Reading the Bible

“The Bible is very widely revered because of its status as the Word of God, but it is also a remarkable work of literature, that is, on the whole, exceptionally accessible and engaging.”

The Bible can be intimidating and confusing for any reader. In these two sessions Professors Harry Attridge and John Collins help us to think about some of the issues that cause these feelings. Learning about the amazing and inspiring literature that is the Bible will enrich the understanding of any seeker of spirituality.

Session 1 helps us understand the historical time in which the Bible was recorded. It discusses the evolution of modern thinking from the view of the Bible as “history” to a more modern understanding as humankind’s view God.

Session 2 tackles the presentation of violence, patriarchy, slavery, and sexual behavior which has provided so much challenge. The history of the Bible, the writings of the Old Testament, and Jesus’ teaching are considered together in a way that fosters greater understanding of the messages in the Bible.

Taken together this material greatly supports the reader’s ability to access and embrace an incredible and inspirational piece of literature, moving from a view of Bible as history to a broader understanding.

Meet Our Professors

Harry Attridge

Lillian Claus Professor of New Testament

Harry Attridge has made scholarly contributions to New Testament exegesis and to the study of Hellenistic Judaism and the history of the early Church. He has published numerous books, authored book chapters and articles in scholarly journals, and has edited 11 books, including Hebrews: A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews, First-Century Cynicism in the Epistles of Heraclitus, The Interpretation of Biblical History in the Antiquitates Judaicae of Flavius Josephus, Nag Hammadi Codex I: The Jung Codex, and Psalms in Community. Dean Attridge has been an editorial board member of Catholic Biblical Quarterly, the Harvard Theological Review, the Journal of Biblical Literature, and the Hermeneia Commentary Series. Before coming to Yale, Dr. Attridge was Professor of New Testament Studies and Dean of the College of Arts and Letters at Notre Dame. He has served as president of the Society of Biblical Literature since 2001. He holds degrees from Boston College (A.B.), Cambridge University (B.A., M.A.), Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and Harvard University (Ph.D.).

John J. Collins

Holmes Professor of Old Testament Criticism and Interpretation

John J. Collins, a native of Ireland, was a professor of Hebrew Bible at the University of Chicago from 1991 until his arrival at YDS in 2000. He previously taught at the University of Notre Dame. He has published widely on the subjects of apocalypticism, wisdom, Hellenistic Judaism, and the Dead Sea Scrolls. He has participated in the editing of the Dead Sea Scrolls and is the general editor of the Yale Anchor Bible series. He holds degrees from University College Dublin (BA, MA, and an honorary D. Litt.) and Harvard University (PhD).

Further Reading

 

Yale Bible Study

Reading the Bible

I. Why Read the Bible? History and Literature

The Bible is very widely revered because of its status as the Word of God, but it is also a remarkable work of literature, that is, on the whole, exceptionally accessible and engaging. While it is made up of many books, written over hundreds of years, it is held together by a story that runs from creation to the end of the world. In the Old Testament, this story is primarily the story of Israel. In the New Testament, it is the story of Jesus and the early Church, conceived as the continuation, even the culmination, of the Old Testament story.

History and Israel’s Scriptures

Fifty years ago, it was commonplace to claim that the biblical story was historical, in contrast to other stories from the ancient world involving gods, which were regarded as myths. Biblical scholars, other than Fundamentalists, did not claim that all details in the biblical story were historically reliable. The opening chapters of Genesis were obviously mythical, and many details in the story of Israel were embellished. But at least in North American scholarship, it was widely believed that the main events had an historical basis. William Foxwell Albright 1 , who taught at Johns Hopkins University and was a dominant figure from the 1920’s up to the 1960’s, developed a research program that sought to demonstrate the historical basis of the biblical account by means of archeological excavations. The Bible, in the words of Albright’s student G. Ernest Wright, was “a projection of faith into facts,” but the facts were thought to be verifiable by archeology.

