The Bible for beginners, trendy ones

November 15, 1998|By John Rivera | John Rivera,sun staff

"Don't Know Much About the Bible," by Kenneth C. Davis. Eagle Brook. 533 pages. $25. Don't Know Much About the Bible" is a Cliffs Notes version of the Good Book.

Kenneth C. Davis, who has registered the first four words of the title as a trademark, has pounded out another bluffer's guide to sit on the bookshelf alongside his volumes on history, geography and the Civil War.

Davis' book isn't very profound. He doesn't break any new ground, and doesn't seek to. He seems to rely on just a handful of sources (although he uses no footnotes, so it's impossible to determine which ones he uses) in presenting a general survey of the Bible that contains the basic information you'd find in any college freshman's introductory text.

But he presents it in a more appetizing, conversational format that he's betting will appeal to adults who haven't studied or even read the Bible, and whose knowledge of its content doesn't go much beyond the stories they remember being told in Sunday School.

Davis' intention, he says in his introduction, is to challenge conventional wisdom by asking questions. To that end, his format is to provide a bare-bones summary of the Hebrew Scriptures or Old Testament, and the Christian New Testament, and then to pose specific questions with answers that often buck what he says is conventional wisdom about what is in the text.

For example, in asking "Were there really apples in Eden?" Davis points out that the story of Adam and Eve in Genesis only mentions the "fruit of knowledge" and the fruit of "everlasting life." It is more likely that that forbidden fruit was a fig or a pomegranate, fruit more common to the Middle East.

"In other words, the image of Eve polishing up a nice red apple, fodder for great artists and political cartoonists throughout history, has no biblical basis," Davis writes. "The apple wasn't connected to the Eden story until the European Middle Ages, when artists began to depict Eve with an apple, presumably as a way to give common people a familiar fruit."

Similarly, Davis refutes the notion that Joseph, who was sold into slavery by his brothers, possessed a coat of many colors. He blames a bad translation in the King James Version, which should have been rendered a "long robe with sleeves." And the Cecil B. DeMille version of the Exodus, with the parting of the Red Sea, is rooted in another mistranslation. Instead of the Red Sea, the Israelites likely crossed a "sea of reeds," a marshy body of water that has never been identified.

In his New Testament section, Davis notes the contradictions in the stories of Jesus' birth in the gospels of Matthew and Luke, notes that Christmas is celebrated on Dec. 25 because the early church appropriated a pagan holiday and presents scholars' doubts that he was even born in Bethlehem.

Although Davis' information is solid, if basic, he has an annoying habit of bringing in cloying cute and current references. Kings David and Solomon he calls Israel's "party animals." David does the "Full Monty" when he dances naked before the Ark of the Covenant. Davis mentions Madonna and the Lilith concert tour. He compares the apostle Paul to George Constanza of Seinfeld. He even manages a reference to the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal in his section on the 10 commandments (guess which commandment?).

Such references may make the copy livelier, but at the rate popular culture moves, this book about eternal truths will seem dated in six months.

John Rivera has been the religion reporter for The Sun since April 1997. He covered Pope John Paul II during his visit to Baltimore XTC October 1995 and on his historic trip to Cuba in January. Rivera studied theology at the Washington Theological Union in Washington, D.C., where he completed a master's degree.

Pub Date: 11/15/98

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