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How to Read the Bible

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

How to Read the Bible

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.

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30 Days of Paul Reading Challenge

Letters of Paul small squareEarlier this week I posted a 30-day plan for how to read the letters of Paul in chronological order. Several thousand visits and a ton of Facebook comments later, you’ve let me know you’re ready for the challenge!

Starting July 1st, I challenge you to read with me the 7 undisputed letters of Paul in 30 days: 1 Thessalonians, Galatians, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Philemon, Philippians, and Romans. I’ll be posting a daily response on the Westar sister site 30 Days of Paul and sharing responses from others as well. Ready to go? Click here to get started.

Why these 7 letters? The so-called undisputed letters are the ones that most biblical studies scholars agree were written by Paul. They remain our best bet for understanding Paul, and they represent the earliest written evidence we have from the Jesus movement.

How to Participate in 30 Days of Paul

  • Choose your favorite translation of Paul.
    I vote for this one, which inspired the 30-day challenge.
  • Starting July 1st, read the 7 undisputed letters of Paul in 30 days:
    1 Thessalonians, Galatians, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Philemon, Philippians, Romans
  • Write, draw, or record a response daily or weekly—on a blog, Facebook, Twitter, or wherever you like.
  • Tag your response with #30daysofPaul to share it with others.

I'll be following the reading plan I shared earlier this week, which is in rough chronological order based on The Authentic Letters of Paul. You’re welcome to simply follow along or try another reading plan and compare notes. Here’s a PDF version for easy downloading and printing.

Why Read Paul?

I’m currently reading How to Read the Bible by Harvey Cox, one of two outstanding guest lecturers we have lined up for the Fall 2015 national meeting in Atlanta. It's absolutely the perfect lead-up to this challenge. Cox urges us as readers not to aim to be big-O Objective—that is, completely neutral to the point of turning a blind eye to our personal stakes in reading the Bible. Rather, we should ask ourselves what our little-o objective is in reading this particular text.

To paraphrase him slightly, we need to have a sense not merely of what we’re reading about but of what we’re reading for.

So why read Paul? What’s your objective? When I first read Cox’s advice, it occurred to me that my objective even after many years away the evangelical-conservative world of my childhood has often been to read “to prove the Bible still matters” or “to find a better/more legitimate reading than the evangelical one,” or some variant of the two. That’s not really how I want to read Paul’s letters this time through. What other options are there? Here are a few I’ve brainstormed, to which you no doubt could add more:

Moral-ethical readings

  • What was Paul’s ethic? What sort of person is Paul calling for me to be? What does it mean to, as he says, love “extravagantly”?
  • Does Paul shed light on any modern moral issues? Was Paul a friend to women or not? Did Paul condone slavery? Does it matter?
  • How would I resolve the moral problems Paul faces with individual communities? If I could pick up a pen and write a letter to Paul, how would I answer him?
  • How might we revise his ethics for today?

Artistic-creative readings:

  • Respond to Paul not with argument but intuitively through poetry, fiction, drawing.
  • Laugh! Answer Paul with humor!
  • Put on Paul’s persona and pen a letter inspired by him to another community, real or imagined. Maybe it will help us empathize with the writers who actually did this in the earliest centuries of the Jesus movement.
  • Try reading a passage aloud, putting the weight on different words or using different emotions.
  • Put on the persona of someone who disagreed with Paul.

Historical-inquisitive readings:

  • How was I taught to read and understand Paul? Is that the Paul I’m finding here?
  • Who were Paul’s interlocutors? Can we reconstruct the people on the other side of the letter—agents of the empire, other Jesus followers whose mission was different, the communities themselves, the diverse factions within the communities?
  • What sort of place was Thessalonika, Corinth, Rome, in this time period? How did one travel in the Roman Empire? How did assemblies gather, and what did they do when they were together?
  • How do Paul’s own words compare with what others claimed about him elsewhere, especially in the book of Acts and the Acts of Paul and Thecla? How did writers outside the Bible interpret Paul? Can I see the roots of those interpretations in these early materials?

