Eve;
    I don’t believe in talking snakes;
    I think they’re make-believe.

    The Bible is simply a collection of ancient literature. While much of it is certainly not “great literature,” some of it is. If you really can’t see that, you should talk to the registrar before the fall semester begins and sit in on Literature 101.

    1. Thank goodness we have professors of Biblical Literature to tell us what is, objectively, “great” literature. I wasn’t aware that the humanities had figured out an objective metric for literary “greatness,” but as a professor of Biblical Literature has determined that the Bible qualifies as “great” under the metrics peculiar to Biblical Literary Criticism, I suppose I should shut up and mind my place.

      1. While there may be no “objective metric” for literature, I will take far more seriously the reasoned assessment of someone who’s an expert in the field. Does anyone who reads this blog have time to learn something new or different, or do you just worship at the shrine of JC?

        1. You’ve just insulted every reader of this website, and if you ever READ the comments, you’ll know that readers by no means fall in line with what I say.

          Apologize to everyone, please.

        2. Every time I perused the Bible, I’ve found it to be just a Jerry has described it – but, as you say, I have read only bits of it and I wouldn’t presume to comment on its value as literature.

          I think your point would have been made much more effectively if you had singled out some passages of first 40% of the Bible and explained why you find them to represnt great literature.

          As to your implication that we’re all JAC’s sycophants – I think it is you who is writing from ignorance.

        3. “While there may be no “objective metric” for literature, I will take far more seriously the reasoned assessment of someone who’s an expert in the field”

          The problem with your statement: “literature” is meant to be read and enjoyed (or at least enlighten) non-experts, no?

          I certainly will defer to experts when it comes to analyzing the bit of literature (e. g., how it would have read to the intended audience at the time, who the intended audience was, etc.) but I won’t defer to expert opinion as to whether *I* find it enjoyable or enlightening.

    2. You can probably find some professor somewhere who thinks that gangsta rap lyrics are also “great literature” — but that does not make them so.

      1. I’m not a fan of gangsta rap lyrics, but I might appreciate certain examples of that genre if someone provided some insights based on careful study.

        If one can’t learn from someone who’s more knowledgeable about a given subject, then one can’t learn. Based on my reading of Jerry’s comments, I still think he’s got an awful lot to learn about literature.

        I thoroughly enjoy reading what Jerry shares about science, and I’m frequently entertained by his comments on other subjects. However, he is not infallible!!!

        1. I may not be an expert, but that doesn’t sound like an apology for insulting every reader of this website that Dr. Coyne specifically requested.

          I would have to say that anyone thinking that the bible is “great literature” has “an awful lot to learn about literature” regardless of their academic credentials.

          1. That’s a rather loaded statement. Harold Bloom thinks the Bible is “great literature” and while certainly one doesn’t need to agree with everything he has to say, I think very few (even his most vocal critics) would suggest he has “an awful lot to learn about literature.”

            1. I don’t know about “a lot to learn”; I see the response “The Bible is great literature” is a bit like the response to the question “isn’t the bride beautiful” or “does my butt look big in these pants”.

              1. @blueollie

                You’re implying that anyone who claims the Bible is great literature is only doing so because it is expected. Have you considered that perhaps some people genuinely enjoy reading the Bible?

              2. I was going to use multiple translations of that scum-booanthology for aiding my learning other languages, but upon reading about Japtha’s daughter, i gave them all to Goodwill!
                William Kaufmann’s work are literature!

              3. William Kaufmann’s works are literature!
                After reading about Japtha’s daughter in Norwegian,I gave to GoodWill my many translations in other languages that I wa sgoing to use to help with them.

              4. “√You’re implying that anyone who claims the Bible is great literature is only doing so because it is expected. Have you considered that perhaps some people genuinely enjoy reading the Bible?”

                Well, I suppose there are people who genuinely enjoy reading the phone book, so I’ll concede that some do.

    3. Perhaps you should learn something about online etiquette before pompously denouncing the host and guests of an entire website.

    4. Y’know, I knew a guy like you back in the service. Educated and eloquent, sure, but such a snob and so full of himself you felt that no amount of mashed potato in his slippers would ever be enough. What was his name … oh, yes – Major Charles Winchester. Korea wouldn’t have been the same without BJ’s and my daily tormenting of the old plum.

