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Tuesday, November 29, 2016

“Asimov’s Guide to the Bible: A Historical Look at the Old and New Testaments; Two Volumes in One”, by Isaac Asimov, illustrated by Rafael Palacios


1295 pages, Avenel, ISBN-13: 978-0517345825

Isaac Asimov was an American author and professor of biochemistry at Boston University, known especially for his works of science fiction and popular science, having written or edited more than five-hundred books, especially of hard science fiction and, along with Robert A. Heinlein and Arthur C. Clarke, was considered one of the “Big Three” science fiction writers during his lifetime. Asimov’s most famous work is the Foundation series, while some of his other major series are the Galactic Empire series (set in earlier history of the same fictional universe as the Foundation series) and the Robot series. Besides all of these works he wrote hundreds of short stories, including the social science fiction Nightfall which was voted the best short science fiction story of all time in 1964 by the Science Fiction Writers of America (Asimov even wrote the Lucky Starr series of juvenile science-fiction novels using the pen name Paul French). As if this wasn’t enough, Asimov also wrote works of mystery and fantasy, as well as much nonfiction. Most of his popular science books explain scientific concepts in a historical way, going as far back as possible to a time when the science in question was at its simplest stage, including Guide to Science, the three-volume set Understanding Physics, Asimov’s Chronology of Science and Discovery, as well as works on astronomy, mathematics, history, William Shakespeare's writing, and chemistry.

Sooooo…how does any of this make Isaac Asimov an authority on the Bible? I’ll make it easy for you: it doesn’t.

Asimov’s Guide to the Bible: A Historical Look at the Old and New Testaments; Two Volumes in One is a pretty standard skeptic’s views of the Biblical texts, committing as he does all of the typical errors of such skeptics: for example, he gives an analysis of the resurrection of Jesus as an event that rests on the testimony of a few women, dismissing the fact that the texts of those accounts are contradictory and contradictory between the Gospels, and the one quoted by Asimov is actually missing from the earliest manuscripts. A true analysis would never draw historical conclusions from passages that are unlikely to have been part of the original texts. Any research at all would have avoided such a gaff. Furthermore, Asimov’s Guide treats the Bible as a single book, although the Bible in fact is a collection of several books written over at least 800 years by 60 or more authors. Wouldn’t you have thought that Asimov might have discussed this fact? Should he not have presented what we understand to be historically factual, and what we understand to be mythical? Shouldn’t his analysis include the observation that even the earliest Christian Writers, such as Saint Augustine, doubted the literal interpretations of Genesis? Or that the oldest books of the collection include Job, a book with four chapters of God lecturing Job that he knows nothing about how the creation of the world was accomplished? Such insights are completely missing from this “guide”.

And to be fair, many, many groups have used these texts for various purposes. The very first Christians refused to join any army or police force, based on the pacifist readings of such texts as the Sermon on the Mount found in Matthew chapter 5. The very first Baptists martyrs died demanding not just religious freedom for their own churches, but religious freedom for Muslims, Jews, and heretics (the common term in the 1600s for atheists). And of course we have fundamentalism using the texts to oppose abortion, homosexuality, and evolution. Does Asimov’s guide give us insight into how some groups see religious freedom in the texts? No. Does he explain the roots of fundamentalism in the texts? No. Does he explain the pacifist and peace movements that arise from these texts? No. A General Guide to the Bible ought to do some of this, should discuss how the texts have impacted history, should explain how the texts impact the present. If you really want to understand the Bible in context, this book is useless.

So what will you get if you read this “guide”? You will get the off-the-cuff observations of a cynical skeptic who (it seems) went out and bought a Bible and dashed off many various common, unoriginal skeptic views to a few chosen passages into a very readable and engaging book. What you will not get is a researched, objective, fair, or insightful analysis of a library of religious and nonreligious texts that have done more to shape western thought, philosophy, and culture than any other collection of writings. You will not get any discussion about how these texts have been understood historically. You will not get any discussion about how these texts have driven various institutions such as the Catholic Church, the Protestant denominations, the Greek Orthodox Church, State Churches, etc. You will not get the arguments for and against religious freedom, as found in these texts. Or those over creationism. Or over concepts like the trinity, or baptism, or communion. Isaac Asimov was indeed one of the great fiction writers of our time, as well as a capable chemist. But Bible scholar? If anything, this book is a good study in secular humanism’s approach to the Bible. However, good objective Biblical scholarship this isn’t; within its pages, are many of the arguments made by the “higher criticism” camp of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. Even in its 1992 rewritten form it overlooks several recent archeological findings and still manages to mangle the Greek. In plain English, this book preaches to the choir of skeptics.

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