Harvey Cox on Why Biblical Scholars Need the Public (and Vice Versa!)

Harvey Cox was once described by Martin Luther King, Jr., as one of the Church’s most creative minds, and he didn’t disappoint in this fantastic talk on How to Read the Bible (Harper 2015). The Hollis Research Professor of Divinity at Harvard University, Cox is perhaps best known for his best-selling book The Secular City (1965), selected by the University of Marburg as one of the most influential books of Protestant theology in the twentieth century

“Unlike any book I’ve ever written, How to Read the Bible was written at the invitation of an editor,” Harvey Cox admitted with a chuckle from under a weathered Red Sox baseball cap at the Westar Institute’s Fall 2015 national meeting last November.

The invitation came about, Cox explained, for a simple and somewhat obvious reason. There are more Bibles in the world now than there have ever been. It’s the international bestseller every year. Parts of the Bible have been translated into 1,042 languages. Lots and lots of people own Bibles. They read biblical stories, listen to them in church, and even watch blockbuster films and documentaries about them. Hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of people, are exposed to the Bible on a regular basis.

And yet we also have a smaller group of people, biblical scholars, doing really interesting work—work about which this wider community knows nothing. And if they do know about it, they’re often suspicious! Consider, Cox said, the experience of his colleague at Harvard Divinity School, Karen King:

Everybody know about Karen King, my successor … who got rather famous several years ago when she revealed at a meeting over in Rome of the Coptic Studies Society that she had a little fragment of a manuscript from the fourth century that had the phrase “the wife of Jesus.” Can you imagine how many questions I was asked at dinner parties and by people I met? “The wife of Jesus? Jesus had a wife?” … Look, it’s authentic as far as the dating is concerned. It is a fourth-century fragment, we did carbon testing on it, we know that. However, just because the fragment is from the fourth century doesn’t mean it’s true! … We don’t know!

Step away for a moment from the various scholarly debates still surrounding this particular document. The larger point Cox is making here holds true: just because a historical document makes a claim, and that claim is very old, doesn’t mean it’s true. Ancient does not ipso facto equal true. More importantly, a scholar’s choice to study something that matters deeply to a lot of people, even to the point of calling it into question, doesn’t mean she is being disrespectful. Usually it’s quite the opposite, in fact!

Cox expressed concern that too little friendly exchange is happening between biblical scholars and the interested public. What can be done about it? In How to Read the Bible, Cox set himself the task of trying to translate one group for the other and vice versa.

I think these people in the small group and in this big group  need each other, and here’s why: I think the people in the large group who are interested in the Bible, maybe even in a Bible study group, could profit from understanding in their own terms what these Bible scholars are doing, if they understood it and could appreciate it and see it as contributing to the power and authenticity and voice of the Bible rather than in any way diminishing it, which at their best these folks do.

What about the other direction? Do the scholars need something from the larger group of people who are interested in the Bible?

People read the Bible in these Bible study groups … expecting to hear something that illuminates their lives, something that speaks to them. They come with an expectant attitude to read the Bible. They come with a personal interest in what they might discover. I’m afraid a lot of scholars in many, many fields, not just biblical studies, have learned … that to be a good scholar, you distance yourself from whatever it is you’re studying. You try to be objective. You don’t involve your own hopes and worries in the investigation of what you’re studying. You leave that out. I’ve come to believe that’s wrong.

Cox credits feminist scholars with cracking open this objective veneer. These days, he’s most excited about Latin American contributions. Latin American scholars are bringing some of the most creative work to biblical studies these days, in part thanks to the fact that the whole liberal-fundamentalist dispute really passed them by and they are coming at conversations about the Bible from an entirely different angle.

Empire Studies is another new area of research that is contributing to how we understand the Bible. Rather than seeing the Roman Empire as just a backdrop to stories in the Bible, people are beginning to read the Roman Empire as an active player in the lives of the people who were reading and writing these stories. Some scholars are even looking at Roman military and taxation history—and why not? Jesus frequently dealt with taxes, too!

What these and other lines of inquiry show, is that seemingly historical questions like when a biblical text was written, by whom, and to what purpose, put you into the text, into the situation, letting the text speak to you—which is a highly personal move!

To illustrate these points, Harvey Cox shared several examples, which you can enjoy in his wonderful book How to Read the Bible, also reviewed in some detail here.

Westar members and friends will be delighted to hear that Harvey Cox paid high compliments to our mission of fostering conversations between scholars and the wider public. Cox himself is an exemplary figure in this regard, so I was beyond moved to hear it. He spoke to the need “to bridge that gap between scholarly investigation and research and people who are genuinely interested, who want to find out about theological and biblical and other issues.” What Westar does, “I think superbly,” he observed, “is exactly what I’ve been trying to do for a lot of my life.”

Thank you for reading this report on the Westar Institute Fall 2015 national meeting, which took place in Atlanta, Georgia, in conjunction with the annual meetings of the American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature. New reports will be added as they come available. To see all meeting-related resources, visit the Fall 2015 program page.

Cassandra Farrin

Cassandra Farrin joined Westar in 2010 and currently serves as the Marketing & Outreach Director. A US-UK Fulbright Scholar, she has an M.A. in Religious Studies from Lancaster University (England) and a B.A. in Religious Studies from Willamette University. She is passionate about books and projects that in some way address the intersection of ethics and early Christian history.

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