How To Read The Bible | Notes & Review

Harvey Cox. How To Read The Bible. HarperOne, 2015. (257 pages)

how to read the bible


HarperCollins page; Jonathan Merritt, Religion News Service;


I think my personal history with the Bible as unfolding in three stages




…what I learned in the jail cell is that the Bible is something much more. It is an invitation, a living record of an open-ended history of which we can have a part. It is still an unfinished story. (8)

“What did it mean then?” and “What does it mean now?” … I began to find the bifurcation prescribed by Stendahl’s formula no longer credible. (10)

More and more today thoughtful historians, including those in biblical studies, know that complete “objectivity” was never obtainable and was always probably undesirable. …now a newer generation of historical-critical scholars knows full well that they are not disembodied entities examining a historical event or a biblical book from a fully detached perspective. They cannot get themselves totally out of the picture. This is a positive change. (11)

objectivity is fading from view, and a candid awareness of one’s personal objective is becoming more conscious. (12)

The truth is that it is neither possible nor desirable to get oneself completely out of the picture, and this applies especially to anyone who reads and studies the Bible,… We carry it under our skins imbedded in our languages and modes of thinking, even before we open it. And when we do open it, we have a genuine stake in what we find. The difference between participants in a base community or Bible study group and scholars is that the lay groups freely acknowledge this realization, while some professionals are still puzzled about how their personal involvement can be reconciled with their scholarly discipline. But they now realize that the quest for total objectivity is dead, and they struggle strenuously with that realization. The study of history has changed radically since I majored in it at college. It was fascinating then, but it is even more fascinating now. (12)

…”what it meant” and “what it meanscannot really be separated. Whether we are fully aware of it or not, we all go to the Bible looking for something, and what we are looking for is shaped by who we are, how old we are, our class, the racial and gender composition of our society, and even by the temperament of the era in which we live. (12-13)

self-conscious relativity. – Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza

Christians claim that God continues to “speak” to us from the Bible, but the Bible “speaks to us” only when we come to it with honest questions and real hopes, not as distanced outside observers. On this count the nonexperts who gather in Bible study groups demonstrate an important insight. (13)

  • First, never forget that the story is utterly fundamental, even in a letter or a psalm. Ask, “What is happening here?”
  • Second, become an amateur history detective and uncover the “who, when, where, and why” about a particular text.
  • Then, move to the spiritual stage. Start to engage the text in a no-holds-barred wrestling match. (16)

Chapter 1 | Serpents, Floods, and the Mystery of Evil: The Book of Genesis

By stepping into Genesis we tread on scarred turf, over which many hard-fought scholarly battles have been waged, not just fights between literalists, historical critics, and symbolic interpreters, but internal fights within all these camps. And there are still unexploded mines here. (20)

Little by little I decided that recognizing Genesis as the work of many hands did not diminish its spiritual significance. It deepened it. (21)

“rhetorical criticism”… enables us to see not only that the different writers of the Bible differed with each other, but also that they argued against each other. (22)

“effect history”…focuses on the question: How has this text been used, applied, or deployed in the centuries since it was written? … What difference has it made? (22)

…when one looks carefully at the deity described in Genesis, it seems that God smiles on miscellany rather than uniformity in the world. (23)

It seems that God’s work in “creation” is to compose a symphony of diverse sounds and tonalities that is intended to be a harmonious whole, complete with counterpoint and minor chords. … in this creation God enlists the musicians in continuing to compose what still remains an “unfinished symphony.” (23)


If “P” is right, with his God-shaping-chaos description, where did the chaos come from? Did God also create that as well? This becomes a critical question for generations of philosophers, because this chaos (not God) is often interpreted as the source of evil and disorder in the world. But if the second version (“J”), the ex nihilo account, is right, then we are left with the question of where this disorder and evil came from. (24)

A myth is essentially true because it is a symbol, and a symbol is something that points beyond itself to a truth that might be difficult or impossible to express in ordinary language. In this sense a myth is a narrated symbol just as a ritual is an enacted symbol. (25)

Much of the difficulty we have in reading the Bible today results from literalism–when we mistakenly look for facts instead of recognizing and appreciating the profound truth of myth. (25)

In reading the bible, get ready not for unanimity, not for a single cadence, but for what the New Testament Letter to the Hebrews calls a “great cloud of witnesses.” (26)

…the writers of Genesis were interested in…

First, they wanted to sharply differentiate God both from pantheism (the idea that the world itself is divine) and polytheism (the idea that there are a number of equally powerful deities). (26)

Second, the writers of Genesis were focused on their own times. (27)

Third, the Genesis writers were interested in something in addition to these perennial questions. (27)

The main business of that [first] day was the radical transformation of reality from the encompassing oneness of God to the possibility of more-than-one. – Rashi

More than simply arguing for his oneness, they wanted to describe the character of God. (27)


One reason to recognize the spiritual objective of Genesis, and not to read it as an attempt at a prescientific cosmology, is so that we waste no time trying to compare it with the big-bang or string theory. These tactics may be popular, but they allow us to slip out of the picture to easily. Genesis is about the present, not the past. Adam and Eve are not some remote forebears. They are us. We are not cursed by their sin or the juice of their fatal apple; we are enmeshed in the fruits of our own collective narcissism and irresponsibility. (28)

[via: It is perhaps poetic irony that we still, to this day, blame Eve, when the whole point of the story is a) to blame us, and b) to deplore blaming others.]