    5. Literature is, fundamentally, writing that people are supposed to read for enjoyment, right? It is, in fact, a form of entertainment. If it has no entertainment value, then it has no value whatever, IMO. (Non-fiction certainly has value other than entertainment, but then non-fiction, even if as readable as Dawkins, is not generally classified as literature).

      So surely , in order to qualify as *great* literature, a work should be interesting to a significant percentage of readers. So I’d like to know just what special quality it is, detectable only by Professors of Literature, that marks a work as ‘great’ literature when the vast majority of people** find it as boring as the phone book. As I recall, most great classical literature, from Shakespear to Jane Austen, was in fact rather popular in its day.

      (**I’m excluding here the people who find the Bible interesting purely for religious, rather than literary, reasons).

      And I must admit the patronising Mr Chumney got right up my nose.

      1. Literature is primarily entertainment, but great literature is entertainment that offers insight into human experiences, develops values, and is stylistically pleasing and interesting. In other words, it’s entertainment that does more than just merely entertain.

        I’m not sure what you would qualify as a significant percentage of readers. Are you speaking about all readers (such as people who spend most of their time reading exclusively bestsellers and the latest popular romance novels)? Or most serious readers? In the case of the latter my experience suggests to me that a large portion of them do enjoy reading the Bible as literature.

        1. “_great_ literature is entertainment that offers insight into human experiences, develops values, and is stylistically pleasing and interesting.”

          Yes, I’d agree with that definition. But the point is, most of the commenters on this site at least seem to agree the Bible is mostly lacking in those qualities, and its status as ‘literature’ is based more on reputation than reality.

          1. Do most of the commenters on this site represent a large portion of the reading population? Most “serious readers” I’ve interacted with enjoyed the Bible and consider it great literature. The exception to this rule is a handful of atheists.

            To present the case of the Bible’s literary merits as based more on reputation than reality is exactly the problem. You’re not just merely stating a personal opinion anymore of like or dislike, but you’re suggesting objectively (in reality) it’s not good. The implication is that anyone who does like it and thinks it has literary merit must be wrong.

            1. Well, most ‘serious readers’ is an even less well-defined category than ‘the commenters on this site’. You could define ‘serious reader’ as ‘someone who likes the Bible’ and your statement would be trivially true. More realistically, it would certainly depend on the environment in which you encountered your anecdotal group of ‘serious readers’.

              I would certainly suggest that most people who think of the Bible as literature (which is possibly even a majority of the population) are going by its reputation and haven’t read much of it. The same could probably be said for ‘War and Peace’ for example. (Not commenting on W&P’s literary merit, here).

              But if I dip into the Bible at random, what are the odds of encountering a passage of great literary merit? 50%? 10%? Less? I think, in a normal work of fiction, the existence of huge chunks of uninspired turgid prose, innumerable internal inconsistencies, contradictions and non sequitirs, and passages that read more like a brief synopsis for a screenplay than an actual story, would strongly militate against it being regarded as having any redeeming literary merit.

              1. I would define a “serious reader” as someone who makes a genuine attempt to read the “classics,” regards reading as more than just entertainment, possesses insight into the works they read (how it’s structured, what it means, can adapt to unusual and unfamiliar styles, able to explain with reasons and specific textual examples why they like or dislike a work or why they think it’s good or bad), and attempts to read broadly in general (nonfiction, multiple fiction genres, including popular works, etc.) And, yes, one can be a “serious reader” and dislike the Bible.

                If you’re asking me how much of the Bible I think could be considered to have literary merit I would be pretty confident defending: Genesis, Exodus, Judges, Ruth, 1 Samuel, 2 Samuel, 1 Kings, 2 Kings, Esther, Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel, Daniel, Jonah, Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Revelation, various Pauline letters. I think a case could also be made for all the remaining minor prophets and Joshua as well. Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, both Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah I would be a bit less inclined to include as great literature when judged as separate entities.

                You use the word “turgid” to describe the Bible’s prose, but I suspect what you really mean is you find specifically the King James translation to be turgid. Compare:

                “And the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech. And it came to pass, as they journeyed from the east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar; and they dwelt there.” – Genesis 11:1-2, KJV

                “Everyone on earth had the same language and the same words. And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a valley in the land of Shinar and settled there.” – Genesis 11:1-2, JPS.

