I reach out to Marcus Borg for advice on reading the Bible. He knows a thing or two about this. He is a canon theologian at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Portland, Oregon, and the author of Reading the Bible Again for the First Time and the New York Times best-seller Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary. Borg, who spoke at Rollins in February, has studied the Bible for more than 50 years, though he admits he’s never read it cover to cover. He’s one of those historical-metaphorical types, which means he tries to look at biblical stories in the context of ancient Israel and within the context of the early Christian church. And that’s key for him: “Context, context, context.”
Yudit Greenberg, director of the Jewish Studies Program and the George D. and Harriet W. Cornell professor of religious studies at Rollins, puts it this way: “It’s not an easy read.” Remember, she says, the Bible is a translation. “You’ll get a different interpretation depending on the translation you pick.” You’ll also get a different interpretation depending on the faith with which you approach it.
Muslims believe that the scriptures on which the Bible is based contained true revelations from God, but that corruptions of those texts (either intentional or accidental) have rendered the Bible unreliable. So Muslims turn to the Quran, which they believe contains original revelations revealed directly to the prophet Muhammad, to support their faith. To Christians, the Old Testament, a book of teachings, exists to foreshadow the New Testament, which recounts the life of Jesus. But to the Jewish faith, the Old Testament is the sacred Torah, teaching how to serve God and live a better life. Greenberg mentions the creation story, which is key to the Christian faith, as an example. To Christians, it introduces the idea of original sin, and scholars over the years have transformed that serpent from a snake to a representation of Satan. But to Jews, this story is about the power of temptation and the consequences of free will.
I remember asking my mother about the story of Adam and Eve when I was a child. A devout Catholic, my mother had gone to a Catholic college, which gave her a semi-liberal spin on some aspects of her religion. One belief she held was that the Good Book was full of wonderful and tragic stories that were written to document history—and to teach us. She told me that the story of Adam and Eve served to illustrate the power of good and evil. “It was an attempt to explain how God made us. That’s how I would have explained it to you as a child,” she tells me today. “It was written to express the essential truth that we and all of nature were created by God, and this was the writer’s way of explaining that truth so that we could comprehend it.” The means by which God created the world, and how long that took—seven days (creationism) or 7 billion years (evolution)—is irrelevant to my mother. The truth that she holds is that God created us and “that’s the important part of the story,” she says. She embraces both metaphorical and literalist readings: Adam and Eve? A story. The Earth in seven days? Not likely. Jesus’ death for our salvation? Of course.
It’s not difficult to see why the Jesus stories are easier to believe, in a literal interpretation, than the Old Testament stories. First of all, says Greenberg, we have no evidence—archaeological or otherwise—to support many of the narratives in the Old Testament. “In Egyptian records,” says Greenberg, “there’s no record of the Hebrews. You’d think if they were so important at the time, there’d be some record of them.” Borg tells me to think about the language in the creation story. “The Adam and Eve story has a talking snake, magical trees—the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, the tree of life,” he says. “If we ran into those details in any other body of literature, we, of course, would say, ah, these are symbols.” And there’s still plenty to contend with in the New Testament, too, such as the Virgin Birth and Jesus’ walking on water. Some readers, Jewish or Christian, can put the historical facts aside; others cannot.
Barry Levis, a Rollins professor of history who specializes in the history of Christianity, uses his research to grapple with the stories in the Bible that puzzle him. One is a parable about the kingdom of heaven—the story of a king who readies a banquet for his son. He becomes angry with the nobility, his original guests, and “destroys” them for a number of atrocities. He then instructs his servants to invite anyone they can find. One invitee, a man, is dressed too casually for the formal occasion, so the king tells his servants, “Tie him hand and foot, and throw him outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” The tale ends this way: “For many are invited, but few are chosen.”
Levis just couldn’t wrap his mind around the importance of the dress code. “I had a hard time believing that it mattered whether his coat came from Brooks Brothers or Walmart,” he says. “There are many versions of this particular Gospel of Mark. They have been hand-copied over the centuries.” Powers adds that there are no originals that we know of, and “scribes had not only the freedom in translating, but in editorializing.”