Who really wrote the Bible, and how should it be used? The purpose of the Bible is more abstract, suggests biblical scholar Dr. Michael Coogan, a lecturer on the Hebrew Bible at Harvard Divinity School. According to Coogan, the Bible was written by men, not God, and it is both irrational and inappropriate to use its individual decrees as a guide to living; rather, he suggests, its purpose should reflect its underlying message of love.
Coogan points out that there are many commandments in the Bible that nobody would keep today. For example, the Old Testament states that slavery is a legitimate practice. Not only that, but it states that a father can sell his daughter into slavery. Slavery advocates of the nineteenth century routinely cited this biblical commandment to support the practice of slavery, he notes. In addition, he writes, the Hebrew Bible teaches that women are the property of men, along with their houses, slaves, and livestock. And not only does the Christian holy book condemn homosexual relations, but it commands that practicing homosexuals should be put to death. But, he points out, nobody today would argue that slavery is a legitimate practice, that women are the property of men, or that people who have gay sex should be executed. These were just the opinions of the Bible’s authors, which reflected Bronze Age cultural norms, he argues. And this doesn’t mean that they are right, or that we should emulate them.
The most important purpose of the Bible, Coogan argues, is its message of love for humanity. To illustrate this thesis, he places the Bible in its cultural context and cites the interpretations offered by different teachers from the era during which the books of the Bible were being composed. According to Rabbi Hillel, who lived around the time of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, the message of the Hebrew Bible was simple: “What is hateful to you do not do to your neighbor: That is the whole Torah; the rest is commentary”. Jesus himself taught a similar message. For Jesus, “the Law” was not necessarily the same covenant as that which the ancient Hebrews kept with their blood-thirsty war-god, Yahweh—rather, it was a new law with an entirely different message: “Whatever you wish people to do to you, so you should do to them: for this is the Law and the Prophets”. The infamously zealous and misogynistic Apostle Paul himself had at least one good thing to say which echoes this sentiment: “[l]ove is the fulfilling of the law”. It is a very simple message: all God wants us to do is love one another.
The purpose of the Bible, Coogan argues, is irrelevant and anachronistic when defined by its individual commandments. Its timelessness and present-day relevance, he asserts, is in its essential message of love and respect for other people. (It is an uncannily humanistic philosophy on the purpose of life.)In other words, what we should take away from a reading of the Bible is not the proscriptions against this or that sex act, or its approbation of slavery or female subjugation; rather, we should treat it with an understanding of this essential message of love, which should serve as the compass and common denominator for all our conduct toward other human beings, regardless of gender, race, creed, status, or sexual orientation. Nothing else matters.
Acclaimed Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa once said, “[t]o think of God, is to disobey God.” This short little epigram is almost apatheistic in nature, in sharp contrast to the conventional Christian preoccupation with what God is like. It suggests that what we think about God is not what pleases God; rather, it is our treatment of each other that pleases God.
Weigh in on the discussion by sharing your thoughts. Do you agree with Coogan’s understanding of the Bible’s purpose? Do the individual teachings of the Bible matter in their own right, or are they subsidiary to this larger message of love?