…the term “original sin” …is a concept invented by theologians in an effort to explain the frustrating dilemma in which we often find ourselves in our efforts to live a good life; we are trapped by both society’s expectations and our own and contradictory impulses. Thinking about this we recognize ourselves to be both the inheritors of the distortions of past history and also, often despite our best intentions, contributors to the continuation of those distortions. (29-30)

…our uniqueness as humans may lie in our awareness of our mortality, which does seem to be specific to our species. (31)


More important, reading it as history diverts our attention from the most significant consideration: noticing how the Hebrew writers transformed it so that the Noah story delivers a radically different spiritual message. (33)


It is hard to sort out what is most disconcerting about this saga. (36)

…there is scarcely one figure in the entire Hebrew scripture we would want our children to emulate. (Rabbi Marshall Meyer)

midrashim…demonstrate the Bible’s power to spark the imagination. They remind us that, like all good jokes and stories, the ones in the Bible call forth more jokes and stories. (39)


Chapter 2 | Following the Footsteps of Moses: The Book of Exodus

The archaeological findings reinforce what any informed readers of the Bible will soon learn, that many of the Old Testament books were either written or compiled centuries after the happenings they record. And those who did this work understandably added some colorful details that have now proven to be anachronisms, like camels. However, it is important to remember that these tiny flaws need not undermine either the spiritual message of these books or, in some cases, even their overall historical value. (43)

…what’s in the text and what’s in the ground.


The meaning of the “miracles” of Exodus is that these people believed that it was through God’s grace and justice that they were escaping from slavery, and they told their story in their own idiom. Mature and imaginative students of the Bible try to get inside that worldview. They do not simply reject it as superstitious or recast it in terms of modern, if often improbable, scientific rationalizations. (47)


Exodus is our story. However much we may marvel at the Greeks, as much as we may be stirred by Antigone and dazzled by the Parthenon, and even though the Greeks developed a limited form of democracy, their contribution to our civilization is not as fundamental or pervasive as that of the Hebrews through the Judeo-Christian tradition. (49)

First, the stories themselves are absorbing.

Reading this book in a holistic spiritual manner involves putting ourselves in the shoes of the Jews who, in about 600 BCE, compiled the legends and folk stories the book incorporates. (50)


There is little point in asking, “But what does it really say?” (56)

Exodus presents Moses as a kind of antipharaoh. (57)


The way forward is to remind readers that these places were thriving and well known six hundred years later, in the seventh century BCE, when other evidence suggests the book of Exodus was written or edited in the form we have it today. … When we combine what is in the text with what is in the ground, it enormously amplifies our understanding of this timeless tale. (61)

As the book of Exodus was being written in the seventh century, just across the Nile Egypt was being ruled by strong pharaohs such as Psammetichus I (664-610 BCE) and Necho II (610-595 BCE). …the Israelites reasoned that if their great past leader, Moses, could challenge a proud pharaoh eons before, then they could stand up to one today. (61)

…the writers and editors of the original Exodus deployed old stories of liberation from Egyptian tyranny to bolster current national and religious purposes. (62)

We could read it as an absorbing historical novel set in the thirteenth century BCE. But we could also read it as a moving testimony to how a real people in real time (the seventh century) can gather threads and patches from a remote past and weave a testimony to human liberation for their own, and all time. (64)

Chapter 3 | Battles and Burlesques in the Conquest of Canaan: The Book of Joshua

…another mode of biblical studies…called “narrative theory,” which addresses itself to the questions that arise when someone writes a description of events that occurred a long time before the writing and when we read that account a long time, perhaps a very long time, after it was written. (66)

When we read a narrative history, what we are reading is not a source for the events depicted, but a source for understanding the author(s) and the community and era they represent. – Mario Liverani

THE PROMISED LAND. …while reading Joshua…we should not be looking for ethical models or moral norms. (67)

SPY STORIES. It sounds a bit far-fetched, but some commentators claim this length of crimson yarn is the origin of the term “red-light district.”


