The Scandal of Biblical Illiteracy

Claude Mariottini
Emeritus Professor
of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

One of the greatest books of the Old Testament is the book of “Palms.”   The book of “Palms” is that Old Testament book that “recorded how ancient Israelite prophets would sit under one of those trees until a coconut fell on their heads, cracking open and pouring out the milk of human kindness along with the wisdom of God. They got ordained and baptized at the same time, which saved a lot of work for the rabbis.”

A few years ago, Christianity Today published an article which addressed the scandal of biblical  illiteracy that prevailed in our churches at the end of the Twentieth Century, and I can also say, still prevails at the dawn of the Twenty-First Century.

The author of the article, Richard Morgan, “The Scandal  of Biblical Illiteracy,” Christianity Today (May 7, 1965), p. 817, presented the results of a test given to 150 freshmen in a Christian college.  These students were selected because they were active members of evangelical churches and because they grew up going to church. The result of the test re-emphasizes my contention that we are facing a crisis of knowledge in our churches today.  What Morgan discovered a half century ago, has been compounded and intensified in recent times.

The answers that students gave to the questions in Mr. Morgan’s test were shocking.  The history of Abraham was found in the book of Ruth.  The Roman persecution was the greatest event described in the Old Testament.  The Exodus was the return of the Jews to Palestine after World War II.  The Ten Commandments were given by Jesus on the Mount of Olives; and some of the Wisdom books of the Old Testament are: The Book of Acts, Paradise Lost, and The Lord of the Flies.  Genesis was the first Gospel; the name of the Hebrew heroine who saved the Jews from the hands of Haman was Joan of Arc.  The mother-in-law of Ruth was Mary Magdalene and her famous great-grandson was Noah.  Jesus was baptized in the Red Sea, was betrayed by Samson, and died in Bethlehem.

These answers may not reflect the intellectual abilities of those students, but they reflect a crisis facing the church today.  The answers indicate that there is a lack of adequate biblical knowledge among church members and that may betray the kind of religious education that is being offered in many churches today.

In a recent article, “Sadly, most churchgoers fail Bible 101,” written by Jim Ketchum and published in the Port Huron Times-Herald, the author decries the problem of biblical illiteracy that prevails in our society. The quote at the beginning of this post was taken from Mr. Ketchum’s article and it relates to an experience he had with people who know very little about the Bible.

Several months ago, I read a beautiful poem about the enduring nature of the Bible.  I do not know who wrote the poem.  The author is unknown, but the message of his poem will continue to bless people everywhere.  The poem expresses the durability of God’s Word:

The Anvil of God’s Word
Last eve I passed beside a blacksmith’s door
And heard the anvil ring the vesper chime;
Then looking in, I saw upon the floor
Old hammers worn with beating years of time.

“How many anvils have you had?” said I,
“To wear and batter all these hammers so?”
“Just one,” said he, and then with twinkling eyes,
“The anvil wears the hammers out, you know.”

And so, I thought, “the anvil of God’s Word
For ages skeptic blows have beat upon;
Yet, though the noise of falling blows was heard,
The anvil is unharmed, the hammers gone.”

Over the years the Bible has gone through the furnace of persecution, criticism, philosophical debate, and scientific discoveries.  Today, the Bible faces the problem of neglect and ignorance.

Mark Twain said that “A classic is a book which people praise and don’t read.”  The Bible would easily fit into Twain’s classification of a classic.  Mark Twain also said that the Bible is the most popular book nobody has read.  I do not believe anyone today could say that Mark Twain was wrong.

Until a few years ago, one could assume that most students coming to seminary would have a good knowledge of the content of the Bible.  Today, however, that is no longer true.  Two years ago, I took a survey in one of my classes and discovered that out of fifty students, only 10% (5 students) had read the whole Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, at least one time.  That was shocking!

Those of us who preach the Bible as God’s Word and those of us who teach the Bible to those who will preach the message of the Bible have a great responsibility entrusted to us.  And as we go about teaching and preaching God’s Word, we must remember the words of Christ: “ Much is required from those to whom much is given, and much more is required from those to whom much more is given” (Luke 12:48).

Claude Mariottini
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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4 Responses to The Scandal of Biblical Illiteracy

  1. says:


    Van Brollini


  2. llamapacker says:

    Good reminder and spot on


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