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Teaching the Bible as History or Literature in High School:

AP reports that "A bill that allows public high schools to offer classes on the Bible sped through the Georgia House today, passing overwhelmingly with no debate. The legislation, which passed 151-to-7, would allow high schools to form elective courses on the history and literature of the Old Testament and New Testament eras. The classes would focus on the law, morals, values and culture of the eras."

In principle, such classes are constitutionally permissible, which is only right: The Bible is indeed an important work of literature, and important to understanding history (both the history of the Biblical era and later history).

The trouble is that for the classes to be thoughtful, intellectually rigorous, and educationally valuable, they'd have to deal with lots of things that many students (and others) might find quite troubling. If you teach the Merchant of Venice as literature, you probably ought to discuss criticisms of the moral view that the Merchant of Venice seems to express. If you teach classic-era histories (e.g., Livy) in a class on Roman history, you certainly ought to discuss whether the historians are reliable, and whether they might be repeating myth as truth. If you teach historical legal systems in a class on ancient law and culture, you need to discuss ways in which those legal systems may have been unjust by today's standards, or inconsistent even by their own standards.

Are Georgia voters and legislators prepared to have Georgia high school teachers raise these hard questions about the Bible? If so, great. But if the hope is that the teachers will teach the Bible without the same willingness to critique the work -- and to encourage students to think critically about the work -- that we'd expect in serious classes on other works, then that would be a pretty bad step for the Georgia school system to take: It would suggest that the school system is just trying to reinforce students' existing beliefs, rather than teaching them to analyze historical sources carefully and thoughtfully.

Greedy Clerk (mail):
I took a course in High School called "Bible as Literature" -- I went to High School in a public school in that bastion of convervatism, Santa Monica California.
3.22.2006 6:14pm
Anderson (mail) (www):
EV's implication is surely correct: if the class is taught anything like properly, parents will burn the school down. Figuratively I hope.
3.22.2006 6:22pm
BTD_Venkat (mail) (www):
Should the schools be forced to offer other electives highlighting other religious texts that also have literary value?
3.22.2006 6:23pm
Joe7 (mail):
I took a Bible as Literature class my senior year of High School in upstate New York (in 1979/80.) It was a silly waste of time. (It was all the more silly in that I was raised in a conservative religion and had a father who would read and recite biblical commentary during dinner, so I knew the bible pretty well.)
3.22.2006 6:27pm
John Armstrong (mail):
I don't see any good outcome of this. If the students are asked to read the Bible uncritically, it's blatantly privileging the one religious tradition. If, on the other hand, they're asked to treat the text critically, that carries with it the assumption that it isn't the word-for-word inspired Word of God, which specifically disenfranchises literalist Fundamentalist traditions. How is either road compatible with the Establishment Clause?
3.22.2006 6:35pm
Joe7 (mail):
One more thing; I find it interesting that teaching Greek and Roman mythology is still seen as a cornerstone of modern liberal education, but how different is that from teaching the Old Testament? Whether you believe it myth or not (I do), the influence on our lives has arguably been more profound than Greek and Roman mythology. (Islam comes out of the same Old Testament tradition, which makes it that much more pertinent.)

The problem is, of course, in teaching it without advocating it or holding back with the more compelling critical arguments. Ironically, Greek and Roman mythology can be taught "dispationately" precisely because our western society still maintains, even in it's more agnostic or atheistic forms, fidelity to the Biblical tradition, especially the notion of monotheism (which has spawned mono-atheism and mono-agnosticism, if those are words--who says "I don't believe in the Gods?" Well except maybe on Battlestar Gallactica.))
3.22.2006 6:43pm
Eugene Volokh (www):
BTD_Venkat: No; the Bible is (1) an unusually important religious text for understanding the history of our civilization, and (2) particularly likely to attract student interest (surely an important criterion in an elective). That's just not true of other religious texts; there may still be reason to teach about them, but there should be no constitutional obligation for a high school to teach about all if it teaches about one. The problems, I think, are with the class in practice rather than with the class in principle.
3.22.2006 6:54pm
LeftLeaningVolokhReader:
Do you mean that school kids will be taught that more than one god exists in the bible, although subsequent and extra-biblical christian doctrines eliminate and/or deny their existence? Or, will they be taught that the gospels were penned scores after the dated existence of Jesus - thereby raising the question of first hand knowledge of Jesus or the possibility of inaccurate hearsay?

My guess is no. Bible history can be taught in academic settings, but I really have doubts that academic scrutiny will fare well against a vast majority that want religious adherence to biblical concepts.
3.22.2006 7:02pm
Kovarsky (mail):
I like the book better than the movie.
3.22.2006 7:07pm
Mike Smitherson:
I agree w/Prof V that a course as he describes would be OK (and good for students, as the Bible plays such a large role in political and social discourse - even for non-Christians). But does anyone doubt that many of these classes will simply be Bible-study groups masquerading as history/literature classes? Anyone?
3.22.2006 7:16pm
great unknown (mail):
A problem with this approach is that the school systems could never survive teaching other religious literature under the same rules. Imagine an open and critical course on the Koran, and the police protection this would require. On the other hand, teaching the Bible critically and the Koran gently would be appear to be a prima facie violation of the Establishment Clause.
3.22.2006 7:25pm
Shangui (mail):
I agree with Mike, the class would be great for students were it really taught critically. But I have little doubt that it will be taught as a tradition "Bible-study" class. Interestingly, the courses on the Bible I took in a Catholic high school were extremely critical (in the sense of looking at the text as a product of certain times and peoples) and probably started me down that happy road to the aetheism I enjoy today! But it wasn't in Georgia.
3.22.2006 7:25pm
Dave Hardy (mail) (www):
A perfectly terrible book, and written in bad Greek.
3.22.2006 7:54pm
Anderson (mail) (www):
If, on the other hand, they're asked to treat the text critically, that carries with it the assumption that it isn't the word-for-word inspired Word of God, which specifically disenfranchises literalist Fundamentalist traditions. How is either road compatible with the Establishment Clause?