Scholars place Joshua in a block of material called “Deuteronomic,” which means one of its purposes was to illustrate how the rules set forth in God’s covenant were to be carried out. (74)

…it is both painful and important to recognize that for centuries many people, not just the Israelites, have perpetrated horrendous crimes believing they were doing God’s will. Crusaders swung into their saddles shouting, “deus vult!” (“God wills it!”), as they galloped off to murder Saracens. German soldiers in World War II marched into battle wearing belt buckles with the inscription Gott mit uns, “God with us.” American airmen bowed their heads in a prayer led by a chaplain before they flew off to incinerate sixty thousand men, women, and children in a single blast at Hiroshima. If it teaches little else, the book of Joshua should remind us to be cautious about people who are sure they doing [sic] exactly what God wants them to do; and this includes us. (74)

This is clearly a warning against the constant temptation all immigrants face: taking up the religious and cultural patterns of the people with whom they would henceforth live. It is a tension that refugees and migrants have had to cope with every since. (75)

The book of Joshua, in his view (Norman Gottwald), was written down centuries later during the reign of the reforming king Josiah, who was both threatened by Assyria and was also trying to centralize all worship in his capital city of Jerusalem. (76)

What if in fact there was no conquest, and the process was one of internal revolution or peaceful settlement? The fact is that the book of Joshua, and not these alternative accounts, has been handed down to us as scripture and therefore carries with it a certain authority. (77)

Chapter 4 | Talking Back to God from the Garbage Heap: The Book of Job

When we open the book of Job, we can lay aside most of the historical research techniques we have met so far. … First, this book has an utterly timeless quality, so its dating, intended audience, and authorship, although interesting, are not of primary importance. … The book articulates a response (not an answer) that is different from anything that has come before int he seventeen books from Genesis to Esther or anything that will come later in the remaining books of the Old Testament or in the New Testament. Job is a classic. It could probably stand on its own without being a part of any scripture. (79)

The second reason we can read it in a different manner is that Job is explicitly fictional. It opens with the Hebrew equivalent of “once upon at time.” (79)

…God speaks through legends, sagas, and stories. (80)

Poetry allows stark and untempered expression that, while powerful in impact, awakens the kind of careful reflection that leads to the fuller apprehension of a subject. Moreover, the density of poetic language, compelling the reader to complement, to fill in gaps, fits in peculiarly for representing impassioned discourse, which by nature proceeds in associative leaps rather than by logical development. – Moshe Greenberg

All this means that poetry is not only the preferred vehicle for plumbing the tangled and anguishing ideas found in Job; it may be the only vehicle with any chance of conveying them. (80)


Here is Mitchell’s translation of [Job 3:1-5]

God damn the day I was born,
And the night that forced me from the womb.
On that day–let there be darkness;
Let it never have been created;
Let it sink back into the void.

This is not one of those times in which a debate over the literal accuracy of either translation is relevant In the case of poetry, the question should be: which best captures the energy and emotion of the original? Whenever someone tries to translate poetry, the result has to be in large part the creation of the translator. If a classic has to speak to many generations, and if language is an evolving reality, then no translation is ever the final one. (81-82)

Incidentally, neither Job himself, nor these three, later four, friends–Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, Zophar the Naamathite, and Elihu–have Hebrew names. It seems they are all Gentiles. In fact, it is not even clear that the poet who wrote Job was Jewish, with the peculiar result that one of the best known parts of the Hebrew Bible is not “Jewish” except by its adoption into the Hebrew scriptures. (85)

What kind of demonic or sadistic God is this who permits and innocent man to be tormented and tortured just to prove a point? The only answer is that, just as the book of Job does not–as we will see–provide a satisfactory “answer” to a perennial mystery, it does not answer the question about God either. God does make an appearance, but this is primarily a book about human beings, and one human being in particular, “Job” from the “land of Uz,” grappling with an unavoidable life quandary. (85)

Anyone who wants to act as his own lawyer has an idiot for a client. – Alan Dershowitz

Job’s question is never answered. But then neither is the question Jesus coughs out as he hangs on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46). (91)

One of the hopeful recent developments in the human imagination is its effort–against fearful odds–to reclaim language as a living organism, not a set of inert signs. In this sense the book of Job makes an invaluable contribution. Reading it can remind us that poetry, drama, dance, and music are better vehicles for conveying spiritual meaning than is most philosophy (not including philosophers like Plato and Nietzsche, who wrote in poetry and aphorism) or even most theology. (92)

God does not answer Job’s searching question. Neither do his comforters. But maybe that is exactly the answer. Maybe trying to find some satisfying meaning in innocent human suffering is, after all, a futile endeavor. (92-93)


How are we as human beings to speak of God from the heart of human poverty, hunger, and suffering? – Gustavo Gutierrez

Gutierrez calls his approach “theology done from the garbage heap.” (94)

There is a mystical dimension here, a place for wonder, in which we trust the ultimate wisdom and justice of God. In effect, Job has now combined impatience at the injustice of the world with patience in the goodness and mercy of God. (98)

THE LANGUAGE OF COMPLAINT. From the other Old Testament books, including Lamentations, we can see that both complaining about God and complaining to God were acceptable expressions of prayer. (98)

Not only is complaint a legitimate element of prayer, but the enraged outcry of the poor is also a legitimate form of prayer. (99)

Arthur Gold…in his droll retelling of the opening of the Job story, has the ha-satan tweak God with the question of why he continues to put up with the Jews, this peculiar people he has chosen, even though they treat him so impertinently. They complain so much! Why can’t they be more like, say, the Greeks, who stride erectly into whatever fate holds for them without all this grumbling? God, in Gold’s retelling, answers that he prefers the Jews and their discontented murmuring. “At least,” says God, “it shows that they still believe in me, and they think I could do better.” (99)

