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Published: Saturday, 10/11/2008

Agnostic puts Bible to the test literally

BY DAVID YONKE
BLADE RELIGION EDITOR
A.J. Jacobs, author of The Year of Living Biblically, before, left, and after his project. A.J. Jacobs, author of The Year of Living Biblically, before, left, and after his project.
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Thirty-five percent of Americans believe the Bible is the literal word of God, according to a 2007 survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

But how many people's beliefs are strong enough that they try to follow every word literally?

A.J. Jacobs tried.

For one year, the 39-year-old writer and editor from New York City tried to follow every single biblical law. That meant not just the Ten Commandments, but all 613 biblical rules compiled by medieval rabbinical scholar Maimonides as well as every law or guideline in the New Testament.

Mr. Jacobs, who was raised in a secular Jewish household, put together a team of consultants, read dozens of books, and typed every rule, guideline, law, and commandment he could find in the Bible into his computer.

When he printed it out, his list was 72 pages long.

'I remember it was hard to staple,' he told The Blade in a recent interview.

He embarked on this self-assigned, admittedly daunting mission in September, 2005, and chronicled his experiences in a book, The Year of Living Biblically: Our Most Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible.

The book became a New York Times bestseller and was released last month in paperback by Simon & Schuster.

The biblical rules Mr. Jacobs tried to follow ranged from familiar verses (love your neighbor; tell the truth; be fruitful and multiply) to relatively obscure commandments (don't eat fruit from a tree planted less than five years ago; rise up before the grayheaded and honor the aged).

He sought to avoid picking and choosing which verses to observe, suspecting that to be the usual modus operandi of biblical literalists: 'People plucked out the parts that fit their agenda, whether that agenda was to the right or left. Not me. I thought, with some naivete, I would peel away the layers of interpretation and find the true Bible underneath.'

It soon became apparent to him, however, that there are some biblical verses that simply cannot be taken literally.

'There are things in the Bible that people just don't follow or else we'd be acting pretty insane,' he told The Blade. 'We'd be stoning adulterers on street corners or selling our daughters into slavery. '

For example, he said, when Jesus says in Mark 9:47, 'And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out,' most Christians agree that Jesus was urging people to avoid sin, not to physically pluck out an eye.

As far back as the third century, theologian and scholar Origen noted the dangers of biblical literalism, Mr. Jacobs said. Origen noted that some people had 'made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom,' basing their actions on Matthew 19:12 in which Jesus states that 'some are eunuchs because they were born that way; others were made that way by men, and others have renounced marriage because of the kingdom of God.'

Mr. Jacobs said his strategy was 'to err on the side of literalism' whenever a Bible verse was a question.

With such a vast array of orders to obey, it took time to implement them. While he would attempt to follow all the rules simultaneously, on a given day he would home in on one particular rule.

Mr. Jacobs started by not cutting the sides of his beard (Leviticus 19:27), slowly transforming his appearance from clean-cut yuppie to that of a wildman who was compared to Moses, ZZ Top, and Ted Kaczynski.

The list or rules included many that were straightforward but not easy to follow, such as avoiding gossip, coveting, and lust; observing the sabbath, and paying tithes, or 10 percent of his income.

It also included such laws as not wearing clothes of mixed fabric (Leviticus 19:19); sewing tassels to the corners of your garments (Numbers 15:38), and wearing only white clothes (Ecclesiastes 9:8).

For the ban on mixed fiber, called shatnez in Hebrew, Mr. Jacobs hired a professional shatnez tester, a Mr. Berkowitz, who came to his house to inspect his garments under a microscope.

Mr. Jacobs also carried a portable 'Handy Seat' everywhere he went, including the subway, to avoid potentially sitting on an 'impure' seat (Leviticus 15:19).

He refrained from winking (Proverbs 16:30) and tied a five-dollar bill to his knuckles (Deuteronomy 14:25).

The spiritual journey took him to some unexpected places and situations, including singing 'Amazing Grace' with an Amish farmer; herding sheep in Israel, and attending a snake-handling church service in rural Tennessee.

Mr. Jacobs blew a shofar, or ram's horn, at every new moon (Psalms 81:3) and danced before the Lord with all his might (2 Samuel 6:14).

In one of the most comical scenes in his journal, Mr. Jacobs stoned an adulterer (Leviticus 20:27) in Central Park.

It started when an elderly man sitting on a bench mocked Mr. Jacobs' appearance. He explained that he was trying to live by the rules of the Bible, adding that it included stoning adulterers.

The surly senior citizen replied that he was an adulterer and challenged Mr. Jacobs: 'You gonna stone me?'

Mr. Jacobs reached into a pocket and pulled out a handful of pebbles that he had been carrying for such an opportunity. The mocker lunged at him, grabbed some pebbles, and flung them at Mr. Jacobs.

Mr. Jacobs then took one of his few remaining pebbles and tossed it at the septuagenarian, bouncing it off the adulterer's chest.

Check off one more biblical commandment.

Mr. Jacobs, who is an editor at large for Esquire magazine, said he was an agnostic when he began his year of biblical living, curious about 'the huge and fascinating topic of biblical literalism' that appeals to so many people.

He undertook the project as objectively as possible, not promoting an agenda but genuinely seeking to discover what the experience would be like.

'I definitely wanted to go in there with an open mind because I really did want to learn about religion and I wanted to see what I could take from the religious worldview and apply it to my life,' Mr. Jacobs told The Blade.

In the end, he said, he believes every person of faith picks and chooses what to follow in 'cafeteria' style, whether they are aware of it or not, and that there's nothing wrong with it.

And his one-year adventure produced some long-lasting, life-changing lessons.

'A lot of them made a lasting impact, actually,' Mr. Jacobs said. 'One was certainly gratitude. I said all these prayers of thanksgiving, and when you start to say them, you start to realize the hundreds of little things that go right every day instead of focusing on the three or four that go wrong. I still say prayers of thanksgiving.'

He said he had too many doubts about some of the hot-button issues, including

Bible references to creationism and homosexuality, to shake his agnosticism. Yet he developed a new and deep respect for the Bible and religion, especially the teachings on love and compassion.

'I'm still an agnostic, I'm not sure who I'm praying to. A friend called me a reverent agnostic,'?' Mr. Jacobs said. 'Whether or not I believe there's a God, I do believe in sacredness and sanctity and the importance of the sabbath and prayer and tradition, that all of these can be sacred.'

Contact David Yonke at: dyonke@theblade.com or 419-724-6154.



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