What Happens When an Agnostic Follows the Bible Literally for One Year?

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The prophetic AJ Jacobs, who wrote the inspiring “My Outsourced Life” for Esquire back in 2005, has gone prophetic.

A huge fan of radical lifestyle experiments, he has already read all 33,000 pages of the Encyclopedia Britannica, experimented with Radical Honesty for an article called “I Think You’re Fat”… even pretended to be his nanny online to try to find her a boyfriend.

Now he’s done the ultimate.

As an agnostic New Yorker, he attempted to follow every rule of the Bible literally for an entire year.

I read an advanced copy of his new book, The Year of Living Biblically, this past July, and it blew my mind. It is AMAZING. Now it’s finally out, and I’m allowed to talk about it. I learned more about religion in this book than in all previous books combined, and I laughed so hard I almost got kicked out of two airports. Here’s a Q&A with my friend AJ on his incredible experience:

You call yourself an “agnostic Jew” in the book. Why did you even decide to do this? What could the possible benefit be?

This was my most radical experiment yet. It affected everything I did: the way I ate, talked, dressed, thought, and touched my wife.

I did it because I wanted to see if I was missing anything. And I have to say, the benefits were huge. I’ve carried over a lot of thinking and behavior from my Year of Living Biblically. Even if you aren’t particularly religious (in fact, even if you’re a diehard atheist), I believe there are lessons to be learned from the Bible and a biblical lifestyle.

What was hardest for you?

Two types of rules were hardest for me. First, there was avoiding the sins we commit every day: no lying, no gossiping, no coveting. I’m a journalist in New York. That’s like 70 percent of my day.

The second type of difficult rules were those that will get you into trouble if you follow them in modern-day America. For instance, the Old Testament rule that you should stone adulterers. Luckily, I was able to stone one adulterer. I was in the park dressed in my biblical garb (white clothes, a beard, sandals, walking stick) and a man came up to me and asked why I was dressed so strangely. He seemed hostile right from the start. I explained to him my project. And he said “I’m an adulterer. Are you going to stone me?” I said, “That would be great.”

I took out a handful of pebbles, because the Bible never specifies the size of the stones. This man actually grabbed the stones from my hand and chucked them at my face. I felt I had the right to retaliate, so I tossed a pebble at him. And in that way I stoned.

Do you think many people are misguided in their “creed over deed” mentality?

[Note from Tim: "Creed over deed" refers to people who value religious belief more than moral behavior. "Deed over creed" would be the opposite.]

I wouldn’t say misguided. But I’d say most of us do underestimate the power that behavior has to shape thought.

It’s astounding. I watched it happen to myself. For instance, I forced myself to stop gossiping, and eventually I started to have fewer petty thoughts to gossip about. I forced myself to help the needy, and found myself becoming less self-absorbed. I never became Ghandi or Angelina Jolie, but I made some strides.

I even watched it happen with prayer. After a year of praying, I started to believe there’s something to the idea of sacredness. It was remarkable. So if you want to become someone different, just start acting like the person you want to be. It’s like that business motto “fake it till you make it,” but it works on a spiritual and ethical level as well.

Even with my wardrobe, I saw how the outer affects the inner. There’s a line in the Bible that says “your garments should always be white.” I decided to take that literally, and walked around in white clothes. It affected my mood. I felt happier, lighter. Clothes make the man. I felt I couldn’t be in a bad mood if I looked like I was about to play the semi-finals at Wimbledon.


What were some of the greatest benefits of following rules to the letter, and what are the things that have stuck with you since ending the experiment?

It was fascinating. I’d always loved freedom of choice. It’s why I went to a loosey-goosey liberal arts college with no core requirements. But this experiment was all about freedom FROM choice. Or at least a minimal-choice lifestyle. I had a set structure: Should I read the gossip magazine about Cameron Diaz’s latest sex romp? No. Should I give 10 percent of my money to the needy? Yes. Should I turn off my email on the Sabbath (as both the Bible and Tim Ferriss recommend)? Yes.

In fact, there was something Ferriss-esque about the entire way of living. It reminded me of your low-information diet, for instance. In some ways, it was a huge time-saver.


What would you call yourself now?