For a time, this program seemed to be remarkably successful. Archeology does indeed illuminate many details in the biblical story. But eventually the program backfired. The showpiece example was Jericho, the town north of the Dead Sea where Joshua is said to have entered the promised land. According to the biblical account, Jericho was a walled city, and the walls came tumbling down at Joshua’s trumpet blast. When the site was excavated, however, the evidence suggested that it was not inhabited at all in the time of Joshua (the 13th century BCE). Now archeological results are always tentative. Today’s conclusions could in principle be overturned by to-morrow’s excavation. But for the present, we have to rely on the evidence at hand. That evidence suggests that the story of the conquest of Jericho in the Book of Joshua is a fiction. The stories of the Patriarchs are no longer believed to date from the second millennium BCE, but are rather legends from some later time. Even the story of the Exodus has no external evidence to support it. In light of the highly miraculous nature of the story, it must be regarded as myth rather than history.

This is not to say that all biblical narrative is fictional. The narratives in the Books of Kings can often be correlated with Assyrian and Egyptian records, although they also include legend-like narratives in the stories of Elijah and Elisha. The Books of Samuel cannot be correlated with external evidence, but they are realistic narratives, with little or no miraculous elements. For that reason, they are more readily accepted as historical than is the Book of Exodus, but it may be that they should be regarded as historical novels. Robert Alter famously described them as “prose fiction.”

Even books like Exodus may have some historical basis. Some years ago, a popular movie called “Big Fish” told the story of a man who was embarrassed by his father’s penchant for exaggeration. He told stories about his life that typically involved outlandish characters. Yet, when he died, several characters who fit the descriptions of his stories showed up at his funeral. This did not mean that has stories were simply factual, but that they were based on real-life characters. The situation with biblical narratives may be similar, but it is now often impossible to separate fact from fiction, and futile even to try.

The creation stories in the Book of Genesis obviously report events of which there could be no historical record. Moreover, Genesis 1 and Genesis 2-3 give very different accounts of creation, and this was recognized already in antiquity by people like Philo of Alexandria, the Jewish philosopher who lived in the time of Christ.

Much light was cast on the biblical creation stories by the recovery of ancient Near Eastern myths. Specifically, the Babylonian myth Atrahasis seems to have served as a model for Genesis, as it extends from the creation of humanity to the story of the Flood. The recovery of these stories helped people realize that what we have in the Bible is also mythical. That is to say, they are works of human imagination. If we want to speak about things like creation, that go beyond any human experience, all we can do is imagine how they might have been. The story of Adam and Eve, for example, starts from the human experience of life, where women experience pain in childbirth and men earn their bread by the sweat of their brow. The story provides an explanation why this is so.

The accounts of creation in Genesis are not the only stories of creation that were current in ancient Israel. Several poetic passages in the Bible suggest that the creation of the world involved a battle between God and a dragon, or a monster named Rahab. See for example Isaiah 51:9: “Was it not you who cut Rahab in pieces, who pierced the dragon?” The Bible never tells the story of the conflict between God and Rahab or the dragon, but such a story was evidently known, so that the prophet could allude to it.

The Historical Framework of the Hebrew Bible

The overall historical framework for thinking about the development of the Bible begins with the emergence of the people of Israel in the hill country of the land of Israel sometime toward the end of the second millennium BCE. At the end of the eleventh century BCE, the tribal confederacy, stories about which appear in the Book of Judges, yielded to a monarchy under Saul which organized resistance to the Philistines along the coast. The twelve tribes remained united under David and his son Solomon in the tenth century, but then were divided into two kingdoms, Israel in the north and Judah in the south. The northern kingdom, with its capital at Samaria, fell to the Assyrians, an empire based in Mesopotamia, in 722. The southern kingdom survived until it was conquered by the Babylonians at the beginning of the sixth century BCE. From 586 to around 539, the leadership of the kingdom of Judah, and at least one prophet, Ezekiel, lived in exile in Babylon. The Babylonian empire was replaced by a new world power, the Persians, under Cyrus the Great, in 539. He allowed the exiles to return to Jerusalem, beginning the Second Temple period. The political situation changed again at the end of the fourth century BCE, when the youthful Macedonian king, Alexander the Great, overthrew Persia beginning the Hellenistic period. Successors of Alexander, who died in 323 BCE, then ruled over the Israelite community focused on the Temple of Jerusalem. These rulers were first the Ptolemies, from Egypt (323-198), then the Seleucids (198-164). The Maccabean revolt led to the inauguration of the Hasmonean dynasty, which gradually achieved autonomy from the Seleucids, until the Romans under Pompey the Great conquered Jerusalem in 63 BCE. The Romans at first administered the territory of Judaea through local monarchs, installing Herod the Great in 40/39 BCE.

