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The Rise and Fall of the Bible: The Unexpected History of an Accidental Book Hardcover – February 16, 2011

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Editorial Reviews Review

A Q & A With Author Timothy Beal

Q: Why this book? Why now?

A: Because I believe that we are in the middle of a media revolution in the history of the Bible that will be as transformative of Christianity as was the invention of the printing press in the fifteenth century. This revolution is the result of a convergence of two things: the decline of print culture and the explosion of what I call "evangelical capitalism," a kind of supply-side religion in which it’s getting hard to tell the difference between spreading the Word and moving product, saving souls and selling the sacred. Already underway, this revolution will profoundly alter the way we think about and read the Bible. It’s the end of the Word as we know it. While some will see this as disastrous, I suggest we embrace it as an opportunity—an ending that can open up the possibility of an exciting new beginning. The end of the Word as we know it is not the end of the story.

Q: Why is this an "unexpected history of an accidental book"?

A: Nowadays it’s hard to imagine the Bible as anything but a book. Indeed, many consider it "The Book of books." But it wasn’t always that way. There’s a lot to this story that I hope you’ll want to read for yourself. For now, suffice it to say that Christianity thrived for centuries without anything like the Bible. The rise of the Bible was an accident of the invention of the media technology of the book. And its fate as such is tied to that of book culture, which appears to be approaching its twilight years. The Bible’s bookishness is accidental, an effect of media history; it wasn’t always a book, let alone The Book, and it won’t always be. In fact, if there’s one constant in the history of the Bible, it’s change. That’s the story I try to tell. For most of us, that story is unexpected.

Q: You write that "there is no such thing as the Bible, and there never has been." That’s a little provocative. What do you mean?

A: I mean exactly that. There is no "the Bible," no book that is the one and only Bible. There are lots and lots and lots of Bibles. They come in many different material forms—books, scrolls, magazines, mangas, digital media, and so on. And they come with a great variety of different content—different canons, translations, notes, commentaries, pictures, and so on. Don’t believe me? Just type "Bible" in the search box at the top of this page and get ready to be overwhelmed. The Bible business sells more than 6,000 different products for over $800 million a year—all sold as "the Bible." It’s totally nuts.

"Whoa," some will say, "stop the madness! Save the Bible! We’ve got to get back to the original, pure, unadulterated Bible." In the book, I say, "Okay, let’s try that." What we discover when we do that is even more surprising: not only is there no such thing as the Bible now; there never has been. There is no unadulterated original, no Adam from which all Bibles have descended. The further we go back in history, the more variety we discover. "That old-time religion" is an illusion.

Q: How is this book different from all the other books out there on the Bible?

A: To be sure, there are other books about the history of the Bible, full of good information, but they don’t tend to ask what it all means. Their interests are mostly academic, thick on description but thin on interpretation. Not so The Rise and Fall of the Bible. Informed by two decades of scholarly research and teaching, I look back in order to look forward, to find a fresh way of understanding the Bible and its place in culture. How should its history change the way we think about and read it? What’s happening to the Bible today, and what is its future in the Internet age? These are the kinds of questions this book explores.

Q: Why do you care? Are you a "Bible believer"?

A: The "story of the Book" that I tell in it is also, in a profound way, my story of the Book, my life in Bibles, from my own complicated relationship with my conservative evangelical heritage to my career as a professor of religion at a secular university. Indeed, my proclamation of the end of the Word as we know it is as personal as it is scholarly. I ultimately see this crisis in the life of the Bible as an opportunity to rediscover it in a way that’s truer to its history and its contents—not as a rock but a river, not as a book of answers but a library of questions. Having grown up a "Bible-believing" evangelical, I share my own story of rediscovery as an illustration of the journey I hope to inspire in others. The end of the Word is ultimately a hopeful word.

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. The role of the Bible in Western culture is undisputed. It has defined the Judeo-Christian ethic in so many ways it's hard to imagine the Western world without this inspired book. However, as Beal so eloquently explains, the specific role played by Holy Scripture has morphed over the years. In particular, it has taken on the role of "cultural icon"—inerrant guide, big brother, worthy oracle. This is a new phenomenon: witness the number of specialty Bibles available in Christian bookstores. Raised in a strict, religiously literalist home, Beal (Roadside Religion), a professor of religion at Case Western Reserve University, has evolved into a top-notch scholar who makes a compelling case against the idea of a fully consistent and unerring book, positing instead a very human volume with all the twists and foibles of the human experience, truly reflecting that human experience. He presents a convincing case for a radical rereading of the text, an honest appreciation of this sacred book. An engrossing and excellent work, highly recommended. (Feb.)
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; 1St Edition edition (February 16, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0151013586
  • ISBN-13: 978-0151013586
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 1 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (38 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #751,230 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Timothy Beal is Florence Harkness Professor of Religion at Case Western Reserve University. He writes about the Bible and the fascinating and complicated ways it figures in culture. He has twelve books and has published recent essays in The New York Times, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and The Washington Post, and has been featured on radio shows including NPR's All Things Considered and The Bob Edwards Show. He also has a blog at, which includes a series he does called BibliFact, which "fact-checks" political Bible talkers on the campaign trail.

