A few Saturdays ago I was hanging out in a pub waiting for some friends to show up. Here I was, minding my own business and doing my scholarly duties. Yes, I was taking a few quiet moments to work on an article that I need to clean up, doing some reading and writing.
That day I also happened to be sitting by an older couple who engaged me in conversation (which, while nice, was a bit annoying as I was trying to do work). It turned out that the man, a retired physicist, was also trained in Koine, ancient Hebrew, and had written a book on the Bible. That he had self published.
Great for him, but what I found to be quite annoying was that he went on and on about what he thought about the Bible before moving on to Paul the apostle, who I happen to work on. And who also happens to be a polarising figure. He made some gaffes, but perhaps the most bothersome to me was the tired, old line that often goes something like: ‘Well, if Paul had been one of my students and turned in those writings as papers I would have failed him! He is always all over the place! Well, except for Romans!’
I get it. I really do. Paul can sometimes be hard to follow. We are, after all, reading letters delivered to communities; we also only see one side of a larger conversation. Information is limited. Which makes the cute comment about ‘failing’ him all the more annoying. Paul is not writing tightly argued, theological treatises. Paul isn’t producing systematic works treating all of our controlled theological categories. Paul isn’t writing to a professor.
It’s great that people have an interest in the Bible. I suppose it gives my work some legitimacy (although I stick to the margins of the discipline). But, this encounter reminded me that biblical illiteracy is something that goes a bit deeper than not knowing the stories, characters, or motifs that appear in a few dozen books that were written over centuries.
The man knows the languages, but his illiteracy goes a bit deeper, stunted by, perhaps, the hubris that one can easily understand the nuances of another’s discipline. Its a cute form of Dawkinsian screeds against religion.
This has been my useless rant for the day.