EV's the expert, but I don't think that "critical" means quite so much. They can be taught various approaches, including the fundamentalist and the critical. An obvious exercise would be to examine a given passage from multiple perspectives.

Otherwise, the same objection would apply to a geology class teaching that the earth is 4 billion years old. (Yes, I realize that such objections have been lodged, but I would hope none has succeeded.)
3.22.2006 7:55pm
dunno:

If you teach the Merchant of Venice as literature, you probably ought to discuss criticisms of the moral view that the Merchant of Venice seems to express.

Actually a very revealing example. If you teach Merchant, you ought to discuss criticisms of the moral view the play does express. The moral views the play seems to express are more subjective, being a function of the individual approach of the reader, and not inherently contained in the text.

If a Fundamentalist Christian says the Bible seems to take moral view x, which therefore should be studied, that argument is not priveleged, and moral view x is not required to be taught (if there is any question as to what a historical-literary interperetation, without PTA petitioners involved, would look like, there is a long European tradition of historicist criticism, dating to the turn of the eighteenth century that could be consulted).

What seems to be the theme, or moral lesson, &c. should most definitely not be taught, unless you'd want to invite a "my view, too" race among interest groups.
3.22.2006 7:57pm
Dave Hardy (mail) (www):
One more thing; I find it interesting that teaching Greek and Roman mythology is still seen as a cornerstone of modern liberal education, but how different is that from teaching the Old Testament?

There is a hilarious chapter in the legal humor text Uncommon Law, in which British authorities are supposedly trying to suppress the Greek myths. "The conduct of this Zeus would, if acted out in any civilized nation, induce cries of outrage."

It goes on to note the pernicious effect upon the young (with a reference to Zeus' assuming the role of a swan to get into the pants of one young lady) "It is not surprising that the captain of the King's College boat team was found in the headmistress' quarters, dressed as a large brown owl."
3.22.2006 7:59pm
Hovsep Joseph (mail) (www):
This kind of thing has me really conflicted. I'm not religious personally and am uncomfortable with so much religion in the public sphere. On the other hand, teaching about religious texts actually appeals to me both because it is historically significant and because it makes religious texts subject to a certain degree of objective public scrutiny, something that is less likely to happen if your only real exposure to religion is in your own church. The problem is in the execution. First, I don't think there are enough high school teachers who are both objective enough and competent enough to do justice to this kind of a course. Second, I think the issue is too controversial for it not to end up in controversy over the content and method or overall propriety of teaching the Bible. Lastly, when the first two problems converge, we end up with a dumbed-down, uncontroversial course that represents a political statement but not any advantage for students wanting to learn about the Bible.
3.22.2006 8:19pm
Kovarsky (mail):
dunno,

i'm not exactly understanding your point. we should avoid teaching what something "seems" to say because it would encourage rent-seeking behavior by interest groups?

first of all, while i subscribe to the view that every meaning of a text is a "seems" and not an "is," merchant of venice is not a good play to hang your hat on for that proposition. nobody seriously debates its anti-semitism. don't get me wrong - i love the play - but it is/really subjectively seems anti-semitic to an overwhelming consensus of people.

second, even if something "is" a meaning, how on earth do you decide what that meaning is - and even if you could in some cases, the bible of all books? you might be saying the same thing i am, but it's difficult to tell. or you might be saying the "seems to" is disingenuous? if so, are you saying we should teach it as an "is" or not teach it at all?
3.22.2006 8:29pm
bluecollarguy:
The Bible is neither a history text nor a science text and thus critical analysis from those two perspectives is not necessary to conduct a productive class studying the Bible. Certainly the Bible reveals some moral truths, or untruths if one insists, which would supply plenty of grist for the high school mind to mill.
3.22.2006 8:34pm
Anderson (mail) (www):
I just remembered that Georgia's where they wanted to put warning labels on the biology textbooks. Allow me to quote myself:

Isn't this the state where one school district wanted to put warning labels on biology textbooks? To wit:
This textbook contains material on evolution. Evolution is a theory, not a fact, regarding the origin of living things. This material should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully and critically considered.
What kind of label should they put on the Good Book?
This textbook contains material on Judaism and Christianity. These belief systems are matters of faith, not fact, regarding the spiritual nature of humanity. This material should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully and critically considered.
That would go over real well, donchathink?
3.22.2006 8:40pm
Bezuhov (mail):
"But does anyone doubt that many of these classes will simply be Bible-study groups masquerading as history/literature classes? Anyone?"

Having lived in the region being discussed here, and with some experience with both the groups advocating the bill and those concerned about it, I will. The emerging consensus is that critical treatment is better than ignorance/silence, and that goes for more than just this narrow instance.
3.22.2006 8:42pm
gasman (mail):
Comming out of Georgia tells all one needs to know about the motives of the legislature. They wish to slip this one through as a scholarly endeavor (bait) and really teach King James fundamentalism (switch).

If these classes fail to use many different translations and versions of the bible, then their gig will be exposed. If their classes use only the One True Bible then it is nothing more than a dressed up class on religion (the One True Religion at that).
3.22.2006 8:49pm
Grant Gould (mail):
I was certain I was going to go into the ministry before I took a Bible course in school. The book of Numbers put me off of that right quick. The bit with the Midianites. I've been apostate ever since. Better to take my chances with my own conscience than with the god of the prophets.