Spiritual readings:

  • What sort of relationship did Paul have with God? What sort of language did he use to describe God?
  • What did Paul mean when he described communities as “belonging to Jesus”?
  • How does reading Paul with the backdrop of Israel and Israel’s God affect my picture of his spiritual situation?
  • How do Paul's words feed into my own spiritual longings and situation? Do I have a calling as Paul so strongly felt he did?
  • Must a calling be so all-encompassing as Paul experienced it? Is there ever an occasion when I would declare a particular message “good news” and feel it must be shared with others? Is “evangelizing” in this way always wrong?
  • How do Paul’s diverse, complicated relationships with his communities awaken my own longings and fears in the relationships in my life?

Letters of Paul large squareBy the way, maybe you already know this, but I want to emphasize that it’s okay to disagree with Paul. You don’t have to take him as an authority; he was human like you and me, and he no doubt made mistakes.

As I re-read this list, I find that there remains a rich conversation to be had around these ancient letters. Over the next couple weeks I’ll share more inspiration from Harvey Cox to get us all in the right frame of mind. So be sure to pick up your copy of Paul’s letters in the meantime and grab a couple friends to join you for extra motivation. July 1st is just around the corner! Go to the 30 Days of Paul site to get started!

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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.

Okay, Google, How Was the Bible Written?

Okay, Google, how was the Bible written?

You were curious, so you asked. You opened your web browser and recited, “Okay, Google, how was the Bible written?” And here were your first-page results:

  1. Truthnet.org, “How Was the Bible Written? How did the prophets write the Bible?”
  2. Everystudent.com, “History of the Bible – Who Wrote the Bible – Why It’s Reliable”
  3. Biblica.com, “When was the Bible written?”
  4. Biblica.com, “In what language was the Bible first written?”
  5. BibleOdyssey.org, “How Was the Bible Written and Transmitted?”
  6. Wikipedia.org, “Bible”
  7. Bible.org, “2. How the Bible was Written”
  8. PBS.org, “NOVA | Origins of the Written Bible”
  9. Carm.org, “When was the Bible written and who wrote it? | List of dates”
  10. Newsweek.com, “The Bible: So Misunderstood It’s a Sin”
  11. PBS.org, “From Hebrew Bible to Christian Bible | From Jesus to Christ”
  12. NewRepublic.com, “A Newly Deciphered Babylonian Tablet Details Blueprints for ‘Noah’s Ark’”

Google helpfully recites the opening paragraph of the article from Bible.org (result #7). Thanks, Google. While we could immediately start reading the sites offered up to us, it would be smart to get an idea of how reliable and helpful they actually will be. The common-sense question we might ask, then, is, “Who are the people who run these sites?” (In case you were wondering, I didn’t ask Google this one; I looked up the sites myself.)

Google's Top Results for "How was the Bible Written"

Faith-based sites, with a strong trend toward biblical literalism

  • Truthnet.org “is a group of people who are involved in letting the world know about the exclusive truth found and expressed in the teachings of the Bible.”
  • Everystudent.com “is a safe place to explore questions about who God is and what it might be like to know God.”
  • Biblica.com is “passionate about reading the Bible well so we can live it well. For over 200 years, we’ve helped millions of people access and experience God’s Word, so it can transform their lives.”
  • Bible.org—Google’s favorite to read aloud—exists “to freely share the good news from God to the entire world so you can KNOW the Truth about life and eternity.”
  • CARM stands for “Christian Apologetics & Research Ministry.” Enough said?

Public media, crowd-sourced data, journalism

  • Wikipedia.org—do I even need to tell you?—is “a multilingual, web-based, free-content encyclopedia project supported by the Wikimedia Foundation and based on a model of openly editable content.”
  • PBS.org is “America’s largest classroom, the nation’s largest stage for the arts and a trusted window to the world.”
  • Newsweek “is a premier news magazine and website, bringing high-quality journalism to readers around the globe for over 80 years. Newsweek provides the latest news, in-depth analysis and ideas about international issues, technology, business, culture and politics.”
  • “Tailored for smart, curious, socially aware readers, The New Republic covers politics, culture and big ideas from an unbiased and thought-provoking perspective.” (Could possibly be placed with Bible Odyssey below?)

Academic and nonpartisan sites

  • BibleOdyssey.org is a project of the Society of Biblical Literature, “the oldest and largest learned society devoted to the critical investigation of the Bible based on the Humanities’ core disciplines.”

How do these sites fare in answering the actual question we posed?

