The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible by A.J. Jacobs may be the best book I have ever read. If not the best then it’s at least in the top 10. As an avid reader, it’s not easy to find a book that is really a new idea. A.J. Jacobs is an editor for Esquire magazine and is known for his first book The Know-it-All: One Man’s Humble Quest to become the Smartest Man in the World.
In The Year of Living Biblically Jacobs, who describes himself as “Jewish in the same way The Olive Garden is a restaurant,” decides to try to follow all the rules in the Bible as literally as he can. Jacobs starts by accumulating Bibles. He buys several including the King James, which is the most common English translation of the bible, several Hebrew translations, and The Bible for Dummies. Hebrew bibles are often considered more accurate because they have less translation errors in them; the only downside is that the average person does not read Hebrew. His friends send him several versions including a hip-hop version with translations like “The Lord is all that.” which is a translation of the twenty-third psalm “The Lord is my shepherd.”
He also puts together a board of spiritual advisers–group of pastors, rabbis, ministers, and so on who would advise him on what the Bible was trying to say. The pastors give him advice on the many different mindsets on the Bible. Some viewpoints aren’t so common or well received. Jacobs’ talks to Hasidic Jews, creationists, and even a Jehovah’s witness. He discovers that most of them aren’t as crazy as people make them out to be, and in fact many of them are well-learned reasonable people. As there are many different opinions on the Bible, his idea was to look for concurring ideas.
The point of his whole project is not only to discover the hidden meaning of the Bible, but also to show himself what so many people love about religion. Anybody can tell you there is nothing conclusive about the Bible as a whole. For thousands of years, people have striven to find the secret meaning and different interpretations have led to anything from creating new religions to starting wars. He looks at different types of Christianity and Judaism such as red-letter Christians. A red-letter bible is a bible where the teachings of Jesus are typed in red. Red-letter Christians try to follow those passages more than anything else.
As he goes on his quest, Jacobs realizes how hard it will actually be to follow the Bible. He types up a list of rules and ends up with 72 pages of rules. Some are easy to follow, such as you are not permitted to boil a lamb in its mother’s milk. Others are much more complicated like not being allowed to lie. The rest are pretty obscure for the most part, for example you are not allowed to wear mixed fibers, such as cotton and wool or wool and linen or any other combination. The laws that Jacobs’ struggles the most with are those that take place mainly in the mind. He has trouble not getting angry, which is mentioned on multiple occasions.
As Jacobs progresses through the Bible and all of its rules, he goes from being unsure and constantly making mistakes, to a much quieter, more thoughtful person. The longer he continues his experiment, the more he begins to discover what it is about the Bible that draws people in. One of Jacobs’ theories is freedom from choice. In most cases that is what the Bible provides. Should I tell the truth or spare this person’s feelings? The Bible takes choice out of it, telling people that they should always tell the truth.
The book is a memoir of Jacobs’ experiences following the Bible. The part of this book that is so superb is that it’s truly thoughtful. His questions really make you think about different aspects of the Bible from historical to present day. At the same time he also succeeds in writing an amusing book that has to do with his more comical experiences with the Bible, such as wearing all white in a city where the people wear mostly dark colors with “a daring splash of navy blue.” He shows how it is nearly impossible to practice true biblical literalism in today’s society. With the ending the book, he shows how everybody picks and chooses the pieces of the Bible they wish to follow, some just choose more than others.