How to Read the Bible: A Review

Sullied by unjust and even hateful usage over the years, the Bible is a book under fire. “Look at all the ignorance and cruelty in these pages,” cry its critics, with plenty of evidence at hand to prove their point. “The Bible kills our babies (real and figurative) and never apologizes for it!”

To read the Bible, to like it, to care for it have become reasons to blush. Too many awkward conversations result from cracking it open in public. One feels the urge to fold brown paper over the cover before carrying it onto trains, planes, and buses. At the very least, it seems prudent to carry it with another book, preferably something like David Sedaris’ Let’s Talk about Diabetes with Owls—anything that suggests you are not a closed-minded bigot.

I promise this is not the opening gambit in a missionary’s spiel. I’m not here to tell you to get right with God, but I am rethinking my relationship with the collected legends, poetry, proverbs, letters, and stories that were so dear to me before my college religious studies courses left me feeling betrayed by them. It turns out Moses never parted the Red Sea, we know next to nothing about the historical Jesus, and Paul probably didn’t write Ephesians, one of my favorite books of the Bible.

I’m grateful to my teachers for trusting in my intelligence, but oh man, what a letdown.

I ended up swapping my love of the Bible for a love of the history of the Bible. I did feel it was necessary to choose. And from day one of Elementary Hebrew, did I ever fall madly in love with the history of the Bible! It was love of the sort that put me in the company of Marianne Dashwood from Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. I was pretty sure it would kill me. Melodramatic? Yes. But you have to understand that I read the Bible all the time. Even the smallest helping of the history behind it was like leaning too far over deep water.

How to Read the BibleHarvard professor Harvey Cox knows the feeling. In his new book How to Read the Bible, he uses the word “vivisection” to describe that dreadful but wonderful awakening. For better or for worse, I happen to own a book on the history of medical experimentation. The authors couldn’t help themselves; they filled their rather slim volume with enough vintage sketches of vivisection to shock unsuspecting readers by the page. Crowds of onlookers stare with expressions somewhere between lust and horror as, on a stage fitted with an operating table and a rack of what look like the instruments of torture rather than healing, doctors cut open live dogs, pigs, and even human criminals, all in the pursuit of scientific truth. If I was Marianne Dashwood, it seems Harvey Cox was the pale attendant looking over the doctor’s shoulder.

Thankfully, the story does not end here. The Bible need not remain the condemned criminal and untrue lover in our newly dystopian state. There is hope. Cox draws upon a lifetime of study to assure us that it’s okay to still be moved by the Bible. The Bible can survive our scrutiny. We can read it with care and common sense at the same time.

To accomplish this, Cox modifies the guidance he received long ago from his friend and colleague, the late Krister Stendahl. Stendahl taught Cox to take a two-pronged approach to the Bible.

The two great questions about any Bible passage are, “What did it mean then?” and “What does it mean now?” … The “What did it mean then?” obviously fell in the realm of biblical studies. The “What does it mean now?” question belongs to Bible study, preaching, and spiritual formation.

As Cox tried to put this into practice, he found it was never so tidy. The two questions tangled and tussled and never quite stayed apart. “More and more today,” he tells us, “thoughtful historians, including those in biblical studies, know that complete ‘objectivity’ was never obtainable and was always probably undesirable.” In place of that, he encourages us to read with “a candid awareness of one’s personal objective.” We read for a reason, not the reason.

How do we do this? Cox advises us to read in three stages:

  1. Read the text as a story, fully absorbed in the drama and emotions as with any literary work.
  2. Become an amateur detective of history and uncover the “who, when, where and why” of a text.
  3. Engage the text in a spiritual “no holds barred wrestling match.” Be ready to change but willing to argue with what you find.

Throughout the book Cox shows readers, over and over again, how this approach can enrich our reading of the Bible. I found the chapter on Job especially moving, not to mention startlingly relevant to my life.

Has Cox convinced me to read my Bible in public again? Yes, I believe he has. I have been reminded of what it was like to relate with the people of Bible—in the stories, behind them, around them. I feel I have been given tacit permission to talk about both what I cherish and what goads me.

One thing I will not do: oversimplify.

Cassandra FarrinCassandra 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.

5 replies
  1. Michael Ham says:

    “Oh…isn’t that interesting” may very well be a good enough reason to read the Bible but the Bible presents itself as more than an interesting set of stories. The Bible is claimed to be the truth…the word of the god and the guidebook by which we should all fashion our model of behavior and social interactions. It is this claimed unique position that distinguishes it from other stories and themes and in this claimed unique position the Bible fails miserably.

    Perhaps if one feels compelled to read the Bible just for the sake of the emotional impact of relating events in his own life to certain Biblical events or an interest in the stories themselves as works worthy of his time because the Bible is “a really good read” and if this proves rewarding by some measure…by all means enjoy.

    But the failure of the Bible to live up to its claimed core purpose renders the Bible with no more intrinsic value as pure literature than a comic book or a formula novel retelling stories that have already been told but using different characters and settings.

    Re: ” I have been reminded of what it was like to relate with the people of Bible—in the stories, behind them, around them. I feel I have been given tacit permission to talk about both what I cherish and what goads me.”

    The “people of the Bible” are characters in the stories of the Bible. This distinction is critical but this distinction is not made by the majority of the people who read the Bible. They do not understand that what they think is the guidebook to a meaningful/rewarding life is actually a used paperback novel.