History and the New Testament

The New Testament covers a much shorter period of time than the Hebrew Bible and many of its books are not accounts of past events. The letters by Paul and other leaders of the early Church offer pastoral advice and exhortations, arguments about the controversial issues debated by followers of Jesus, or, in the case of the Book of Revelation, a symbolic message of hope for divine deliverance in a time of trial. The four gospels and the Acts of the Apostles do, however, tell a story of life and teachings of Jesus and of the development of the Church in the first decades of its existence. Like much of the Hebrew Bible these stories are based on historical facts. Jesus did live in Galilee and did preach a message about the incoming Reign of God. He was crucified by Roman authorities in Jerusalem around 30 CE. His disciples had experiences of him following execution and, inspired by what they understood to be the Spirit of God working in them, continued to make disciples living in communities hoping for the fulfillment of God’s promised reign.

While the framework of basic facts is historical, the disciples who told the story of Jesus and his followers remembered that story in different ways, highlighted different dimensions, and offered distinctive interpretations of its significance. Mark, no doubt the earliest Gospel, and probably a source used by the other gospel writers, says nothing about the birth or youth of Jesus. He tells a fast-paced story of the Galilean ministry of Jesus, preaching about the reign of God, healing the sick, expelling demons, and entering into controversy with the religious leaders of his day. Mark tells of the suffering and death of Jesus, but ends his account with the discovery of the empty tomb. He says nothing about appearances of the resurrected Christ.

Matthew tells a story of Jesus’ birth, witnessed by wise men from the Gentile world. Matthew’s account of Jesus’ ministry focuses on his teaching, neatly arranged into five large blocks, like the first five books of Moses, the Torah that begins the Hebrew Bible. Matthew carefully notes how much of the ministry of Jesus can be understood in the light of prophetic texts of ancient Israel. He also insists that the teaching of Jesus is compatible with Torah observant Judaism. Jesus, in fact, tells his disciples to follow the dictates of the Pharisees. Matthew concludes his gospel with a report of Jesus appearing to his followers in Galilee and giving them a commission to make disciples of all nations.

Luke also tells a story of Jesus’ birth, quite different Matthew’s. He prefaces his story with an account of the conceptions of both John the Baptist, here understood to be a cousin of Jesus, and Jesus himself. This story contains wonderful poetic passages, the Magnificat of Mary (1:46-55), the Benedictus of Zachariah (1:68-79), and the Nunc Dimittis of Simeon (2:29-32). The savior’s birth is here attended not by magi but by shepherds, recalling the origins of Israel’s famed King David.

Both Matthew and Luke report that the birth of Jesus was extraordinary. In Matthew Joseph learns that Mary is pregnant with a child conceived from the Holy Spirit (Matt 1:20) and that this situation fulfills a prophecy in Isaiah 7:14 that a “virgin shall conceive and bear a son.” Luke’s account of the annunciation (Luke 1:26-38) is a much more dramatic story. The angel Gabriel announcing to Mary God’s plan of a divinely conceived child and she in reply consents to it. From these stories comes the tradition of the Virgin Birth and eventually the doctrine that Mary was perpetually a virgin, although Mark 6:3 records the names of Jesus brothers and the fact that he had sisters as well. The stories may have been inspired by the text from Isaiah, which in the original Hebrew only speaks of a “young woman” who will conceive. Or they could have been inspired by stories of other special births, such as that of the prophet Samuel (1 Samuel 1). It is certainly the case that the song of Hannah (1 Sam 2:1-10) in that story inspired Luke’s version of Mary’s Magnificat.

