Is the Bible really the 'Wisden' of religion?

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Do you remember the days when the Catholic Church banned books?

Do you remember the days when the Catholic Church banned books?

They had a list called the Index ( Index Librorum Prohibitorum, which means the index of banned books), and on the Index were all the books considered by the Pope to be far too dreadful for little Catholics to read. So if you were living in a place like Ireland, and you wanted to read something truly sinful like James Joyce's Ulysses, you would have to put on dark glasses and go across the sea to England and go into a bookshop and get the forbidden fruit and go back again, and if anyone asked you why you had gone across the water, you would say airily, "Oh, I was just popping across for an abortion," and people would say, "Oh, that's all right, then," because it would never do to say why you had really gone.

Now, they may still keep the Index Librorum Prohibitorum going for all I know, and Catholics may still turn to it to find out what are the really harmful and wicked books it would be fun to read. (In fact, if I were the Pope, and had a sense of humour, I would have put the Index Librorum Prohibitorum itself on the list of banned books, on the grounds that anyone finding out what books were banned might be tempted to read them, and that would never do.) And if they do still have the Index, I expect that The Da Vinci Code is on it.

(I should explain that I have not read The Da Vinci Code myself. I am banned from reading it by my wife. She has read it and has said to me: "I will not let you read such rubbish. I forbid it." She thinks I never really recovered from the brain-rotting experience of reading A Year in Provence by Peter Mayle years ago and does not want my mind to undergo further punishment just yet.)

But the Catholic Church has read The Da Vinci Code, and has found it to be mind-numbingly inaccurate, which might not matter, except that planeloads of Americans are coming over to Europe to occupy Christendom and take over the places where the events described in The Da Vinci Code never took place, and cardinals are now fulminating in Italy against this wicked, wicked book and its untruths about Jesus having had children blah blah blah, and they demand that these historical falsifications be corrected etc etc etc.

I wonder if it occurs to any of these cardinals how ironic it is that they should ask for the cobwebs and dusty furniture of history to be cleared away. If any load of facts and fancies and events and dates and numbers ever beggared belief, it is what is contained in the Bible. I am not saying it is not true. I am just saying that it beggars belief.

One of the oddest things in the world, after all, is the way that an authoritative work is dubbed the "bible" of its field. One hears Wisden referred to as "the bible of cricket". Some books even call themselves bibles. There is a very good cook-book called The Fish Bible, which my wife swears by. (I don't mean she takes it in her right hand and solemnly swears to tell the fishy truth. I mean she opens it with both hands and cooks delicious dishes from it.)

But why The Fish Bible? The idea is to suggest that it is a well researched, well-checked, foolproof, universally respected dossier of knowledge. But that is not what the Bible is! The Bible is a jumble of bits of history, bits of myth, bits of blatant propaganda, Jewish family charts, odds and ends of Jesus stories ...

The Bible isn't really a bible at all, in the sense that Wisden tries to be a bible. What it really is is an old-fashioned Reader's Digest-type compilation of abridged books, tribal tales, old stories and songs and proverbs ... Nothing wrong with that. Makes a damned good read. And a great source for quotations and novel titles. But what it maybe doesn't do is provide a wonderful platform from which to criticise the lack of authenticity of other books.