A PROBLEMATIC ENDING. The fact that the text itself does not yield a neat or satisfying answer to the question of innocent human suffering suggests that the problematical ending is entirely fitting. The difference between a “problem” and a “mystery” is that we may be able to “solve” a problem, but a mystery is something we have to live with. (101)

Chapter 5 | Listening to the Voices of the Voiceless: Amos and the Prophets

God is best understood not as anthropomorphic, that God takes human form, but rather as anthropopathic–that God has human feelings. Heschel argues for the view of Hebrew prophets as receivers of the “divine pathos,” of the wrath and sorrow of God over his nation, which has forsaken him. (104)

Once written, a classic text is like a bird released from its cage. It develops a life of its own. It’s “meaning” is not locked in. (105)

THE ROLE OF THE PROPHET. The word “prophet” derives from an earlier Canaanite word meaning “announcer,” … the Bible itself makes clear that the prophets developed out of the “seers.” (106)

PROPHETS AND SEERS. The word “form” has two meanings in this method (“form analysis”) The first refers to the structure or pattern of any biblical portion, its internal skeleton. The second refers to the genre or type of expression it is and the kind of human situation in which it might be used. Just as we know there are different types of mail in our boxes each day (advertisements, bills, magazines, personal letters, etc.), and we read each of them with a somewhat different attitude, so–as we have already noted before–there are different types (forms) of material in the Bible. There are poems, curses, prayers, narratives, songs, letters, and many more. When we read any part of the Bible, we need to be aware not just of the content of what we read, but also of what kind of material it is. This recognition keeps us from misreading the Bible by confusing legends with chronicles or mistaking parables for histories. And this in turn prevents us from falling into a kind of heedless literalism. Just as important, form analysis reminds us that the Bible is not just the product of inspired singular spiritual geniuses; it is the creation of a whole people over many generations. (109)

Form analysts point out that there existed a formula, a package, into which different kinds of content could be poured before the classic Hebrew prophets appeared. It consists of two parts. The first is an indictment a catalog–sometimes a long one–of the noxious things people were doing both to each other and to God. The second part is a threat that says, in one way or another, “And this is what will happen to you, if you do not change your ways.” (109-110)

The prophets did indeed often rail against the worship of Baal and other deities of the time, but the thrust of their concern was not against the Baal cult itself; it was aimed at the Israelites who slid into it. Again this is an important insight for Christians, Muslims, or Jews, all of whom consider themselves to be “monotheists” living on a spiritually pluralistic planet. We need not confute or seek to invalidate the values of other faiths in order to be faithful in our own. (111)

To be more specific, prophetic faith lived in continuous tension with three related religious and political institutions, each of which has its modern equivalent today.

  1. The first was the old tradition of the seers.
  2. The second were the priests.
  3. Finally there were the kings.

In summary, the biblical evidence suggests that an element of mysticism and ecstatic experience do have a place in both Christian and Jewish spiritual life. (115)

PROPHETS AND KINGS. If the association of the prophets with the priests was often a touchy one, the relationship between the prophets and the kings was even more so. Since, unlike other ancient Near Eastern people’s, the Israelites held that their God, Yahweh, was their real and only king, the status of the earthly kings was always shaky. (120)

We read them because even though they appeared at a moment in history far removed from ours, what they say is not bound to their time. Their voices confront us unsparingly with the rank injustice of the vast inequality and unnecessary suffering that distort our world today. (123)

…the task of the prophet is to convey the word of God. Yet the word is aglow with pathos…the prophet hears Gods voice and feels His heart…His soul overflows, speaking as he does out of the fullness of his sympathy. – Abraham Joshua Heschel

Chapter 6 | Getting to the Final Four: Gospels, Kept and Discarded

Put bluntly, the criterion for inclusion that mattered most to the scriptural gatekeepers was apparently theology: How do they depict the meaning of Jesus and his relationship to God? (126)

…most scholars agree today that the recently unearthed Gospel of Thomas, which was barred, is probably nearly as old as our four canonical Gospels, maybe older. (126)

CANONIZATION. In other words, we are still living with the results of the canonization battles, and for many people today the question is not settled for good. Every person and every church has its own informal “canon.” Some books are read and studied, others consistently ignored. When was the last time you heard a sermon on Numbers or the Letter of Jude? The canonizers and gatekeepers are still at work, albeit more quietly. (127)

| It is not vital for everyone who read the Bible today to be conversant with the long, loopy story of canonization. But it is important to realize that it did take place and is not yet over and that the volume we call “The Bible” and hold in our hands is the product of a fractious history, because these realizations give it a deep dimension that intensifies its significance. (127)

…”the politics of canonization,” namely, that the various bishops, councils, and synods that actually made these in-or-out decisions were not fully representative of the whole church, and that certain political calculations (East versus West), geographical rivalries (Alexandria versus Jerusalem), and shifting theological currents entered into the debates as well. (128)