Luke’s account of Jesus’ ministry also focuses on his teaching, but not, as in Matthew, on its continuity with Jewish legal and ethical teaching. In all the gospels, Jesus teaches by sharp sayings and by stories, the parables. Luke has a special love of these tales and he alone records some of the most famous, such as the Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son.

Luke’s account of the resurrection appearances is more elaborate than that of Matthew. They take place in Jerusalem and on the road to Emmaus, and Jesus, though a mysterious presence to some of the disciples, displays a resurrected body capable of being touched, of eating and drinking. Such stories of the Resurrected Jesus give very concrete expression to the reports that Jesus “appeared” to his disciples. Paul in 1 Cor 15:3-11, written around 56 CE, reports a very early creedal formula reporting those appearances. Paul himself goes on to reflect on what the resurrected body of Jesus was like. For him it was not “flesh and blood” (1 Cor 15:50), but quite ethereal, made up of something like the substance of the stars (1 Cor 15:35-41). The body of Christ had been transformed, anticipating final or eschatological transformation of the created order, into something heavenly (1 Cor 15:42- 49).

The Gospel according to John shares the same general framework as the Synoptics, but fills it out differently and adds stories not found in the other gospels. In John the ministry of Jesus extends over three Passovers, not a single year. He causes a disturbance in the Temple at the beginning of this period, not its end. He heals the sick and raises the dead, but performs no exorcisms. His teaching does not treat the details of behavior, turning the other cheek, giving to the poor, etc., found in the Synoptics. Instead it focuses on the claim that he is the definitive revelation of who God is and what God expects from humankind, i.e., union with God in a life of love. John’s Gospel has no account of the birth or youth of Jesus. Instead he frames the story with a reference to the cosmic reality of the Word or Logos of God. His account of the resurrection resembles that of Luke, with stories of appearances of Jesus in Jerusalem in a very physical form. John 21 also records an appearance of Jesus by the shore in Galilee, where he treats his disciples to a “fish fry” before commissioning Peter to “feed his sheep.”

The differences among these gospels indicate that they are not “histories” in any simple sense. They are statements proclaiming the significance of a particular human life, shaped by a process of reflection on the scriptures of Israel and the experience of different communities of followers of Jesus. Understanding those experiences and the faith claims that they ground is the focus of scriptural study.

The Historical Framework of the New Testament

The overall historical framework surrounding the New Testament begins with the reign of Herod the Great (40/39-4BCE), who appears in Matthew’s account of the birth of Jesus, although the chronology is obviously problematic. After Herod’s death the Romans divided his kingdom into three smaller portions, “tetrarchies,” three of which were ruled by one of Herod’s sons. Jesus grew up in Galilee, ruled by Herod Antipas until he was deposed by the Romans in 39 CE. The Romans deposed one of Herod’s sons, Archelaus, in 6 CE and ruled his portion of the territory, Judaea, through officials called prefects, one of whom, Pontius Pilate, ordered Jesus to be executed. After a brief period when the kingdom was reunited under Herod’s grandson, Herod Agrippa I (39-44 CE), the Romans ruled all of Judaea through military officials now called procurators. In 66CE resentment against Roman rule broke out in full scale revolt, eventually crushed by Roman legions under Vespasian and his son Titus, who went on to establish a new imperial dynasty that lasted through the reign of Vespasian’s other son Domitian, who was assassinated in 96CE.

Most of the New Testament was probably written in the second half of the first century, with Paul’s letters written in late 40’s and through the 50’s. Mark composed in the years leading up to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70. Building on Mark, Matthew and Luke/Acts were written after the revolt. Paul’s letters were collected and supplemented by compositions by his disciples in this general period as well. Tradition dates the book of Revelation to the reign of Domitian and the Gospel of John was probably written in the late first or early second century.