There's nothing more likely to put people off Christianity than reading the Bible with an eye toward its meaning and implications. Georgia hasn't a clue what it's getting into.
3.22.2006 8:50pm
Anderson (mail) (www):
Oh come now, Bezuhov, why should we credit someone on this subject who creatively reads the Bible to make himself out to be the Antichrist?
3.22.2006 8:55pm
Anderson (mail) (www):
Okay, okay, gotta get back to work, but one more, from Ambrose Bierce:
SCRIPTURES, n.
The sacred books of our holy religion, as distinguished from the false and profane writings on which all other faiths are based.
3.22.2006 8:57pm
Michael B (mail):
"Are Georgia voters and legislators prepared to have Georgia high school teachers raise these hard questions about the Bible? If so, great." EV

Yes, absolutely.

"But does anyone doubt that many of these classes will simply be Bible-study groups masquerading as history/literature classes? Anyone?" Mike Smitherson

"... the class would be great for students were it really taught critically." Shangui

Yes, taught critically. It's always a noble exercise, being so eager to critique others many and presumed faults. Too however, given the enduringly dogmatic and presumptive, bible-study-like approach in universities and colleges when it comes to so many social/political and related topics, some thoroughgoing doubt and critiques directed inward and in the direction of academe might be given a much higher priority. Something about removing the amount of timber from one's own eye before presuming to remove the far smaller obstruction in someone else's eye.

E.g., a review in The Harvard Salient entitled Notes of a Rebel Professor, some notable part of which duly highlights a few of those ideologically based dogmas and certitudes, rooted in academe. Not that I would entertain anything other than unalloyed reverance for the innumerable pieties promulgated by the pious professoriate.
3.22.2006 9:00pm
Shangui (mail):
It's always a noble exercise, being so eager to critique others many and presumed faults.

I did not at all intend my comment to indicate criticizing people (or being critical in the sense of objecting to, what the Bible says), but rather to approach the text as a scholar would approach any other text, to consider the text in terms of its historical development, literary and social context, etc. I've been in Bible-study classes and, to put it mildly, this was not the approach taken. I've had conversations with very devout and college educated Christians who didn't realize they they read the book in translation, let alone had any idea of the history of text they claimed to base their lives on. I am certainly critical of that approach, just as I'd be critical of people who thought the Bill of Rights was important but didn't know any of its history. If the classes in Georgia deal with the Bible as a historical text, just as they would, say, Canterbury Tales, then I'd be very happy but also surprised.
3.22.2006 9:20pm
dunno:
Kovarsky:
First, Merchant is a fine example. Anti-semitism is not among the chief issues of the comedy (Think: the titular merchant is Christian, and is not even the chief character opposed to Shylock (who is a usurer, not a merchant); the play is a Shakespearean comedy, and as such Portia is structurally a larger part than Shylock--which necessitates her victory over his logic in the courtroom scene, regardless of his religion).

Second, the is/seems distinction is vital. If the course is to teach a historicist analysis of the Bible, that is, one that treats the Bible as a product of the time it was written, and as a factor in the composition of later narratives, the most important things to be considered would be the historical context contemporary to when it was put on paper, or read by early interpereters. This is the study of what the (historicist) meaning is.

What the meaning seems to be, by the definition of seem in my earlier comment, permits the impression the Bible leaves on the readers of today to be considered as well. This is a non-historicist analysis, and would allow rent-seeking by people who have garnered their own impressions from the Bible. It is only this latter course, the teaching of what seems to be the meaning, that would cause problems for the teaching of the Bible in a public school.

I understand that I am using a rather heterodox definition of "to seem," and apologize if it caused confusion. But however the distinction is termed, that, I think, is the best way to look at whether this measure will succeed or fail.
3.22.2006 9:27pm
EricRasmusen (mail) (www):
I can't see how this could be objectionable. Here's the new law:

"A bill that allows public high schools to offer classes on the Bible sped through the Georgia House today"

People who oppose this bill are in effect supporting the following:

"A bill that forbids public high schools to offer classes on the Bible, even as an elective".

Should the state government really be stopping local school districts from teaching classes on the Bible?
3.22.2006 10:26pm
Wintermute (www):
Equal time for the Dhammapada!
3.22.2006 10:27pm
James of England:
Before I moved to law, I spent five years getting a Masters in Theology. St. Andrew's, Scotland, has a pretty prominent post-Christian Feminist who was our primary teacher for Systematic Theology and our Bible classes were mostly taught by pretty hard-core liberals, people who felt that people could not reasonably believe in the literal truth of, say, the exodus. I took classes that deconstructed the bible, looked at it through Freudian analysis (basically arguing that Ezekiel was the product of a disturbed man dealing with being sodomized as a child), and showed the patriarchal underpinnings of some of the thought. I also took classes like the slightly oddly named Modern Christology that studied mostly theological thinkers who believed in the literal truth of every word (oddly named because there was a lot of 17th and 18th century work). My LLB, LLM, and JD have yet to present me with a class that even came close to the intellectual challenge of Modern Christology, although, to be fair, I'm not quite done yet. Certainly none of the more anthropological classes could.

A good parallel might be in law. I've taken jurisprudential classes that spent time discussing legal realism and suchlike and I've taken classes that have really gotten into statutory law. Some people find one kind of thought easier, some the other. How ridiculous would it be to say that there was no educational value other than the vocational benefit to a course that taught securities law without spending half the course discussing the economic effects and the impact of the acts on politics in the 30s? I know that my UC Davis classes spent a lot of time talking about FDR and the depression and so on, which was fun and interesting, but that my subjective sense of the benefit of the more practically focused corporations class for my JD was also considerable, and that didn't even use the word "depression".

