U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Readings in Western Culture: The Bible

A few weeks ago, I published the core reading list for Stanford’s defunct “Western Culture” course.  Today, I’m starting a series of blog posts (yes, another one) in which we can consider together each of the works/authors on the required reading list.

You may be asking yourself: “Okay, but how is that list U.S. intellectual history?  There’s not a single American work on it.”  (This was, by the way, a major critique that Carl Degler leveled during discussions about revamping/revising/retiring the course – he wanted a core course that would emphasize American thought and culture.)

It’s true that these are not in themselves works of American thought, strictly construed.  But American thinkers were engaging with all these texts long before they ended up cheek by jowl on the same 1980s era college course syllabus.

Moreover, if we want to understand some of the ideational currents running through our unelected ruling class in Silicon Valley, we should probably pay attention to what the little darlings – or at least a cohort of them — were reading when they were young and impressionable freshmen. Stanford University was the matrix for many a Silicon Valley dot-com entrepreneur; this reading list is one way to plug in.

Finally, it’s American intellectual history because I’m writing about it.  (Nor am I the first to do so.) Anything rattling around in our heads and coming out on the page is fair game for further collective reflection.

And I figured that most of our readers have read some of these works already, or would like to, or feel like they ought to do so, or ought to have done so.  So, if you’ve been on pins and needles to read the Summa Theologica or John Stuart Mill, now’s your chance.

The first work on the list is “Hebrew Bible, Genesis.”  So let’s go there…

I have written plenty at this blog about the Bible in American thought.  But even when I’m not writing about the Bible, I’m writing through it (or it is writing through me). You can hear its influence in my words on the page – in metaphors I choose, in cadences of speech.  That is not a sign of erudition; that’s a sign that I grew up steeped in the language of the the King James translation and, from about the age of ten, immersed as well in the copious footnotes of the Dispensationalist crank C.I. Scofield.  And in that I am hardly unique – though I was not, in my experience, typical of most Stanford freshmen.

So what I thought I’d talk about in relation to Genesis on the Stanford reading list is what it meant or suggested to treat that text – and to treat it in a particular way — as a necessary component of a liberal education.

Needless to say, I already had a Bible when I went to college, and you can bet I took it with me.  So when I was in the bookstore the weekend before classes started, buying my textbooks for the first time in my life, and I was pulling all the required texts for my course, I debated on whether or not to purchase the Bible there on offer among the required books.

Here it is, the very thing:  The New Oxford Annotated Bible: Revised Standard Version (sans Apocrypha – so a very Protestant version). It cost $19.50 – the most expensive of all the books I was buying for Western Culture that quarter, though certainly not the most expensive textbook I purchased.  (That honor goes to whatever behemoth of a textbook was assigned in my Intro to Econ course, taught by supply-side economist Michael Boskin.)

That was a lot of money, and I didn’t have a lot of money. And also, I have to admit, I was a little dubious about this translation, of which I had not heard.  Had I known to flip to Isaiah 7:14 and check for a virgin (as opposed to a young woman), I might not have bought it.  But even without that litmus test, I had my doubts.  Is the translation simply modernized?  Is it different in meaning?  What’s going on here?

And I suppose if I were familiar with Dwight Macdonald, I might not have bought it either.  He wrote with sneering contempt about the RSV a middlebrow mealy-mouthed masscult mediocrity of a translation.  If I had somewhere picked up the idea that Dwight Macdonald was the model of an educated person, I may have left that Bible on the shelf.

But here’s what I decided:  “I am in college now.  I am here to learn – to learn everything.  I want to learn how to understand the Bible the way college professors do [however that was]. So if this is the required version of the Bible, this is the version I’m going to use.”

That decision-making process took all of about two minutes as I stood there in the bookstore aisle, and, on the face of it, it seems like a pretty minor choice:  buy this book or not?  I didn’t really grasp what a momentous decision it was for me to say, Yes, I will be open to thinking about this book in a different way.  As it turns out, I was not quite as open to that approach as I thought would be – at least not at first.  But looking back, I can say that my education in “Western Culture” began not at our first class meeting, but there in the Stanford Bookstore, simply because the curriculum required that we read the Bible, not as divine writ, but as a text among texts – in the same basket with Homer and Euripides and Virgil and Lucretius.

It’s also worth noting that the Western Culture course, which ran from 1980-1988, overlaps rather nicely with the “Reagan Revolution” and the heyday of the “Moral Majority” in American politics.  For most of the professors at Stanford, and no doubt for most of the students too, that political movement and moment was something peculiar and alien and perhaps a bit inscrutable.  No instructors in the Western Culture course would have treated the Bible as Jerry Falwell treated it – inerrant, infallible, the literal word of God without contradiction, and so on.  They would have had enough work on their hands trying to show those few of us who came from such backgrounds that we could treat the text differently.  It was a painful lesson for me, certainly.

But in many ways the Bible, or appeals to it, or invocations of it, sincere or not, was in those years – and still is – a force in American political life and thought.

And so was – and still is — the supply-side economic theory of Michael Boskin and his fellow travelers.