Inspiration?

In light of all this, what are we to make of the claim that the Bible is inspired? That claim is usually understood to mean that God is somehow the author of the text, having put its words into the hearts and minds of the humans who put pen to paper. Such a claim focuses on the process of composition of the Bible. A more theologically adequate claim to divine inspiration worries less about the mechanics and more about the final purposes that scripture serves.

It is important to realize that we do not read the Bible over the shoulder of God, so to speak, but from the vantage point of human experience. It is demonstrable that the Bible was written by human beings, who lived in particular times and places, remote from our own. We cannot begin to read it by making assumptions of what it means to be inspired. Rather, we must accommodate our ideas of inspiration to what we actually find in the biblical text. Many people assume that an inspired text must be historically accurate, internally consistent and morally edifying. The Bible is none of these things, at least not in a consistent way. Consequently, it is better to tell students to bracket the question of inspiration until they become familiar with the biblical text and understand it. Ultimately, what is important for readers is not whether the Bible is inspired but whether it is inspiring. A text can be inspiring without being historically accurate. Many of the best books in the world are works of fiction, and do not conform to our modern ideas of coherence.

Further Reading:

John J. Collins, The Bible after Babel (Eerdmans, 2005) 27-51 (“The Crisis in Historiography”).

Historical Timeline

1250 Exodus??
1200-1020 Period of Judges
1020-1000 Saul
1000-960 David
960-922 Solomon
922-724 Kings of Israel
722 Fall of Samaria to the Assyrians
928-586 Kings of Judah
586 Destruction of the First Temple by the Babylonians
586-539 Babylonian Exile
538BCE-70CE Second Temple Period
538-325 Persian Period
325-164 Hellenistic Period (Ptolemies, Seleucids)
164-63 Hasmonean Period
63BCE-325 Roman Period
39-4 King Herod the Great
66CE-73 Jewish Revolt Against Rome
70 Destruction of the Temple
325-625 Byzantine Period
570-632 Mohammed

People, Places

Josephus, a Jewish historian, a major source for Jewish history in the Second Temple period. Josephus was a member of the priestly aristocracy in Jerusalem born around 35. As a young man he served on an embassy to Rome. When the revolt against Rome broke out in 66 CE, he was sent by the revolutionary authorities in Jerusalem to command Jewish forces in Galilee. After the Romans besieged Jotapata, Josephus was captured by the Romans. He claims to have prophesied that Vespasian, the Roman general, was the emperor to be. When that prophecy was soon fulfilled, Josephus was taken into the service of Titus, son of Vespasian, now commanding the Roman forces besieging Jerusalem. After the war, Josephus was brought to Rome, where he was given a pension by the imperial family. With that support Josephus wrote an account of the Jewish war in seven books, laying blame for the destruction of Jerusalem on the heads of the rebels and portraying his patron, Titus, as a merciful general. About fifteen years later he wrote a larger history of the Jews, the Jewish Antiquities in 20 books. He also wrote an apologetic work, Against Apion, countering slanders against the Jewish by an Alexandrian pagan. Late in his life he also wrote a brief autobiography, telling a different tale about his own role in the Jewish revolt that differed in many ways from his account in the War. He probably died around 95 CE.

Philo of Alexandria, a Jewish philosopher and Biblical exegete. He lived from approximately 25 BCE to around 45 CE. Philo was a member of a wealthy and influential Alexandrian Jewish family. His nephew, Tiberius Julius Alexander, had a career in the Roman military, served as governor of Judaea, and as a member of the staff of Titus during the siege of Jerusalem during the Jewish revolt. Philo was a prolific writer. Some of his works were apologetic, particularly his Against Flaccus and his Embassy to Gaius, which reported on the violence against the Jews of Alexandria in 38 CE and his own efforts as part of an embassy to the Roman emperor on their behalf. He wrote several works including a Life of Moses, offering a straightforward account of the scriptural story, and a more elaborate allegorical commentary on the Pentateuch. His reading of scripture was shaped by Greek philosophy in which he combined Stoic insights within a largely Platonic framework. He offered a simpler commentary in a pair of works, Questions on Genesis and Questions on Exodus. Among his other works, On the Contemplative Life is an account of a Jewish ascetical sect, the Therapeutae, who lived a life of contemplation in a desert commune.

