Bible Thumping: The Good Book For Writers


As religion goes, I'm a nothing. By that I mean I don't practice or subscribe to anything. I guess that makes me an Atheist, but I shy away from that term because...well, it seems to indicate a position of sorts, a position I'm not prepared to argue.

Allow me to share the whole of my religious education:

1. I read The Tao Te Ching once. I was 17 and understood almost nothing of what lived in the pages.

2. I read a good portion of, not The Qur'an, but a Q&A book ABOUT The Qur'an.

3. I attended two Sunday School classes as a child because I stayed the night at a friend's house. His family went to church, and because I couldn't get a ride home early, I went with them. I don't remember much except that we were supposed to draw Jesus. I had no idea what Jesus looked like, plus I sucked at drawing. I went with the one thing I'd practiced, a Ninja Turtle. Out of respect for the gravity of the situation, I DID draw Donatello, the scholarly, studious turtle who didn't say Cowabunga as much.

And that's the whole of my religious study. So please know that as we move forward, I'm coming from a place of ignorance with the goal of improvement.

I do consider myself a reader and a writer. Which is what got me thinking about whether a person like me could read the Bible as literature. As a book. Not as a religious text or a map to guide myself through life or to explain why there was only one set of footprints on the beach (by the way, I would rather someone carried me the time I got off at a very frightening train stop in Chicago as opposed to being carried across a peaceful beach, but I digress).

The Bible can probably be read as a classic of literature, right? If it can, that means I'm like a film student who's never seen Citizen Kane. Or more accurately, as my very limited understanding would lead me to believe, Star Wars. Because after all, people who have never seen Star Wars understand the basics. They might not know what a Vader is, but they use the phrase "Luke, I am your father." They might not have opinions on whether Greedo shot first, and they might not even know what that sentence could possibly mean, but chances are they've tried a Chewbacca growl at least once, have attempted use of The Force, and haven't gone longer than a couple days at a time without confronting Star Wars, whether it be in the form of a bumper sticker or action figure.

Plus, from what I understand, it sounds like there's some cool stories in the Bible. A guy who gets his hair cut and then loses his strength? A Superman kind of thing? I'm intrigued. A king who suggests cutting a baby in half? A God who magics a woman into salt? A man tasked to build a gigantic boat and save the world? Yes, yes, and because I love anything that involves a ship saving the world ever since Michael Bay's Armageddon, hell to the yes.

Which brings me to the beginning of my quest.

The Bible: THE good book, but is it A good book?

And right then, dear reader, right at the beginning, I hit a wall.

Please excuse my horrific ignorance here. I kind of thought I could type "The Bible" into Amazon and have what I was looking for. Hell, I figured I could type "Teh Bibel" and still get it.

It turns out there's almost no such thing as a THE the Bible. In fact, let me just list a few of the versions I came across:

ASV: American Standard Version: Sometimes called the "Standard Bible", common in American seminaries.

RSV: Revised Standard Version, a revision of the American Standard Version.

ESV: English Standard Version, a REVISION of the REVISED Standard Version.

Then you've got your KJV, your NKJV, your HCSB. It starts to look as though any combination of three to four letters can be put together, and then a Bible written to accommodate.

Now, the various versions may not be that different. They all have different origins that trace back to other Bibles or other kings who ordered them translated, and the lineage of each weaves in and out of Bible history. I have no idea how to evaluate any of this. And herein lies the problem. How would I know which Bible to read if I had no idea which Bible contains all the baby-cleaving and giant-killing? Which one possibly has a bit of cyclops combat, if that's not something I've just added in myself? How would I know which Bible was right for me, the reader?

If you feel like there's not enough on the internet to waste your time, try to discover which Bible you should read using Google. I'm not kidding. Because every Bible has a following, and every following thinks they've got the right Bible.

Not only are there lots of Bibles that appear legit, there are quite a few that, even to my heathen eyes, looked...well, all wrong. Those have to be sorted through as well.

For example.

I saw a lot of Bibles that looked like this NIV Boys Bible by Zondervan.

To my uneducated eyes, this appears to be the sort of thing that capitalizes on the whole Xtreme! marketing thing. Perhaps it comes with a free Mountain Dew? Oh, and listed under Amazon's "Frequently Bought Together", this item was matched with a lovely camouflage Bible cover. Just in case you wanted to be that much more X-Treme-er.

There's also this NIV Faithgirlz! Bible, Revised Edition.

