12 Romans walk into a bar…

I’ve been thinking a good bit lately about this passage from Julian Baggini’s review of Martha Nussbaum’s new book:

Unconditional forgiveness, in which repentance is not required, is not much better. It too sometimes “channels the wish for payback,” following revenge’s road of status by elevating the pardoner to the moral high ground. It is perhaps telling that Christianity often “juxtaposes an ethic of forgiveness with an ethic of spectacular retribution.” Nussbaum points to a fascinating passage in Paul’s “Twelfth Letter to the Romans” which makes this link explicit. Paul advises against revenge, not because it is wrong, but because we should “leave it to the wrath of God.” You should treat your enemy kindly, not to reward him, but to compound his punishment. “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.”

Bold text my own. I checked Nussbaum’s text, and I think I see what happened. On page 77, Nussbaum introduces the relevant chapter by writing, “In Romans 12….” My suspicion is that Baggini had seen references to, for example, “2 Corinthians” or “1 Kings,” and knew that those numbers indicated separate “books,” and so assumed that Nussbaum was doing the same thing, with the number in a different place. Perhaps he assumed that Brits put the number at the beginning (12 Romans) and Americans at the end (Romans 12).

To be sure, the error might not be Baggini’s: he could have written “Romans 12” and had it changed by a copyeditor, and didn’t notice. Or noticed but thought the editor knew something he didn’t. Whose error it is doesn’t matter to me — though it’s interesting that nobody at the Prospect caught this — so much as the kind of error it is. It catches my attention because it’s the error of a person who isn’t afflicted by the kind of biblical illiteracy that people often comment on (failing to catch a biblical allusion in one of Abraham Lincoln’s speeches) but something deeper: an ignorance of even the basic shape of the Bible.

If you think that Paul wrote at least twelve letters to the Romans, how many letters do you think he wrote overall? How many books do you think are in the New Testament, assuming you know that the Christian Bible has two testaments? More generally, when you think about the Bible, what images and ideas present themselves to you?

Please understand, in asking these questions I am not in any way playing a gotcha game or reveling in the ignorance of wicked infidels. I am genuinely and deeply curious, in an anthropological kind of way, about how the Bible is imagined by people who just don’t have any clear idea what’s in it.