Why Isn’t the Bible in the Great Books Collection?

I’ve been plugging along for several weeks now on this plan to read through the Great Books collection in seven years. By now some people might have noticed that for a series that is supposed to contain the most essential titles in the Western tradition, it’s a bit odd that I haven’t posted any readings from the Bible. In fact, if you’ve looked at the table of contents for the Gateway to the Great Books series (here) and the Great Books of the Western World series (here), you may have noted the absence of the Bible in both sets. Does this mean that the series editors are hostile to religion, or that they think the Bible is not an essential part of the Western literary tradition?

I don’t know the answer to the first question; I have no idea what Mortimer Adler’s or any of the other editors’ religious views were. However, they certainly did consider the Bible to be fundamental to the Western heritage. References to the Bible abound in the two “Syntopicon” volumes in the GBWW series, and in the “graded reading” plan in the first appendix to Volume I of the GGB set, books of the Bible appear alongside Homer, Swift, and other authors in the GBWW set.

Why, then, is the Bible not in either series? In The Great Conversation, the editors offer a very simple explanation: “Readers who are startled to find the Bible omitted from the set will be reassured to learn that this was done only because Bibles are already widely distributed, and it was felt unnecessary to bring another, by way of this set, into homes that had several already.”

In the early 1950s, when the GBWW set was first produced, the American literary and cultural milieu was very different from today’s in at least two ways that affected the editors’ thinking. First, editions of many classics were difficult to come by. Some of the scientific works in GBWW appeared there in English translations for the very first time. A major aim of the series editors was to make these books available to American readers. There was no internet to give instant access to almost any work in the public domain. Second, it could be assumed that just about every home containing literate people had at least one Bible. Given the costs of producing the 54-volume set, it made sense not to add to that expense by including the Bible (which, after all, is a really long book). So the absence of the Bible from these series does not stem from any agenda of the editors.

As for my own reading program, if you wonder why I have not included selections from the Bible, it’s because I have my own ongoing Bible study schedule that I track separately from this project. Moreover, there are dozens of reading schedules for the Bible readily available on the web, and I would not really be making any contribution by producing one more.

I strongly encourage everyone to make study of the Bible a key part of immersion in the Western tradition, whether or not one is religious. Put simply, you won’t get the majority of the West’s heritage without an understanding of the Bible.

[This post is part of my seven-year plan to read through the Gateway to the Great Books and Great Books of the Western World sets. The original post describing the plan is here.]

About Dr. J

I am Professor of Humanities at Faulkner University, where I chair the Department of Humanities and direct online M.A. and Ph.D. programs based on the Great Books of Western Civilization. I am also Associate Editor of the Journal of Faith and the Academy and a member of the faculty at Liberty Classroom.
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6 Responses to Why Isn’t the Bible in the Great Books Collection?

  1. bluewoad says:

    Dr J,

    First, thank you for doing this 7-year read through the Great Books. I stumbled across your Website a couple weeks ago and am working on getting caught up. I’ve had a set of the Great Books for a decade now, but haven’t gotten around to reading them as a set (I’ve read individually about 1/3 of the works). I’m greatly enjoying the reading, as well as your posts on it.

    Regarding Adler, he was friendly to Christian thought for most of his life and towards the end he was baptized into the Episcopal Church. There is (as far as I can tell) an accurate report of his spiritual state at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mortimer_J._Adler#Religion_and_theology. That Mars Hill Audio interview is a great resource for anyone interested in Adler’s relationship to religion.

    • Dr. J says:

      Thanks very much for this information. Mars Hill Audio is a great series; I wasn’t aware of that particular segment.

      It’s good to have you on board with the readings. I look forward to receiving more of your comments.

      • jrwhIII says:

        Dr. J, et al.,

        I’d just like to point out that Mr. Adler died a Roman Catholic. This has been my understanding up till now, and it is stated in the article cited above.

        John Hiner III

  2. B_Dubb_b says:

    I just got through a big move to a new (rented) house. I finally unpacked my great books series. I am wondering, however, if I will be missing anything if I put off the green (stories & plays) volumes until the end? I’m primarily looking forward to the other three groups (philosophy, math & sciences, and history.

    I do want to read the greens, but I would rather put them off if the other readings don’t depend on a knowledge of them.

    • Dr. J says:

      In my experiences, the green volumes provide a needed relief from greater density of the other colors, but I know a lot of people who are more analytically minded don’t “get” literature as well. (I didn’t for a long time.) I’d say do the greens in smaller doses rather than ignore them completely, but the main thing is to read what will keep you engaged so that you don’t lose motivation.

      • B_Dubb_B says:

        Very good then! Thank you.

        I made it through the first five “books” of Homer’s Iliad before I was bored to tears. Mostly because I’ve read a lot about the old Greek tales. So I am pretty familiar with the happenings within the volume already.

        I do like your suggestion to read a little of the literature at a time to take a break from the others. Although I wouldn’t self-describe as “analytically minded”, I have been stated to be such by others. I think that your solution is the route for me.

        I was just worried, since the books are laid out so that the texts build upon one another, that I would be missing some references (especially from the Greek philosophers) later on.

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