Isaac Asimov’s Guide to the Bible: A Witty, Erudite Atheist’s Guide to the World’s Most Famous Book

Paint­ing of Asi­mov on his throne by Rowe­na Morill, via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

Every­one should read the Bible, and—I’d argue—should read it with a sharply crit­i­cal eye and the guid­ance of rep­utable crit­ics and his­to­ri­ans, though this may be too much to ask for those steeped in lit­er­al belief. Yet few­er and few­er peo­ple do read it, includ­ing those who pro­fess faith in a sect of Chris­tian­i­ty. Even famous athe­ists like Christo­pher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and Melvyn Bragg have argued for teach­ing the Bible in schools—not in a faith-based con­text, obvi­ous­ly, but as an essen­tial his­tor­i­cal doc­u­ment, much of whose lan­guage, in the King James, at least, has made major con­tri­bu­tions to lit­er­ary cul­ture. (Curiously—or not—atheists and agnos­tics tend to score far high­er than believ­ers on sur­veys of reli­gious knowl­edge.)

There is a prac­ti­cal prob­lem of sep­a­rat­ing teach­ing from preach­ing in sec­u­lar schools, but the fact remains that so-called “bib­li­cal illit­er­a­cy” is a seri­ous prob­lem edu­ca­tors have sought to rem­e­dy for decades. Promi­nent Shake­speare schol­ar G.B. Har­ri­son lament­ed it in the intro­duc­tion to his 1964 edit­ed edi­tion, The Bible for Stu­dents of Lit­er­a­ture and Art. “Today most stu­dents of lit­er­a­ture lack this kind of edu­ca­tion,” he wrote, “and have only the hazi­est knowl­edge of the book or of its con­tents, with the result that they inevitably miss much of the mean­ing and sig­nif­i­cance of many works of past gen­er­a­tions. Sim­i­lar­ly, stu­dents of art will miss some of the mean­ing of the pic­tures and sculp­tures of the past.”

Though a devout Catholic him­self, Harrison’s aim was not to pros­e­ly­tize but to do right by his stu­dents. His edit­ed Bible is an excel­lent resource, but it’s not the only book of its kind out there. In fact, no less a lumi­nary, and no less a crit­ic of reli­gion, than sci­en­tist and sci-fi giant Isaac Asi­mov pub­lished his own guide to the Bible, writ­ing in his intro­duc­tion:

The most influ­en­tial, the most pub­lished, the most wide­ly read book in the his­to­ry of the world is the Bible. No oth­er book has been so stud­ied and so ana­lyzed and it is a trib­ute to the com­plex­i­ty of the Bible and eager­ness of its stu­dents that after thou­sands of years of study there are still end­less books that can be writ­ten about it.

Of those books, the vast major­i­ty are devo­tion­al or the­o­log­i­cal in nature. “Most peo­ple who read the Bible,” Asi­mov writes, “do so in order to get the ben­e­fit of its eth­i­cal and spir­i­tu­al teach­ings.” But the ancient col­lec­tion of texts “has a sec­u­lar side, too,” he says. It is a “his­to­ry book,” though not in the sense that we think of the term, since his­to­ry as an evi­dence-based aca­d­e­m­ic dis­ci­pline did not exist until rel­a­tive­ly mod­ern times. Ancient his­to­ry includ­ed all sorts of myths, won­ders, and mar­vels, side-by-side with leg­endary and apoc­ryphal events as well as the mun­dane and ver­i­fi­able.

Asimov’s Guide to the Bible, orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished in two vol­umes in 1968–69, then reprint­ed as one in 1981, seeks to demys­ti­fy the text. It also assumes a lev­el of famil­iar­i­ty that Har­ri­son did not expect from his read­ers (and did not find among his stu­dents). The Bible may not be as wide­ly-read as Asi­mov thought, even if sales sug­gest oth­er­wise. Yet he does not expect that his read­ers will know “ancient his­to­ry out­side the Bible,” the sort of crit­i­cal con­text nec­es­sary for under­stand­ing what its writ­ings meant to con­tem­po­rary read­ers, for whom the “places and peo­ple” men­tioned “were well known.”