                I could completely understand why you might find the KJV translation to be “turgid,” but I’m more skeptical of that being an appropriate adjective for the second translation, which goes for a more modern feel, cuts redundancy, and streamlines the translation with sharp verb choices. Nevertheless, even though I can understand why you would describe it as turgid, I find the KJV passage to be poetic in its own way rather than overblown; if it has a grandiosity of language at times that is because content should match style. If someone thought the work was truly the word of God and explained integral parts of his creation and the world’s history, I would think a lofty style would fit such a book.

                As for the contradictions and inconsistencies. The Bible is a compendium of different genres and different writers from different time periods; in essence it’s a library of different books contained in a single book. At the same time, since it comes out of a shared cultural tradition and it’s been edited after the fact, even with the contradictions that mostly occur via micro-level details, there still is an overarching narrative that runs throughout the entire thing. So in this sense it can also be read as a single book. You can’t compare it to a normal narrative because it’s nothing like any other narrative.

              2. @ Drkshadow3

                This raises an interesting point, which I could summarise as “Which version comprises the great literature?”, since the words of different versions are – different.

                With a normal book, its literary merit is judged on a number of factors, which include the author’s command of language, the skill with which ideas are expressed, etc. If one took a work of literature and rewrote it with entirely different words, would the result still be considered equally great? Absent the language, the Bible must be reliant on other factors – the plot? the philosophical ideas expressed? for its literary merit.

                I would also think that internal consistency would be a major factor in judging the literary merit of a book. In that respect, the only way the Bible can get off the hook is to be considered an anthology of sorts, and I don’t think anthologies (however good some of the individual stories contained therein) are usually rated as literature. But if they are, I submit Encyclopaedia Britannica as a work of great literature.

                And I just don’t find, anywhere in the Bible, prose that is so interesting, so skilfully worded, so unusual, or so insightful, that it makes me want to read on. In that respect it falls way behind Alice in Wonderland or The Blind Watchmaker or almost anything by Terry Pratchett, to take the first three examples that come to mind.

              3. Dante doesn’t stop being great literature because of a bad translation or even because different translations exist (i.e. Pinsky, Ciardi, Sayers, Longfellow, etc.). A different translation is just that a different understanding of the text and what should be emphasized about it. This problem exists for countless texts (Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Cervantes, Plato, Goethe, etc.)

                Both passages say essentially the same thing, but the wording makes it feel different in style. Also, as already hinted we objectively came to the same general conclusion about the KJV translation; it has an elevated style. However, we had different judgment on whether it was good or not. So I didn’t necessarily grant the style as rendered in KJV was bad.

                If one wants to see the skill of some of the Biblical authors they need turn no further than Genesis book 1.

                The entire first creation account is structured around symmetry of the days. The first three days correspond to the last three days. Day one when light and dark were created corresponds with day four in which the sun and moon are created (the light objects). Day two when the sky and sea were created corresponds with day five when the sea animals and creatures of the sky are brought to life. Day three when the physical land is created corresponds with day six when the land animals are born. By doing this the writer emphasizes the orderliness of creation, everything corresponds perfectly with each other in harmonious symmetry.

                Another literary technique of importance besides the symmetry of the days is the repetition of the phrase: “And God saw that this was good.” Creation is good, life is good, and most importantly because human beings are a part of creation, they, too, are good. The point of this repetition is to point out the goodness of life, of the world, of creation. We also see that structurally the repetition of it being good at each section corresponds with the structural symmetry that represents creation’s orderliness.

                I would suggest given this attention to structure and the way style corresponds to theme, these are definitely authors who had a “command of language” and “skill in which ideas are expressed.”

                Let’s move on to the Cain and Abel story as a 2nd example. It is full of different layers of meaning. It’s a story that symbolically reenacts the tensions between farmer and shepherd. It serves an etiological function depicting the first murder in history. It is a story that highlights the seriousness of ritual and sacrifice before God and doing one’s best (Abel offers his choicest flock, while Cain just gives any old thing for his sacrifice). It is a story that emphasizes ethics over ritual (God states that even though Cain’s sacrifice sucks, he can still redeem himself and have good things in his life by acting ethically, which Cain obviously fails to do), which further illustrates the link between ritual and ethical behavior. It is a story that foreshadows the tensions between Israelite and Canaanite later in the book. It is a story about sibling rivalry, which foreshadows other stories in Genesis such as Jacob and Esau’s rivalry and Joseph with his brothers. From a Christian perspective, it is a story that highlights God’s grace; even though Cain commits a dastardly murder, he is also protected by God and anyone who injures him will be punished severely.

