Asimov’s Guide to the Bible: The New Testament by Isaac Asimov

Asimov's Guide to the Bible: The New TestamentAsimov’s Guide to the Bible: The New Testament by Isaac Asimov
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

My first exposure to Isaac Asimov was in the Super-Valu grocery store on Upper Lonsdale in 1971, when I was 12. I was accompanying my aunt Jackie on the weekly grocery shopping for our household (budget: $20), and while we were awaiting our turn to pass through the checkout I was perusing the single rotating stand of paperbacks for sale. One book leaped to my eye: The Universe by a guy called Isaac Asimov (what a cool name! I thought). Subtitled From Flat Earth to Quasar, it was a nonfiction work about the history of astronomy, and had a gorgeous magenta-and-violet cover featuring a photo of the Horsehead Nebula in deep space. I knew I had to have this book. Problem: it was 95 cents, and I had no money of my own. So I begged Jackie to buy it for me. She was reluctant to spend 5% of our grocery money on my book, so I earnestly and urgently assured her that it was no frivolous purchase but that it was a worthwhile book and that my interest in it was genuine and intense. She was a soft touch in reality, so to my joy she put the book on the conveyor belt with the packaged cube steak and canned lima beans. Yahoo!

As soon as we got home I whipped over to the sofa (“chesterfield” as we called it) and started reading. I was immediately engrossed. Expecting the early parts of the book, about ancient astronomy, to be a chore to read before I got to the cool recent stuff, I was surprised to find that Asimov made the story of astronomical discovery interesting right from the start. On that hot summer afternoon I sat in the dim recess of our living room, reading and reading. In the next few days, when I went on a boating vacation up the coast with a friend’s family, I took the book with me and read it in every spare moment.

At that age I didn’t think about Asimov’s qualities as a writer, I just knew that he wrote about really cool stuff. A few years later, at about age 16, I made my first purchase of a nonfiction book with my own money when I saw his Life and Energy in a bookstore (price: $1.25). This was a work on biochemistry, which was outside my main interest area of space science and physics, but I knew that Asimov would present it in a cool way.

It was only years later, when I reread these books, and I had chosen the path of writing for myself, that I came to assess and appreciate Asimov specifically as a writer. And to this day he represents, for me, the gold standard of expository writing. (I’m less happy with his science fiction, which I find to be a bit flat and, well, expository.) He is a natural teacher, able to arouse and then satisfy one’s curiosity, and to do so with clear, fluent, and seemingly effortless prose. He makes writing seem easy.

I knew that Asimov had written many books on different subjects, but I was still taken by surprise when, while visiting the New Westminster Public Library maybe 8 years ago, I saw, on their reference shelves, the two big hardback volumes of Asimov’s Guide to the Bible. And, now working on an epic of my own about the events leading up to the action of the New Testament, I again had occasion to think, Wow! Cool!

I whipped out one of these volumes and quickly saw that it was just what I would hope for and expect in a work by Asimov: a clear, smooth-flowing examination of both testaments of the Bible, book by book, with plenty of accompanying maps. At some later time I made an online search for these books and found that they were available in paperback; I did not hesitate to buy a used set.

I’m glad I did. As ever, Asimov turns his clear, objective, common-sense eye to the matter at hand. He looks at the content of the Bible not from a theological point of view, but rather as an explicator of the places, persons, institutions, and terms used in it.

In the New Testament volume the largest chapter is on the book of Matthew. It contains about 82 subsections, the first of which is “The New Testament”, where Asimov matter-of-factly sets out the mission of the New Testament as a whole and contrasts it with that of the Old Testament. In his words, “The central theme of the Bible, in Jewish eyes, is the contract or covenant entered into between God and the Jewish people. The first mention of this covenant is God’s promise to give Canaan to the descendants of Abraham.” This is followed by an extract from Gen 15:18, in which the Lord makes this promise to Abram. The book is liberally salted with verses from the Bible as Asimov makes his points, often drawing attention to connections and allusions between the different books. In this subsection Asimov describes how the vision of the writers of the Old Testament books evolves to the point where Jeremiah envisions “a triumphant day when God would make a new start, so to speak, with his people; wipe the slate clean and begin again”–with an extract from Jer 31:31 provided as evidence. Asimov then says simply that “The followers of Jesus came early to believe that in the teachings of Jesus was to be found exactly this new covenant; a new contract between God and man, replacing the old one with Israel that dated back to Sinai and even beyond that to Abraham.”

Other subsections include examinations of who Matthew is; who the people are in the given genealogy of Jesus; where the term Holy Ghost comes from; what King of the Jews means; where and what Nazareth is; and much else. In general, Asimov sets out to answer, as much and as well as he can, your question, as you point to some element in the Bible, “What’s that?” And he does a darned good job.

These volumes are more like a reference work than the other Asimov books I mentioned, which have, incredibly, a strong quality of narrative flow. Asimov’s Guide to the Bible is not arranged around a central question, and this makes it a little less exciting to read. He’s not providing any theory about the Bible, and although he is candid about the difficulties it can present to the modern rational person, he is in no way a skeptic or debunker. And while he can’t avoid doing some interpretation, his mission is mainly factual.

I was a bit disappointed to discover that all those maps are actually in many cases just the same map, reproduced again and again to save the reader the inconvenience of flipping back to find it. Having a few more, different, and detailed maps would have made me feel I was getting more of an in-depth treatment.

But this is an excellent popular companion to the Bible. My favorite aspect is probably the many connections that Asimov makes between the different books and verses of both testaments. He doesn’t name his sources, but they must have been many. He gives the same impression of complete, effortless, encyclopedic command over the content of the Bible that he does over astronomy, biochemistry, and so many other topics. The real measure of his accomplishment is the clarity of his writing, which stands as a paragon to all who would write expository prose.

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