For the sake of time and space, I’ll stick to one example from each of the groups above.

Truth.net. This turns out to be an apologetic defense of the inerrancy of scripture, specifically the Old Testament, based on the fact that people in ancient times did write stuff down (i.e., it’s not all oral tradition). It speaks generically of “critics who attack the Bible,” and names only one ostensible critic, Julius Wellhausen, who died in 1918. It never actually quotes or adequately summarizes Wellhausen about his Documentary Hypothesis but instead quotes a critic of Wellhausen. It’s possible to be a biblical literalist without being so generic in one’s criticism of alternative views.

What’s going for it:

  • It acknowledges that people might “agree on the inspiration of the Bible” even if they don’t agree on how it was written. Perhaps this allows for variety of opinion at least within circles that embrace biblical literalism?
  • It challenges oversimplified claims that “nobody could write” in the ancient world. One wonders if any credible scholar actually holds quite this simplistic a view, but I can at least imagine a conversation taking this turn in the local pub.

What it needs:

  • up-to-date information (a lot has changed since 1918!)
  • a more charitable treatment of opposing views instead of putting up an oversimplified version of Wellhausen’s argument as a “straw man” that presents no real challenge
  • awareness that the existence of writing in ancient times has little bearing on the documentary hypothesis, which could just as easily describe the blending of multiple written as multiple oral traditions (indeed, it was likely a mix of both!) into the Bible

PBS.org. This is a nice follow-up on the article above because it also begins with oral transmission and the written word, but it tells a more complex story of the transition from mostly oral to mostly written culture while observing that even into the Second Temple period (530 B.C.–A.D. 130) and beyond, “a fierce ideology of orality would persist in rabbinic Judaism.” It also includes information about the Christian New Testament as a natural outgrowth of the same forces that shaped rabbinic Judaism.

What’s going for it:

  • It tells a complex story about oral and written tradition rather than an oversimplified claim.
  • It includes the Christian New Testament without treating Christianity as a wholly separate phenomenon from Judaism.
  • It shows awareness that modern readers may not share the worldview of ancient readers.
  • The name and credentials of the author are included.

What it needs:

  • acknowledgement of a wider conversation and diversity of views about this subject, without necessarily having to go in depth about those views
  • better coverage of how both Judaism and Christianity came to “close” their canons

BibleOdyssey.org. This article begins in what strikes me at least as a more natural starting point: that “Bible” means “library.” Oral versus written transmission is covered, but is not the primary thrust of the article. Rather, this article explains a bit about canonization, including taking the time to define it as the “process of including certain books as Scripture and rejecting others.” This article also describes how scribes physically copied texts and why not all manuscripts of the Bible are exactly the same.

What’s going for it:

  • It does not overemphasize oral versus written tradition, which was only one factor among many in the development of the Bible.
  • It defines terms and doesn’t overwhelm the reader with details.
  • It makes very clear that there is no one Bible or biblical text. Variety exists across canons based on the concerns of particular communities.
  • The name and credentials of the author are included.

What it needs:

  • frankly, even though this article offers a more well-rounded response to our actual question, it doesn’t have much “curb appeal” compared to most of the other sites on Google’s top list
  • links to more information (although the “ask a scholar” option helps), especially given how much competing responses to this question offer by comparison
  • like the article above, it does not really imply wider conversations about this subject or alert the reader to interesting points of dispute

You Got Me, Google

From cringe-worthy statements like this opening line from EveryStudent.org—“unlike other religious writings, the Bible reads as a factual news account of real events, places, people, and dialogue”—to perhaps overly harsh accusations against biblical literalism like this one on an otherwise interesting NewsWeek article—“they are God’s frauds, cafeteria Christians who pick and choose which Bible verses they heed with less care than they exercise in selecting side orders for lunch”—it is clear that asking Google about how the Bible was written opens a raw spot in the Western psyche. Is Google, like a good psychiatrist, probing our reasons for asking the question? Have we revealed our cards unexpectedly to the algorithms that impassively map the emotional turmoil spurred by our favorite text to love and hate? This is one historical question for which a straightforward historical answer may never be good enough.

Shameless plug: we’ll be talking about this pain point at the next national meeting in Atlanta, Georgia, with Harvey Cox, author of the brand new book How to Read the Bible. Why not join us?

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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.