Matthew – angel
Mark – a winged lion
Luke – a winged ox
John – an eagle

COMPARING THE GOSPELS. The consensus of modern historians is that they were not, at least in the historical sense, companions of Jesus. The stenographic theory overlooks the fact that the Gospels report things about Jesus, including words he said, when they were not present. (131)

It puts us closer to the Gospel writers. Like us, they learned about Jesus from people who either knew him or heard and passed on the stories he told and the ones that were told about him. And this is our situation too. (131)

…the Bible–and in this case the Gospel section of the Bible–is not univocal, but polyphonic. It is a coat of many colors, as is the Christian movement, and new tints and shades are still being added. (132)

Except possibly for children’s biblical stories, the effort to squeeze out the obvious inconsistencies between the Gospels robs readers of the refreshing realization that, as we have said, a diversity of interpretations of who Jesus was and what his significance is marked the earliest years of Christianity. | It is especially critical to be aware of this diversity today. Since Christianity is spreading around the world so quickly, our received “Western” theologies, including the ways we interpret Jesus, are being questioned. (133)

…any attempt–however well intended–to paint the nascent years of Christianity as more homogeneous than they were amounts to a disservice. (133)

Chapter 7 | Looking Over the Shoulders of the Writers: Matthew, Mark, and Luke

Jews, in general, tended to be skeptical of magicians, fortune-tellers, and clairvoyants. They had heard about the pharaoh calling in his court sorcerers to oppose Moses. They knew about the contests their prophets had had with the false prophets. (140)

John fills the slot of an opening band at a rock concert. (145)

…”manuscript comparison” (“text criticism”) … means that patient researchers have to compare them with each other to decide which one to translate for any edition of the Bible. Inevitably the theological preferences of the translators enter into the decisions they make. (145)

…a wider variety of theological views than most people know about existed in the nascent Christian movement, and they persisted until the (unsuccessful) attempt of the creed writers to suppress them. (147)

“translation theory.” … “There is no such thing as translation, just interpretation.” This sounds harsh and may be overstated. But its truth lies in the fact that language is a living and changing chimera that never just stays put. (149)

First, most scholars agree today that, although Jesus most likely said everything we find in this discourse at one time or another, he may not have said it all at once or in one place. (149)

Second, Jesus did not first articulate these sayings in Greek. (149)

Matthew, or whoever translated/interpreted the Sermon on the Mount (or the sayings collected in it) from Aramaic, had prickly choices to make (this is where translation theory comes into play). As we have just seen with the baptism, these earliest translators may well have shaded some of those choices in light of their theological preferences. (150)

“meek” … meant simply “powerless.” The meek are those who are held down and humiliated by the powerful. (151)

…the fact that we have four Gospels and not just one is a huge plus. Each was written by a different person with a particular audience in mind, and these readerships varied in geographical location, cultural context, and religious background. Although all the Gospel writers agreed on the centrality of Jesus in the story they were telling, they held somewhat differing views of his significance. (153)

…from the earliest years of their history, differing perceptions of the meaning of Jesus already coexisted. Variety is not a newcomer to Christianity. It was there from the outset. (154)

Jesus became enraged not that the Temple courtyard was being used to sell things, but that innocent people were being fleeced. (155)

…discerning the kingdom of God in our midst is not, as Jesus said, a matter of mere “observation.” It requires a degree of raw personal exposure to the message that goes beyond arms-length examination. (156)

You would be surprised, and perhaps even worried, by my theological thoughts and the conclusions they lead to; and this is where I miss you most of all, because I don’t know anyone else with whom I could so well discuss them to have my thinking clarified. What is bothering me incessantly is the question what Christianity really is or indeed who Christ really is, for us today. – Dietrich Bonhoeffer, April 30, 1944

There it is no longer Jesus, but the disciples who must continue the liberating work he had been doing and carry his message about a kingdom “in the midst of you” to the world. The game had changed. (163)

Chapter 8 | On the Road with Paul of Tarsus: The Epistles

“empire studies”

the Roman Empire is not just the background of Paul’s letters; it is the foreground. (1660

Paul himself, unlike Abraham or Moses, is unambiguously a “historical” figure. (166)

…we are listening in on one side of along-distance phone call. (168)

THE ROAD TO DAMASCUS. First, he was not intent on persecuting “Christians”–in fact, that word had not yet been invented–and clearly he was not the least bit interested in any Gentiles who were following this Nazarene. With whom the goyim were eating, he could not care less. His cap was set only against Jews, in particular those Jews who were brazenly flouting the sacred protocol. … he was not “converted” in our sense of the word, this despite those artistic masterpieces that depict the “conversion” of St. Paul,” the most celebrated of which is by Carvaggio. … he assuredly did not “convert” from Judaism to Christianity.” (169)

“God-fearers”…were Gentiles of Paul’s time who had become restless and dissatisfied both with the weakening polytheistic system of the Hellenistic Roman world, which for many had become sheer superstition, and with what to many seemed the callousness and spreading decadence of the age. They were drawn to the ethical monotheism and clear moral principles of the Jews. (170)

