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Thursday, Oct. 11, 1 p.m. ET

Books -- 'The Year of Living Biblically'

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Discuss "The Year of Living Biblically" with author A.J. Jacobs.

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A.J. Jacobs
Author, Esquire Editor
Thursday, October 11, 2007; 1:00 PM

Journalist A.J. Jacobs spent a year trying to adhere to all the moral codes, big and small, in the Bible. He took your questions Thursday, Oct. 11 at 1 p.m. ET about the effort and his new book, "The Year of Living Biblically: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible."

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A transcript follows.

Jacobs is a senior editor at Esquire magazine and the writer of articles such as My Outsourced Life and I Think You're Fat. He is also the author of "The Know-It-All: One Man's Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World," about his effort to read all 32 volumes of the Encyclopaedia Britannica.

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A.J. Jacobs: Hello everybody.

Thanks for coming. This is my first online chat, so forgive me if I make any huge errors in etiquette or misuse emoticons.

A quick intro:

I am an editor at large at Esquire magazine. I love to throw myself into life-changing experiments. I spent a month outsourcing my life to a team of people in Bangalore, India for an article called "My Outsourced Life." (They answered my emails, placed my calls, did my shopping online - even argued with my wife).

I also spent a month practicing something called "Radical Honesty" (no white lies, no filter between the brain and mouth).

My previous book was called THE KNOW-IT-ALL and was about my year spent reading the Encyclopedia Britannica and trying to learn everything in the world.

And my latest project was, I think, my most life-changing and extreme experiment yet. It is called THE YEAR OF LIVING BIBLICALLY: ONE MAN'S HUMBLE QUEST TO FOLLOW THE BIBLE AS LITERALLY AS POSSIBLE. I loved living the year, and it's altered me in a hundred, small and large, trivial and profound. I hope you like the book that resulted.

I know it's not biblical to boast about myself, so instead of describing the book myself, I thought it'd be easier to reprint the summary from the publisher. (And believe it or not, I took out a couple of superlatives from what originally appeared). Here it is:

Following in the footsteps of his bestseller, The Know-It-All, A.J. Jacobs chronicles the year he spent trying to obey - as literally as possible - the tenets of the Bible. THE YEAR OF LIVING BIBLICALLY is part memoir, part education, part spiritual journey, and all hilarious. While A.J.'s wit and humor are irrepressible, this is not acerbic satire. As with The Know-It-All this is a quest for knowledge

A.J. discovered there are more than 700 rules in the Bible--some general, some highly specific. Many are wise, but many baffle the 21st century mind. A.J. assembled a board of spiritual advisors - rabbis, ministers and priests, who would provide guidance and advice throughout his journey. But at the same time, the journey was personal. DIY religion.

A.J. explores the Bible chronologically, from Old Testament to the New Testament - and lives the Bible on every level. He obeys the 10 commandments, he is fruitful and multiplies (A.J.'s wife had twins during his year!); he remembers the Sabbath and keeps it holy. But he also obeys the oft-neglected rules, such as avoiding clothes of mixed fibers, and refraining from shaving the edges of his beard (Leviticus 19:27). So throughout the year A.J. is commonly mistaken for a member of ZZ Top. Or Moses. Or Ted Kaczynski.

While the struggle of a modern-day Manhattanite attempting to live by 700 Biblical rules is necessarily hilarious, A.J. also treats his subject(s) with great respect. Whether visiting

Negev, the huge desert in southern Israel where Abraham, Isaac and Jacob once dwelled;

or the Answers in Genesis Museum near Cincinnati, Ohio, A.J.'s reverent curiosity and comedic insights exist in equal measure.

A.J. Jacobs: Here we go

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Arlington, Va.: How did you get the idea for the book? What was the hardest rule to follow, and have you been maintaining any of them since the year ended?

A.J. Jacobs: I got the idea because I grew up in a very secular home -- I'm Jewish in the same way the Olive Garden is Italian. But I've become increasingly interested in religion. I wanted to know what to tell my son. So I decided to dive in headfirst.

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Upper Marlboro, Md.: What is Divine Healing? Who did you avoid, as per the book of Proverbs (Avoiding evil people)?

