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5 Questions with Professor Michael D. Coogan

Published: Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Updated: Tuesday, October 19, 2010 23:10

What is the single biggest misconception about the Bible as a whole?

The greatest misconception about the Bible is that God wrote it, every word, and that therefore is absolutely and literally true. But as the Bible itself makes clear, its authors were human beings, many of who are named: David, Isaiah, Luke, and Paul. They wrote over the course of more than a thousand years, and their writings reflect their own views and the values they shared with their contemporaries, so not surprisingly there are many inconsistencies in the Bible, both trivial and profound.


Why does the Bible frown on sex before marriage?

Because the Bible has so many authors, it's probably a mistake to talk about what the Bible says about any topic. In ancient Israel, premarital sex by a woman was discouraged because in the patriarchal society of that time, a daughter was her father's property. If she was not a virgin her value--the bride price her father would get from a prospective husband--was diminished. Also, any child born to an unmarried woman would be fatherless--the Biblical term is "orphan"-- and so without either a male protector or any possibility of an inheritance, which was passed from father to son. There is no explicit prohibition in the Old Testament of premarital or extramarital sex by men except for adultery, which meant having sex with another man's wife.  In the New Testament, there is no authentic saying of Jesus on this topic; Jesus seems to have been more concerned about social justice than about sexual morality. Paul and other early Christian writers condemned sex outside of marriage in part at least because they believed that the world as they knew it was about to end when Jesus returned. But they were wrong--he did not.


How did you first become interested in the topic of sex and the Bible?

The immediate catalyst was the debate in Massachusetts and around the country (and the world!) about same-sex marriage. In this debate, as in others on so-called family values, people on both sides quoted cited the Bible in support of their positions. I decided that as a biblical scholar I had a responsibility to set the record straight, to act as a kind of referee.


You once compared the Bible to the U.S. Constitution.  What is the correlation?

Both are foundational texts for our society, and both are the product of different times with different values and vocabulary. So in deciding what they mean today--how they apply to us--one has to begin a kind of historical research: what did these texts mean in their original contexts. Then one needs to ascertain the underlying values that inform the actual words, and carefully apply those values to our very different context. That's what judges do with the Constitution, and that's what individual believers and communities of faith have done through the ages with the Bible.


What's next for you?

I'm editing a reference work, The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Books of the Bible, and also working on a couple of textbooks. My main project in the next couple of years will be a new book on the way the Bible has been used to construct religious and political identities: in ancient Israel, in Christianity, Islam, and modern Judaism, as well as in the American concept of a divinely given "manifest destiny."

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