If that analogy goes too far from the source, then consider Shakespear. When I studied Macbeth at my High School equivalent, we spent precisely zero time talking about the historical Macbeth (although I very much enjoyed doing so independently, and would recommend the period to anyone). I get the impression that this is not at all unusual and I know English teachers from a generation that was meant to be better at this stuff than mine who had no idea about what Siward's relationship to Duncan, to the English crown, or even which century the play was set in. Would you be shocked if you found out that "Macbeth as literature" was being taught with the emphasis being on trying to understand the ideas regarding ambition, gender, power, violence, free will, and so on? Even if the course did not spend a lot of time discussing Shakespear's use of other sources?

The school might, as some suggest, teach sub-par courses in biblical studies. If the school taught poor classes in American History, would that mean that they should stop teaching American History, or that they should get better American History teachers? Unless it's believed that there aren't good pedagogical bible scholars available in Georgia?
3.22.2006 10:59pm
Kovarsky (mail):
Dunno,

I'm quite familiar with the Merchant of Venice. I'm not saying anti-semitism is a main theme, but it is almost universally acknowledged as having profoundly anti-semitic overtones. I'm not saying that's the play's central conceit, or even a primary one, but Shylock is Shakespeare's Jar Jar Binks. I also don't know what you're trying to get out the distinction between a userer and merchant. First of all, I think the former is just a subset of the latter. Second, and more importantly, I don't think the implications that attach to Shylock being a userer are any different - in terms of the sheisty overotones - than those that attach to him being a merchant. I think you're just overlooking the fact that Jews thought it was anti-semitic then too. You're confusing artistic appreciation (which many have) with acknowledgment of a literary theme.

I'm still not really seeing your "is" v. "seems" distinction. I take what you're saying is that we should understand the bible to "mean" when it was delivered. I also understand that you think that would be the most neutral way to teach it, but that's just not a curricular parameter that ANY faction would want. One side doesn't want the bible in any classroom and anoter wants to import its "historical" understanding into a modern one.
3.22.2006 11:01pm
Proud to be a liberal :
There has been some controversy over curriculum for Bible classes. An evangelical group has developed a year long curriculum that uses a Bible as the one and only textbook. A group of Catholics, Protestants, and Jews has developed a different curriculum. There has been a dispute about whether the first curriculum is in fact an establishment of religion since it is focused on a particular translation of the Bible and endorsed by a particular religious group. On the other hand, the evangelical group opposes a curriculum that does not use the Bible as the text.

I wonder why the focus is on studying the Bible rather than on a study of comparative religions. It would be useful for Americans to know something about Islam, Hinduism, and other religions as well as the Christian Bible. How many Americans understand the difference between the Sunni and the Shiites? the Kurds?
3.22.2006 11:48pm
dunno:
Kovarsky:
And I don't deny the "anti-semitic overtones" that you cite. But my original comment pointed that, though those overtones exist, they are not at the level of a "moral lesson," as suggested by Professor Volokh's post.

The distinction between a usurer and a merchant is a real one. A modern-day "merchant" firm, if we are to follow sixteenth-century definitions, would be UPS. A modern-day "usury" firm would be Citibank. Usury was considered biblically enjoined; not so mercantilism. Usury was permitted to hide in the shadows of east Italian port cities like Venice in the late Middle Ages because of the necessity of interest as an incentiviser for investment in the perilous trade with Crusade states in the Levant.

But Merchant is not Shylock the usurer's story. It belongs to Bassanio the merchant, and his intended bride, Portia. As a comedy, it makes sense that the climax is the marriage of Bassanio and Portia, and that Shylock does not figure in the climax, being a secondary character to the main plot, and only the main character in a subplot. Portia has significantly more scenes than Shylock.

My point in all this is that Merchant is a play whose main plot is pretty light beer. It is only our subjective interest in the overtones of its chief subplot, in what seems important to us as a modern audience, that provides us with a hook to fix on (again, the anti-semitism is real; it is just not a hoop that girds the meaning of the play). The "main lessons" (phrase per Professor Volokh) of the play lie elsewhere, between Portia, Bassanio and perhaps Antonio.

All I am trying to object to is the notion of anti-semitism's centrality to the play (admittedly, my argument is based more on structural formalism than historicism, which is the likey methodology of the proposed Georgian system. Also, historicism is different than everyday historical context, but that's a different matter).
3.22.2006 11:57pm
Mike Smitherson:

Yes, taught critically. It's always a noble exercise, being so eager to critique others many and presumed faults. Too however, given the enduringly dogmatic and presumptive, bible-study-like approach in universities and colleges when it comes to so many social/political and related topics, some thoroughgoing doubt and critiques directed inward and in the direction of academe might be given a much higher priority. Something about removing the amount of timber from one's own eye before presuming to remove the far smaller obstruction in someone else's eye.


The difference, of course, is there is no First Amendment prohibition of professors at universities/colleges (especially private ones) from taking a "bible-study-like approach" to teaching non-religious social or political subjects. Although the supposed indoctrination of students at universities is undesirable, it is not unconstitutional.
3.23.2006 1:15am
Eugene Volokh (www):
Eric: Could I ask you to respond to the specific practical objections that I raised? As I said in my post, I don't think teaching the Bible as literature/history/evidence of social behavior is inherently wrong -- I just think it's likely to cause a lot of particular practical problems that I sketch. Do you think it won't cause such problems? Do you think they aren't problems?
3.23.2006 1:17am
Brian G (mail) (www):
I took a Bible as Literature class at Arizona State. No reason why kids just a few years younger shouldn't have a choice to learn more about it if they so choose. Of course, however, we all know that 15 years old are mature enough to choose to have an abortion but not mature enough to choose to study the Bible.
3.23.2006 1:28am
Justin (mail):
If a 15 year old isn't mature enough to have an abortion, how is she mature enough to adequately raise a child? Hm.
3.23.2006 1:36am
Kovarsky (mail):
I have a feeling the bible as literature class at arizona state is not what these people have in mind.

and i'd also like to distinguish between the bible as cultural influence/history type subject and the bible as literature subject. i think the former has a lot less chance of devolving to a christ krumping session than the latter.
3.23.2006 4:00am
Bezuhov (mail):
"Comming out of Georgia tells all one needs to know about the motives of the legislature."

