The Bible has been in print for over 1600 years and no one’s ever reviewed it. It’s been analyzed and expounded upon, criticized and interpreted, cut-and-pasted by Thomas Jefferson, but never reviewed.
Mark Twain can be said to have reviewed the Book of Mormon when he succinctly joked that it was “chloroform in print.” That is, his comment was not about the truth or falsehood or capacity for edification of the book, but rather–
How good a read is it?
The Bible is certainly not chloroform in print. Most of it is much better than that. But that’s a very low bar to set. One would think that a book purportedly written by God would be the most absorbing read in the world, a real page-turner.
And yet people have to force themselves to read it. Reading the Bible is more often done out of duty than desire. No one ever has to admonish their kids to “Stop reading what God says and get some sleep!” as they have to do with sci-fi books and random internet trash.
Which is not to say that it’s not interesting at all, or that kids are even smart enough to know what’s truly interesting. But it does illustrate the point that the Bible is not as good a read as a book actually written by God.
So while it far surpasses the lowest standard of judgment–it’s not chloroform in print–it does not pass the highest possible standard of judgment–is this as good as something that the Creator of this most interesting Universe would have authored?
Of course, this is an impossibly high standard that we never apply to any other books. No one ever opines that “Yeah, Huck Finn is a great book, but God would have written it much better.” That would be unfair criticism, and not very informative either.
Then again, neither Twain nor his classic nor his fans ever claimed it was written by God, as do many devotees of the Bible. It is proper to judge a book by what it purports to be. A fictional autobiography of Genghis Khan should sound and feel like something GK might have written or dictated to someone who was literate.
Fortunately for the Bible, it does not actually claim to be written by God. His by-line appears nowhere. According to the Bible, Isaiah was written by Isaiah, Mark was written by Mark, and the Torah was written by Moses. None of them were stenographers.
Thus, the Bible is best appreciated for its literary qualities when it is treated as a literary work and not a dictation from the Divine. A “realistic” view of the Bible affords a deeper appreciation of its poetry and prose than does an idealistic view of its authorship.
Appreciation deepens further when we also realistically acknowledge that the Bible is not really a book and neither are its components. It is a compendium of folios or pamphlets. And like all compendiums, it’s very uneven. Some of the folios achieve greatness, others fail, and knowing which is which (and that it’s OK even for believers to dislike certain folios) helps us better appreciate those portions that achieve greatness.
And here they are:
By far the best pamphlet in the compendium. Certainly the best for reaching the minds of non-believers and existentialists. The Byrds made it into a number one pop hit and Strunk & White quoted it as perfect writing in their highly influential Elements of Style. It’s that good.
And even where the logic of the discourse sometimes fails to cohere, its poetic prowess usually overrides its logical deficiencies.
2) Mark 2.0
(Meaning the Pamphlet of Mark as revised and added onto during the late Roman Empire, not the original Mark which ended abruptly at Chapter 16 verse 8, as proven by the Codex Sinaiticus from c. 350 AD as well as the Codex Vaticanus.)
The shortest of the four Unpurged Gospels and by far the best. Mark’s narrative moves; it doesn’t dawdle. Geneologies? No time for that! In fact, the reason Mark 2.0 is better than the original is that the original was too short. Great writers need great editors and Mark 2.0 has both. The Romans were right to produce an extended remix.
For it stands to reason that if writers and artists can sometimes be inspired by the Divine or by some Transcendental Mentality, then editors too can also be inspired sometimes. This is even more clearly illustrated in–
3). The Longer Letters of Paul (Romans, Corinthians, etc.).
Paul’s letters often achieve and sometimes surpass the poetic greatness of Ecclesiastes. Paul was “on a roll” here and he knew it–that’s why these letters are so long. The problem is that Paul didn’t have an inspired editor. Or any editor at all. No one was presumptuous enough to cut down his text or add coherence to its logic.
Worst Pamphlets in the Bible:
‘Strange that the alpha and omega of the Good Book should suck so badly, each for different reasons. Normally you want to lead off and finish with your best, not your worst. How much better the Bible would have been without these literary clunkers ruining the beginning and the end!