I’d call myself a “reverent agnostic.” Whether or not there is a God, I believe there’s something to the idea of sacredness. Rituals can be sacred. The Sabbath can be sacred. And there’s an importance to that.

I’d also say that I’m a fan of cafeteria spirituality. During my experiment, I learned that you cannot follow the entire Bible. It’s impossible. You must pick and choose. Everyone does it, whether they admit it or not. Otherwise, we’d end up stoning adulterers on the street.

Some call this “cafeteria religion,” and it’s meant as a disparaging phrase. But I say: There is nothing wrong with cafeterias! I’ve had some great meals at cafeterias. I’ve also had some turkey tetrazzini that made me dry heave. The key is to chose the right dishes, the ones about compassion and tolerance, and leave the ones about hatred and intolerance on the side. So in my year, there was this amazing balance between choosing your religion, which then leads to fewer decisions on a daily basis.

And finally, I’d call myself a reformed individualist. I still see the value of individualism, but I’ve taken it down a few notches. As one of my spiritual advisers told me, you can look at life in one of two ways: As a series of rights and entitlements, or as a series of responsibilities. The biblical way is to look at it as a series of responsibilities, to your family and to your society. It’s like the JFK quote, ask not what your country (or world) can do for you, ask what you can do for your country (or world).

What was the hardest for your wife to put up with?

Well, my wife’s a saint. At one point, I built a biblical hut in our living room, and she didn’t appreciate the construction project in our apartment. Also, the Bible says not to touch women during that time of the month. Even more strictly, though, it says you shouldn’t sit in a seat where an “impure” woman has sat. My wife didn’t like that, so in retaliation, she sat on every seat in our apartment. I was forced to do a lot of standing that year.

Do yourself a favor, whether you’re a bible beater or a beret-wearing atheist, and go get AJ’s book. I put more notes in this book than any book in recent memory.

IMPORTANT:

And remember, you don’t need to be religious to “tithe” like AJ. In fact, you can change the world from your keyboard right now and help me build this school in Nepal for hundreds of children. The top 10 donors (you can donate more than once) get the school dedicated to them on a plaque at the door, and we can all go visit it within a year. Everest base camp, anyone? Here is a glimpse of the wonder that is Nepal if you need a few reasons or want to start planning.

For those of you keeping track, this blog has already successfully funded a school in Vietnam this month, and I’m planning on visiting it in 2008. Life is short and you are fortunate — give hard!

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ODDS AND ENDS:

-Exclusive 90-Minute Marketing and PR Teleconference with Tim Ferriss:

I will be offering an exclusive 90-minute teleconference (date to be mid- or end of November) to discuss marketing and PR in the web 2.0 and social media era. This will be a one-time event and the cost is $125, with all registration money going to LitLiberation and helping US public school students. Line space is very limited, as we will be taking questions at the end, so I encourage you to sign up now before we cut off registration. To sign up for this one-time event, please go to PayPal.com (you can use your credit cards to pay) and send $125 to timothy-at-brainquicken.com. We might increase the price as space gets limited. Call-in info will come via e-mail in the first week of November, and we’ll post a “FULL” notice on this post when we cut off registration. I cannot tell you the exact date of the call, but if you pay and then cannot attend, I will simply refund you in full — no worries.

Posted on: October 10, 2007.

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136 comments on “What Happens When an Agnostic Follows the Bible Literally for One Year?

  1. Does anyone know how AJ dealt with that line (Deuteronomy 13:13-15) about how, if you hear of a neighbouring town where they teach any different religion, you must attack it and “put to the sword” every man, woman and child?

    Did he also banish (or, by some translations, execute) his wife, family and friends from his life and town if they ate meat from which the blood had not been properly drained? (Leviticus 7:26…)

    Great idea though.

    http://thebricktestament.com/index.html

    Like

  2. There’s several problems to this experiment.

    First off, Mr. Jacobs is Jewish. If he wants to simply follow an english translation, that’s fine, but that is not the bible as it was given to Moses. It is a poor translation from the Greek which by definition excludes all of the oral law that is constantly alluded to in what we know as the old testament today.