 


1 William Foxwell Albright (May 24, 1891 – September 19, 1971): A leading scholar of the Old Testament in the Twentieth century. He received his bachelor’s degree from Upper Iowa University, and his PhD from Johns Hopkins, where he served on the faculty form 1930 to 1958, where he educated a generation of leading scholars of the Old Testament. He was particularly noted for his archaeological work. Among his most influential works are: From the Stone Age to Christianity (1940, rev. 1960), The Archeology of Palestine (1960) and Yahweh and the Gods of Canaan: An Historical Analysis of Two Contrasting Faiths (1968)

 

Yale Bible Study

Reading the Bible

II. Ethical Issues

People are sometimes shocked to discover that some of the apparently historical events recorded in the Bible did not actually happen. But this shock wears off easily enough, when they recognize that they had just been making a genre mistake, as if one were to assume that everything one sees in a movie or reads in a novel must have happened. The more difficult problem for many people is that the Bible is not always morally edifying, and indeed sometimes seems to endorse actions that are morally repulsive.

An obvious example is provided by Psalm 137, which concludes, in verses 8 and 9:

O daughter Babylon, you devastator!
Happy shall they be who pay you back what you have done to us!
Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rocks!

While the idea of bashing small children against the rocks is shocking, we can at least understand where this sentiment is coming from. Babylon had destroyed Jerusalem, and shown no mercy to its inhabitants. Desire for revenge is not a noble sentiment, but sometimes it is hard to avoid. One might even argue that people need a way to vent such sentiments, without actually acting on them. We will return to this issue a little later.

A more difficult problem is posed by passages where God seems to command actions that we can only regard as evil. One notorious example is provided by Deuteronomy 7, where God commands the Israelites to slaughter the Canaanites:

You must utterly destroy them. Make no covenant with them and show them no mercy. Do not intermarry with them . . . break down their altars, smash their pillars, hew down their sacred poles, and burn their idols with fire. For you are a people holy to the Lord your God (Deut 7:2-6).

The Book of Joshua describes how this command was supposedly carried out. The Israelites are only faulted for not carrying it out thoroughly enough.

The consensus of scholarship, at this point in time, is that the conquest described in the Book of Joshua never happened. Archeological evidence shows no evidence of mass destruction of cities, or any abrupt change of culture. But this does not relieve the moral problem, which is that the Bible commends this way of dealing with other people who worship different gods. Moshe Greenberg, a great Hebrew Bible scholar who taught at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem for many years, argued, against Jewish extremists, that the command only applied to seven specific peoples (Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites), none of which still exists. Therefore, Deuteronomy provides no mandate to slaughter Palestinians. But the Bible lives by analogy, and if it cannot be applied by analogy to new situations, it loses its relevance to the modern world.

One traditional way of dealing with the command to slaughter the Canaanites is to say that it was justified by the wickedness of the Canaanites. God tells Abraham in Gen 15:16 that his descendants will not inherit the land until the fourth generation, “for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.” This justification for the divine command in Deuteronomy goes back at least to Calvin. But there is no good evidence that the Canaanites were any more wicked than other people in the ancient world. They do not get good press in the Bible, but then the Canaanites were the proximate others from whom the Israelites wanted to distinguish themselves. We must remember that the biblical narrative was transmitted by Israelites, and reflects their point of view. The divine command in Deuteronomy 7 is a human construct, just like the account of the destruction of Jericho in Joshua 7; and it reflects the ideologies and agendas of its human authors.