Lester Maddox would be impressed. Nice 150-proof bigotry there.

"Do you think it won't cause such problems? Do you think they aren't problems?"

No, but the problems raised by ignoring it have proven to be more severe, and not just for fundamentalists, and, I might add, not just in the context of education. The "religion is a private matter" consensus is breaking down, and a new one that recognizes the public significance of religion, both historical and contemporary, is emerging. The price of admission is an acceptance of the critical treatment of religious truth claims.

Then again, like my namesake and his creator, I may be dreaming...
3.23.2006 4:02am
Public_Defender (mail):
From the AP Article:<blockquote>Under the proposal, the Old Testament and New Testament would be the primary text for each class and the local school board would decide which version of the text to use. Students would also have the option to use a different version of the text.
</blockquote>This provision makes it hard to argue that the goal of the law is true scholarship. Why would a school board want to specify a version? Unless we are going to teach the students Hebrew and ancient Greek, a good teacher must rely on multiple translations to teach the text.

And why should each student be allowed to pick his or her own version? If the teacher assigns a reading in the Englished Revised Version, can a student say, "no, I want to read it only in the King James version"?
3.23.2006 8:59am
School Board Attorney (mail):
I've dealt with this issue as a school board attorney in another southern state.

One of the problems with this kind of class is that even when the curriculum is well-designed initially, the class attracts mainly devout Christians who are accustomed to "Sunday school" instruction in the Bible and eager to reaffirm and share their faith. Similarly, many of the teachers who are drawn to "Bible in History" or "Bible as Literature" courses are devout Christians (and often former ministers or Sunday School teachers) who are attracted to teaching the course not because they believe critical study of the Bible is pedagogically useful, but because they want to help share the word of the Lord with students. The net result is that even carefully designed courses tend to devolve into de facto Sunday School classes, where the Bible is not analyzed critically in the matter Eugene describes and the class becomes an opportunity to explore and share personal matters of faith. As one can imagine, this make the class quite uncomfortable for the rare atheist, Jew, or Muslim who enrolls with the expectation that the class will have a more scholarly bent.

It's also my experience that the political drive to include these classes in the curriculum is propelled mainly by fundamentalist Christians who would love to see the Bible taught as Gospel in the public schools but recognize that Supreme Court jurisprudence will not allow it. As with Intelligent Design, the unspoken goal often seems to be to come as close to the constitutional line as possible in hopes that the line may eventually be redrawn.
3.23.2006 9:17am
The Human Fund (mail):
In response to Public_Defender, I don't think the fact that the school board can specify a translation and allow students to use a different translation proves a lack of scholarship. I imagine that in most classes using translated texts, someone has to specify a translation that the class will use. I vaguely recall reading various translated works in HS, and the entire class receiving the same translation. It seems like that's all that's going on here.

Also, I don't necessarily think each student would have to pick her own version. Suppose the school board assigns the KJV, but the student has the NIV already at home. The law simply allows the student to use the version she has rather than being required to buy the "new" version.
3.23.2006 10:07am
Public_Defender (mail):
The Human Fund,

Any close textual analysis requires analyzing the specific words in the text. If the teacher assigns KJV to the class, the students should analyze the words in the KJV. If a student wants to read the NIV in church, that's fine, but the student shouldn't be allowed to dictate the text to the teacher.

My guess is that the reason for the law is to let believing Christians use only the version they think is valid. That's not what an academic class is supposed to be about.
3.23.2006 10:28am
The Human Fund (mail):
A few points.

One, I don't think that it's clear that this class would necessarily involve close textual analysis. A HS class studying the entire OT and NT has a lot of ground to cover, and may not have time to get into close textual analysis.

Two, the student isn't dictating the text to the teacher. I think the teacher can still lead a discussion based on the specified version. Without reading the text of the law, it appears to simply allow the students to also use a different translation as their own version of the text. I really don't see how this is any different from letting a student use a different translation of "Don Quixote" (sp?) than the Literature teacher uses.

Three, it may be helpful for a more open discussion if students use a different translation than the teacher. Assuming that the students won't be able to read hebrew or greek, exposure to more than one english translation of the hebrew and greek can be potentially helpful for students and teachers alike.
3.23.2006 10:50am
dunno:
Public_Defender:

Any close textual analysis requires analyzing the specific words in the text.


The classes would focus on the law, morals, values and culture of the eras.
AP

Nowhere does the AP article suggest that they're doing textual analysis. But you're right, if they were doing textual analysis, with multiple translations, they'd likely run into the problem you bring up (though it depends. Most English translations rely on the King James like a standing man relies on his legs. The differentiations are likely at a level that you won't get into in just one year of study. There are more differences between the first and second editions of Gulliver's Travels (another unresolved literary debate that could effect high school curriculum) than between modern biblical translations).
3.23.2006 10:57am
Public_Defender (mail):
The Human Fund,

I agree that it would be helpful for the teacher to use multiple translation, but the teacher must have the authority to assign specific texts from specific versions. The teacher, not the student, should control which texts the classroom discussion is based on. And yes, that would apply to Don Quixote, too.

Is there any other subject that we let students veto their teacher's choice of textbook?

Also, this is not a question of forcing a student to buy a new book. Unless Georgia is truly backwards, the schools provide assigned textbooks to the students. So the student wouldn't have to buy a new version.

And, academically speaking, if a student had been raised on one version of the Bible, wouldn't that student learn more if he or she were forced to use a different version as the basic text for the class?
3.23.2006 11:05am
The Human Fund (mail):
Public Defender,

I think we are just reading the report of the text of the law differently. I've not actually read the text of the law, so I may be misreading what was reported. I don't see the law as allowing a student to veto the teacher's choice of textbook. I see it as prohibiting the school board from keeping certain translations from being used. I think the teacher can still assign a specific translation and use it as the translation for class discussion.