    For example, in Hebrew, the first verse of the old testament literally translates to: “In the beginning of, G-d created the heavens and the earth.” The first word, “Bereshis”, is in the construct form and literally means “In the beginning of”. So either there is some deeper meaning being clued to here or G-d had poor grammar.

    And if you tell me that heavens and the earth were the first thing created, why did G-d wait to create the earth until the third day? This is one of thousands of examples that the oral tradition explains and greatly impacts the law how to “follow the bible” (Torah).

    Any self respecting Christian would do well to understand the Torah in Hebrew, and if they were intellectually honest, would probably end up converting to Judaism upon actually learning the depths of what they read and perhaps unknowingly foolishly take literally.

    As for Mr. Jacobs’ literal interpretation, much of what is said in the old testament today no longer applies to Torah observant Jews as there is no Temple, nor a Sanhedrin to mete out many of the corporal punishments, like “stoning adulterers”. To follow such things literally is the epitome of foolishness and ignorance of his heritage.

    If he truly wants to follow the bible, otherwise known as the Torah literally, it is impossible to do so since he does not know or accept the fact that Torah observant Jews believe that there is an oral law that has been passed down since Moses and argued and come to a uniform conclusion among “Orthodox” Jews.

    I wonder what it would have been like had Mr. Jacobs followed the actual Torah observant law for a year.

    Observing and setting aside Shabbos (the sabbath) is a good first step, but to follow the Torah as Jews have done for thousands of years requires much more than a poor english translation which eliminates many of the exgetical interpretations made by the Sages dealing with the tradition that was given to Moses at Sinai.

    For more information on the Oral law or anything related to true Torah-based Judaism, follow this link:

    http://www.aish.com/shavuotsinai/shavuotsinaidefault/What_is_the_Oral_Torah$.asp

    Like

  3. Mt 28:18-20

    18Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in[a] the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

    Did he follow this rule? If so, I must have not been home when he knocked on my door.

    Like

  4. sounds like a fascinating book! Adding it to my to-be-read list. Interesting comments too. I didn’t realize how much I didn’t know about Judaism.

    Greenpeace is my charity of choice. I set up an auto-deposit with them. It’s a fantastic feeling – every time I hear about an action on the news, I get to feel like I’ve contributed. Not quite a trip to Nepal, but nice nonetheless. (And yes, it is about people, not tree-hugging: the poorest people of the world are going to suffer most from Global Warming.)

    Like

  5. LOLOLOLOLOLO!
    The lengths some will go to ridicule what is Good! The Mosaic law was for a barbaric people in a barbaric age with barbaric mentalities and enemies. This idiot didn’t mention that it protected the Israelites from diseases, and contributed to a happy life and community- DID he?

    Only Fools are Free…. (From common sense, from virtue, from their Maker)

    Mike

    Like

  6. Unfortunately, AJ only grasped the most superficial aspects of biblical understanding. He often used what he read as little more than grist for his journalist’s mill (in this case, fodder for his book). For example, stoning the adulterer. No old-testament Jew would ever have stoned an outsider, and that’s what that fellow was, as far as AJ was concerned. The Jewish law regarding stoning was for believers only.

    Furthermore, Jesus himself famously set some ‘new rules’ about the practice which weren’t, I guess, as much fun for AJ to follow. AJ was only interested in part of the Bible, which is fine, but he should have more properly introduced himself as someone following the practices of Orthodox Judaism, not the Bible. That would not have sold so widely, of course, but that very deception was itself a lie.

    All things considered, it’s hard to feel terribly excited by this ‘experiment’. In point of fact, it’s an insult to anyone who has honestly tried to follow God for most of their lives. (Not that such a person would be outraged, so much as saddened, by this farce.)

    Like

  7. >>AJ was only interested in part of the Bible, which is fine, but he should have more properly introduced himself as someone following the practices of Orthodox Judaism, not the Bible.

    This is a cop-out. Anybody (Christian, Orthodox Jew, Conservative Jew, Jehovah’s Witness etc.) who believes that the Bible is the word of God has no choice but to follow everything.

    My (universal) experience of Christians and Jews is that they pick and choose. Find me a “believer” who refuses to wear polyester and cotton shirts (see my post above), or who agrees that a woman who is raped in the city but who doesn’t cry out should be stoned to death (Deuteronomy 22:24).