We could talk a long time about the gendering of Bibles here. Maybe in this version Lot's wife is turned into...a pile of salt...who was respected for her intelligence and independence before she was turned into a pile of salt? I don't know.  All that we need to say about this one is that it's clearly not the Bible I was looking for.

A bit closer is MANual, The NIV Bible for Men:

But I don't know. The description says it has "200 'Downshift' notes" which are described as "penetrating questions." All this car talk and penetration-speak, it's a bit much for me. My gut says reading this would be like talking to that uncle who wanted to know just a little too much detail about your teenage dates.

Then there's The Action Bible:

Now THIS I can get on board with. Comic book bible? Action? If someone had presented me with this as opposed to X:Men: The Complete Dark Phoenix Saga as a boy, my life may have taken a different course. That said, I'm generally not a fan of comic book adaptations of things that weren't originally comic books. I believe the format and story should compliment each other in such a way that one couldn't imagine the story being told in any other medium. Or, put simply, I'm too much of a nerd for what is likely the nerdiest form of the Bible.

I decided, at this point, that I was out of my depth. Yes, it took some time for me to figure out how ignorant I was. I never said I was smart. I pursue smarts precisely because I don't posses them.

If all-knowing Google has failed, where do you turn to next? It's not like I can just ask at a church. Because guess what? I suspect that each church will pimp its particular favorite, and who knows what I might end up with? No offense to the churchgoers out there, but what I needed was an opinion on literature, not religion.

Which is when I decided to email several professors of religious studies at various universities. And A.J. Jacobs, author of The Year of Living Biblically.

I asked about the Bible and which one to read as a book. Here are a few selections from answers. Please note that these answers were longer, many pointed out the difference between a Christian Bible and others, and generally all responses were well-thought-out and very helpful. If anything here is offensive, it's almost certainly due to the way I asked the question or have quoted only a few lines from each answer.

Eva Mroczek, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Hebrew Bible and Ancient Judaism, Indiana University:

...for writers, hands down, no question the best annotated Bible is the Norton Old Testament edited by Herbert Marks. It uses the old King James Version, not a modern translation, so it is more challenging to read the text itself. But for anyone interested in the Bible as literature, and how the Bible has influenced literature, this is the one to a translation I'd also recommend the NRSV, but Mark's Norton Old Testament edition, which uses the KJV translation, has the best additional material, like introductions, notes, and appendices.

David Frankfurter, Professor of Religion, Boston University:

I require the New Revised Standard Version for my students, since the translation is most satisfactory for historically-oriented study of the texts (and I do read Greek and Hebrew). It’s not perfect, but it will do...I would avoid the NIV and Good News translations as simplistic, inaccurate, and theologically-oriented, and absolutely avoid any versions that have 'words of Christ in red'!

A.J. Jacobs, author of The Year Of Living Biblically and others:

For pure literary style, you can’t beat the King James Version. But it does have some serious mistranslations. Which is why I might recommend the Revised Standard Version. Still has some of the fancy language of the King James, but they toned it down and made some corrections.

M. Gail Hamner, Professor and Director of Graduate Studies, Syracuse University:

I'd say that the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible is the best place to start for a Christian (Protestant, though there is a Catholic version, too) oriented scholar-authorized translation.

Geoffrey Pollick, Assistant Professor / Faculty Fellow, New York University:

If I were to recommend a translation, it would be the New Revised Standard Version, which balances literary quality and literal accuracy of meaning...If you wish to find a copy that includes less marginal information, and reads more like a typical novel or work of nonfiction, you might try the HarperCollins NRSV Standard Bible, ISBN 9780061946516, which presents the biblical text in clean paragraphs, with the appearance of most published books.

In addition, a couple professors who preferred to provide information without being quoted responded, and with those in the tally, the New Revised Standard Version was the clear winner.


I chose to purchase this edition, the one recommended by Mr. Pollock:

As he recommended, it's the one that looks the most like a published book. Which is a big plus for me. Not as action-oriented as a comic book, but less studious than a tome with four columns per page. The smarter choice, but a choice that's not TOO smart for a person like me. The Donatello of Jesus drawings, if you will.

And thus, with a couple clicks online, I am now an owner of the Bible. Perhaps even THE Bible, the one that will turn me from a complete dolt into a complete dolt who has read the Bible, a complete dolt who just might learn a thing or two about writing and literature. But that, friends, along with the still-unverified presence of a cyclops, remains to be seen.

In the beginning...