I agree that a student would be more academically enriched if they were required to use a different translation than they were accustomed to. I'm just not sure that this law prevents that from happening.

As an aside, I'm not sure that in the context of what the class would attempt to accomplish the different translations would really make a difference. There is so much ground to cover in the Bible that the differences between english translations probably would rarely be noticeable in a discussion as broad as it would have to be.
3.23.2006 11:22am
Anderson (mail) (www):
It's just ridiculous that anyone even defends letting students use any old translation.

If a teacher's assiged the Garnett translation of War &Peace and a student insists on using another one, what happens to the student? (Leaving aside what Georgia parents would do to a teacher who assigned a 1000-page book that *wasn't* the Bible.)

Besides which, what's a "translation"? The Living Bible is not only a paraphrase, it's a sectarian paraphrase.

Will a teacher be violating the law if she won't let a student use the Living Bible? Will the Georgia Supreme Court have to resolve that issue?
3.23.2006 11:25am
The Human Fund (mail):
I don't think that your contention that students are always required to use the same translation in a literature class, for example, is necessarily true. If students are never allowed to read a different translation than the teacher uses, then you have a valid point. I don't know that it ever happened, but I can imagine my HS lit. teachers allowing a student who already had a copy of a book to use that copy instead of the school's copy. From what I remember about HS literature classes, we rarely discussed a book in such textual detail that the translation would have made a difference.
3.23.2006 11:36am
Public_Defender (mail):
We were all debating based on a report of the bill, which is perilous. Here's the actual text from the portion of the billl we were discussing:
The local board of education may recommend which version of the Old or New Testament may be used in the course; provided, however, that the teacher of the course shall not be required to adopt that recommendation but may use the recommended version or another version. No student shall be required to use one version as the sole text of the Old or New Testament. If a student desires to use as the basic text a different version of the Old or New Testament from that chosen by the local board of education or teacher, he or she shall be permitted to do so.
The entire bill can be found here.
The bill does give a student veto rights over the teacher's choice of text. Why should the student have that statutory right in this class and not in any other class that uses translated work?

I agree with professor Volokh that this bill, in theory, could be consitutional. But in the real world, this bill is a litigator's delight in soooooooo many ways.
3.23.2006 11:54am
School Board Attorney (mail):
FWIW, the Bible in History or Bible as Literature classes I have seen in my home state all involve heavy textual analysis of the Bible. Indeed, in many of the courses, the Bible is the only text used, and exegesis is the primary day-to-day classroom activity. This is one of the chief problems with these classes: the biblical exegesis is often hard to distinguish from Sunday School class.

The question of which version of the Bible to use is also frequently a problem with these classes. In my experience, however, most teachers are pretty good about openly discussing differences in the various versions, even though only one version is officially used in the class. (Some teachers, for example, will pass around photocopies of certain passages to highlight certain relevant differences among the different versions.)

Given the textual focus of the classes I've seen, it's hard to see how you could have a productive class if students were permitted to use any version of the Bible they wanted.
3.23.2006 11:57am
The Human Fund (mail):
I stand corrected. That will teach me to argue about something before actually reading the text of the law.

Not that it really matters, but I don't think I would have a problem with the quoted text if the last sentence were ommitted, and it read as follows:

The local board of education may recommend which version of the Old or New Testament may be used in the course; provided, however, that the teacher of the course shall not be required to adopt that recommendation but may use the recommended version or another version. No student shall be required to use one version as the sole text of the Old or New Testament.
3.23.2006 12:03pm
Jim Manley (mail) (www):
It can and should be done. I took a class in college that did an excellent job of avoiding the moral issues while digging deep into the historical/literary issues. While it may be a more complete learning experience to asses the validity of the Judeo-Christian morality, it is almost never done in any context in education, public or private.

Keeping religion out of public schools, without acknowledging that the morality of altruism is taught in every other class, is ignorant at best. Those who feel religion has no place in public schools should consider whether the morality of certain religions has a place there either. Functionally, there is no difference between teaching a student that sacrifice is good and teaching that Jesus sacrificed for our sins. The lesson is equally wrong-headed no matter its context.
3.23.2006 12:29pm
Jam (mail):
I am a Christian and have taught Suday School. Primarily 3rd and 4th graders but also to teenagers and adults. I oppose government education to begin with. And, yes, we home school.

The King James Version of the Bible is [usually] used when the Bible is part of a Literature course. And I think for obvious reasons. And further, obvious to me since I am bilingual (Spanish-English), using different translation is necessary to get a better understanding of the meaning of the text when a reader does not know the source language.

As an aside, bible inerrancy deals with the autographs (original) and not with the translations. There is so much source language evidence that the confidence is very high that we faithful copies of the originals, with only minor stylistic or punctuation differences, and no chagnes to meaning.

The Bible will withstand, and continues to withstand, the attacks of the skeptics. My concern is with who will end up teaching a class. There is already enough mediocrity, and worse, in the system.

"A perfectly terrible book, and written in bad Greek."

Maybe so but think on how many different type of people, spanning centuries, wrote it. Only a few were "scholars."

"They can be taught various approaches, including the fundamentalist and the critical"

Who says that there is a difference between the "fundamentalist" and the "critical?" Do you even know what "fundamentalist" means?

"... teaching Greek and Roman mythology ..."

G/R mythology I view more like the studying of psychology. We can understand G/R culture and actions if we understand their pagan beliefs. It is my position that these uS are very much a Roman culture.

"The Bible is neither a history text nor a science text and thus critical analysis from those two perspectives is not necessary to conduct a productive class studying the Bible. Certainly the Bible reveals some moral truths, or untruths if one insists, which would supply plenty of grist for the high school mind to mill."