Which set of ideas from the 1980s has ended up being more important to the champions of “Western Civilization”?

That’s an open discussion question, and I’m interested to hear what others think.

15 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. Imagine how different the discussion would be if instead of using the predictable “creation myth” starting place of Genesis, the course focused on Exodus as the core text of Western civilization…

  2. That’s an interesting point, Jonathan. In most sections, students read more than just Genesis — my section was assigned to read both Genesis and Exodus, perhaps precisely for the reasons you suggested. I should mention that however the list was periodized, most tracks ended the Fall Quarter with Augustine. Genesis to Augustine sets up a good arc, of course. The issue of the problem of evil, the relationship of humankind to the gods, the role of divine decree or fate, the curse of mortality and what it means to seek justice in an imperfect world — these were some of the themes we dealt with in between.

    When you start with Genesis, you are setting up a declensionist account — reading Exodus alongside it, as we did and as you suggest, sets up some sense of alternative framing.

    I suppose that’s something like reading the Iliad and the Odyssey together — the journey away from wholeness, the descent into strife, and the long journey home.

    Perhaps one could divide “Western” thought into a set of overlapping worldviews, one that takes its cue from Genesis and one that takes its cue from Exodus — the tragic or the comic, the ruined or redeemed. And choosing between the two is the work of a lifetime, a work that takes place in the long dark night, wrestling ’til daybreak with the incognito Assailant, not giving up the fight, hanging on through the searing pain of struggling against a stronger foe without hope of winning, and saying, all the same, “I will not let thee go except thou bless me.”

  3. Re Exodus: I’ve begun to read Orlando Patterson’s Freedom[*], which was mentioned briefly in an earlier comment thread. He argues that freedom as idea and value was first ‘socially constructed’ in classical Greece (and arose from the experience of slavery). The Exodus story of course predates Athens of the fifth and fourth century BCE, which may explain why there doesn’t seem to be, in flipping through, any discussion of Exodus in the book. Patterson’s position may be that Exodus is about an escape from slavery but not about ‘freedom’ in the particular sense(s) in which he’s defining it — and it follows from his overall argument that he must not think the Jews of that era institutionalized freedom as a value — but I’d still think he’d have to briefly explain his position on Exodus rather than not mentioning it at all. (He does have an extensive discussion of early Christianity in the book.)

    [*] Full title is Freedom Vol. 1: Freedom in the Making of Western Culture, though as best I can tell he never published Vol. 2.

    • p.s. In fact he does briefly discuss Exodus (pp. 33-4). I’ll partly blame the book’s less-than-superb index for my having missed this initially.

  4. I think the Bible is becoming less and less and less a force in American life in general, and political life will follow, even among the GOP. Gen Xers cite the Bible relatively rarely, and indirectly reference it little, and don’t often understand when their elders do.

    Ditto in spades for Millennials.

  5. Louis, thanks for that added info. Per the scant but precious notes I took in this course, it looks like we read portions from the whole Pentateuch, but Genesis in entirety. (For the NT, I see that we read Luke and Romans, which makes sense.)

    Next post in this series will be on The Republic. I am using the updated Grube translation, but it won’t make much difference which translation anybody reads, as we won’t be parsing the Greek. Jowett is a slog, but it’s free online for anyone who doesn’t want to buy a copy. Grube is fluid and unencumbered. For the purposes of a blog discussion, it will do just fine.

  6. One indispensable commentary on the tensions between the Biblical vs the Greek traditions, which together constitute the “Western” tradition is the first chapter of Erich Auerbach’s “Mimesis.” Auerbach calls the chapter “Odysseus’ Scar” and it moves back and forth between the Greek and Hebrew sensibilities, literary styles, and particularly the epistemology and aesthetics of realism. I remember it was a great discovery when I was a freshman at UNC in 1959-60 and would love to hear that people still know about it. If not, go directly to the nearest college library or good bookstore and read Auerbach. Thanks Lara for beginning with the Bible. Great idea…

    Richard (King)

  7. Richard, thanks so much for this reminder on Mimesis — I picked it up a couple of years ago for a reading group that I ended up not joining. Time to dive in.

    As to starting with the Bible, I suppose I would have done so anyhow — but in this case, I’m specifically following the sequence of Stanford’s Western Culture course. (Reading list is linked at the top of this post.) In the process of writing my way through this (and thank you and the others so much for reading — writers must have readers, even if we have to imagine them, and I’m glad you’re not imaginary!), I hope to uncover/consider some of the heretofore unnoticed (at least by me) features of this curriculum, including its connections to other currents of thought. I will count on our commentariat to help me suss those out, so I’m very grateful for how this comment thread has unfolded.

  8. I would also like to raise the question of the difference it could make if the assigned Old Testament / Hebrew Bible text was not an annotated Protestant translation, but one of the annotated & scholarly Jewish translations, two examples being Everett Fox and Robert Alter. Both these came out (I think) after your time at Stanford, but presumably the Jewish Publication Society would have had scholarly translations available before then.