They could “take the best and leave the rest.” (171)

Rome maintained its rule by means of an elaborate patronage policy integrated into a rigid hierarchical system. The emperor and his court dispensed valuable privileges and the immense riches and lands gained by their wars to people who were then expected to be deferential to them in carrying out imperial policies. Then these recipients of patronage handed down favors to the next level with the same expectation of submissiveness, and the trickle-down process continued to the lowest strata of the empire. Patronage provided the glue that bound imperial subjects to their immediate superiors, to the emperor, and to “Roma” as a religious and political entity. It was a pyramidal structure that created, indeed required, dependency on layer after layer of higher-ups. Thus patronage and the imperial cult worked together, and every man, woman, and child anywhere in the empire, whether citizen or not, was subject to both aspects of this imperial regime. It was the all-encompassing grid within which Paul found himself, and against which–as we will see below–he preached and organized an alternative. (173)

It is important to underline here that, despite much that has been said and written to that effect, the clash of worldviews that Paul saw was not one between Judaism and Christianity. … His message was not anti-Jewish, but anti-imperial. (174)

ekklesia, a civic term used for the assembly of citizens in the polis, the Greek city-state. This was decidedly not a “religious” term; it was a political one. Paul knew perfectly well what temples and shrines were, but he was not interested in building them or in creating a new religion. What he organized was a kind of “shadow” structure, a regime in exile that would already be in place when the one Roman had built fell, as he was sure it soon would. (175)

He organized the ekklesia as networks of mutual aid. … An extensive web of horizontal giving and receiving arose, which liberated the citizens of the new era of shalom from the clutches of the Roman patronage system. (175)

…we need to remember that Paul, like all of us, was a person of his era. He shared many of its customs, scruples, and perhaps even some of the biases of that time. But, even grating all that, are the current condemnations valid?


BE SUBJECT TO THE GOVERNING AUTHORITIES. He may simply have been advising the recipients to avoid unnecessary or premature martyrdom. (180)

PAUL AND GAY PEOPLE. If Romans 13 cannot be widened into a “theology of the state,” can these two verses (Romans 1:26-27, sometimes paired with selected Old Testament texts) be stretched into a “theology of sexuality”? (180)

First, in that world and at that time sexuality was understood largely as an expression of power, and almost always of unequal power. Men held power over women, free citizens over slaves, adults over children. Rape, nonconsensual activity between masters and servants, and pederasty were rampant. The tone and context of Paul’s condemnation of what he calls porneia, translated above as “shameful passions” indicate that he did not have affectionate or committed affection between consenting adults in mind. (180-181)

PAUL’S LETTERS TODAY. Paul was just not systematic. (183)

Study Tip:

…in its earliest years Christian faith became “a religion made to travel.” (183-184)

Chapter 9 | Surviving a Turbulent Trip: The Book of Revelation

“history of interpretation.” It takes off where the historical and textual studies end, then traces the history of what readers in various ages and settings have made of a text. … It adds to the duality of “What did it mean then?” and “What does it mean now?” an additional dimension: “What has it meant, to whom?” (188)

“effect history.” build[s] on the hard work of the textual analysts, archaeologists, and history-of-interpretation students have done, but they move to the next level. They ask the question most thoughtful readers wonder about: “What difference has it made?” “What effect, if any, has this book or this portion of the Bible had on actual human life?” (188)

AUTHORSHIP. Scholars who spot grammatical mistakes in the text suggest John probably learned Greek, the language in which he wrote the book, later in life. | Readers of Revelation today should be prepared to discover that its writer is not a particularly benevolent person. He is angry, indeed furious, incensed at the pride and cruelty of the Roman Empire. He sheds no tears over its coming disintegration. (191)

In this way Revelation is one of the books in the Bible that tell us not how we should feel, but reminds us of how we often do feel. Like John himself, it is human, all too human. (192)

STRUCTURE. …many scholars believe it was first written as a drama to be read or acted out on a stage. (192)

INTERPRETATIONS. The truth is that for centuries many people did read it this way and were often lured into wacky predictions about an end of the world just around the corner, all of which turned out to be mistaken. Curiously, the fact that this repeated failed prophecy has been going on for a thousand years has not deterred people from continuing to try. The coming of the year 1000 witnessed a special outburst of these forecasts, but even today hardly a year goes by without a preacher somewhere warning us all that the end is near. (193)

Other readers, however, did not see Revelation as a description of the coming end of the world, but of the coming end of the Roman Empire. … During the centuries-long quarrel about whether it should be allowed in the Bible at all, which, we will turn to below, editors often placed it last not to underline its special authority but, on the contrary, to signal how questionable it was. They made it a kind of appendix. (193)

AUDIENCE. How much can we accept before we draw a line? When does being true to your principles harden into self-destructive stubbornness? Jews under the Nazis argued over these questions, and people caught in oppressive situations still debate it today. If you give in on something small, can you save yourself for what is more important? (194)

DATING. Domitian’s close associates…assassinated him on September 16, in the year 96 CE. Few people grieved. (195)