This is my fear. Somebody like this is placed in a position to teach. The ignorance is overwhelming. Read up on some archeology you might find out how wrong you are. A person does not have to accept the Bible as devinely inspired to understand how accurate it is with regards to people, places and events.

"It's also my experience that the political drive to include these classes in the curriculum is propelled mainly by fundamentalist Christians who ..."
Do you even know what is the meaning of "fundamentalist?"
3.23.2006 1:01pm
Public_Defender (mail):
Jam makes an interesting point when he mentioned his fluency in Spanish and French. Under the bill, a student would have the statutory right to use a French or Spanish or Swahili translation (not to mention a Jewish student who paid attention in Hebrew classes and wanted to use the original Hebrew). How are most teachers supposed to grade work that's peppered with quotations in a foreign language?

As I said above, this law is fun and full employment for lawyers, but it has not been carefully thought through from an academic point of view. So I don't believe the sponsors' purpose was to teach a critical view of the Bible (which I agree would be a good thing). The purpose appears to be to turn the classroom into a Sunday school. That's what Sunday school is for.
3.23.2006 1:20pm
Bezuhov (mail):
"litigator's delight"

I can't say that I share your delight, nor would, I imagine, the citizens of Georgia whose elected representatives overwhelmingly passed this law. Valuing the rule of law, not men, I also value lawyers, but the fund of goodwill is not boundless.
3.23.2006 1:56pm
Randy R. (mail):
Home schooler should read the new book out entitled "Misquoting Jesus." It is written by a biblical scholar who is highly regarded in the field. He was once a deeply devout fundamentalist who believe in the inerrancy of the Bible, but as he delved more and more into the actual history of the Bible, he has found thousands and thousands of errors and mistranslations, and all these errors have been exposed over the centuries, and there is virtually no disagreement about them among scholars. Most of the errors are spelling errors or semantic mistakes, but quite a few go to the heart and meaning of the text. For instance, the story about a woman found committing adultery being brough to Jesus, and he says,"he who has no sin may cast the first stone." That entire story never existed in the oldest texts, but first appeared several centuries afterward. In other words, it's NOT part of the Bible, and was inserted by a scribe at some point long afterwards.

We do not have the originals, we do not have copies of originals, and we do not have copies of copies of originals. The oldest texts we have were made in some cases two centuries after the events, and many many generations of copies afterwards. No serious scholar pretends that any Bible in current existence is the original, although some do claim that nonetheless the original intent can be gleamed from these sources.

Now, if Georgia were to include this book with their study of the bible, I would be more inclined to approve.
3.23.2006 2:45pm
Houston Lawyer:
Anyone in Western society who is unfamiliar with the Bible is ignorant of much of the source of our underlying culture.

Don't presume that this bill will spawn a lot of litigation. I remember seeing a clip on a newscast a few years ago where public school students in the South were still singing Sunday School songs at school. All of the parents approved and no one else had standing to sue to stop them. The newscasters were stunned and amazed.
3.23.2006 3:12pm
Anderson (mail) (www):
For instance, the story about a woman found committing adultery being brough to Jesus, and he says,"he who has no sin may cast the first stone." That entire story never existed in the oldest texts, but first appeared several centuries afterward. In other words, it's NOT part of the Bible, and was inserted by a scribe at some point long afterwards.

Oh, if only it were so easy. That's perhaps the most plausible explanation, but it's also possible that the later sources had an authentic early MS with the story, whereas the earlier sources were derived from an MS with the story omitted. Other scenarios are possible.

It's important to distinguish between the facts and the possible inferences from the facts.
3.23.2006 3:37pm
Public_Defender (mail):
Houston Lawyer,

I suspect you are right when it comes to the rural areas, but Atlanta is a big, diverse city. I could also see the kid of a professor causing waves in one of the college towns.

On another note, I'm disappointed that the original post and the article did not link to the bill. I admit that I participated in the error by commenting several times without reading the bill.

There should be an internet rule--you cannot cite to a bill, a court case, or any other legal material that exists online unless you have read the original text and provide a link.
3.23.2006 4:46pm
Jam (mail):
I guess who you accept as expert will guide you.

The Textual Reliability of the New Testament
J. P. Holding
http://www.tektonics.org/lp/nttextcrit.html
3.23.2006 7:05pm
Michael B (mail):
"... there is no First Amendment prohibition of professors at universities/colleges ... from taking a "bible-study-like approach" to teaching non-religious social or political subjects. ... [social/political] indoctrination of students at universities ... is not unconstitutional." Mike Smitherson (emphases added)

Indeed, that was precisely one - though only one - of the points being made (in this post upthread). Too, when this article from The Harvard Salient is noted - detailing specific examples of various social/political dogmas presumptively and even contemptuously being force-fed, insinuated, imposed, etc. - it isn't a matter of any "supposed" insinuation or indoctrination, it is something which is empirically verifiable and rationally argued and based.

Further still, the set of subjects invoked are not limited to literary and historical categories. This is but a high-school elective we're discussing, but at bottom epistemological and ontological/metaphysical subjects inextricably inhere to any honest discussion. Beyond those more foundational set of topics, the full range of anthropological and humanities oriented topics would need a transparent vetting, and not from a presumptive pov.

Concerning the moral/legal and institutional discussion per se, there are various starting points, but one of those starting points needs to be a sound Constitutional prescription to ensure localities and states retain broad latitudes of self-governance. The top-down approach, the federal govt. as overseer, has a limited validity, but the presumption needs to favor local and state jurisdictions, otherwise basic freedoms are inherently eroded or eclipsed altogether. I.e., "We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice ...," and not "We legislators, jurists and executives, in order to ensure compliance, shall usurp and coerce as deemed necessary ..."