The problem modern Christians have with a passage like Deuteronomy 7 does not just arise from a clash between ancient and modern values. It arises just as much from a clash between different values within the Bible itself. Indeed, our modern humanitarian values are in large part derived from the Biblical commandment that we should love our neighbor as ourselves, or from the Golden Rule that we should do unto others as we would have them do unto us. What Joshua and the Israelites are depicted as doing to the Canaanites cannot be construed as love, by the widest definition. The problem then becomes not one of accepting or rejecting biblical authority in ethical matters, but rather one of deciding which biblical commandments are central and have lasting value, and which are simply reflections of ancient culture.

Another consideration is relevant to our discussion of this material. The Bible does not always teach by positive example. It often describes human failure. The entire Book of Judges can be read as an example of human infidelity and its disastrous consequences. If Israel survives, it is only by the grace of God. The supposed slaughter of the Canaanites may be neither historical nor moral; but it still tells us much about human nature, even about the nature of people who claim to worship the God of Israel.

The story of the conquest appears early in the Bible. Do attitudes to violence change over time?

Historically, Israel and Judah were seldom in a position to be perpetrators of violence. In the later period, only the Maccabees could be seen as aggressors, after their initial war of liberation. What we typically find in the biblical material, however, is that violence is projected into the future. There are several examples in the prophetic books. A fine example is provided by Joel chapter 3, where God will gather all the nations for judgment in the valley of Jehoshaphat and then put in the sickle, for the harvest is nigh.

The New Testament famously enshrines an ethic of non-retaliation, in the teaching of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount to “turn the other cheek” (Matt 5:39) and to “love your enemies” (Matt 5:44). Although Christians have not always followed that command, some like Martin Luther King made it central to his challenge to the racist structures of segregation. At the same time parts of the New Testament, such as the Book of Revelation, offer a vision of violent punishment for the wicked, for “Babylon,” a symbol of Rome, whose destruction is joyously celebrated (Rev 18:1–19:10). Here again, one might argue that violent fantasy may provide a necessary relief valve, to release pent up anger and vengefulness without actually putting the fantasies into action. Revelation, like most of the Jewish apocalypses, actually counsels non-violence (Rev 13:9-10). Violence, in short, should be left to God.

Patriarchy, Slavery, and Sexual Behavior

Violence is not the only ethical problem in the Bible. As feminist scholarship has taught us over the last forty years, Biblical attitudes to women leave much to be desired from a modern perspective. The subordination of Eve in Genesis may be a consequence of the Fall rather than part of the initial divine plan, but the story nonetheless assumes a hierarchy, in which Adam comes first.

A few years ago, a professor at a theological school in Tennessee wrote a piece in the Huffington Post in which he said that the Old Testament was patriarchal. (Huffington Post 08/31/2-12: “The Marginalization of Women: A Biblical Value We Don’t Like to Talk About”). Most biblical scholars would have said that he was stating the obvious, but he was fired for his candor. But no one should be surprised that Bible reflects the culture of its times. This was a world where a man could sell his daughter as a slave or have her stoned or burned for fornication. (Again, the issue is not whether, or how often, these things happened, but that the Bible condones them).

The New Testament also contains passages that have been used to support various structures of oppression. Women seem to have played a major role in the support of Jesus (e.g., Luke 8:1-3; 10:38-42; John 20:11-18); and they clearly played important roles in Paul’s communities (Rom 16:1, 6, 7, 12), even playing a leadership role in worship by “praying and prophesying” (1 Cor 11:5). Nonetheless, some epistles, probably composed by Paul’s disciples, severely restrict the role of women (1 Tim 2:11-15).

Slavery similarly received different treatment in various parts of the New Testament. Paul generally advises people to stay in the social condition in which they were called to faith (1 Cor 7:24), although he may make an exception for a slave who had an opportunity to become free (1 Cor 7:21). He certainly takes up the cause of a slave, Onesimus, who has run from his master and Paul, may implicitly ask for the slave’s freedom (Philem 15-16). Whatever Paul’s behavior in a community in which there was “no longer slave or free … male and female” (Gal 3:28), his disciples insisted that slaves be obedient to their masters (Eph 6:5-8; Col 3:22-25; 1 Tim 6:1-2). Passages such as these were long used to justify the institution of slavery in the west in general and in the United States in particular. Yet beside these texts stand affirmations such as Gal 5:13, that Christians are called to freedom. Working out the implications of such declaration, sometimes in critical dialogue with other parts of scripture, is part of the process of Biblical Interpretation.