SCOPE. The dramatic tension in John’s production of the old story revolves around the question: who is in ultimate control of the world? (196)



CANONIZATION. Revelation was widely accepted in the West, but rejected in the East. … Only quite gradually and over the course of centuries did the Eastern Orthodox Church recognize it as canonical. (200)

…ascertaining why a book was placed in the Bible and even where it is placed can sometimes tell more about a given book than many other things can. (200)

Remember that inclusion in the canon did not necessarily signify a book’s historical accuracy (which is something that became important only in a later age), its authenticity, or even its inspirational value. It meant only that a text sufficiently represented the developing consensus of what the Christian message was about and could therefore be read in public worship. (201)

HISTORY OF INTERPRETATION. Christians should not look forward to a coming kingdom because it was already here: it was the church. (203)

By the time the Reformation reached England the conceit of seeing the pope as the beast or the Antichirst had become commonplace. (204)

EFFECT HISTORY. …serious readers of the Bible, but especially of Revelation, should not avoid questions about how it is deployed by often contradictory interpreters today. We hardly need to be reminded that the Bible can be used in stupid, destructive, and hateful ways. The unpleasant reality is that Revelation has been used and is still being used for such purposes today. It provides a splendid if troubling example of “effect history.” (205)

Dispensationalism is a branch of Protestant fundamentalism that teaches that history is divided into seven phases from the creation to the end, and God deals with the world in different ways in each of these “dispensations.” (206)

Premillennialism is a variant of dispensationalism. (206)

REVELATION TODAY. Is Revelation significant for us today The answer is that it is, but that in order to clarify that relevance readers must not underestimate what we are up against, namely, a massive and destructive misinterpretation of its relevance. We must remind ourselves that Revelation is not a horoscope. … It is not the biblical equivalent of Nostradamus or a crystal ball. Rather, it is a hugely ambitious attempt to craft a full-scale philosophy or theology of the entire sweep of human history, viewed from the perspective of an early Christian writer from a Jewish background named John in the context of what he and his fellow Christians were facing in the final decades of the first century. When we realize that at the time most of the writing about the meaning of history was expressed in myths and symbols, it is understandable that he chose the same idiom. (208)

The first Christian to be martyred by his fellow Christians was one Priscillian of Ávila, a bishop who, following a judgment by his fellow bishops, was beheaded with a small number of his disciples in 385 CE. (210)

John would have been puzzled by the idea that he was writing for what would eventually be a “new” testament. He would have been repulsed by the very idea of such a thing. (211)

The reason Revelation was originally so disputed, continued to be, and still is can be explained by the fact that people read it from so many different places in the social hierarchy. It is like a powerful drug that can be a medicine for some, but a poison for others. Taken by those who suffer from oppression, it can inspire them to believe that their anguish will not last forever. But when it is ingested by people who fear that their privileged perch is threatened, it can be used as a clumsy rhetoric bludgeon. (212)

Chapter 10 | How Do We Read the Bible Today?

…for all that its dazzling variety the Bible tells a single story. It is a book about the dramatic interaction between God and the world, mainly that part of the world we call humankind. The story comes to us through the imperfect, often badly flawed words and perceptions of human beings. But the drama has a continuing plot and direction. And the voice of the Bible invites readers to become part of the action. But how? (216)

The central thread running through the whole sixty-six books is that of the coming of the kingdom of God. (216)

I prefer to call the attitude Jesus calls for “spiritual,” but I in no way mean a strictly inward reading. I mean “spiritual” in the sense of the Spirit that makes its presence felt throughout the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation. This is the Spirit that manifests itself in both individuals and groups, in both nature and history, and in the animals and plants we live with every day. It is the Spirit of God that both comforts and disturbs and that cannot be channeled or contained by institutions or doctrines. The point is that if we do not read the Bible with a genuine openness to being spoken to, perhaps upset and shaken by what we find in it, we will have missed the message. (217)

As wide and as deep as the Bible itself is, my interpretation of it can become mired in one cultural or regional track. I need to have that interpretation jogged at times, maybe even upended. This jarring will remind us that when we consider the question, “How should we read the Bible?” there is no single answer. (226)


Is the Bible ridiculous and incredible? The answer is, in part, yes, it is. It includes sagas, legends, and tall tales about giants and one about a talking ass. It contains, as Huck Finn wrote about Tom Sawyer’s anecdotes, “some stretchers.” But the underlying question raised by this complaint concerns the appropriate role of fantasy and imagination in human life. It is simply not true that our culture today is bereft of fantasy and tall tales. We thrive on them. We sop up sagas about intergalactic warfare, vampires, and monsters that emerge from the depths of the sea. We have had an enduring love affair with hobbits. But we rarely ask what values and worldviews these fables impart, and our insatiable craving for them suggests a yen for something that is not fully satisfied. (227-228)