Tim was born in Hood River, Oregon, and grew up just outside Anchorage, Alaska. He is married to Clover Reuter Beal, who is a Presbyterian minister (he calls her a "Presbyterian shaman," which totally makes sense to anyone who knows her). They have two kids, Sophie and Seth, and live in Shaker Heights, Ohio.

Photographer Copyright Credit Name: Sophie Rebekah Beal, 2005.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

53 of 62 people found the following review helpful By Stuart Bloom on February 28, 2011
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
"The icon of the Bible as God's textbook for the world is as bankrupt as the idea that it stands for, as religious faith as absolute black-and-white certainly. Just as the cultural icon of the flag often becomes a substitute for patriotism, and just as the cultural icon of the four-wheel-drive truck often becomes a substitute for manly independence and self-confidence, so the cultural icon of the Bible often becomes a substitute for a vital life of faith, which calls not for obedient adherence to clear answers but thoughtful engagement with ultimate questions. The Bible itself invites that kind of engagement. The iconic image of it as a book with answers discourages it."

That quotation from the introductory first chapter summarizes the principal argument that Timothy Beal makes in this book: that the Bible has become a "cultural icon," and it is regarded by many (Christians and non-Christians) as primarily a book of rules, a how-to and don't-do manual for life. Fundamentalists defend every word of their favorite translation as divinely inspired and develop convoluted arguments to explain away inconsistence such as the multiple incompatible Creation stories or the differing accounts of the empty tomb; scoffers point at the inconsistencies and conclude that because it can't all be literally true, that it is nothing but a worthless volume of fables.

The view of the Bible as an inerrant rulebook is a relatively modern (19th century) view of Scripture. The Bible is ill-suited to such a role, Beal argues. It was never intended to play that role. The inconsistencies and contradictions in it mean that it cannot serve as a source of guidance for every important question about how to live one's life.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful By Beth on July 30, 2011
Format: Hardcover
"The Rise and Fall of the Bible" is best viewed as making a very significant contribution not so much to the scholarly history of the Bible as a book, but rather to an understanding of the sociology and intellectual underpinnings of non-Catholic Christianity in late 20th and early 21st century America, and the role various printed Bibles played in the formation and identity of that group. I am of the same generation as the author of this book, and I grew up in the Midwestern US surrounded by people our age who were "born again" and/or evangelical and/or fundamentalist Christians. Being from a very different religious and theological tradition myself, I was baffled and perplexed by their literalism as well as what I saw as their selectively dogmatic approach to the "Bible". While Beal may not have written this book in order to offer 'outsiders' like myself a cogent explanation for the attitude of those Christians towards the Bible, Beal has actually done an excellent job on that score. In this easy to read volume, Beal restates some history of the Bible that (as other reviewers noted) has been discussed more extensively elsewhere, but what he does best, in my opinion, is to offer detailed insight and perspective on the role of the Bible for many non-Catholic, Christians in modern America (particularly in the late 1970's and early 1980's), as well as the direction he would like to see Christians take in their "Bible study" for the future. I would highly recommend this book, but more as a work of the sociology or history of one large and important subset of modern American Christianity, than as a history of the Bible per se.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful By Sun Drop Books on March 31, 2013
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Great read for Christian and non-Christian alike. Take Beal's questions to your own motives for reading (and purchasing) the Bible, and share these questions with other Bible readers (or even those who think they know the Bible but rarely ever read it). Beal gets it right with challenging his readers to examine how they approach the Bible, particularly in keeping several things in mind, e.g., understanding that the biblical books are difficult to read, the rewards for reading are endless, the texts demand careful readers to ask questions, formulate answers and then ask more questions, aim at reading the text itself without getting lost in the footnotes and commentary (or using the footnotes and commentary as a substitute for the text).
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12 of 15 people found the following review helpful By nhprman on May 29, 2011
Format: Hardcover
Timothy Beal's book is well worth reading and I recommend it. I do, however, wish he had spent more time on the development of the New Testament canon, though I suppose other books take that topic as their sole mission, and the mission here was not only to dispel some very mistaken notions about the "completeness" of the Bible, but to talk about the cultural atmosphere in which the Bible exists, and has existed, throughout its history. Mission accomplished, there.

Still, I was disappointed a bit by the extended discussions about the Old Testament stories themselves, and while I understand that Mr. Beal hasn't fully left the Christian faith, and is still attached to them emotionally, it certainly doesn't address the "Fall" of the Bible angle that apparently the publisher foisted onto his book. I say this because the book's downfall is hardly represented by the plethora of books filled with study aids. That's to be expected from dogmatic denominations, and I think he protests too much about that, though I agree with his more outlandish examples that there are excesses.

The "fall" could have been further illustrated by more emphasis on the (incorrect, IMO) proclivity of Fundamentalists to almost exclusively proof-text rather than actually READ the Bible, and their gross ignorance of the Bible's non-existence in the first few centuries of the Christian Church's existence.

In saying this, I admit I was looking for more critical scholarship about the development of the Bible, and perhaps the author was shying away from that for fear of coming off as a Bible-debunking atheist (for which he was mistaken during an NPR radio interview, notes the book!
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