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  8. We dont live in a theocracy like the Israelites did so it would be hard to justify stoning an adulterer today. Instead we could try to teach them the gospel.

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  9. Tim, are you aware that in this post, all the apostrophes show up as an accented followed by the euro symbol and the TM symbol, on Safari on my macbook pro. See for yourself at browsershots.org. You might want to fix that, it makes reading painful.

    Otherwise, great work as always! Very inspiring.

    ###

    Ug — this is killing me! Thank you for the URL. This annoying typo is from copying and pasting from Word, the invention of the ages. Mensch!

    I’ll get it fixed eventually :)

    Tim

    Like

  10. hey man thats cool that you did that. i used to be agnostic myself for a loooooooong time. in the past 3 months i have changed drastically. little did i know that hardly any religion teaches the bible. and honestly what else do you have to go off of right? im just wondering if you have heard of the holy ghost? ya know when jesuse said a man mest be born of the water and of the spirit or he cannot enter into my fathers kingdom or w/e. well i was like whats spirit? well if you read on. on the day of pentacost ppl prayed up in this room for the holy ghost. so then a wind came in fire was above errbodys head then apparently they all spoke in tounges. i was jsut like this is crazy ive never seen this. well a week went by still studying and i tried to get tho holy ghost as far as speaking in tounges. and sure enough my speech started to slur, and i was sayin something completely different. since then ive seen like 5 other ppl new to this have the same effect. its real and it is wild. so check it out for yourself man. it is in the book of acts. peace bro

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  11. Tim,

    I figure that charity fits the biblical topic.

    I’d like to give away the copy of 4 Hour Workweek that I won in the recent eLance Virtual Assistant contest.

    I already have one very dog-eared copy, I’d like to give my new one away in a manner that might make a difference in someone else’s life. Let me know if you could use another prize for your charitable endeavors. If not, I’ll just leave it somewhere random and trust Providence to get it to someone who really needs it.

    Nancy Ulrich
    (the sock puppet lady)
    http://www.elance.com/p/promo/win-virtual-assistant/winners.html

    ###

    Hi Nancy,

    That is awesome of you. Please check your e-mail.

    All the best,

    Tim

    Like

  12. Interesting concept though the point that the law was given by God to show man his sinfulness and can’t possibly be followed without fail seemed to have been overlooked in this experiment. As Paul stated so succinctly in Romans; “All have sinned and fall short of the glorious standard of a Holy God”. That is why Christ came and suffered for us the punishment we deserved.

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  13. Interesting Project. My question is, did he only follow the Old Testament portion of the Bible? It sounds this way just by reading the article. If he only followed the OT portion of the Bible then he missed out on the greatest part of Freedom as he mentioned that is in the Bible and that is the Freedom that we have in Christ Jesus. If he, and I say if he because I haven’t read the book would follow the teachings and not only the teachings of Christ then he would have found himself at the end of the project not as a reverent agnostic but as a Born Again child of the Living God. The interesting thing about Christianity compared to all of the other religions of today is that if you take away the teachings of Buddah you no longer have the Buddhist faith, if you take away the teachings of Mohammad you no longer have Islam, but if you even take away the teachings of Christ you STILL have Christianity. You may ask why is this. It’s because, Christianity isn’t just about the teachings of Christ, it’s about the person of Jesus Christ and what He did for us on the Cross. This is the sole purpose of the Christian Faith. If he didn’t follow the example of Jesus Christ, I challenge him greatly to do this and then after a year, let’s see what his transformation is. Once again interesting project and I applaud him for following this and being faithful and he is correct about GOD’s Commandments to mankind. In today’s society we all fall so short of following these commandments. I also challenge everyone to follow GOD’s Holy Commandments and if you are up for the challenge you will need to ask GOD for His guidance for this, because none of us have the stregnth to do it on our own.. GOD BLESS EACH OF YOU!!

    Liked by 1 person

  14. The whole point of the (Old Testament) Law was to prove that people can’t be good enough to satisfy a holy God. You can’t keep it, therefore you must look for salvation outside of your own efforts. Therefore, cafeteria religion is not required.