A.J. Jacobs: Avoiding evil people was hard. Probably impossible. The Bible tells you not to covet, gossip and lie. Imagine trying to do that in 21st century urban America. I tried. And I think I made some strides, but I still coveted, gossiped and lied.

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NY, NY: Considering that the Bible includes contradictory passages, do you have any reaction to the following?:

- The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose. (Shakespeare's "Merchant of Venice")

A.J. Jacobs: I think it's true. You can definitely pluck passages out of the Bible to support almost any position. I found one website that claimed that the Bible approved of pot-smoking because of a line in Genesis about God providing plants for us. It's a challege, and I don't have an easy solution. All I can recommend is reading the Bible with generosity and an open heart, and look for the passages that support compassion and kindness and helping the needy.

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Washington, D.C.: I loved the interview with Teri Gross so much that I went to the city library's Web site to request the book, but it is not in their collection! I am trying to get them to order it. Just want to say that I can't wait to read it. Sounds fascinating.

A.J. Jacobs: Thank you! Glad to hear it. You make me commit the sin of pride.

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DC: Are there any rules that conflict with each other? If so, how did you handle this?

A.J. Jacobs: There are many times when the rules seem to conflict. (SOmeone sent me a quote from Ned Flanders of the Simpsons, which I'm paraphrasing: "Why did this happen to me? I followed everything in the Bible, even the stuff that contradicts the other stuff").

For instance, there's a rule about not gossiping, then there's the rule about treating your spouse as she would treat you. So when my wife had a mean client, I didn't gossip and wouldn't say anything bad about the client, since I didn't know the client personally. But in retrospect, I should have followed the rule to support my wife.

You can't blindly follow the rules. You have to make choices.

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Reston, Va.: Is there anything that you will continue to do though your year is up?

A.J. Jacobs: Absolutely. It's changed my life in 100 ways. I have stopped stoning adulterers. But I do continue some other practices and beliefs. For instance, I am much more grateful. The Bible talks a lot about thankfulness, so I try to be thankful for the 100 little things that go right in a day as opposed to the three or four that go wrong. I love the Sabbath. I'm a workaholic, so a mandated day of rest to reflect and spend with your family -- sans BlackBerry -- is a beautiful thing. I started the year as an agnostic, and I ended it as what a minister friend of mine calls a 'reverent agnostic.' Whether or not there is a God, I believe in there's something to the idea of sacredness. Rituals can be sacred, the Sabbath can be sacred, and there's an importance to that.

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Hartford, Conn.: Did your family have any objections to your research for this book?

A.J. Jacobs: My wife is a saint. She put up with a lot. My beard alone -- she wouldn't kiss me for the last two months of the project. Plus, at one point, I built a biblical hut in our living room. She didn't appreciate the construction project in our apartment. Though there were some things that enhanced both our lives -- the Sabbath for instance. She loved that I stopped working for a day.

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Santa Barbara, Calif.: I'm looking forward to reading your book. How did it impact how you handled money?

A.J. Jacobs: I tithed. I gave 10 percent of my income to the needy. Which hurt, but in a good way.

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Falls Church, Va.: During your quest, did you at first feel the need to explain to onlookers what you were doing, or did you wait until they asked questions? What were some of the best/comical questions you were asked?

A.J. Jacobs: Well, I drew a lot of second glances. I live in NY, but even in NY -- home to the Naked Cowboy and Gene Shalit -- I stood out. By the end, I was really trying to get into the mindset of those from biblical times, so I literally started to wear their clothes -- a robe, sandals, a walking staff.

Reactions were mixed. Some people crossed the street to avoid me. Others treated me like a D-list celebrity (an Austrian tourist couple took photos of me). Still others said they felt more reverential in my presence, which was so flattering. A woman at the corner store said she didn't want to curse, lie or gossip in my presence.

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Richmond, Va.: I assume this exercise would reveal how pointless, outdated, superstitious and ignorant most of the rules of the Bible are.

Now we know about proper sanitation, refrigeration, washing hands and where thunder comes from. No need to shun women who are menestrating. Shellfish is okay now that we have refrigeration and safety inspectors. etc. Did it make you respect those rules less to see how illogical they were?

