Adam Kirsch reviews Timothy Beal's The Rise and Fall of the Bible: The Unexpected History of an Accidental Book:
While there is no denying that the Bible remains central—Beal quotes polls indicating that “65 percent of all Americans believe that the Bible ‘answers all or most of the basic questions of life,’ ”—he notes simultaneously that Americans are surprisingly ignorant of what is actually in it. “More than 80 percent of born-again or evangelical Christians believe that ‘God helps those who help themselves’ is a Bible verse,” he writes. Less than half of all adults can name the four Gospels; only one-third can name five of the Ten Commandments.
The Bible isn’t really “a book” at all, but a library of books—the Greek word biblia, Beal points out, is a plural—written over a span of centuries, in a wide range of genres—myth, history, law codes, poems, proverbs.
In asking “What Would Jesus Read?”, Beal also ends up explaining what is still apparently unknown to many Christians—that Jesus was a Jew, and Christianity initially a Jewish movement. The episode in Luke 4 where Jesus preaches in a synagogue leads Beal to discuss Torah reading and Shabbat services. Later he examines the Hebrew text of the Bible to demonstrate how every English translation is inevitably an interpretation—sometimes, a Christian apologetic interpretation, as when the Hebrew word almah in the Book of Isaiah is translated as “virgin” rather than “young woman,” in order to produce a Christological reading: “Behold, a virgin will conceive and bear a son …”