“I am try­ing,” Asi­mov writes in his intro­duc­tion, “to bring in the out­side world, illu­mi­nate it in terms of the Bib­li­cal sto­ry and, in return, illu­mi­nate the events of the Bible by adding to it the non-Bib­li­cal aspects of his­to­ry, biog­ra­phy, and geog­ra­phy.” This describes the gen­er­al method­ol­o­gy of crit­i­cal Bib­li­cal schol­ars. Yet Asimov’s book has a dis­tinct advan­tage over most of those writ­ten by, and for, aca­d­e­mics. Its tone, as one read­er com­ments, is “quick and fun, chat­ty, non-aca­d­e­m­ic.” It’s approach­able and high­ly read­able, that is, yet still seri­ous and eru­dite.

Asimov’s approach in his guide is not hos­tile or “anti-reli­gious,” as anoth­er read­er observes, but he was not him­self friend­ly to reli­gious beliefs, or super­sti­tions, or irra­tional what-have-yous. In the inter­view above from 1988, he explains that while humans are inher­ent­ly irra­tional crea­tures, he nonethe­less felt a duty “to be a skep­tic, to insist on evi­dence, to want things to make sense.” It is, he says, akin to the call­ing believ­ers feel to “spread God’s word.” Part of that duty, for Asi­mov, includ­ed mak­ing the Bible make sense for those who appre­ci­ate how deeply embed­ded it is in world cul­ture and his­to­ry, but who may not be inter­est­ed in just tak­ing it on faith. Find an old copy of Asimov’s Guide to the Bible at Ama­zon.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Isaac Asi­mov Pre­dicts in 1983 What the World Will Look Like in 2019: Com­put­er­i­za­tion, Glob­al Co-oper­a­tion, Leisure Time & Moon Min­ing

Intro­duc­tion to the Old Tes­ta­ment: A Free Yale Course 

Chris­tian­i­ty Through Its Scrip­tures: A Free Course from Har­vard Uni­ver­si­ty 

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (10)
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  • Barbara Dorsey says:

    My per­son­al feel­ing is that Asi­mov had a real mis­an­throp­ic streak to him, and was sort of a pho­ny. Com­plete­ly lack­ing in humil­i­ty. Clever, intel­li­gent, sure…sincere, not so much. His pro­fes­sions seem char­ac­ter­is­tic of some­one need­ing a lot of approval. I would love to hear from his for­mer stu­dents because that has got to be a dif­fi­cult dis­po­si­tion to hold for any length of time. Per­haps it is just the human­ism. I will nev­er get the arro­gance of that.

  • Steve Bennett says:

    A sci-fi geek in my teens and pre-sal­va­tion, I was giv­en this book by a Chris­t­ian who had­n’t read it. I made an attempt, but it was basi­cal­ly Asi­mov dis­count­ing events because this could­n’t hap­pen and that could­n’t have hap­pened. A pseu­do-intel­lec­tu­al approach by a man afraid. One of the first books I tossed in the trash.

  • Audrey Iannelli says:

    I read the 1981 edi­tion in the 90’s, and still trea­sure it. Go back to it every time I come across a Bible ref­er­ence I’m not so famil­iar with. It’s an excel­lent resource. I became a fan toward the end of Asi­mov’s life and did­n’t get the oppor­tu­ni­ty to meet him, but in the many inter­views I’ve watched, he comes off as very gen­uine. I take issue with the oth­er com­ments. Even at its mon­strous length, this is a very worth­while book.

  • Armando says:

    I only have his guide to the new tes­ta­ment. I used it to pre­pare for Jeho­va’s wit­ness vis­its. They did not like it at all. Very respect­ful con­ver­sa­tions, just offer­ing anoth­er inter­pre­ta­tion of events. After less than ten vis­its they were fine for years.

