Thou Shalt Live Biblically for One Year Self-proclaimed agnostic A.J. Jacobs spent one full year living a life dictated by a literal interpretation of the 700 or so rules in the Bible. The author found some were more tough to follow, and some were plainly illegal - like stoning adulterers or cutting off the hand of a woman who grabs your genitals while you're engaged in a fistfight with her husband.

Thou Shalt Live Biblically for One Year

Thou Shalt Live Biblically for One Year

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Self-proclaimed agnostic A.J. Jacobs spent one full year living a life dictated by a literal interpretation of the 700 or so rules in the Bible. The author found some were more tough to follow, and some were plainly illegal - like stoning adulterers or cutting off the hand of a woman who grabs your genitals while you're engaged in a fistfight with her husband.


We're going to continue this theme - sort of. You know, the writer's strike has been a real drag, especially for writers of books who were supposed to be guests on talk shows, which are now in repeats. But it has been a boon for us here at THE BRYANT PARK PROJECT, because we're happy to have all these amazing authors swing by our studios…


They're lining up outside the door.

STEWART: …Chris Elliot tomorrow - this morning A.J. Jacobs, editor-at-large of Esquire Magazine. He has a book out called "The Year of Living Biblically." One man's humble quest to follow - as literally as possible - okay, there's only 10 commandments, but, you know, there's some 700 rules in the Bible, some easier than others. And A.J. is in studio.

Hi, A.J.

Mr. A.J. JACOBS (Editor-At-Large, Esquire Magazine; Author, "The Year of Living Biblically"): Hello. How are you?

STEWART: I'm doing well. You know you're very clear that you were agnostic at the beginning of this book. Did you come out the other end with any spiritual awakening at all?

Mr. JACOBS: Well, I did. It was a very intense year, and I went through all sorts of permutations. By the end of the year - not to ruin the ending - but I became what a minister friend of mine calls a reverent agnostic, which is a phrase I love. I'm trying to start at as my own religion, because whether or not there's a God, I learned that there's something very valuable about the idea of sacredness, and that rituals or the Sabbath or prayers can be sacred.

STEWART: Let me ask you about some nuts and bolts of this. Practically, did you read the Bible front to beginning and just take notes of what you were supposed to do, or did you just take it a day at a time and a chapter at time?

Mr. JACOBS: No, no, I did. I spent a couple of months preparing, writing down every single law in the Bible. And I also assembled a board of spiritual advisers. So I have rabbis and priests and ministers. And I spoke to as many religious people as possible. I'm very proud, because I think I'm the first person to out-Bible talk a Jehovah's Witness.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JACOBS: He came over to my house, and after three and half hours, he said I got to go.

STEWART: So after what - that's - yeah, when you make a Jehovah's Witness leave…

(Soundbite of laughter)


You should've gotten his address and knocked on his door.

STEWART: His door, right? Of all the tenants that you read about and having to live a normal life in New York City, what did you have to get most creative about?

Mr. JACOBS: Well, there are a few. There was, you know - there were two kinds of difficult laws. There was the lying, the avoidance of lying and gossiping and coveting, because as you mentioned, I live in New York and I work for the media. So this was…

STEWART: Just part of your - it's on your resume.

Mr. JACOBS: Right.

STEWART: It's what you do.

Mr. JACOBS: That is what I do. Exactly.

STEWART: It's a skill set.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JACOBS: But then, there were also the more obscure Old Testament laws. For instance, stoning adulterers, you know, this was difficult to pull off in 21st-century America. So I had to look for some loopholes.

SMITH: Did you at least collect the stones?

Mr. JACOBS: I actually ended up - I did stone an adulterer, in a sense. A man came up to me later in the year. I was wearing my biblical clothing - so I had sandals and my white clothes - and he asked what I was doing. I explained my project. And he said, well, I'm an adulterer. Are you going to stone me? And I said sure, that'd be great.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JACOBS: So I took out some pebbles I had for just such occasion.

STEWART: Just in case.

Mr. JACOBS: Right. And he grabbed them and threw at my face. So in retaliation, I threw one at him.

