When I was an undergraduate, I encountered Christians who would quote parts of
the Bible (by which I mean what they call the Old Testament) that I was
unfamiliar with. I was appalled that non-Jews should know the Jewish holy book
better than a reasonably well-educated Jew like myself did.
It took me quite a while to realise that actually each religion
concentrated only on certain areas of the Bible: there would be parts of it
that Christians would be familiar with but not Jews, but also the other
way around. Jews concentrate on the Pentateuch (the first five books) much
more than the rest; I suspect the average Christian would be impressed by just
how well Jews know its contents.
The flip side of that coin, though, is that there were parts of the Bible that I scarcely knew at all. The
book of Job, for instance, I only knew the title of (and even then, I had no
idea how to pronounce it in English); reading it as a nineteen-year-old was a
bit of an eye-opener. And indeed, both when I first read my way through the whole
book* at that age, and when I did so for the second
time† (ongoing), there
were large sections
of historical material of which my knowledge was really rather poor.
"First time I had read the Bible // It had struck me as unwitty // I think it
may started [sic] rumour // That the Lord
ain't got no humour."
"Second time I read the Bible // I was thinking it's all right, man."
For years, I've wondered if I could quantify this somehow: just how much of the
Bible do we know as Jews? It felt like aside from the Torah, portions
of the Prophets read as hafṭārāh, the Five Megillos (Song of Songs, Ruth,
Lamentations, Ecclesiastes and Esther), and a bunch of Psalms and the odd other
passage (e.g. the last half-chapter of Proverbs) included in the liturgy, we
neglect the rest.
Having got to the end of my Samaritan Torah blogging, I decided I was finally
going to find out. This was going to be my next big blogging project; but
unlike blogging the Samaritan Torah or Josephus, all the work here would be
up-front: it would only end up in a single blog post at the end of it.
And here's the result (or a photo-reduced screenshot of part of it, to whet your appetite):
View complete chart as a separate web-page (opens in new tab). You
may find it useful to read with
a copy of the Bible
in a parallel tab.
I will admit I found the result surprising: It turns out I'm familiar with
a much better distributed subset of the Bible than I thought I was, though in
many cases I would be familiar with verses, or allusions to part of a verse, or
even whole psalms, without being able to name chapter and verse.
This is largely because the liturgy draws from a much wider range of Biblical
sources than your average Jew today is familiar with. It's also
necessary to take into consideration that I am much more knowledgeable now than I
was as a nineteen-year-old. Nevertheless, my knowledge remains sufficiently
patchy that the result is rather subjective: I almost never
example, Tachanun or the third benediction after the Shema in the evening, so
I'm much less likely to recognise verses quoted in those. (Similarly, I have
left out verses referenced in parts of the liturgy that I never come across
in the yearly cycle at all, such as pidyon haben or funeral prayers.)
Nonetheless, I have tried to keep this as general as possible, and have
refrained from marking as high recognition (or indeed at all) Biblical verses
which I have referenced in the talks I've given at Limmud (e.g. Amos 8:2), or
which go into my Jewish learning icon on my blog (e.g. Proverbs 3:13).