A.J. Jacobs: The book has two intertwining strands. One is a real and profound spiritual journey, to see what I was missing as a completely secular person, and what I could learn from a religious worldview and way of life. The other strand was to show that fundamentalism is not the best way to approach the Bible. In a sense, I became the ultimate fundamentalist and took everything literally to show that if you take every word of the Bible literally, you miss a lot of the meaning and wisdom of the Bible.

As for irrational rules -- I found the topic to be much more complex and subtle than I anticipated. If the rules are harmful to others, then I think we should move past them. But what about rules that aren't harmful? Yes, avoiding shellfish may seem irrational, but all ritual behavior is, in a sense, irrational. As a friend points out, blowing out candles on a birthday cake -- that makes about as much logical sense as some of the Bible rules.

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Richmond, Va.: I read the outsourcing article, it was very funny. Great black humor.

A.J. Jacobs: As my outsourcers would say, Thanking you!

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Virginia: What kind of response are you getting to the book? I admit I'm a little baffled as it seems like the premise is that no one has ever tried to do this. Devout Jews and Christians try to do every moment of their lives although, no, we don't call in a priest to diagnose our household mold problems (one of the really obscure passages). If your project inspired you to read the Scriptures, that's a good thing. Maybe your curiosity will inspire others as well.

A.J. Jacobs: It's been fascinating to see the response. I've been quite lucky. So far, I've gotten very positive response from both secular and religious readers. (Of course, there are the occasional readers who rebuk me). But I've gotten the seal of approval from many rabbis and evangelical Christians.

I think partly that's because I went into this project with an open mind. I didn't go in to judge or mock. I went in very curious about religion. And even when I strongly disagree wiht someone's point of view, I try to understand it. You know, biblical humility!

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Captiol Hill, D.C.: A.J., how many women and/or gays were you forced to stone to death in the last year?

A.J. Jacobs: I actually do have a section on stoning, since capital punishment was such a huge part of the Old Testament. It's a fascinating topic -- and a disturbing one as well.

In practice, I did actually stone one adulterer. I was in the park dressed in my biblical clothes, and a man asked me what I was doing. I explained my project. He said -- in a confrontational tone -- "I'm an adulterer. You gonna stone me?" I said, "Yes, that would be great." So I took out a handful of pebbles -- since the Bible doesn't specify the size of stones, I figured this could be my loophole. He actually grabbed the pebbles out of my hand and tossed them at my face. So in self-defense, I tossed one back at him.

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Fredericksburg, Va.: Congratulations on your book! I loved " Know-it-All" and am looking forward to reading this one. Did you solicit advice from any Biblical scholars or pious friends as to how to interpret certain rules, or did you decide on your own how any ambiguous passages should be followed?

A.J. Jacobs: Thank you!! I did indeed solicit advice. I had a spiritual advisory board of rabbis, ministers and priests (rabbis, ministers and priests - that sounds like the start to a joke, but it's not). Some of the most fascinating parts of the journey to me involved the different ways people interpret rules and passages. One thing I found -- at one point or another, every single passage in the Bible has been interpreted literally. There was a ancient theologian named Origen who, it is said, interpreted a New Testament line literally. The line said that eunuchs would enter the Kingdom of God, so he made himself a eunuch. He later became an advocate of figurative interpretation.

(I never cut off any body parts, fyi)

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Richmond, Va.: How did you even remember all the rules? Did you have to keep rereading to remember them and how did you stay awake during the dull parts? And how did you decide if something was a rule or just a deep thought, or symbolic message?

A.J. Jacobs: I had a stapled list of all the 700 rules. And I often had to take it out to refresh my memory. But it was impossible -- I couldn't keep them all in my mind at the same time. It was like juggling 700 balls. Naturally, I broke rules all the time, despite my best efforts.

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Washington, D.C.: Do you think your book and quest is/was respectful of honest, believing Christians? From the questions here, it looks like your audience is a group of people who don't know the Bible and don't believe any of it.

A.J. Jacobs: I think so. As I said before, I went in with an open mind, and have received mostly positive feedback from religious people. Again, not biblical to boast, but I'm featured on the cover of the evangelical magazine Relevant this month. (I also got a review in Penthouse magazine -- which I don't think happens all that often).

