The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible, A. J. Jacobs, 2008

The Year of Living Biblically:
One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible, A. J. Jacobs

“A friend of mine said that even observing the Sabbath might be breaking the Sabbath, since my job is to follow the Bible. That gave me a two-hour headache.”

Almost certainly the best religious book I’ve ever read. Hilarious, yet nearly every paragraph is relevant. Jacobs writes like all humans think – and does it wonderfully.

We cannot stop religion from evolving over time. Also, the idea of “cafeteria religion” is not a bad thing: in fact, it’s great, he argues, because it lets us take the good with the bible without worrying about stoning adulterers and cutting off hands.

One of the biggest concepts in the book, which doesn’t get nearly enough time devoted to it, is “sola scriptura,” latin, a protestant idea meaning that you can interpret scripture yourself. When did the divide between modernism and fundamentalism begin? Probably sometime after the Gutenberg Press, when we began printing bibles, and eventually Luther’s protestant revolution came out, because everyone could read scripture. But how to interpret it? And this is why today we have tens of thousands of denominations of Christianity.

Why is the bible ambiguous? Life is a jigsaw puzzle, he told me. The joy and challenge of life—and the Bible—is figuring things out. “If a jigsaw puzzle came numbered, you’d return it to the store.” Same with life.


Basic themes:

  • He speaks more slowly, because he’s got to check his speech.
  • The advantage to the Bible is, as Tim Ferriss advocates for, it takes away a lot of choices.
  • His note that when he was in seventh grade, he believed other people could listen to his thoughts.
  • The idea of sacrificing pleasant time with your child as punishment.
  • Behavior shapes emotions, whether by toning down your language to say “fudge,” or by wearing white.
  • He uses less negative speech, seeing it as pollution.
  • He goes after some crazy commandments, like taking the egg of a bird.


Religious themes:

  • There’s barely any scripture condemning homosexuality, and one can argue it’s not the same context as today.
  • The argument of Matthew 5:17-18, that Jesus did not come to abolish the law and the prophets…
  • The argument of Greenberg, that if you’re blaming a text in the bible for your behavior, you’re being irresponsible and lazy.
  • His point raised in John 3:3-4 that Jesus actually mocks Nicodemus, who takes Jesus’ words literally!
  • That Jefferson created a Jefferson Bible, perhaps the strongest form of blasphemy!


His idea about cognitive dissonance didn’t exactly work completely – If I act like I’m faithful and God loving for several months, then maybe I’ll become faithful and God loving. If I pray every day, then maybe I’ll start to believe in the Being to whom I’m praying.  – but it did affect him: he began to enjoy his prayers more. He even gave a free one “off the clock” after the year was over, and found himself saying a quick prayer immediately after his son was hurt. Moreover, he found himself incredibly grateful for life:

Four types of prayer, by Elton Richards:

  • A for adoration (praising God).
  • C for confession (telling God your sins).
  • T for thanksgiving (being grateful to God for what you have).
  • S for supplication (asking God to help you).

I love his description and eventual love for the Sabbath; one of my favorite religious practices :

This is what the Sabbath should feel like. A pause. Not just a minor pause, but a major pause. Not just a lowering of the volume, but a muting. As the famous rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel put it, the Sabbath is a sanctuary in time.”

I also love how he comes to appreciate life, by adding “God willing” to every single statement he makes about the future. That’s an ambitious change of speech, thinking, and probably behavior.

“Proverbs advises us, “Do not boast about tomorrow, for you do not know what a day may bring forth.” In the New Testament, James 4:13–15 cautions against saying: “Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a city,” but “Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we will live and also do this or that’” (NAS). It has become a reflex. Every time I use the future tense, I try to tag on those two words: “God willing.” My mother hates it. She told me I sound like someone who sends in videos to Al Jazeera.”

Finally, he gives a reason why we can’t truly ever be fundamentalists:

 “Let me drop an atom bomb on you,” said this Karaite; his name is Nehemiah Gordon, and he runs the Karaite website, the Karaite Korner. “You can’t follow all of the Bible literally because we can’t know what some of the words mean.” In Leviticus 11, there’s a list of birds that are abominations: the eagle, the vulture, the osprey, the pelican, and so on. Problem is, those birds are just our best guesses. The true identity of the birds have been lost in the haze of time. So to be safe, some Karaites don’t eat eggs or poultry at all. It’s a profound insight—and it has made my diet even more extreme.

Finally, I should check out the Charity Navigator website.