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Manny Rayner's book reviews

I love reviewing books - have been doing it at Goodreads, but considering moving here.

Currently reading

The Greatest Show On Earth: The Evidence For Evolution
Richard Dawkins
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Robert Kabacoff
Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies
Douglas R. Hofstadter
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Pattern Recognition and Machine Learning (Information Science and Statistics)
Christopher M. Bishop
Relativity, Thermodynamics and Cosmology
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The Cambridge Handbook of Second Language Acquisition
Julia Herschensohn, Martha Young-Scholten
The Holy Bible (King James Version) - Anonymous I've already done a review of the New Testament, so this one will focus on the first part of the book. Looking at other reviews, most of them seem to fall into a small number of categories. First, there are the people who are telling me that this is the word of God, and the greatest book ever written. Second, there are the ones reacting to the first group and telling me that it's worthless. Third (probably the largest contingent), we have the wise guys making flippant remarks. And fourth, we have a few purists recommending or disapproving of particular translations.

I don't really find any of these approaches very satisfying. I can't accept the statement that this is the word of God, and all literally true; to pick one of the standard examples, Joshua's making the sun stand still appears wildly far-fetched. I'm sorry if that offends the Christians in the audience. If it makes you feel any better, I'll offend the Scientologists too, and say that I don't believe that, 75 million years ago, Xenu, the dictator of the Galactic Confederacy, brought billions of his people to Earth in DC-8-like spacecraft, stacked them around volcanoes, and killed them using hydrogen bombs.

OK, I'll admit that I also like making flippant remarks. But let's try and be serious for a moment, and apply normal critical standards to this work. That involves comparing it other, similar, books. What's similar to the Old Testament? It's a tricky question. To start off with, what genre does it belong to? It was written so long ago that modern categories don't apply. If you attempt to fit it into one of those categories, you find it's a bunch of things: an epic poem, a religious allegory, a history, and a work of science. Now, we think of those as being different. But when the Old Testament was written, they were all mixed up together. In particular, it's easy to forget that "Science", as a concept, is a very modern invention. As recently as the early eighteenth century, they called it Natural Philosophy.

Considered as an epic poem based on a religious allegory, the Old Testament is often brilliant. This is uncontroversial; even Richard Dawkins is happy to agree, and quotes numerous examples in the relevant chapter of The God Delusion. Obvious comparison points are Homer, Dante and Milton. (The only modern author I can think of is Tolkien). All of those are arguably better taken as a whole - in particular, they are more coherent - but, at least in my opinion, the best passages in the Old Testament are better than the best passages in the other books. If you disagree, just, off the top of your head, quote me a passage from The Iliad, The Divine Comedy, Paradise Lost or The Silmarillion which you consider superior to the Twenty-Third Psalm. ("The Lord is my shepherd", if you're no good with numbers). Maybe you can come up with something; I'm curious to see what it is. To me, though, the serious competitor is the New Testament. It's by no means inferior as poetry, and Jesus is a more complex and interesting character than Jehovah. The Old Testament position on moral and ethical issues now seems rather dated, and Jehovah, like Zeus and Odin, often comes across as not much more than a wise tribal chieftain with unusually powerful technology. Jesus, on the other hand, seems entirely relevant even today, and his bold and unconventional ideas still have the capacity to shock and amaze.

Given the popularity of Creationism, I guess I have to say something about the Bible as a work of science. I'm inspired here to follow Feynman's treatment of Newton in QED, which I read last week. Feynman is very respectful towards Newton, and says what a great man he was; but he also points out where Newton got it wrong. We just know more now. Well: put in its historical context, I think that the Old Testament was way ahead of its time. Quite apart from the fact that it's great poetry, Genesis is a remarkably sophisticated creation myth. Consider the first few verses.
In the beginning, God created the Heaven and the Earth.

And the Earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved on the face of the waters.

And God said, Let there be light; and there was light.
People who know about modern cosmology may want to nitpick this. On the other hand, if you had to describe the first few minutes of the Universe to a bronze-age nomad, I'd like to see you do better. You aren't going to be able to explain inflation and nucleosynthesis to them; you'll have to improvise a bit, and take the odd liberty. But, later on, there are definite mistakes. For example, God makes the Earth before He makes the stars. That's just incorrect, and there's no reason why it couldn't have been presented in the opposite order. The author of Genesis hadn't got a telescope, and it was hard to figure this stuff out from first principles.

To sum up: considering that it was written well over two thousand years ago, the Old Testament is a startlingly good book that's still well worth reading today. Before you knock it too hard, consider how few other books there are from that period that can make similar claims. And, oh yes, I was planning to say something about translations. I think some are better than others, but the point I wanted to make has already been made so much more elegantly by Richard Curtis in his Skinhead Hamlet sketch. I'll hand over now, and let him conclude by giving you his scholarly opinions on the New English Bible.

This review is in my book What Pooh Might Have Said to Dante and Other Futile Speculations