Another highly controversial topic for readers of scripture in recent decades are the Bible’s passages dealing with same sex relations. Although they play a very small role in Scripture generally and are not part of the teaching of Jesus, they have received considerable attention. The priestly code of Leviticus (Lev 18:22; 20:13) strongly condemns same sex relations among men. These passages seem to be in Paul’s mind in Rom 1:24-27, when he describes the condition of Roman society in which idolatry is practiced, leading both men and women to “exchange natural intercourse for unnatural.” These few passages have traditionally grounded Christian condemnations of same-sex relations, although they have sometimes been bolstered with a theoretical framework such as that of “natural law.”

In recent years many Christians have come to believe that these condemnations are based on an inadequate understanding of the realities of human sexuality. The particular morality that they convey is as problematic as Biblical statements about slavery. The ethical principle that should govern judgments about proper sexual relations should focus not on the gender of those involved but on fundamental principles of love and justice expressed in their relationship.

In sum, on matters of human rights, gender roles, sexual morality and other controversial issues, readers of scripture have learned to enter into critical dialogue with the sacred text, a dialogue that has always been part of the tradition.

Is the Bible then inspiring?

The Bible then presents us with much that is morally challenging. Nonetheless, it remains on the whole an inspiring document. Deuteronomy 6;6, in its call to Israel to “Hear” that the Lord alone is God, calls on God’s people to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your might.” The Holiness Code of Leviticus 19 combines ritual prescriptions with fundamental ethical imperatives, to be just and impartial in judgment, to care for the poor and the alien (Lev 19:10), not to hate or bear a grudge, but “love your neighbor as yourself (Lev 19:18). The passages from Deuteronomy and Leviticus were identified by Jesus (Matt 22:34-40; Mark 12:28-31; Luke 10:25-38) as the greatest commandments in the Law, commandments in turn paralleled in the other Abrahamic faith, Islam. No other literature from the ancient world takes as strong a stand on social justice as the prophetic books of the Old Testament, calling out as does Isaiah 1:17 to “seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow” or Amos 5:24, who cries “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream,” or Micah 6:8, who says, “He has told you, O Mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, and to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God?”. In the New Testament, Jesus’ teaching about loving as he has loved (John 13:34; 15:13), loving even one’s enemies (Matt 5:44), remains the touchstone of ethical behavior for Christians.

Not everything in the Bible lives up to its highest ideals, but those ideals continue to give the Bible power in shaping peoples’ lives.

Further Reading:

John J. Collins, Does the Bible Justify Violence? (Fortress, 2004). Idem, The Bible After Babel (Eerdmans, 2005) 75-98.

Margaret Farley, Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics (New York: Continuum, 2006).

Krister Stendahl, “Hate, Non-Retaliation, and Love: IQS x 17-20 and Rom. 12:19- 21,” Harvard Theological Review 55 (1962) 343-55

Miroslav Volf, Do We Worship the Same God: Jews, Christians and Muslims in Dialogue (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012)

Miroslav Volf, Allah: A Christian Response (New York: Harper One, 2011).

Nicholas Wolterstorff, “Reading Joshua,” in Michael Bergmann, Michael J. Murrah and Michael C. Rea, ed., Divine Evil? The Moral Character of the God of Abraham (Oxford, 2011) 236-56.

People and Places

John Calvin, (1504-1564), leader of the Reformation in Switzerland. His best known work is Institutes of the Christian Religion.

Moshe Greenberg, (1928-2010) an American rabbi and Biblical scholar, professor of Bible and Judaica at the University of Pennsylvania from 1964 to 1970 and then served on the faculty of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.