Author's Note:

Thanks to all the folks who responded to my question. I appreciate your dedication to providing knowledge and guidance to a buffoon such as myself. This includes Eva Mroczek, Ph.D., David Frankfurter, M. Gail Hamner, Geoffrey Pollick, A.J. Jacobs, and all others who chose to remain nameless and help out anyway.

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LadyWordslinger's picture
LadyWordslinger from Lower Sasnak is reading If I tell you what I'm reading, I'll have to change it every time I finish one book and start another. June 25, 2014 - 7:52am

Dude... I commend you for your efforts, and I'm a Bible-believing Christian who has only read through the entire Bible, cover to cover, once. The only piece of advice I have is this:

When you get to all the "begats", either soldier through them, or skip over them. Don't throw in the towel. It gets better again.

L.W. Flouisa's picture
L.W. Flouisa from Tennessee is reading More Murakami June 25, 2014 - 8:01am

I tried reading the bible, could get past the Noah bit. To much bullshit, to depressing. As a work of literature, women weren't even fleshed out as individuals. Women and the bible absolutely do not mix.

Tom1960's picture
Tom1960 from Athens, Georgia is reading Blindness by Jose Saramago June 25, 2014 - 8:20am

As a non Christian I believe reading the King James Version of the Bible is essential to understanding our culture (American). And, there is wisdom in it. Lots of wisdom. I agree with LadyWordslinger, forget the begets and begat and search for the good stuff. In the new testament there is a cool and often repeated sentence that is worth the journey--Jesus wept.

Joshua Chaplinsky's picture
Joshua Chaplinsky from New York is reading Library Books June 25, 2014 - 8:35am

Great stuff, Pete. Faithgrrlz Rule! Wait until they find out how they are represented.

Josh Zancan's picture
Josh Zancan from Crofton, MD is reading East of Eden by John Steinbeck June 25, 2014 - 10:29am

Writing quality aside, the story of the Bible is literary genius. Religious beliefs notwithstanding, you've got fantasy, surrealism, violence, murder, betrayal, sex (consensual, incestual, and rape), straights, gays, slavery, desolation, redemption, underdogs, comeback stories, destruction and/or natural disasters (multiple!) that sometimes lead to Armageddon, road trips, love stories, and it all revolves around a central character THAT YOU NEVER ACTUALLY SEE. Brilliant.

CSolunar24's picture
CSolunar24 from Chicago is reading Mere Christianity June 25, 2014 - 10:57am

Cool! I was recently [within last year or so] studying all sorts or religion/theology myself from Vedic to humourism etc. until I finally thought to look to what I was actually supposed to be rasied as [Catholic/Christian]. I also had the same train of thought- I thought to myself - as a writer- as a reader looking into that 'timeless tome' seemed to be a thing I should really look into myself. Everything can be so cliched- you  think you know a story but reading it yourself brings the context so much clarity you otherwise couldnt have. I am so far only up to Numbers, and while I am definitely spotting some worthy pre-psycology wisdom in there, I also reccommend skimming certain parts. I was not reading word for word in Leviticus and all the census stuff- building of the Ark of the Convenant is wordy too..[although it totally explained why everyone's face melted off at the end of Raider of the Lost Ark] Yeah I think its a great sort of ...reference of human behavior. The stories can still relate to modern politics and morality.

Daniel W Broallt's picture
Daniel W Broallt from Texas is reading The Emerald Mile June 25, 2014 - 1:42pm

Let me recommend:

The Art of Biblical Narrative by Robert Alter

If you like that, he's done several translations with commentary that specifically focuses on the literary aspects of particular books. For example, in his commentary on the David story he points out how the first phrase out of someone's mouth serves to illustrate their character. So for example, Saul's first words are 'have you seen my donkeys?' and he turns out to be the kind of guy always looking for answers, always looking for a sign, always needing direction. 


Sofia's picture
Sofia from London, UK is reading everything June 25, 2014 - 6:52pm

The Bible isn't A book. It's lots of short books strung together. If one of them strikes you as intolerably boring or incomprehensible, go ahead and skip it.

Dwayne's picture
Dwayne from Cincinnati, Ohio (suburbs) is reading books that rotate to often to keep this updated August 15, 2014 - 8:44pm

Which is what got me thinking about whether a person like me could read the Bible as literature.

A better question might which translation you want to look at.  Some are more concerned with bringing across the poetry, others with bringing across the meaning, and so on.

Not a Bible, but still interesting to me was gaming church and the out reach.