It’s longer than the BIBLE!

For some reason, there’s been a mild freaking out about how long the Bible is –or rather, how long certain laws are compared to the Bible– by some politcos.

The Daily Caller breathlessly exclaimed that the TPP is 3.18x longer than the bible” and PolitiFact decided to adjudicate Ted Cruz’s claim that there are more words in the tax code than in the Bible.

Two points about this:

Firstly, it’s an apples-to-oranges comparison. We should compare contemporary laws to contemporary laws (for example, Computational Legal Studies has a great post on the length of the Affordable Care Act) and ancient literature to ancient literature. If you want to discuss TPP’s length, it should be compared to other laws, not to the Bible.

Secondly, I don’t know what’s got people freaking out about how much longer a proposed law is compared to Biblical text, but my concern is that it may illustrate an assumption about the Bible. Either people think it’s really long or too difficult (if not impossible) to understand. Or both. Either way, it may say more about perceptions surrounding the Bible than it does about the laws.

I certainly hope that’s not the case. But if it is, then it gives us a great opportunity to point out a simple observation: The Bible is pretty short for what it covers.

Paraphrasing Josh McDowell’s New Evidence That Demands a Verdict (pp. 2-4), it’s pretty popular to observe that the Bible is 66 books written over a period of about 1,500 years by over 40 authors in 3 languages. Managing all of that in such a short page count is a pretty impressive feat –especially in light of all the other texts that cover less than the bible in longer format.

For instance, Kenneth A. Mathews’s commentary on Genesis (Vol. I and II) total 1,488 pages but I don’t hear people saying, “That commentary on Genesis is longer than the whole Bible!“. And the 6,530 page Talmud is pretty neglected in these comparisons. Or the 12,429-page New International Commentary series (Old Testament). And let’s not overlook Will Durante’s impressive 9,766-page Story of Civilization.

So my assumption is that the Protestant Bible is not nearly as long as it could be. Just ask a Catholic. Or a Mormon.

Even with that, I can appreciate that people balk at a text that’s a little shy of 800,000 words. One of the reasons we might be intimidated at scripture’s heft is because we’re used to significantly shorter volumes.

If you’re going to pitch a non-Fiction, Christian tradebook, you’ll probably contract for around 45,000 words (at least, that’s the conversation I’ve seen between our team and our publisher). Browsing the Christian trade section, most of the titles we’d pick up are going to be around that number. So in a way, we’ve conditioned publishers (and publishers have reciprocally conditioned us) to say that “Christian” reading shouldn’t be longer than 200-pages. And I think there’s a good chance that we hold the Bible to the same bench-mark.

But I don’t think that’s fair. Do we want the canon to try and tell the story of our faith and explain our doctrine in 200-pages? Thomas Aquinas couldn’t make his points in less than 3,000 pages.

Heck, Laura Ingles Wilder needed 1,000 pages to tell her story. Should we expect ancient historians and theologians to do better than that?

I think a little perspective can get us to chill out.

Beyond that, we should be honest that the length of Scripture is probably just a skimmer’s complaint. And I say that as a chronic skimmer. Does any serious Bible student study a passage and think, “Gee, I wish this text had less detail”? Of course not. Most of Biblical studies bemoan the fact that the Biblical author is so truncated. On the other hand, if we’re just trying to hack through it, then yeah, the finish line is a staggering 73 hours away. That’s tough if you’re in a hurry.

Scripture is a classic. And as Mark Twain explains, a classic is “something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read.” That may be why some people find it unapproachable and others find it a good comparison for lengthy legislation.