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A Most Peculiar Book: The Inherent Strangeness of the Bible

Kristin Swenson

According to the Guiness Book of World Records, the most popular volume of all times is The Bible with an estimated 2.5 billion copies sold over the last 200 years. 

That doesn’t surprise Charlottesville author Kristin Swenson.  Frankly, she considers the Good Book weird and has made it the subject of her latest scholarly work. 

Whether you consider the Bible a sacred book and a guide to life or a historic relic, the fact is that it’s been tremendously influential in western culture – quoted by preachers and politicians, inspiring great art, children’s stories and memorable Hollywood scenes – like Moses parting the Red Sea.

All of these obscure a fundamental fact about the Bible, according to Kristin Swenson, an affiliate faculty member at Virginia Commonwealth University and author of  A Most Peculiar Book: The Inherent Strangeness of the Bible.

“The Bible is a lot stranger than it gets credit for being.  I say ‘credit,’ because I think it’s a really positive quality,” she explains.

There are, of course, accounts of what are called miracles: Jesus walking on water, turning water into wine, in the case of the Old Testament before the exodus, where the Nile turns to blood or strange things fall out of the sky.

And other oddities that go without explanation.

“There’s also a very peculiar story I just love in the Book of Numbers in which a donkey speaks," Swenson says. "The story doesn’t suppose that that is a strange thing.  The donkey just starts talking.” 

The Bible leaves many obvious questions unanswered. 

“Like the snake in the Garden of Eden who is cursed with crawling around on his belly, which would lead a reader to wonder: Did it have legs before that?” she wonders.

Or the story of Jonah – swallowed by a whale and spit out – apparently unharmed – after three days.

“The Bible doesn’t address what we might want as modern readers to know more about,” Swenson concludes.   

Some of its heroes are deeply flawed.  For example, she says, "God had chosen David to be King in Israel and someone from David’s genetic line would always be on the throne, but David engaged in an adulterous affair.  Not only that, he had the woman’s husband killed.”   

In some places the text contradicts itself. Archaeologists tell us Biblical accounts of history are sometimes wrong, and Swenson says the literary style can, at times, seem herky jerky.  That, she says, is because the Bible isn’t one book but a collection of writings from different people.

“Pretty much every Biblical scholar allows as there were a number of different sources -- collated and edited over the course of a long period of time.”

And, of course, we speakers of English are reading a translation.

“Very few people are reading it in its original Hebrew or Greek, and even if you are, those texts are copies of copies of copies," she says. "We don’t even have an original Bible.”

So why is Swenson so fond of the Bible?  Why write her latest book and another called Bible Babble? By their very nature, she says, the central texts of Judaism and Christianity invite important discussions, debate and deep thought about humanity and the issues we all face.  

“The strangenesses of the Bible are actually its greatest gift to us.  In those places that are confusing or places where the Bible disagrees with itself, it invites us to apply learning and our moral sensibilities to any interpretation and application of it.”

That, again, was Charlottesville author Kristin Swenson.   Her work -- A Most Peculiar Book: The Inherent Strangeness of the Bible -- is published by Oxford University Press.   You can hear an excerpt by clicking on this audio file.


Sandy Hausman is Radio IQ's Charlottesville Bureau Chief