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  15. Ahavah wrote:
    “You know, that verse about not rounding the corners of your hair or cutting your beard? I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but I did a linguistic analysis last semester of that passage and it doesn’t say that. It actually says something like “don’t make pilgrimages to the tombs of famous dead people, but don’t neglect the [nearby] graves of your elders.”

    As a rather Hebrew literate person, I determine that you’re either exceptionally sick, or what you wrote was a megalomanic attempt at humor.

    Like

  16. He could have avoided a lot of trouble by studying the Bible before beginning his project. Hebrews, for example, would have shed a lot of light on the whole Old Testament law. Perhaps instead of becoming a strangely dressed oddball, he would have found that Christ fulfilled the moral law of God, making attempts at keeping oneself perfect are useless.

    Like

  17. i loved your article, i always do, but i was wondering what all the simbols instead of I,s are if you have writen an article on this i would love to know which one it is and if not is it an experement?

    warmly

    LM

    Like

  18. That really spoke to me. I have a hard time expressing my views and I can REALLY relate to AJ. I grew up as a Mormon, which is a pretty traditional religion and I can totally relate. I’m agnostic now but I appreciate the value of many of the practices I learned growing up and hearing AJ articulate the changes he went through helps me understand why I have the views and feelings that I do. My practices help a very naturally freedom oriented individual like myself believe that I have responsibilities to others and a very natural skeptic like myself believe that there is something sacred about life.

    That is really cool. Thanks for posting that.

    Like

  19. I know I am posting this late, and no one will ever see it, but the line: “I took out a handful of pebbles because the Bible never specifies the size of the stones.” was funny. I am going to follow the Bible, but then scheme to get around what it really meant.

    Reminds me of when the line: “I promised if God got me out of this, I would never drink another bottle of beer.”

    “But I see you drink beer.”

    “Not from bottles, baby.”

    I doubt he really followed everything in the Bible, as much of it is just nuts and it would be impossible.

    J

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  20. An agnostic trying to cash in on the Bible(not that there’s anything wrong with that..).

    This self serving interview quickly killed whatever interest I had in the book. I can read self-promotion all day…

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  21. There something wrong with the site encoding (on both the latest Opera & Chrome). Characters like single quote end up like this ’ (though not in the comment section). I switched off automatic and tried manually, but it doesn’t improve.

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    • Sometimes the Bible says to stone people. In that case, Jesus did not want someone stoned, but the Bible is really big and the Son thought nothing like the Father. The Father loved stoning people.

      Please read the Bible and resubmit your comment.

      Thanks in advance.

      Like

  22. I know this is an older piece, but I just now got around to looking at the more recent comments after listening to Tim read a related article for his podcast. Went back to the text myself, followed the links therein… Funny how that works.

    My fellow Christians are missing a critical detail in their zeal for the faith: He’s described as an agnostic Jew. What part of this obligates him to pay any attention whatsoever to the NT? Go find a thoughtful Jew in your area and ask his/her opinion on the matter. Be prepared to accept whatever the response might be without getting defensive or belligerent about it. Who knows, maybe you’ll find a new friend along the way.

    If Tim goes out of his way to say it’s a laugh-out-loud book worth taking notes in, that right there puts it in my reading list…

    The basic concept of using a traditional religious framework for behavior reminds me of one of NN Taleb’s recent books. He mentioned using the remarkably elaborate Orthodox feast/fast calendar to guide his eating patterns, and preferring whenever practical to eat only plants and animals that had a name in ancient Greek or Hebrew. His family has been eating in that manner for millennia, so it quite likely fits his genetics. Plus this amounts to outsourcing a long list of daily food-related decisions to someone else – allowing him to focus his limited decision points on more important things.

    It’s a useful tool. Even if you personally don’t believe in the divine power they worship, nothing is stopping you from following a faith community’s practices on more worldly matters. You don’t have to become a Muslim to get out of debt and quit drinking. You don’t have to become a devout Buddhist to go vegetarian and back away from clinging tightly to your possessions. It’s okay. Find a path that works for you and don’t make any apologies or excuses about it.

    Like