  • Richard Fisk says:

    Love it for the respect­ful approach of the Book. His time­lines were very illu­mi­nat­ing. I also use it to chal­lenge my own belief and make my own con­clu­sions. It makes the Bible more inspir­ing than lit­er­al. Though parts should be read lit­er­al­ly. Asi­mov enhances the knowl­edge part. You can use that for your devel­op­ing wis­dom.

  • Alan Brandt says:

    “Sci­en­tif­ic Con­sen­sus” is an oxy­moron. Nation States are as impor­tant as our indi­vid­ual free­doms. A One world gov­ern­ment would only cre­ate end­less pain and suf­fer­ing for the mass­es like all cen­tral­ized gov­ern­ments where absolute pow­er cor­rupts absolute­ly.

  • Bento Espinosa says:

    “Lib­er­at­ed from Reli­gion” and “Wast­ing Time on God”, by Paulo Biten­court, are the books I rec­om­mend on Freethought, Human­ism and Athe­ism.

  • Vahppus says:

    I assume the rea­son they stopped vis­it­ing you might have been you wasn’t that inter­est­ed in study­ing the bible.

    A thought. In case you think there is no God, no Cre­ator — and before the uni­verse start­ed to exist, there was noth­ing. If so, why is there still not noth­ing?

    As I under­stand it, many athe­ists believe ( yes it is a mat­ter of belief) that every­thing that exists came from noth­ing, that the noth­ing­ness trans­formed it selv to be some­thing.

    And they feel that the thought that there is no God is com­fort­ing to them. So, just as a thought exper­i­ment. In case that there is no God, that God is noth­ing because that God doesn’t exist, couldn’t every­thing come from God?

    In case you want to get tons of log­i­cal argu­ments for con­clud­ing that there real­ly is a Cre­ator, Jehovah’s wit­ness­es can give you sol­id, log­i­cal infor­ma­tion. Of course, peo­ple do not have to be Jehovah’s wit­ness­es to con­clude that there is a God. (If you find a fork on the pave­ment you might not know who made it, but you will log­i­cal­ly con­clude it was made.)
    But if you also want to get accu­rate bible knowl­edge — talk to Jehovah’s wit­ness­es, the true chris­tians :)

  • Bill Bolinger says:

    I would \rec­om­mend Amer­i­can Athe­ist :The Bible Hand­book” as the best I have found along with “Arse­nal for Skep­tics” by Hin­ton and it was the first I had read and that was after going through the Bible in the 1950s and tak­ing a lot of notes.
    The Bible says killing every­one in 66 cities plus all the ani­mals is fine to make way for the Jews. After “thou shalt not kill” there are many killing claim by an actu­al­ly non-exist­ing “God” who is not the god for every­one but just for the Jews. This God in Judges 1:19 can not defeat the peo­ple in the val­ley because they have char­i­ots of iron! Ear­ly in the O.T he sits on a Mer­cy Seat in a spe­cial place in a huge tent. Lat­er he lives in the Tem­ple in Jerusalem in the Holy of Hol­lies. Then Baby­lon attacks and destroys the Tem­ple and the Ark of the Covenant is heard of no more. The God did not exist any­way but could not defend Jerusalem. Israel paid trib­ute to at least three more pow­er­ful coun­tries in the region. The book exag­ger­ates through­out. There was no real “Gar­den of Eden” nor was there a Tree of Knowl­edge of Good and Evil or any Adam and Eve and peo­ple nev­er lived for cen­turies as Bible claims of over 960 years, Jews were nev­er enslaved in Egypt that is a myth. Myths and lies make up so much of the OT and NT> How when some more than 60 Jew­ish writ­ers nev­er wrote about any Jesus char­ac­ter nor could the gospel writ­ers who quot­ed Jesus as if that was pos­si­ble many decades after first may have lived. A hor­ri­ble book. Can Chris­t­ian read? 81 Bill Bolinger life long nonbeliever‑a nat­u­ral­ist.

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