I took a Biblical literacy quiz recently.
I did pretty well! And the handful of questions I missed were ones that I didn’t feel all that badly about missing – like questions about small details of Daniel’s visions or minor Biblical rulers.
I enjoyed the quiz for what it was, but it did make me think about the concept of “Biblical literacy” and what that means. The quiz that I took seemed to interpret “Biblical literacy” as “knowledge of small details.” That worked out pretty well for me in the end – I have a near-photographic memory and the ability to recall a lot, even if I read it years ago – but at the same time, I’m not sure I’d send the quiz along to a fellow believer. Not only do I think it would be intimidating and discouraging for those new to the faith, it might also prove intimidating and discouraging to those who don’t learn in the same way I do.
I’m also not so sure that “Biblical literacy” needs to be defined as “knowing all of the small details of every single event, story, and happening.” While it’s great to know those things, knowing those things also to me does not embody a full knowledge of what the Bible is and how it functions: it means you’re super-good at Biblical trivia. And yet I believe there needs to be some standard of Biblical literacy encouraged by the faith, especially in an age where believers often equate devotionals with the Word, don’t study the Bible regularly, and often know less than half of what it actually contains.
Moreover, the level and expectation of Biblical literacy depends on the believer. New adherents to the faith can hardly be expected to dive immediately into the obscure prophets and every detail of the Old Testament; in those cases, the emphasis is often on first coming to a full understanding of the Gospels and the New Testament. Believers with more experience, on the other hand, shouldn’t satisfy themselves with only knowing those things.
In the end, I think my feelings about how to approach Biblical literacy come down to a set of questions:
- What parts of the Bible do you you have a “working knowledge” of? (In this case, “working knowledge” means a decent understanding and grasp of a topic: books of the Bible that you’ve studied or read at length, stories you know well, etc. This is the information that you can easily remember without having to dive into Scripture to look for it; this is the information that you might feel comfortable discussing with others and that you often apply to your own life.)
- What parts of the Bible do you not have a working knowledge of? Are there books you’ve avoided reading? Stories or Biblical figures that sound unfamiliar to you when Christians mention them? Have you largely been a New Testament reader, avoiding the Old? Be honest about what feels like unfamiliar ground: the places you’re not comfortable discussing, the information that you can’t recall or are uncertain of.
- How well do you understand the disparate parts of the Bible as a whole? Are you familiar with the ways that the Old and New Testaments inform each other? Do you understand the breakdown of the Biblical books: which are Paul’s letters, which are prophetic, which are Gospels, which are the Law?
- To what degree are you pursuing more literacy in the Bible? Do you stick with what you know and you’re comfortable with? Do you ever venture into the areas that you don’t quite understand? Do you know what you don’t know?
The key to Biblical literacy is that all of us – even those who pass Biblical literacy quizzes with 100% scores – need to work on always knowing the Bible better, regardless of the amount of knowledge we currently possess. We should never satisfy ourselves with where we are. If there are parts of the Bible that you don’t know, or don’t understand, or have avoided, it’s good over time – and even with help – to seek those out and learn them and fit them into the larger picture of Scripture rather than sticking with just “the important bits.” On the other hand, if you’ve been a believer for ages and ages and you’ve read the Bible cover to cover a thousand times, this might mean settling in for a deep study of a particular book, looking at a passage in a new way, or returning to material that you knew long ago but have neglected recently. It also might be that you’ve been a believer for ages and you have a very small amount of Biblical knowledge: there’s no shame in admitting that. The sooner you admit it, the sooner you can remedy it!
There is no end to Scriptural study. And that’s not a curse – it should be a cause for joy. The Bible is an endless source of wisdom, and it will take more than our lifetimes to ever fully understand everything in it. The least that we can do, as believers – wherever we’re starting from and with whatever knowledge base we have – is to pledge to ourselves to know it more and better each day, as much as we can, seeking always to move forward.
Biblical literacy is more of a journey than a goal, but we’re depriving ourselves if we don’t pursue it.