'The Year of Living Biblically': What Does True Biblical Literalism Look Like?

A friend recently loaned me A. J. Jacobs’s 2007 book The Year of Living Biblically, a humorous memoir about the author’s year of trying to follow biblical mandates literally. In tone and subject matter, the book bears a lot of similarity to Daniel Radosh’s Rapture Ready!, which I read last summer: each is authored by a secular Jew fascinated by, though also skeptical about, religious culture in America, and each author ends up finding much to admire, as well as mock. The key difference is that, while Radosh merely deals with pop-culture expressions of Christian faith, Jacobs takes on Judeo-Christian scripture itself—God’s self-revelation, in the eyes of the faithful. It’s a riskier endeavor, not simply because Jacobs is treading on holier ground, but also because, frankly, biblical interpretation is hard, even for those steeped in religious tradition, well-read in commentaries, and guided by the Holy Spirit. While I may not agree with Jacobs’s hermeneutic—he ultimately opts for what he calls a “cafeteria-style” approach to religion—I can’t deny his chutzpah.

Jacobs admits to three motivations behind his project: (1) to get a book out of it (he’s honest—one of the Big Ten does say “Thou shalt not lie,” after all!); (2) for his own spiritual quest, motivated in part by wanting his young son to grow up with some sort of tradition; (3) to explore various manifestations of biblical literalism. In some ways, (2) balances out (3): while Jacobs wants to prove that even those who claim to take the Bible literally in fact do some picking and choosing, he also seems genuinely concerned to find the true reason behind biblical laws. He makes a show of literal obedience to some of the laws not even observed by contemporary Orthodox Judaism, such as the stoning of adulterers (he flicks a pebble at a dirty old man), a task which seems designed to highlight the irrationality and the impossibility of interpreting the Bible literally. However, there are also moments when Jacobs finds genuine appreciation for God’s mercy and compassion as expressed through a scriptural injunction.

Jacobs’s claim that he will attempt to obey the Bible literally is a little misleading, since he admits that interpreting every single passage literally would “result in missing body parts.” He clarifies his approach thus: “I will try to find the original intent of the biblical rule or teaching and follow that to the letter. If the passage is unquestionably figurative—and I’m going to say the eunuch one is—then I won’t obey it literally. But if there’s any doubt whatsoever—and most often there is—I will err on the side of being literal.” Or, as he says elsewhere, he will apply Scalia’s Constitutional methodology to the Bible.

The thing is, if two millennia of Christians (and even more millennia of Jews) haven’t been able to agree which passages are literal and which are figurative, it seems like a fairly futile—not to mention hubristic—quest to think that one individual can, unaided, decipher the original intent of a particularly tricky scripture. It’s as if Jacobs is trying to out-Sola-Scriptura Luther himself. Jacobs does ask the advice of a wide array of Jewish and Christian clergy and academics, but he largely portrays himself as going it alone. He seems to ignore large chunks of scripture about the vital importance of corporate worship—especially in the New Testament, where the Church is the Body of Christ. (And I’m not trying to argue that church tradition is equally authoritative with scripture—I’m just pointing out that scripture itself has a lot to say about the Church, and if you’re claiming to be following the Bible literally, you can’t ignore the communal aspect of obedience. Jacobs barely even mentions the Epistles, however.)

To be fair, Jacobs does admit that he’s taking a different approach with regard to the New Testament, as opposed to the Old, because by the time he reaches the New Testament portion of his biblical year (he takes a roughly chronological approach), he’s already learned to value his Jewish heritage more seriously. He recognizes the dilemma before him: is it even possible to obey the New Testament without having faith in Jesus as Lord? I respect Jacobs’s honesty in raising this question, and his decision that he can’t, without becoming a Christian, truly honor the original intent of the New Testament. And so he revises his plan: for the New Testament portion of his year, he will attempt personal practice less and group observation more. He will at least try to understand how various groups of Christians live out their obedience to the gospel.

Unfortunately, this decision does result in perpetuating the Old Testament vs. New Testament divide that even many Christians have a hard time reconciling. Of course, since Jacobs is coming from a Jewish cultural background, if not actual Jewish belief, it’s understandable why he would want to differentiate between the Hebrew and Greek scriptures. I just wish, selfishly, that his approach didn’t lend fodder to the Christians who talk of an “Old Testament God” and a “New Testament God,” as if they’re not the same. I’d like to see more exploration of the Jesus who came to fulfill the Law, not abolish it. In the Old Testament section, Jacobs does at least provide examples of Christian interpretations of Old Testament laws, and he explains the common Christian distinction between “moral laws” and “ritual laws.” But his decision to treat the Testaments differently does prevent him from using one of the most helpful interpretive questions at a Christian’s disposal: how does this passage reflect the heart of God, as revealed throughout the entirety of scripture?

So, is The Year of Living Biblically a book that will help or harm the cause of Christians, particularly evangelicals? I hope that secular readers will follow something of the transformation that Jacobs describes in his reactions to a popular email forward—the one written to either Dr. Laura or a conservative evangelical minister (depending on your source) that basically tells the audience that, if they’re going to interpret the condemnation of homosexual acts literally, they also ought to stone people, sell them into slavery, practice animal sacrifice, and never touch a football because it’s made of pigskin. Jacobs writes, “The first time I read this email, I thought: Excellent. What a great critique of those who follow the Bible literally, but haphazardly.” The third time he encounters the forward, however, six months into his biblical year, he is less enthusiastic, even a little defensive: “I wanted to send the author a note. Yes, the mixing fibers sounds berserk, but maybe the emailer should talk to Mr. Berkowitz [an Orthodox Jewish fiber-inspector who will come to your home and make sure you haven’t mixed any linen and wool] about the glory of following things we can’t explain.”

One of the best things about Jacobs’s book, even in its irreverence, is its celebration of the mystery of obedience. Even though, as Christians, our obedience may look different from Jacobs’s brand of biblical literalism, we can still learn much from his developing trust in God’s Word.

About Carrisa Smith

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