Timothy Beal is a religion professor at Case Western Reserve University and the author of 11 books about the Bible and religion. Raised as an Evangelical Christian, he came to realize that the Bible is not quite what it seems and certainly not what it is advertised to be in certain strict religious circles. His revelations about the Bible, so to speak, are at the core of “The Rise and Fall of the Bible: The Unexpected History of an Accidental Book” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $25), an engaging but also challenging re-reading of the sacred texts in the full light of history.
“I was coming to see it as a cultural construction, ‘the Word as we know it,’ with a fairly short history and a less than promising future,” he writes of his changing views of the Bible. “The icon of the Bible as God’s textbook for the world is as bankrupt as the idea that it stands for, of religious faith as absolute black-and-white certainty.”
Beal is frank and sometimes funny. “I tended to approach the Bible as though it were a divine oracle of truth, the ultimate Magic 8 Ball,” he writes of his own youthful encounter with the sacred text. “Ask it a question and it would give you God’s answer.” He is bold enough to share the disturbing answer that it provided when he asked: “Does Joanne like me?” The biblical reply, as it turns out, was a rather disturbing reference to the “privy member.”
But he is quite serious in asking his readers to look at the Bible in a wholly new way. “Many will be surprised to realize that there never has been a time when we could really talk about the Bible in the singular,” he writes. “There is no such thing as the Bible in that sense, and there never has been.” Rather, the religious texts of early Judaism and Christianity consisted of “many different scrolls and codices, variously collected and shared in many different versions, with no standard edition.”
Today, as Beal points out, the authority of the Bible as a received text is imperiled by the culture in which we live. More than half of the students in Beal’s college classes on the Bible, he observes, “came to class on the first day with more ideas about the Bible derived from Dan Brown’s 2003 novel ‘The Da Vinci Code’ than from actual biblical texts.” And yet, “while Bible literacy is about as low as it can get, Bible sales have been booming,” including metal-clad and waterproof editions, “Biblezines” and “Manga Bibles,” and much else.
“The Rise and Fall of the Bible” is mostly about Christian uses of the Bible. But the argument he makes about the Christian scriptures applies with equal force to the Jewish religious texts: “The history of the Bible is one of perpetual revolution,” he writes. “iblical literature is constantly interpreting, interrogating, and disagreeing with itself. Virtually nothing is asserted someplace that is not called into question or undermined elsewhere. The Bible canonizes contradiction.”
Beal insists that his own faith has not only survived his study into the origins of the Bible but has been strengthened by it. And his book turns into a sermon on the spiritual value of not knowing the answer to every question: “[F]aith deepens not in finding certainty but in learning to live with ambiguity, as we ride our questions as far into the wilderness as they will take us,” he concludes. “Biblical literature hosts that journey.”
Beal understandably focuses on what he regards as the abuse of the Bible in Protestant circles. But he writes as an expert in the Hebrew Bible — two of his previous books are focused on the Book of Esther — and he seeks to show his Christian readers the Jewish roots of their own faith. Indeed, for the Jewish reader, one of the most resonant and affecting passages in “The Rise and Fall of the Bible” is when he explains how Jesus would have read aloud from the Book of Isaiah: “Jesus would have chanted the passage in an elevated melodic, style,” he writes. “He would have sung it into speech.”
For me, the scene captures something of what Beal has done here. His book is concerned with the place of the Bible in the here and now, but he clearly hears the music in the text, and when he asks us to consider the use and misuse of the Bible in history, politics and culture, Beal does not overlook the sublime role it can play in the human experience. In fact, he celebrates it.