In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle enjoys Kristin Swenson’s fascinating and accessible introduction to the Bible
In the earliest New Testament writings, the mother of Jesus doesn’t even have a name. Paul says simply that Jesus was born from a woman, and there are very few references to the Virgin Mary in the earliest Gospel. Mark mentions a Mary, and he also mentions the mother of Jesus, but the context is ambiguous: it isn’t clear whether he is even referring to the same person. And in Luke’s Gospel, the adult Jesus effectively rejects his own mother. In John’s Gospel, at a wedding, Jesus even silences her: at the famous ‘water into wine’ event at Cana, before he agrees to perform his miracle Jesus’ first response is to tell his mother to mind her own business. So much for the Virgin Mary being without sin: even Jesus got cross (as it were) with her.
If all of this comes as a surprise, it is because the Bible is stranger than most of us would believe, and by ‘us’ I don’t just mean cynical old atheists like me, but a fair few practising Christians too, I’ll wager. And in A Most Peculiar Book: The Inherent Strangeness of the Bible, published by Oxford University Press, Kristin Swenson proves to be an affable and knowledgeable guide through the stranger and more surprising aspects of the Bible – and there are plenty of them.
Take Swenson’s illuminating discussion of the various attempts, over the centuries, to suggest scientific explanations for biblical miracles. So the ten plagues of Egypt have been rationalised as the consequence of a great rain that eroded clay into the Nile, causing its waters to flow red, resembling blood. This red water caused frogs, infected by anthrax, to migrate into people’s homes, where they died, causing lice and flies to proliferate. This, in turn, caused human boils and the deaths of cattle.
Here at Interesting Literature we’re quite fond of what’s known as the euhemeristic theory for explaining the origins of myths and ancient stories, and although I am sympathetic to Swenson’s view that we should remember that ‘those responsible for the biblical texts were writing out of faith’ rather than scientific fact, behind many miraculous or incredible stories there is often a grain of truth, or some rational, scientific basis around which the taller tales grew. So the account of the sun standing still so that Joshua and his army could finish their fighting has been traced back to a solar eclipse which occurred on 30 October 1207 BCE.
Such an event needn’t ‘explain’ the miracle outlined in the Old Testament, but it’s a nice idea to think that those who witnessed such a solar eclipse would be more inclined to believe the rest of the story because they had witnessed this rare and seemingly impossible phenomenon.
Although Swenson doesn’t mention this specifically in her discussion of the Star of Bethlehem, the star that led the Magi to the infant Jesus has similarly been linked to a super conjunction, known as the Christmas star: the great astronomer Johannes Kepler determined that a series of three conjunctions of the planets Jupiter and Saturn occurred in the year 7 BC, which roughly fits the timeline for the birth of Jesus: contrary to popular tradition, it is believed that the historical Jesus was born several years ‘Before Christ’, or BC, perhaps around 4 BC.
And over the course of her 12 breezy but well-evidenced chapters covering such issues as the origins of the Bible as we now have it, various misconceptions about its contents, the depiction of God in the Bible, and, pleasingly, ‘general befuddlements’, Swenson is consistently good at clarifying some of the other ‘strangeness’ we find in the Bible. Although Popes are famously celibate, the very first Pope, St Peter, was married – and his name, of course, wasn’t originally Peter but Simon. Jesus renamed him in what Swenson calls a ‘neat pun’ on the Greek petros or Latin petrus, meaning ‘rock’, because Simon Peter was the ‘rock’ upon which Jesus would build his church.
And talking of humour, Swenson argues that the story of Jonah spending three days in the belly of a ‘big fish’ (the Bible never calls it a ‘whale’) is not meant to be taken literally but as a symbolic story about faith – or even, arguably, as satire. (Certainly, Jonah’s decision to spend one of his days inside the fish’s belly singing about God lends some credence to the satire theory.)
One of the best chapters in Swenson’s compelling introduction is on the various misconceptions about the Bible, such as the idea that ‘the Ten Commandments’ appear as a neat, definitive list anywhere. The only commandments in the Bible which are explicitly described as numbering ten are found in Exodus 34:10-27, where they include regulations such as not offering a sacrifice with blood along with any yeast and not cooking a young goat in its mother’s milk. Swenson goes on to discuss the various assumed prohibitions against various practices (mostly sex-related) which people think appear in the Bible, but often don’t – or, if they do, only in such ambiguous contexts that we cannot really extract a clear moral lesson from them.
Swenson is quick to point out that such inconsistencies or ambiguities as we find in the Bible are a reminder that it is a book – or, technically, a whole library of books (66 in the Christian tradition) – which is meant to be argued with, questioned, considered, and debated, rather than swallowed whole, like Jonah. Whatever your religious views or lack thereof, A Most Peculiar Book: The Inherent Strangeness of the Bible is a hugely entertaining and accessible guide to the historical vagaries that made ‘the Bible’ what it is, over many centuries. And the ‘inherent strangeness’ only makes the Book of Books more fascinating.
A Most Peculiar Book: The Inherent Strangeness of the Bible is out from Oxford University Press on 21 April.
Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books, and The Tesserae, a long poem about the events of 2020.