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No work of Western literature has appeared in more editions or evoked more comment than the Bible. Not only have a vast number of books been written about the Bible, but virtually every important thinker in the Western tradition has left some comment about the Bible and its impact on his or her life and thought. The following quotations are only the barest sampling of comments on the Old Testament. Some of them may surprise, even shock you. All are intended to open the discussion for you, not to end it.
Why was the Torah not given in the land of Israel? In order that the nations of the world should not have an excuse and say: "Because it was given in Israel's land, therefore we did not accept it."
From the Midrash (Jewish traditions)
Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill.
For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.
Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.
From The Gospel According to St. Matthew 5:17-19, quoted from the King James Version
Christ has obtained a ministry which is as much more excellent than the old as the covenant he mediates is better, since it is enacted on better promises. For if that first covenant [with Abraham and his descendants] had been faultless, there would have been no occasion for a second....
In speaking of a new covenant he [Christ] treats the first as obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away.
From The Letter to the Hebrews 8:6-7, 13, quoted from the Revised Standard Version
Whatever they can really demonstrate to be true of physical nature we must show to be capable of reconciliation with our Scriptures; and whatever they assert in their treatises which is contrary to these Scriptures of ours, that is to the Catholic faith, we must either prove it as well as we can to be entirely false, or at all events we must, without the smallest hesitation, believe it to be so.
St. Augustine, from De Genesi ad litteratum, 415
Why... did the Torah begin with the account of the Creation? In order to illustrate that God the Creator owns the whole world. So, if the peoples of the world shall say to Israel: "You are robbers in conquering the territory of the seven Canaanite nations," Israel can answer them: "All the earth belongs to God- he created it, so He can give it to whomsoever He wills. When He wished He gave it to them, then when He wished He took it from them and gave it to us."
From Rashi's commentary on Genesis 1:1, 11th Century
Every Israelite is under an obligation to study Torah, whether he is poor or rich, in sound health or ailing, in the vigor of youth or very old and feeble. Even a man so poor that he is maintained by charity or goes begging from door to door, as also a man with a wife and children to support, is under the obligation to set aside a definite period during the day and at night for the study of the Torah....
Maimonides, from the Mishneh Torah 1:8, 1170-1180
The English Bible is a book which, if everything else in our language should perish, would alone suffice to show the whole extent of its purity and power.
Thomas Babington Macaulay, from the Edinburgh Review, 1828
I had gradually, come, by this time, to see that the Old Testament from its manifestly false history of the world and from its attributing to God the feelings of a revengeful tyrant, was no more to be trusted than the sacred books of the Hindoos, or the beliefs of any barbarian.
Charles Darwin (1809-82), from his posthumously published Autobiography
Throughout the history of the western world, the Scriptures... have been the greatest instigators of revolt against the worst forms of clerical and political despotism. The Bible has been the Magna Charta of the poor and of the oppressed.
Thomas Henry Huxley, from Controverted Questions, 1892
Even those who do not believe that the Bible is the revelation of God, will admit that it is the supreme revelation of man.
William Lyon Phelps, from Reading the Bible, 1919
In the Old Testament stories the peace of daily life in the house, in the fields, and among the flocks, is undermined by jealousy over election and the promise of a blessing.... [T]he perpetually smouldering jealousy and the connection between the domestic and the spiritual, between the paternal blessing and the divine blessing, lead to daily life being permeated with the stuff of conflict, often with poison. The sublime influence of God here reaches so deeply into the everyday that the two realms of the sublime and the everyday are not only actually unseparated but basically inseparable.
Erich Auerbach, from Mimesis, 1946
All human history as described in the Bible may be summarized in one phrase, God in Search of Man.
Abraham Joshua Heschel, from God in Search of Man, 1955
To regard the Tanak [Hebrew Bible] as sacred is reasonable, but its sanctity ought to be impressed on us by study, rather than assumed beforehand. Too easily the vocabulary of religion- words like righteousness and sin- tends to become mere slogans, devoid of meaning. To call the biblical writings Sacred Scripture is to put over them a curtain which can conceal their form and meaning. Such unthinking attribution of sanctity compounds the obscurity of the Tanak. Any ancient library is hard to read and understand. Because the contents of biblical life and thought are already blurred through antiquity and distance, an unconsidered attitude [that] the writings are "sacred" can move the onlooker even beyond haziness into blindness itself.
Samuel Sandmel, from The Hebrew Scriptures, 1963
The Bible is clearly a major element in our own imaginative tradition, whatever we may think we believe about it. It insistently raises the question: Why does this huge, sprawling, tactless book sit there inscrutably in the middle of our cultural heritage frustrating all our efforts to walk around it?
Northrop Frye, from The Great Code, 1982
We wish to thank the following educators who helped us focus our Book Notes series to meet student needs and critiqued our manuscripts to provide quality materials.
Sandra Dunn, English Teacher
Lawrence J. Epstein, English Teacher
Leonard Gardner, Lecturer, English Department
Beverly A. Haley, Member, Advisory Committee
Elaine C. Johnson, English Teacher
Marvin J. LaHood, Professor of English
Robert Lecker, Associate Professor of English
David E. Manly, Professor of Educational Studies
Bruce Miller, Associate Professor of Education
Frank O'Hare, Professor of English and Director of Writing
Faith Z. Schullstrom, Member of Executive Committee
Mattie C. Williams, Director, Bureau of Language Arts
The following experts reviewed the Book Notes manuscript on the Old Testament. The volume does not necessarily reflect their views, however.
Barry L. Bandstra
Alice L. Laffey
Sid Zalman Leiman