For Amateurs, Scholar Says, Bible's a Rorschach Test

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SAN DIEGO -- Practically everybody thinks he or she is an expert on the Bible, according to biblical scholar Richard E. Friedman.

Friedman, a professor of Hebrew and comparative literature at the University of California, San Diego, who addressed a recent Council for the Advancement of Science on "|Sciene' and the Bible," admitted to having a chip on his shoulder.

"My field more than any other, I think, is done by people who aren't in the field," he told the science writers. For example, he said, in most American universities the Bible is taught by professors of English who cannot read the book in the original.

"I don't do A.D.," said Friedman, who has his doctorate in theology from Harvard, but he then proceeded to do a job on scientists and others who venture into the biblical field with strong opinions, little knowledge, no biblical training and no relevant languages.

He derided a scientist who said the river turning to red was the earth passing through the tail of a red comet and an applied nuclear physicist who wrote that the implications of general relativity and Doppler shifts in light are an essential part in understanding the opening chapters of Genesis, "which," said Friedman, "will come as a surprise to Moses."

Friedman also joked about novelist P.D. James' referral at a BBC symposium to the Bible as the greatest work of English literature. "You must admit," said Friedman, "that our Hebrew and Greek translations did a marvelous job of capturing the spirit of the original."

Playwright Peter Shaffer (Equus, Amadeus), who was also at the BBC symposium, commented on "the wrathful, angry God of the Old Testament," which could perhaps explain the modern Israelis, Friedman said. "Until that night, he was my favorite living playwright," he said.

Friedman, a keen biblical archaeologist, admitted that people are free to pursue subjects they are not specialists in. "But there's something about the Bible," he said. "People come in to show us what the professionals have been missing," people such as the fundamentalist group from Wichita who said they had found the lost ark of the covenant and had photographs they would produce -- later.

Another group found the other ark on Mount Ararat in Turkey, Friedman said. "They saw a wooden-boat shape up there," he said. "As soon as they say |boat' you know that they're faking. Ark is an old English word for box; the measurements in the Bible are rectangular. …