STEWART: You mentioned your appearance. I want you to read Day 95. It's on page 122 in terms of, you know, you could go through this personally, internally, but clearly, people who ran into you knew there were something going on. Will read that for us?

Mr. JACOBS: Sure.

(Reading) "I looked in the mirror today, and I decided its official. I've become someone I'd crossed the street to avoid. To complement my beard and tassels, I've begun wearing all white, as prescribed by King Solomon in Ecclesiastes - let your garments be always white."

STEWART: So you had to grow beard.

Mr. JACOBS: I had a huge beard. I heard enough ZZ Top jokes to last me a lifetime.

STEWART: How did you feel when wearing the white clothing? I read in the book that you said you were a bit lighter.

Mr. JACOBS: Yeah, it was very interesting how the clothes literally make the man, how the outer affects the inner, because I did somehow feel more spiritual while I was wearing clothes.

STEWART: One of the things I also think is interesting you mentioned about the lying and the thieving and the 10 commandments. You found out you were a little bit of a liar and a thief. You - in your daily life and…

Mr. JACOBS: Yeah. It was…

STEWART: …I think a lot of us don't realize we do this a lot, whether it's an extra packet of Splenda from Starbucks…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JACOBS: Right. That's it. When you really start to pay attention, you realize just how much you sin. And it was real, ethical - extreme ethical makeover to try to stop lying and coveting. You know, even to my son. I have 3-year-old son, and I would lie to him. I would say oh, sorry. The TV's broken. You can't watch TV.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: So it was a fascinating journey to really try to make myself over.

SMITH: I can I understand curbing behavior, but coveting? How could you visit anyone's apartment in New York and not want to have that?

Mr. JACOBS: Yeah, coveting is one of the hugest - it's - in the 10 commandment, it's the only commandment that deals with a state of mind. So it is really challenging. I mean, the only thing that I could do is try to focus on what I did have. So, you know, at least I do have an apartment, even if it doesn't have a marble staircase.

STEWART: What was easy?

Mr. JACOBS: Well, there were, you know, lots of commandments that I followed just by living. You know, I never took on my wife's sister as my second wife…

STEWART: Okay. Yes.

Mr. JACOBS: …for instance. So that was good. That was easy to check off.

STEWART: Something I found sort of interesting in the book - and I think it's people who do have faith struggled with, or maybe it's one of the reasons they like faith - is that you get a chance every day to start again, that you can continue to be a sinner and have faith. I mean, you talk about I think it's on Day 124 that you got to stop self-Googling.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: You suddenly realized, you're into this for a long time and you've realized you still have some vanity. But with faith and with, you know, some sort of religion, you can try again tomorrow.

Mr. JACOBS: Well, absolutely. And, yeah, I tried - every day there was a new challenge, because, you know, there are so many ways that we sin that we don't even notice. So it was fascinating.

STEWART: A friend of mine who's agnostic says that he thinks the Bible is basically a kind of an instruction manual for how to live life. You know, how to treat your neighbor. Just basically how to go along and get along - a set of instructions and a set of rules for living. I'm wondering if you had a similar experience. You think you could actually live a pretty okay life? I mean, aside from the extreme things - stoning adulterers in 2007.

Mr. JACOBS: Right. Well, I think it's got so much wisdom. And absolutely, it can be an instruction manual. But you have to engage it. You have to pick and choose, because otherwise, if you try to follow everything, then you will end up acting a bit like a crazy person. So part of the book was to show that if you try to live the Bible literally, like people say they live the Bible literally, they follow it literally, then you really - you're doing a disservice to the Bible. That you have to pick and choose.

STEWART: And interpret.

Mr. JACOBS: And interpret, that's right.

STEWART: And I just want to mention, it's a really funny book, too.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JACOBS: Hey, thanks, Alison.

STEWART: It's a really, really funny. It's written by A.J. Jacobs. It's called "The Year of Living Biblically." I'm going to recommend it.

SMITH: More laughs than the Bible.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: A.J., thanks for coming by.

Mr. JACOBS: Oh, thanks, Alison.

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