                There is plenty more that can be said about the richness of this story. All of that in a story that isn’t more than a page or two in length.

                As I’m pointing out with these examples to judge aesthetic quality of a work one needs to look not just at individual lines or paragraphs, but the way it functions as an aesthetic whole/unit. A large part of how a good story works and aesthetic effects move us is by building up to it with multiple sentences that individually are nothing special.

                Nevertheless, there are plenty of quotable lines from the Bible that are beautiful in isolation of their larger content:

                “We must all die; we are like water that is poured out on the ground and cannot be gathered up.” – II Samuel 14:14

                “For wisdom is better than rubies; no goods can equal her.” – Proverbs 8:16.

                “Spare Me the sound of your hymns, and let Me not hear the music of your lutes. But let justice well up like water, Righteousness like an unfailing stream.” – Amos 6:24 – 25.

                “Before I created you in the womb, I selected you; before you were born, I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet concerning the nations.
                I replied: Ah, Lord G-d! I don’t know how to speak, for I am still a boy. And the Lord said to me: Do not say, “I am still a boy,” But go wherever I send you and speak whatever I command of you. Have no fear of them, for I am with you to deliver you.” – Jeremiah 1:5 – 1:6

                Now, at the end of the day, you don’t have to like the Bible. I don’t imagine I can say anything that is suddenly going to make you or anyone else crack open a work you dislike and start to magically enjoy it. If you would prefer to spend your time reading Pratchett and find more value in that then great. But I wanted to show there is a bit more going on in the Bible then you’re giving credit and to give you a sense of what someone who does enjoy the Bible as literature sees when they read it and to point out that claims that the bible is bad in reality isn’t objective.

              4. Regardless of the mellifluousness, greatness, etc. of the Bible, can you say without any doubt whether wives are, or are not, to submit to their husbands?

              5. @ Fillipo

                Sorry, but I don’t like Red Herring, I’m more a fan of a nice piece of Tilapia and Salmon.

                What does your question have to do with the discussion about the Bible’s literary merits?

              6. I think possibly Filippo was suggesting that a work of literature should at least be internally consistent.

                Come to that, I believe the creation account in Genesis (which you praise for its structure) also suffers from internal contradictions? I would think that the question of internal self-consistency is, in fact, one point which is objectively determinable, and on which the Bible falls down. Unlike the question of style or language which is more subjective.

                I’m also unsure how much a structure can be counted for literary merit, orthogonal to the wording. I recall starting one of Arthur Hailey’s novels (in the days when he was fashionable) and giving up after a few pages, with the impression that his prose was drearily pedestrian but it read like a good basis for a screenplay. Assuming (for argument) that my uneducated assessment of Hailey’s style was correct, would it still qualify as ‘literature’ on the grounds of a good plot?

                But I think we’re arguing past each other. You see qualities I don’t, and I can’t be bothered to do the substantial work to find those qualities in something I find unappealing (I suspect an ’emperor’s new clothes’). Which brings me back to where we started.

  22. Psalms was a favorite of mine. Very peaceful and uplifting (or so I thought at the time – caveat being that I haven’t reread it since…).

    Song of Solomon = porn.

  23. At any rate, I will persist to the end of Revelation…

    You’ve apparently learned something, heathen.

    Because yes, ohhhhhhhh yes, dokter Coyne, you will persist to the end of Revelation and far beyond, to a place where your flesh will then be cooked like Tandoori chikin in the barbecue pits of Hell.

    God bless, and peace and love to all.

    1. Personally I liked the stories of King David and his boyfriend Jonathon.
      Very early slash fiction.

      Ruth and Naomi’s love story is nice too.

      David Chumney: if I wrote Fifty Shades of Grey, and inucluded one paragraph, no, one chapter of writing worthy of being called ‘great literature’ – would that mean I could expect my Nobel prize for literature any day now?

  24. Amen. That article sums up the last word on the most boring publication ever. I am certain people buy it as an amulet or for more sinister duplicitous reasons. I do agree that everyone should have a good go at reading it just so that they can lay the idea of faith to rest.