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Spring Hill, Tenn.: Do you have another project (or experience, if you prefer) like this planned?

A.J. Jacobs: My wife says that after reading the encyclopedia and living the Bible, I owe her bigtime. She suggests "A year of Foot Massages." Or else, she wants me to eat at all the good restaurants in New York for a year, and take her along with me.

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D.C.: Did you have a favorite rule you followed? How about your least favorite?

And I read about your wife's revenge regarding her menstrual cycle. Funny. How did your family react to your attempt to live biblically?

A.J. Jacobs: One of my favorites was respecting the elderly. The elderly in our society seem to have gone out of fashion (which becomes more and more disturbing as I am about to enter my 40s). So I'm glad I worked on that. (Though I did maybe take part of that rule a bit too literally. The Bible says to stand in the presence of the elderly, so I remember having a dinner in Florida where I basically stood the entire time).

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Chesterfield: What about the rules that tell you to rule your wife (or however they word it). Did your wife go along with that? Where was her line as far as supporting your efforts vs. standing up for herself with her contemporary beliefs?

A.J. Jacobs: It's a good question -- there are parts of the Bible that seem to say that the man is the head of the household and should make the final decisions. That didn't translate to our household.

The issue of women in the Bible is a tough one. Because in biblical times, the truth is, women were not considered equal to men. It was a man's world.

The best advice I got on the matter was from a rabbi who said you have to roll up your sleeves and really work to find the parts of the Bible where there are strong women and there is some sort of equality. (Judith, for instance, is quite the strong woman).

It's the mindset of engaging the Bible, wrestling with it -- and it's a mindset I found helpful.

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Richmond, Va.: re: "I started the year as an agnostic, and I ended it as what a minister friend of mine calls a 'reverent agnostic.' Whether or not there is a God, I believe in there's something to the idea of sacredness. Rituals can be sacred, the Sabbath can be sacred, and there's an importance to that."

Wow, thanks that really hit home for me. as an atheist, I thought I'd just have a fun laugh with your year, but this is good stuff. Sacred is family, nature, self-respect for me -- it doesn't have to be a god in the sky.

A.J. Jacobs: Thanks! Great to hear. It was interesting -- I think there are lessons from a religious worldview that can be applied, even to those who are atheists and agnostics.

One of those is this:

You can look at the world either as a series of rights and entitlements, or as a series of responsibilties. In biblical times, it was the latter. You had responsibilities to your community, to the elderly, etc. There wasn't this sense of individual rights. It's sort of the JFK perspective: Ask not what your country (community/world) can do for you, ask what you can do for your country (community/world).

And I love that way of thinking. I try to have it. I often fail, but I try.

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Seinfeld: So you were the master of your domain for a full year? Elaine didn't even last a week...

A.J. Jacobs: Sex in the Bible was a fascinating topic. There are parts of the Bible that are pro-sex, such as the Song of Solomon. It can get quite steamy, to be honest. But there are also parts of the Bible that seem to indicate being abstinent is the best policy. At the end of the project, I tried abstinence (it helped that I had a huge beard and my wife was seven monhts pregnant, so she had zero interest in me).

One thing I noticed: Sublimation is real. I was so productive during those months -- I think I wrote 3/4 of the book then.

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Stoned BY an adulterer?: So, what, the guy is part of some violent Adulters Pride unit? Yeesh.

After the self defense stone, did you turn any cheeks?

A.J. Jacobs: I know. I was pretty taken aback. In general, I'm more of a cheek turner.

By the way, adultery in ancient biblical times is not the same as what we think of as adultery today. Adultery mostly applied to married women. In early biblical times, men were allowed to have multiple wives and concubines, as long as they weren't married to another man.

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Colorado Springs, Colo.: What did you eat?

A.J. Jacobs: I did follow the Bible's dietary laws -- no pork, no shellfish. Interestingly, the Bible does specifically allow crickets and locusts. Which seemed irrational at first -- but if you think about it, maybe not so.

If a locust plague destroys all the crops, what is left to eat? THe locusts themselves.

(I tried one, just to see what it's like. Crunchy).

Thank you so much everybody. I loved the questions. Hope you enjoyed it as well.

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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