A Conversation with A.J. Jacbos Author of The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible
Q: Which was harder: reading the encyclopedia for the KNOW-IT-ALL, or living biblically for THE YEAR OF LIVING BIBLICALLY? AJ: Living biblically, hands down. It was certainly a challenge to read all the 44 million words of the encyclopedia (the 21 pages on Portuguese literature come to mind). But the Bible project affected every part of my life: the way I ate, dressed, talked, bathed, walked, worked and raised my kids. Not to mention the beard. It got so big, my wife wouldn’t kiss me for the last two months.
Q: Why in heaven’s name did you decide to do it? AJ: I grew up in an incredibly secular home. I'm Jewish in the same way that the Olive Garden is Italian. But I’ve become increasingly interested in the role of religion in our world, so I decided to dive in head first. I wanted to get into the minds of the ancients who wrote it. Or into their sandals, I suppose. I wanted to figure out what was relevant and good for me, and what was maybe not so relevant.
Q: What were the hardest rules to follow? AJ: There were two types that were hard. First, the rules that banned the sins we all commit every day. No gossiping. No lying. No coveting. Imagine trying not to covet in New York—this is a city that runs on coveting. The second type of hard rules were the ones that you can’t follow in 21st century America without getting in trouble. Like stoning adulterers.
Q: Were you able to stone an adulterer? AJ: Just one. I was walking in the park dressed in full biblical attire—white clothes, sandals, a staff—and a 75 year old guy asked me what I was doing. I explained that I was trying to abide by all the rules of the Bible, including stoning adulterers. He said, “I’m an adulterer. You gonna stone me?” And I said, “Well, yes, that would be great.” I showed him some pebbles from my pocket that I had stored for just this occasion. He grabbed the pebbles out of my hand and whipped them at me. So I decided, an eye for an eye. And tossed one at him. And in that way I stoned.
Q: You started out the book as an agnostic. Are you still one? AJ: I don't want to ruin the ending, but my year was life-changing and perspective-changing. I became what a minister friend of mine calls a “reverent agnostic.” I believe in the idea of sacredness—that rituals can be sacred, that the Sabbath can be sacred, and there's great importance to that.
Q: For THE YEAR OF LIVING BIBLICALLY you embedded yourself in communities that try to live closely to the Bible, to name a few: the Amish in Lancaster, PA, the Hasidic Jews in Brooklyn, the owners of the Creationist Museum in Kentucky, evangelical Christians at Rev. Falwell’s church in Lynchburg, VA, and Samaritans in Israel. What did you take away from these experiences? AJ: I learned to be less judgmental. What seems crazy from the outside—say, handling poisonous snakes during a church service—doesn’t seem as crazy when you’re actually experiencing it firsthand.
Q: How did your family take it? AJ: My wife is a saint. The year drove her nuts, but she didn’t divorce me. This, despite the fact that I told her I couldn’t touch her during certain times of the month because she was ‘impure.’
Q: You’ve referred to your year as an ‘extreme religious makeover.’ What has stuck with you? AJ: The Bible Project changed my life in ways both big and small. I’m much more grateful than I used to be. Gratitude is a huge theme in the Bible. I try to be thankful for the 100 little things that go right in a day instead of focusing on the 3 or 4 that go wrong. I try to keep the Sabbath. I’m a convert to the idea that we need a day of rest. I try to lie and gossip less—emphasis on the word “try.” I wear more white clothes, in accordance with Ecclesiastes.
Q: How did it change your view of religion? AJ: First, I learned that it’s impossible to follow the Bible literally. And it’s not just impossible, but it’s not a good idea. Certain fundamentalists who say they’re following the entire Bible literally are deluded. Secondly, I learned that you have to engage the Bible. You can’t just say, the Bible says X, so I’m doing X. There is so much wisdom and compassion in the Bible, but often it requires you to wrestle with the words and interpret them. And thirdly, I learned that even the rules that seem crazy at first can have a deeper meaning.
Q: Did you have anyone helping you along the way? AJ: Yes, I had rabbis, priests, and ministers—that sounds like the start to a joke. But I had an awesome spiritual advisory board. I was particularly impressed with the Red Letter Christians, who stress the actual words of Jesus and his compassion. And I loved a rabbi in Brooklyn. He taught me to read the prophets. They were the Martin Luther Kings of the Bible, crusaders for social justice.
Q: Were you able to get into the sandals of your forefathers? AJ: I think I was partially successful. I literally wore sandals. I ate biblical foods—including crickets, which are allowed in the Bible (they’re crunchy). I walked around in a robe, which I liked. There’s something freeing about not having to wear pants.
Q: Do you still have the beard? AJ: Well, I shaved it off. But I kept it as a souvenir. It’s in a plastic bag. I wanted to give out tufts of hair with the first 100 books sold. The publisher put the kibosh on that, which is probably the wisest way to go.
Q: What’s your next book? AJ: I actually signed up for two. The first will be a collection of my favorite experiments with my life. Some will be original, some will be previously published pieces, including “My Outsourced Life,” my quest to delegate every task in my life to India, and “I Think You’re Fat,” my experience with Radical Honesty, a movement that forbids lying. The second book is about my quest to become the healthiest person in the world.