A Proposal for Bible Study as Part of K-12 Curriculum
This works for a college course too; but it’s less controversial there than in K-12.
So here is the historical context of my proposal which, when I first noted it, was a joke: Christian Nationalists bemoan that we kicked the Bibles out of American public schools and then it all went to Hell. We need to get them back in as part of “reclaiming” America’s public institutions.
If I am not mistaken, teaching the Bible as “literature” is not enough. It should be taught as truth, revealed truth.
My proposal was yes, bring them back and as a lesson plan have students do a Jefferson Bible where they get to cut up that from which the Bible they reject and give their reasons for so doing. Of course, I had at least one atheist commenter say s/he would chop the whole thing up and leave nothing. I thought my proposal would act as a reductio ad absurdum for why it’s not a good idea for secular pluralistic schools to endorse the Christian Bible as curriculum that teaches revealed truth.
Along the way, I started to seriously study the concept of “canon” and how the different world religions approach sacred scripture. I discovered the idea of “a” Bible is a fiction. It’s not just about interpretation or translation (the obvious issues). It’s about different books. Different verses and chapters. It’s more accurate to say there are different “canons” held to by different religious traditions. There is no one “Christian” Bible. There are different canons among the different Christian traditions. The same is true for most if not all other religious traditions.
Yes, there are agreements; there are lowest common denominators. But also dickering over the details. Among the three large traditions in Christian orthodoxy, there are three different canons. Protestants, Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox each have bibles that endorse a slightly different set of books in their canon.
I was reminded of this when a social media friend took exception to the invocation at Donald Trump’s inaugural given by Timothy Cardinal Dolan; the invocation was taken from a book Roman Catholics regard as inspired but Protestants do not.
The arguments, among believers, for why the books should or should not be considered canonical are compelling and nuanced. To one who has no dog in the fight, it’s complicated. To hear Protestants tell the tale, Roman Catholics in the Council of Trent added 7 books that didn’t belong to the Bible. To hear Roman Catholics, Martin Luther was the first Thomas Jefferson and used his razor to cut those 7. (The Catholics are probably more right; but Luther wasn’t acting completely arbitrarily; many of his reasons had a distinguished lineage among theologians who critically studied the sacred texts). And the Eastern Orthodox canon has all of Catholic books plus a few more.
Likewise, a very learned Jewish friend told me there were and are multiple traditions that differ on the finer details of which writings constitute sacred scripture in their canon.
So we know that when Thomas Jefferson took his razor to the Bible, most of it didn’t survive. Jefferson thought of the pieces he cut from the canon like Protestants think of the Apocrypha (what Roman Catholics consider Deuterocanonical). But arguably, the material which did make Jefferson’s cut, he believed to be sacred scripture in a God directly speaking to man sense.
(There is debate among scholars on this; my learned opinion is that, yes, arguably a case can be made that Jefferson believed what made it into his bible was sacred scripture, inspired, in a God directly speaking to man sense.)
Much of the Old Testament, everything St. Paul said, the Book of Revelation and more were, according to Jefferson, not divinely inspired. Jefferson could be very harsh, terming those words “dung.” Jesus’ words, on the other hand, were “diamonds.”
Let’s say for the sake of argument that Roman Catholics’ book of 73 is correct and Martin Luther’s canon of 66 which became the basis for the Protestant bible was bowdlerized. How does what Luther did meaningfully differ from what Jefferson would later do on a larger scale? Indeed, Luther’s writings show he doubted books and texts in the New Testament, like for instance the entire Book of Revelation, which almost made his chopping block until other forces in Protestantism prevented them from being disregarded as non-canonical.
One could argue that Jefferson and the other Christian-Deists — many of them English, like Bolingbroke who preceded and influenced him — just went further, way further. Instead of going from 73 to 66, it just went to a smaller number. Likewise, the numbers can be enlarged just as they can be reduced. As noted above, the Eastern Orthodox have a few more books than the Roman Catholics.
And Mormons take the Protestant canon (minus one book) and add an entire additional set of books they call The Book of Mormon. And Muslims take parts of the Jewish and Christian scriptures (“people of the book“) that they regard as inspired and add the Koran.
So the idea is to study the sacred texts and have the students as an end term project construct their own canon of that which they believe is revealed and give their reasons for so doing. If they want to endorse a canon that is identical to a particular religious creed, they can do so. On the other hand, students will be free to cut everything from the sacred texts with which they disagree. They just have to offer their reasons for so doing.
This proposal gets the Bibles back into the public schools, and goes beyond teaching the Bible as simply literature, while respecting the aims of a pluralistic society.Image by DrGBB