    Were I to buy a book claiming to contain the best hiking trails in Montana but the content was actually the life and times of Micky Mouse I would feel deceived even if I wound up enjoying the story of Micky’s life. It is the deceptive nature of the content of the Bible to which I object.

    • Cassandra says:

      A couple thoughts in response, Michael. I totally relate with the sentiment of having been duped by the Bible. I’ve come to realize that it wasn’t the Bible that taught me to think of it that way; it was my religious tradition that did that. The Bible doesn’t make any single claim about itself and its purpose. It is a library collection more so than a book. To read it as a spiritual guidebook is truly only one of many possible ways to read, understand, and appreciate (or reject!) it. I feel reading the Bible as good literature and even as a profound myth (in the best sense of the word) from our ancient history, has as much value as reading other ancient works like Gilgamesh, the Iliad and the Odyssey, the Aeneid, and so on.

      Now that is NOT to say there is no duplicity in the Bible. I’m not trying to be naive here. There are texts written by one person claiming to be another, for instance. I think we can confront those individual texts as we find them, and we do have the right to reject something we don’t feel is valuable, on whatever grounds we want to argue. I just don’t think that can be done with the entire Bible as a package.

      • Michael Ham says:

        It isn’t a matter of SOME duplicity in the Bible. The Bible is duplicitous as a whole…as a book of collected writings…selected to specifically tell a series of stories…chapters that make up a complete and exact representation of what the god of Abraham wanted us to know. How could it be less if the god of Abraham is perfect as claimed and the Bible is “his” word?

        Re: ” I feel reading the Bible as good literature and even as a profound myth (in the best sense of the word) from our ancient history, has as much value as reading other ancient works like Gilgamesh, the Iliad and the Odyssey, the Aeneid, and so on.”

        I get that…the Bible as another ancient work..another myth and I understand that you appreciate the value as literature.

        Thank you for your time and thoughts.

  2. Dennis Dean Carpenter says:

    One should define “Bible.” To me it is the books of the Tanakh, so that is what I’ll address. Christianity co-opted those writings and duct-taped their writings to it. The Bible, once one gets past the Torah and Joshua, which form a foundation myth (of a mythical great nation that needed to explain why it never stayed great), is a pro-Judean document obviously written during the Persian, Hellenistic and possibly Roman periods. (Certainly it can be shown that it was being “revised” during this time.) It’s antiquity is over-rated, seeing that the chronologies were re-constructed based on the “great year” of 4000 years to coincide with the dedication of the Jerusalem temple by the Maccabeans. It is a compilation of political/religious documents that weren’t even “firmed up” when the Dead Sea Scrolls were written. It is not “history” but “tradition.” The world its authors created was their world, not the world (in the “distant past”) about which they were interjecting their world. “What do the fables and myths mean now” is really irrelevant to understanding them. It is not of our world, or even of the world of the authors of the books.

  3. Dennis Dean Carpenter says:

    Let’s look at form. When one gets to the writings called the “New” Testament, one begins by reading an assortment of gospels that were considered authoritative by the middle to end of the second century. Irenaeus (ca. 175 ce.) was one of the first to name them and consider them THE four. Mark was obviously written first (between probably 70 – 80)and agrees quite a bit with the tale told by Matthew and Luke, who expanded the story. There is a hypothesis that Matthew and Luke used material from a manuscript now lost that contains material not found in Mark. John is an odd one, but the one most are familiar with, because of the theology. One should realize that canonical Luke is different from other versions, like the gospel used by Marcion, especially the first few chapters, which were probably the last written. Tertullian, late second, early third century, didn’t think that much of Luke, since he said the author wasn’t an apostle and because Marcion’s only gospel was a variant of the gospel he knew. Mark was the least important of the books, rarely cited by second and third century theologians. It is probable that the author of Acts was the same as the author of Luke. Acts is the “foundation myth” of Christianity, written in the second century (115-150). The next group of literature consists of writings said to be “epistles.” These were not in chronological order, but probably reflected the problems of using a codex. The first nine are arranged in order of length, as much as anything. (One had to calculate the number of words per page in order to know approximately how many pieces of “paper” were needed, when folded, for the collection and it was easier to add or subtract pages if the smaller letters were in order according to length. Over half of the earliest Greek manuscripts were only either Pauline or Paul plus Acts. David Trobisch’s “Paul’s Letter Collection” speaks to this.) This was not the order of Marcion, whose canon included different versions of the Paulines with his version of Luke. After these come the Pastorals, letters written in the name of Paul specifically as letters of instructions for churches and parishioners. (I will maintain, when one looks at the “authentic letters,” this was also a major reason these were written.) Revelation was still contested in the fourth century, when canonization was in the eyes of the faithful. It came last. As early as the first quarter of the second century, canon was in the mind of Marcion. One should probably realize that these 27 were chosen from many Gospels, Acts and Apocalypses that were used from the second century onward by many of the different groups. (I found 22 sects named in Irenaeus and an additional 14 in Hippolytus!) When one reads the “New” Testament, one is reading the authoritative books of the “winners,” not necessarily historical accounts or church behaviors of all the sects. Christianity and “Christ Jesus” meant different things to different groups.

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