  25. Thanks for an early morning laugh – “The Jews are not as smart as I thought.”

    Not that you need another suggestion, but I like to refer thumpers to the Blue Letter Bible website, especially when they rail about homosexuality or other such abominations. Just enter ‘put to death’ in the search and they will quickly see that they too will be put to death for their abominations, such as being cheeky to your parents 🙂

  26. ” . . . the parts of the Bible I’ve read so far are so leaden, so dull and deadly, that I’d rather do anything, including ironing, than read another chapter.”

    Well, if you listened to the KJV on some kind of digital player, you could listen while you ironed, loaded the washer/dryer, cooked and then clean up the kitchen/wash dishes, or straightened up/swept the garage, carried fallen limbs and brush, trash and the recyclables to the curb, or went grocery shopping, or swept/vacuumed/dusted the house, especially the gunk on the ceiling fans, or replaced the ballasts in the overhead kitchen lighting, or cleaned out the gunky drains under the kitchen and bathroom sinks, or dug a hole in the back yard to plant a tree, or painted the house whether inside or out, or cleaned the tub, or . . . .

    You get my drift; I can do most any drudgery work so long as I can keep my mind occupied in a quality way, generally via university lectures, debates, CSPAN and other various and sundry interviews and book readings. Prior to such digital devices, all I could do was call upon my reserves of imagination and patience.

    But then that’s not the same as listening to/reading the Old Testament.

  27. I think you’re being a bit parochial about what constitutes “great literature.” No, the KJV will not appeal to our modern sense of what makes a good read or elegant language. It can be a tough slog for the modern reader. But if you place it in the context of literary history, there are some wonderful passages, even in this first part of the OT. (And of course, there is a lot of stupefyingly dull stuff too.)

    There’s lots in Genesis that’s beautiful to read, including the creation myth. The book of Ruth is also a wonderful story of love and devotion within what we would call a “non-traditional” family today. (The “whither thou goest” line often quoted in contexts of a woman being subservient to her husband, but in the original it’s uttered in the context of two women.)

    And much of the literary importance is not what’s in the KJV, but for how the work has been mined and exploited by later writers for great literary effect.

    That said, most of the “good” stuff is coming up. And I’d also recommend the book of Judith, which is not in the KJV but is the Roman Catholic Bible. That’s a great story of a sword-wielding woman, lopping off the head of an invading general.

  28. We saw the Apocalypse Tapestry in Angers (on the Loire) last week, which is sort of the Bayeux Tapestry but for The Book of Revelation. It certainly makes Revelation look like something to look forward to, and I was particularly taken by one scene where an angel appears to be bribing a daemon. With all the stuff about Zion and Babylon it would surely have been improved by a reggae soundtrack, though.

    I was hoping to see adverts for a management consultancy firm called Angers Management, but sadly there was no sign of one.

    After a few drinks one night we started casting for The Bible – The TV Series. The one we all agreed on is that the voice of God has to be James Earl Jones, i.e. the voice of Darth Vader. “I am your father, Jesus”.

  29. “wreaks havoc——- on his people”
    Remember the Lord Thy God is a capricious God. You do not need to have wilfully disobeyed Him to incur His wrath.
    2 Samuel 12-18 has a frightening tale of Deistic infanticide when David’s daughter by Bethsheeba is laid low by a mortal illness to punish the wayward king.

  30. ” If people realized that this book were pure fiction (as it indeed is), nobody would read it.” But no one really does read it! As I’ve heard it said: “The Bible is the best-selling but least-read book of all time.”

    BTW, I’ve always wondered how someone who *really* believes that the Bible was written by God Himself, or at least was divinely inspired by the Maker of the Whole Freakin’ Universe, could do anything other than read the Bible all day and night. That is to say: how could such a person sit through a movie when a book written by the Almighty is right up there on the bookshelf? How could a true believer pick up the newspaper this morning when a God-authored book about the immutable Truths of the cosmos is right there in the next room? It baffles me that people affirm the supernatural authorship of the Bible and then turn on Jersey Shore. (For a similar idea, see Georges Rey’s paper on “meta-atheism.”)

    Obviously, though, one read through of the Bible is enough for most thoughtful people to realize that the Bible is anything but divinely inspired. 🙂

  31. Honorable Coyne: “If people realized that this book were pure fiction (as it indeed is)…”

    Not entirely true. The historical parts of the OT (not the mythological ones) are a garbled recollection of real history. There have been enough archaeological finds that mesh with the biblical narrative to be certain about this.