I.e., first principles first.
3.23.2006 7:57pm
Randy R. (mail):
It's rather difficult to argue the textual reliability of something that was translated from old greek, into latin, then into english, even if you have accurate texts. Even when you translate a poetry from one language to another, you will often see footnotes to explain what isn't obvious. Heck, even Shakespeare needs copious notes! And here we are thinking that any version of the Bible can translate word for word a text written two thousand years ago, arising from a culture and society that no longer exists.

When I see a Bible that is heavily footnoted to explain the differences in nuances of translation, and an understanding of the culture from whence it arose, then I might start to think it has value. Until then, it's hardly even a shadow of it's original meaning.
3.24.2006 12:54am
Randy R. (mail):
That said, I think it is indeed a great idea to study the Bible as literature. You can hardly understand the history of western art without a knowledge of biblical studies, for instance. And the ancient greek and roman myths ought to be studied for the same reason.

Additionally, the Koran should be studied, since it is believed by the same intensity as Christians do, and there are almost as many Muslims in the world as Christians. And again, you can't understand this history of middle eastern art without a grounding in the Koran. Ditto Buddhism for Asia, Hindu for India and so on.

And if people actually read the Egyptian Book of the Dead, they will find that most of the stories in the New Testament were printed there centuries before, such as a son of god who dies and rises three days later, acending into heaven.
3.24.2006 12:58am
Greg L. (mail):
I agree with Randy R. that the school should have to teach all religous texts instead of just the bible.

But heres my take on it:
Im an atheist(so you know) sophmore in highschool(in central jersey so its pretty liberal) and id really enjoy taking a course on the bible and other religious texts. But i think it would be too difficult for the class in general to work.

For one, its almost impossible to find a teacher who could teach the class objectively(i know this has been said before but i just wanted to bring it up again). There are probably only about 2 teachers in my entire school that could teach the class and even they have their moments where you can see their bias'. Plus this is georgia were talking about, we'd be lucky if theres a single teacher in the entire state that could teach the class objectively and with no personal inclination or bias.

And for another, theres always going to be those few obnoxious students who have to make the class and the discussion in it a personal attack on his/her personal religion and get worked up and angry about it. The closest i can see to their point of view is when people try to force religion on me, so maybe they cant help it? I dont know this is just the way i see things, not some scholars view with phd's nd IQ's of 200 like the rest of you.
3.24.2006 3:12am
Jam (mail):
Jesus did not resurrect 3 days later ... it was on the third day.

My bottom line on this is - separation of schooling and government. It will not happen in my lifetime, though.
3.24.2006 9:01am
The Human Fund (mail):

When I see a Bible that is heavily footnoted to explain the differences in nuances of translation, and an understanding of the culture from whence it arose, then I might start to think it has value. Until then, it's hardly even a shadow of it's original meaning.


There are plenty of Bibles around that are heavily footnoted, have notes explaining the context of various passages that may not be obvious to western readers, and begin each book with an overview of the circumstances under which historians believe the book was written. They're generally called "study Bibles" and some are more in depth than others.
3.24.2006 10:13am
Randy R. (mail):
Then I would be more comfortable with those 'study Bibles' than just using whatever is used in any one's particular church. I wish more church's would use it too!

I agree, though, with atheist's viewpoint that there may be few teachers qualified to teach without getting personal. But that might be a function of the fact that the comparative religion is rarely taught anywhere, and few people ever look at the bible in the cold hard light of textual analysis. But we should start somewhere. The fact that it can't be a perfect class from the start is no reason to condemn it entirely.
3.24.2006 11:39am
Greg L. (mail):
The fact that it can't be a perfect class from the start is no reason to condemn it entirely.

Yea but would it be too much trouble for the class to work efficiently? Or would everyday just be a yelling contest to see who can force their opinions onto the rest of the class the best?
Basically, it may not be the perfect class from the start, but will it ever be a perfect class?
3.24.2006 2:02pm
Some Guy:
I don't get it--my high school was offering a Bible as Literature class as late as the early 90's, and probably even later. Is sort of thing really illegal anywhere? What is the big deal?
3.24.2006 2:03pm
Bezuhov (mail):
"Plus this is georgia were talking about, we'd be lucky if theres a single teacher in the entire state that could teach the class objectively and with no personal inclination or bias."

You are aware, of course, how many Georgians are now former Yankees?

I'm not sure what is stranger, northerners who think the south hasn't changed in 50 years, or the ones unaware how bigoted they sound when they reveal that particular ignorance.

Perfect objectivity is of course impossible. Those willing to still make the effort can be found north, south, east, and west. Still. Thankfully. Especially among teachers.
3.24.2006 11:58pm
Greg L. (mail):
I wasnt saying that there are absoultly no teachers, just making a point that its very unlikely to find one, and you probably wont find them north, south, east, and west. I think youl find them in more democratic places. Maybe its just because ive grown up and still live in a liberal democratic environment, but i think most liberal democrats are more open minded. I just personally believe that georgia is mostly conservative republican and very fundamental christian. Unless thats just the politicians. And friends i have that live there.
3.25.2006 11:29pm
Bezuhov (mail):
Are you aware how much mental agility it takes to be fundamentalist Christian in this culture? Even in the heart of the south, the default is Britney Spears and Pimp My Ride.

I've met many that would rival Oscar Wilde in the extent to which their mind operates on a different plane. Like it or not, and I lean toward the not, they're our brave dissenters.
3.26.2006 3:15am
Randy R. (mail):
I am actually quite aware of the mental agility it takes to be a fundamentalist. It requires a willful ignorance, plenty of denial, an inability to read, an aborhance of logic, a healthy does of certitude, AND a copious amounts of self-righteousness.

I guess I should admire that.
3.27.2006 5:59pm