- Michael Coogan: The Bible is considered an unassailable divine authority, but it was written by men, not God
- Written over 1,000 years, each writer reflecting the values of his time, he writes
- Many things in the Bible are rejected: slavery, women as property, swine as an abomination, says Coogan
- Coogan: The true timeless message of the Bible is the equal, even loving, treatment of all men
Editor’s note: Michael Coogan is lecturer on the Hebrew Bible and Old Testament at Harvard Divinity School, professor of religious studies at Stonehill College, and director of publications at the Harvard Semitic Museum. Editor of “The New Oxford Annotated Bible”, his most recent book is “God and Sex: What the Bible Really Says” (Twelve).
(CNN) — When talking about so-called family values, pastors, popes and politicians routinely cite the Bible as if it were an unassailable divine authority — after all, they assume, God has written in the Bible, and therefore it is absolutely and literally true. .
But this is a misconception. As the Bible itself makes clear, its authors were human beings, many of whom are named: David, Isaiah, Luke, and Paul. These human writers wrote for over a thousand years and their writings reflect their own opinions and the values they shared with their contemporaries. It is therefore not surprising that inconsistencies are common in the Bible, both trivial and profound.
Although Jews and Christians, individually and collectively, have for 2,000 years accepted the Bible as authoritative in principle, in practice many of its values have been rejected. On issues such as slavery, no one today would argue that slavery is acceptable, even though, according to the Bible, it was a divinely sanctioned institution. During debates over slavery in the 19th century, opponents of its abolition cited the Bible to support their position, but despite this biblical justification, their views were renounced.
According to biblical law, a father can sell his daughter into slavery, and the last of the Ten Commandments prohibits a neighbor’s possessions: his house, his wife, his slaves, and his livestock. But the majority of modern Jews and Christians no longer accept the biblical view that women are the property of men and therefore their subordination, because they have also abandoned the biblical practice of polygamy.
According to biblical law, a father could sell his daughter into slavery.
In today’s debates about family values, most of which are related to gender, opponents of abortion and defenders of a woman’s right to choose both cite the Bible to support their conflicting views, even though the Bible does not say nothing specific on the question. . And when it comes to same-sex marriage, even if the few biblical authors who mention same-sex relationships, especially between men, were unequivocally opposed to it, many contemporary believers would say that, as with slavery and the status of woman, it is time to recognize that the values of the biblical writers are no longer necessarily ours.
Opponents of same-sex marriage cite Leviticus, which says that when a man sleeps with a man as with a woman, it is an abomination. They are right: that says that. But then he calls for the death penalty for such activities, which only the most rabid opponents would insist on. The Bible also calls eating pork and wearing men’s clothing abominations, but many would no longer enforce such prohibitions.
Individual biblical texts should not be drawn upon selectively: such selection is all too easy due to the nature of the Bible as a multi-authored book. On the contrary, as with another founding text, the Constitution, we must first understand it historically – what its words meant when they were written – and then try to determine what its underlying values are, and not just what which he says in a specific context. passage. It is only in this sense that the Bible can be seen as having a timeless relevance that transcends the historical particularities of its authors.
What are these underlying values? I would argue that they are rooted in love of neighbor, which Jewish and Christian commentators over the centuries have identified as the essential and enduring message of the Bible.
Here are three. The great Rabbi Hillel, when asked about the fundamental principle of the Torah, replied: “What is odious to you, do not do to your neighbor: that is the whole Torah; the rest is just commentary. » His words are echoed by his close contemporary, another rabbi, Jesus of Nazareth, who expresses it thus: “Whatever you want people to do to you, you must do to them: for such is the Law and the Prophets ,” and by one of the early leaders of the movement started by Jesus, the rabbinically trained Paul, who declared that “love is the fulfillment of the law.”
Thus, I suggest that the essence of the Bible – its ultimate authority – lies not in its individual statements, but in its underlying message: equal, even loving, treatment of all people, regardless of age, their gender, their socio-economic situation. status, ethnicity or sexual orientation.
The opinions contained in this commentary are solely those of Michael Coogan.