    Even common sense tells you this: what fiction author would ever bother with begat after begat? Can you imagine, say, a bodice ripper with a couple of chapters of begats in it?

    1. “what fiction author would ever bother with begat after begat?”

      Some parts of appendix to The Lord of The Rings?

    2. Well both Matthew and Luke have begets in them for Jesus that are entirely fictional.

      Having said that, “The Bible Unearthed” (linked above) does make a good case that the Deuteronomistic history of the Northern and Southern kingdoms post Solomon is based in fact, albeit heavily spun.

      Also, one scholar in the “In Our Time” programme on the Maccabees revolt ( cited Daniel as a historical source. This is because, although it pretends to be prophecy, it was actually written after most of the events it “prophesied”. You can pin point the date of writing by noting when its “prophecies” stop being correct.

    3. The book The Princess Bride has chapters devoted to descriptions of hats being packed for travel. Then other chapters devoted to descriptions of hats being unpacked after arriving. This was to poke fun at the wealthy of the day who devoted too much attention to hats.

      What fiction author would ever bother with begat after begat? A crappy fiction author! So much for the “great literature” claim.

    4. “Even common sense tells you this: what fiction author would ever bother with begat after begat?”

      An author writing faked history.

  32. The hilarious thing is the combination of the claim that God is All Knowing and Maximally Wise with what actually is depicted in the Bible. The Bible is nothing if not a continual litany of God’s failed plans.

    Heaven doesn’t work out right and Lucifer is cast out. Then God makes a “perfect” world and “perfect people”…and that screws up. On to plan C…oh damn, screwed up again, have to flood the whole world and start over.
    Well now I’ve told my people how to worship and…oh hell! They’ve got it wrong. Time to intervene again. Oh crap, that didn’t work…now I have to sacrifice my son…or is it myself? Whatever. Ah crap…sacrificed myself wanting everyone to accept my sacrifice but even among those who have nothing seems to have changed at all, the world is still screwed up, and most people aren’t interested.

    And then we are asked, after reading this, to think this Yahweh character is trustworthy, capable and “don’t worry, has things all worked out.”

    Uh…not buying it.


  33. I hope you paid special attention to the beginning of Ezra and its connectiion with the last two verses of 2 Chronicles as highlighted by Thomas Paine in “The Age of Reason”.

    You can read the it here:

    The very last sentence is a fragment: “Who is there among you of all his people? the Lord his God be with him, and let him go up”

    It makes no sense that the sentence should end like that until you realize that the story is really part of Ezra (or vice-versa)

    The third verse at the start of Ezra:
    3. Who is there among you of all his people? his God be with him, and let him go up to Jerusalem, which is in Judah, and build the house of the Lord God of Israel (he is the God) which is in Jerusalem.

    Clearly a book which has been copied with so little attention to detail is not worth the scroll it’s written on and it certainly isn’t worth veneration.

    I disagree with your categorization of the Bibel as “pure fiction”. It’s “historical fiction” (there is some – albeit lousy – Jewish history there too). Having said that, only someone like Jonah Lehrer would try to pass the Bible off as solid research….

  34. I’d agree that in general the history books of the Bible are extremely boring, especially Numbers. However, I do think there is some good literature in there:

    1. Job, especially in the KJV is a classic and some of the most beautiful English I have ever read. My favorite chapter is chapter 38. It also has some deep themes and I think it does a pretty good job explaining suffering from the perspective of a pre-scientific people.

    2. Proverbs is worth reading, although if you try to compare it to the same resources from other cultures (Greek Philosophy, Chinese Proverbs) it is second or even third-class. But … worth your time IMO.
    3. Ecclesiastes, to repeat other posts, a very good read.
    4. The Gospels. Can’t say they make sense really, but they are a fun read, and Jesus has a few good lessons on love and humility that are good. (Not better than other sources, but a worthwhile read.)
    5. Genesis (first few chapters). I like the poetry and it parallels other creation stories from the time.

    Finally, this may be my ignorance, but I have never enjoyed Psalms and find it annoying. Seems like it’s intended to comfort the weak who consider themselves helpless sheep under their shepherd.

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