So instead of trying to expunge the mythic element from the Bible as some modern theologians did, their [Tolkien and Lewis] tactic was to address the problem indirectly. They tried to restore the mythic dimension to the culture in the belief that this would help people grasp the message of Christianity better and thereby deepen our capacity for a fully human life. Taking a hint from them, we can read the Bible today welcoming the fact that it represents a world in which the capacity for the fabulous was still alive. (228)

But what makes something archaic? How dissimilar really are we from our ancient and even prehistoric forebears? Why do Sophocles and Shakespeare still resonate with us? Why do we feel a curious kinship with the people who scratched the pictures on the cave walls in Lascaux or with those who positioned the boulders at Stonehenge? Has the fact that our knowledge of the size of the universe or the structure of the genome exceeds their made their insights into the human situation obsolete? We may differ from our ancient and prehistoric forebears in some ways, but we are like them in many more. We realize that we are mortal. We struggle with how to live with each other in families, tribes, and–more recently–a whole world. We grapple with disease and aging, and we smart under the stings of betrayal and misunderstanding by those close to us. We brood about how to respond to the fathomless mystery that envelops us. These are the themes the characters in the Bible cope with, sometimes graciously and sometimes in cruel and destructive ways. But they are issues we have not outgrown. (228-229)

From the beginning, the Bible says, God has shared his power and tried to enlist us in continuing his creation and in caring for it. Instead, we have messed it up badly more often than we have gotten it right. But this is the sometimes magnificent, but more often miserable history of our species, not another one. And we need to be aware of it, however painful, because it is not yet over unless we manage to destroy it for good with nuclear fallout or by continuing to dump millions of tons of carbon dioxide into the air. (230)

| On the other hand, as despots and overlords have learned over the years, the Bible can be dangerous for their health. It introduces us to a God who leads an enslaved people out of peonage. His prophets warn the affluent about the toxic dangers their wealth carries with it, and they thunder against those who trample the poor underfoot. Its apostles defy the mightiest empire history had known, and its seers herald the eventual collapse of all tyrannies. When we hear that the Bible is “dangerous,” we have to ask, for whom and under what circumstances? (230)

| Why should I spend any time writing yet another book about this strange old collection? One answer is that the Bible helps us to know who God is, and for many people, perhaps most, that is enough. But there is another reason. The Bible also helps us to heed the counsel of Socrates to “know thyself,” and the wisdom of all the religious traditions teaches that the knowledge of God and the knowledge of ourselves are inseparable. (230)

I am large, I contian multitudes. – Walt Whitman


For those who have wrestled with “The Text” in what it is, what it says, and how it is to be understood, Cox’s contribution is an invaluable one. There are insights, contexts, and perspectives here that are rich and exciting. However, for those who venerate, honor, and love their Bibles with no wrestling–those who read literalistically (what I call, “mechanical”)–I question the value of a book like this one by one simple question, What actually helps move people beyond literalism? On Page 44, Cox writes,

There is little doubt that this breakthrough in archaeology poses some of the most intriguing questions in current biblical scholarship. But appreciating it does require one to move beyond a literalistic view of the Bible to a more mature comprehension. For many people this is not an easy transition to make. But once made, it is immensely rewarding and brings the Bible alive in a new way. (44)

While I concur, what I lament is how to help others make this transition. What are the factors that can influence to the “more mature comprehension?” He offers that the “comparison of translations” is one step towards loosening the grip of literalism. But I can’t help that there’s more to it than that, for literalists identify their favorite translation [the one they feel best represents the original (e.g. the “King James only” crowd)] with the same conviction and emotional rigor as they do to their hermeneutic.

I opine that some insight could be drawn into the emotional side of the issue. I would venture to guess that any interview with someone who has emerged from literalism would confess that they did so having waded through a deep sense of uncomfortable disruption in their gut. I have had people tell me that they are emotionally/spiritually distraught at the possibility of reading their Bible in a way that is radically different than the previous years/decades of reading. After all, reading the Bible differently isn’t just a new way into the future. It’s a desecration of the years/decades of past reading.

Just recently, I conversed with a student who is a YEC (young earth creationist), does not accept “macroevolution,” and very much believes in the “rapture.” When I, as a teacher, shared throughout my class that the Bible doesn’t teach those things, there was a visceral sense of uncomfortableness that overtook his demeanor. Perhaps a “disturbance in the force.” This was not some new insight into a text that he loves. This was an assault on his core convictions, and core pillars of his faith, and thus, his identity. He wrote to me at the end of our course, “These things I know you taught against but I choose to believe in them.”

I “choose” to believe in them.

I have yet to dig further into the “Why?” But I include this dialogue here to suggest that literalism, then, is not really a “way” of reading the text. It is not a hermeneutic, which is why it is so destructive to beautiful texts like the Bible. No, literalism is a aspect of identity. To paraphrase Descartes, “I read literally, therefore I am a Christian.” To disrupt one is to disrupt the other.

I believe this helps us understand why so many leave Christianity when they leave their literalism. I believe this helps us understand why moving from literalism is painful, and really difficult for people. I believe this is why literalism will be with us for a long, long time.

Thank you, Professor Cox, for yet again, one of my favorite reads.

About VIA

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