The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible Summary

A.J. Jacobs

The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible

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The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible Summary

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The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible (2007), by author, journalist, and screenwriter A.J. Jacobs, is a satirical memoir where the protagonist follows Christian and Judaic religious scriptures dogmatically for one year. The work was praised for its humor and insight to the function of ancient religions in contemporary life. It became a New York Times Bestseller and is slated to be adapted to film in the coming years.

Its themes include the role of religion in American life, the solace of spirituality, and the zaniness that comes with being dogmatic.

Set in New York, Jacobs begins taking the Bible literally on September 1st. For the next year, he follows (to the best of his ability) more than 700 rules.

In the introduction, Jacobs humorously describes the ramifications of having a long beard, which is a requirement from the Old Testament. He has been compared to serial killers and made little children cry by his intimidating presence. Unlike many men with beards in New York City, Leviticus 19:27 says that Jacobs isn’t supposed to shave even the side of his beard; thus, his facial hair is very conspicuous.

This year project of taking the Bible seriously reflects Jacob’s childhood. He was raised as a secular Jew, and has always been curious about the possible benefits of performing religious rituals. He is especially interested in biblical literalism, as interpretations of the Bible have influenced—if not directly determined—American politics. Biblical literalism impacts legislation on birth control, gay marriage, immigration, and many other political topics. He also recently became a father and wants some advice on how to best raise his child.

He begins the biblical year by purchasing Bibles from Walmart, Amazon, and even taking one from his ex-girlfriend. He discusses what “literal” means and cites one 3rd-century BCE theologian who castrated himself after reading that eunuchs are more likely to enter heaven. Since the New and Old Testament don’t overlap on all their rules, Jacobs says that for the first eight months he will live as dictated by New Testament rules.

Jacobs relates his initial confusions over what he can and can’t do in the modern world. For instance, the Bible never addressed whether he could use a computer. Taking the Bible literally also makes daily interactions difficult, especially with women; when he asks a female cashier to leave his change on the counter, he makes up the lie that he has a cold (and thus commits another sin). His relationships with women, in general, take on a tense edge. For instance, he is not allowed to touch his wife in any capacity seven days after her period.

Throughout The Year of Living Biblically, Jacobs dispels several misconceptions of biblical lore. He notes that apples didn’t exist when Adam and Eve would have been alive, so it was most likely an orange that was the “fruit of knowledge,” not an apple. He also draws attention to some of the more obscure rules in the Bible, such as the regulation that employers pay their workers every day and that individuals don’t wear clothing made from mixed fabric.

It’s very difficult to live in accordance with the Bible in New York City. One of the Ten Commandments is for people not to covet (want) whatever their neighbor has. One day, Jacobs makes a list of all the things he has coveted before 2pm. This includes the speaking fee of another well-regarded author; the manicured lawn of his neighbor; a Bible salesman’s un-questioning faith.

Jacobs explores what the Bible has to say about taxes. Before Roman administration, Jewish people in the Middle East paid taxes through “tithes,” which has been standardized in many Christian societies as at least ten percent of one’s income. Jacobs asks several rabbis what the appropriate amount is; he’s advised not to think too heavily over the specific amount, but the donation should feel like a sacrifice.

To increase his knowledge of the “oral” tradition of biblical living, he ventures to other groups who also take the Bible very seriously. This includes the Amish, several Hasidic Jewish groups in Brooklyn, hermits living in the desert, several evangelical groups, and a protestant minister who determines the will of god by “snake handling.” He presents these groups without judgment, but also critiques some of their beliefs. For example, after encountering some creationists, Jacobs writes that the group thinks dinosaurs are a hoax and that the earth is “barely older than Gene Hackman.”

Jacobs does find several workarounds for certain rules. He claims that his sleeping mask doesn’t count as wearing women’s garments (a restriction in the Bible) because the advertisement had a man on the cover. However, some biblical proclamations aren’t legal. This includes murdering magicians and those who have extramarital affairs, as well as destroying images of idols, such as the singer Madonna or figurines of the Buddha. Later in his year of living biblically, Jacobs “stones” someone having an affair by flicking a chip in their direction. He also “sacrifices” an animal.

As his project concludes, Jacobs finds some understanding toward why people follow religious rituals, however nonsensical. He has a newfound respect for the concept of “sacredness.” However, he still doesn’t understand why so many people take the Bible literally, and the lack of knowledge depresses him. He’s also concerned that he may turn into Gil, his uncle who was a secular Jew one day and an ardent orthodox leader another day. Fortunately, that doesn’t happen.