Bible Literacy Polls
Earlier this year, the Biblical Literacy Project, Inc., under a grant from the John Templeton Foundation, issued an elaborately and elegantly prepared document, fifty-five pages in length, under the title The Biblical Literacy Report: What do American teens need to know and what do they know? About half of this report presents results from a Gallup Poll titled "Teenagers' Knowledge of the Bible." In a recent article in Bible Review ("What America Believes about the Bible," BR [Winter 2005]: 27-29), I remarked on what struck me as ambiguity in the phrasing of questions in similar surveys and especially unevenness, in terms of data being solicited, that such queries represent.
In my opinion, this The Biblical Literacy Report is a prime example of the weaknesses of such polling. (This is not to say that these polls are without their strengths, but that's a subject for another occasion by another commentator.) The Gallup poll upon which this report is based contains ten "biblical literacy" questions (in addition to one about Easter). Here they are, in the order in which they are asked [with number of choices, if any, indicated in brackets]: "Which of the following best describes Moses [with four choices]?"; "According to Genesis, what were the names of the first man and woman [no choices offered]?"; "Who Said, 'Am I My Brother's Keeper?' [with four choices]?"; "Which of the following is NOT one of the Ten Commandments" [with four choices]?"; "According to the Books of Samuel, which of the following statements about David is NOT true [with four choices]?"; "According to the New Testament, which of the following happened at the wedding in Cana [four choices]?"; "There is a story of the Good Samaritan in the New Testament. Who was the Good Samaritan [with four choices]?"; "Which of the following quotes is from the Sermon on the Mount [with four choices}?"; "From what you've heard or read, what is the Golden Rule [with four choices]?" and "What happened on the road to Damascus [with four choices]?"
As I noted above, I find these questions widely uneven in terms of their importance. Is it really a sign of "biblical literacy" that you can identify one of four statements, all of which are from the New Testament, as being from the Sermon on the Mount? We might expect, and indeed do find, that twice as many teens know that "Do not divorce" is absent from the Ten Commandments (and from the Hebrew Bible, by the way) than are aware that "Blessed are the poor" appears in the Sermon on the Mount. But I seriously doubt that anything is demonstrated, much less proved, by these statistics. With respect to Jesus' turning of water to wine , I think it's at best of minimal importance to be able to identify this occurrence with a specific event (the wedding)at a particular locale (Cana), and I'm not overly concerned with whether or not most teenagers know it was Cain who asked, "Am I my brother's keeper?" To be honest, much of this strikes me as just slightly above the level of biblical trivia.
Because at least some people will take these statistics as meaningful, I should also point out that in at least one instance (and perhaps others), the wording is very seriously flawed. I have in mind: "According to the Books of Samuel, which of the following statements about David is NOT true?" I quickly pass over the relative importance of such a nugget of information (and the confusion inherent in any query with a "NOT") and instead turn to the four choices given: "David was a king of the Jews," "David killed Goliath," "David tried to kill Saul," "David loved Bathsheba." For the surveyors, the correct answer is "David tried to kill King Saul," which he did not do according to the biblical narrative. But it is equally the case that "David was NOT a king of the Jews" (since the term "Jews" appears nowhere in the Hebrew Bible, the books of Samuel included). Who killed Goliath and whom David killed are hardly open-and-shut judgments in the biblical text, and a fair reading of the narrative could certainly lead to the conclusion that what David felt for Bathsheba was not consistent "love."
As I wrote in the BR article cited above, I realize that I am leaving myself open to the charge of pedantry, carping, and nitpicking. But when dozens of people pen hundreds of questions to ask thousands of individuals, the results of which are intended to be read by millions—I think close examination is not only possible, but necessary. And that is what I have attempted to do here, at least in terms of providing a start point for further serious discussion on issues relating to "biblical literacy" (or the lack thereof), which—as noted by Steve McKenzie in the article that follows—will continue to dominate much of pubic discourse and in which we, as members of SBL and of society at large, have a huge stake.
Leonard Greenspoon, Creighton University
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Citation: Leonard Greenspoon, " Bible Literacy Polls," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited Nov 2005]. Online:http://sbl-site.org/Article.aspx?ArticleID=470