    I attended an Ivy League university in the 1970s (not Columbia, unfortunately) and don’t recall the Bible ever being assigned for any course I ever took. Perhaps it was assumed we had all read at least parts of the Bible in Sunday school (or Hebrew School) & confirmation & family settings, which in my case was a mixture of Presbyterian and (New England-style) Congregational. But I did not study the Pentateuch with a detailed scholarly commentary until long after my undergraduate days, when I read Fox’s “FIve Books of Moses” — which came as a real eye-opener.

    I suppose you could argue that for the purposes of US intellectual history, an “originalist” approach to the Bible is less important than the perspective from centuries of pre-Reformation and Protestant interpretation, but it seems to me that it would be better for a professor / university to explicitly argue for this approach rather than let it be an implicit default.

    This new series of posts is a great idea, I hope it will continue. I did read most of the texts in your Stanford core reading list during my American undergraduate degree, though not in the context of a unified “Western Culture” survey course.

  9. Dubya2, thanks for this great comment. This is an interesting thought/problem.

    As Protestant Biblical annotations go, the Oxford RSV’s are fairly anodyne in terms of doctrine, focused mostly on definitions, cultural history, etc., though there is the occasional interpretive intervention. The annotations (and the teaching of the course) were a revelation to me for championing source criticism, introducing me to the idea of the “books” of P,E,D, and J, suggesting a fairly late date (post-exilic) for the final iteration of the Pentateuch, etc. And it certainly helped widen my conceptual horizons that my professor that quarter was a Jewish scholar. Still, looking over the intro to Genesis, one can see that, scholarly and careful though these annotations are, they are presenting the Old Testament as both Jewish writ and as a part of Christian writ.

    I’ve uploaded a couple of photos to my public Dropbox folder — here’s a link to the brief introduction to the Pentateuch, and here’s a link to the first page of Genesis with intro/notes. I’d be interested to hear what you and others think of the style/substance of the critical apparatus.

    For me, coming from a specifically and narrowly doctrinal annotation system to this broadest of Christian glosses designed to be useful to believers and secular scholars alike, helped along the way by my excellent professor, was quite the systemic shock. It ended up being a salutary shock, but shock it was.

    On a more quotidian note, I think another reason that the Oxford RSV was assigned was because everyone had to read portions of both the Old and New Testaments, so they chose a textbook that included both.

    As to this series, I will certainly continue it, though I’ll probably be covering only the “required” readings. I might skip a week or two in the series here as the USIH conference draws nearer, but I’ll see it through to the end. Once again, I’m really grateful for the thoughtful comments from readers.

    • Thank you for posting the two pages from the RSV. The introduction to the Pentateuch is short but contains what I would hope for in the space available, i.e. introducing the idea about the J D E P sources of the text, and giving a bit of cultural background. But that page doesn’t really have much more than you could find in general intellectual history textbooks available in the 1970s & 1980s, e.g. pp 552-3 of the 1968 edition of J.H. Randall’s Making of the Modern Mind. The most unusual bit to me of the Pentateuch RSV page is its highlighting of Deut 26.5-10. Neither Fox nor Alter make much of that section in their extensive annotations.

      The RSV intro page on Genesis also strikes me as a good short summary. The reference to oral tradition would probably have been new to me as an American college freshman, but this isn’t presented as having a revolutionary impact on interpreting the text of Genesis. In contrast, when I studied the Iliad (Lattimore translation) for a freshman classical Greece/Athens survey course, the professor stressed the importance of the “oral theory” of the Homeric epics.

  10. Greetings to all:

    As the editor at Oxford University Press for our study Bible publishing, I thought you might be interested in our newer publications. The New Oxford Annotated Bible is now available with the Apocrypha in the New Revised Standard Version translation. This edition (the 4th, and soon to be the 5th) has Jewish biblical scholars on the editorial board and among the contributors.

    In addition, we publish The Jewish Study Bible (2nd edition), an annotated edition of the Jewish Publication Society’s Tanakh translation. And we also now publish an edition of the New Testament with commentary by Jewish biblical scholars, historians, and theologians, The Jewish Annotated New Testament. Your college courses would be markedly different today.

  11. Thanks so much for this info. I have to confess: I have not been able to make the switch from RSV to NRSV. I understand the need and the rationale for the updated translation, and am glad it came about, but the language of the RSV — particularly the Psalms — became so deeply embedded in my psyche after college that it was a tad disorienting to read the updated version, and I never acquired a copy. However, it sounds like I need to acquire a copy of the new translation to avail myself of the new scholarship. I suppose if I were teaching a course that treated the Bible as a key text of American cultural/intellectual history, I would assign a fair number of passages from the KJV, while requiring the NRSV as the main text. If I were teaching a course in “World Civilizations” or “Western Civilization,” I’d probably simply assign the NRSV. The second semester of a World Civ or World History course would be the time to toss in a few texts from the KJV — a few Psalms, the Sermon on the Mount, some passages from Ezekiel and Revelation.

    In any case, I’m glad for this reminder of the breadth of scholarship that went into the NRSV and the critical apparatus. If I ever have the opportunity to teach one of the above-mentioned courses, I’ll give it a go.

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