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Boston Globe Interviews Biblical Scholar, Michael Coogan

Michael Coogan discusses the motivation behind his latest book, God and Sex: What the Bible Really Says.
(Boston Globe via HSB)

Oct 18, 2010

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Sex and the scriptures
What the Bible actually says

By Lisa Wangsness
October 3, 2010

In 2006, the biblical scholar Michael Coogan watched the debate over whether to end gay marriage in Massachusetts with growing frustration. Supporters of the ban claimed they had God on their side, and they waved signs loaded with biblical references to buttress their views. “Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve” was a popular one.

For Coogan, a religious studies professor at Stonehill College and director of publications for the Harvard Semitic Museum, the display illustrated a growing problem in the US culture wars: Many contemporary readers haven’t read the Bible in its entirety, so they have incomplete information about what the Bible says on human sexuality. And those who have read the whole thing often quote it selectively, ignoring its cultural and historical context.

At the same time, Coogan says, biblical historians haven’t done enough to inform the public debate, focusing more on high-level scholarship than on bringing their knowledge to a broad audience.

Coogan’s new book, “God and Sex: What the Bible Really Says,” is his attempt to bridge these gaps. In it he argues that today’s readers are often unaware of how the Bible was written — it was not, as he writes in the introduction, “delivered by humanity as a complete book, written by God and shrink-wrapped in a shipment from Amazon or available for download on a Kindle.”

In fact, he writes, the current scholarly consensus is that it was written by many authors, mostly men, over the course of 1,000 years or so — a span of time and geography that inevitably leads to questions, inconsistencies, and cultural misunderstanding. Those who take its meaning literally, isolating single passages to guide modern behavior, he argues, do so at their peril.

In “God and Sex,” Coogan attempts to distill what the Bible says about an array of topics related to human sexuality often in the news — abortion, homosexuality, divorce, and the role of women in the church — and to help contemporary readers sort through its meanings.

Coogan spoke to Ideas from his home in Concord.

IDEAS: What’s the problem with contemporary readers using the Bible as instruction manual?

COOGAN: Contemporary policy makers, pundits, and preachers use the Bible...as a kind of unquestioned authority....[The] Ten Commandments themselves contain values we no longer accept. They presume the existence of slavery — and if God is the author of the Ten Commandments, then God approves of slavery.

IDEAS: The Ten Commandments don’t say much about sexuality, actually, do they?

COOGAN: All they say is thou shalt not commit adultery....It doesn’t say anything about prostitution, premarital sex, birth control, abortion.

IDEAS: And yet a number of biblical heroes indulge in that particular sin.

COOGAN: One of the most important characters in the Bible is King David, and David’s affair with Bathsheba...he sleeps with this woman and then arranges to have her husband killed. So David is guilty of not just illicit sex, but also of murder.

IDEAS: One of the things we hear most from gay marriage opponents is that the God-sanctioned version of marriage is one man and one woman.

COOGAN: Not in the Bible. Later, monogamy became the norm. In the New Testament, Jesus talks about it that way. But certainly in ancient Israel, polygamy, for those who could afford it,...was widespread and was completely accepted.

IDEAS: What does the Bible say about abortion?

COOGAN: The Bible doesn’t mention it at all....It’s not surprising, because in ancient agrarian societies, children were valuable assets.

IDEAS: Were Adam and Eve married?

COOGAN: That’s one of the interesting issues of translation — in Hebrew the word for “wife” and the word for “woman” were the same word....Certainly there is no marriage ceremony described in the Garden of Eden.

IDEAS: Those who view homosexuality as a sin often cite Leviticus, where sex between men appears next to bestiality in a list of prohibited sexual behaviors.

COOGAN: I think those prohibitions...have to do in part with a kind of aversion to mixing categories....You shouldn’t wear a garment made out of wool and linen, because that’s mixing categories. You shouldn’t plow with two different kinds of animals, that’s mixing categories. Some of the dietary laws can also be explained that way. A man sleeping with a man feminizes the other man, removes him from his category, just as bestiality would.

IDEAS: Other readers of the Bible see subtle indications that the Bible sanctions homosexuality — in the relationship between King David and Jonathan, for example.

COOGAN: Since the ’80s or so, some gay activists have said, “But wait...David says of Jonathan, ‘Your love for me is more wonderful than the love of women,’ so they must have been lovers in physical sense.”...The problem with that is first of all that David’s affair with Bathsheba would suggest that David was not what we could call exclusively homosexual in orientation....I think the relationship between David and Jonathan was not that they were technically lovers, but rather that they had a profound, close relationship.

It has also been claimed that Paul in the New Testament was homosexual. There is no basis for that. He wasn’t married; he tells us that himself. But...we don’t know why....It’s also claimed, I think preposterously, that Jesus was gay.

IDEAS: What does Jesus say about homosexuality?

COOGAN: Not a word.

IDEAS: The Catholic Church requires priests to be celibate, and most Catholic saints were celibate. What is the biblical basis for that?

COOGAN: The primary biblical basis is the writings of Paul, especially in his first letter to the Corinthians where he urges people to remain unmarried if they can....But the reason (for) that is...Paul believed that Jesus was going to return in very near future, in his own lifetime. So there was no sense in getting married because Jesus was coming and there was going to be a whole new world.

IDEAS: What does Jesus say about divorce?

COOGAN: It depends upon which gospel you are reading....In the gospel of Mark, the earliest gospel, Jesus is quoted as saying whoever divorces his wife and marries another woman has committed adultery against her....In another gospel he is quoted as saying whoever divorces his wife, except for indecency, [commits adultery]...so there is an exception.

IDEAS: Given all these inconsistencies, how should contemporary readers look to the Bible on these questions?

COOGAN: I use the analogy of the Constitution, because it too is very much a product of a different time and it reflects the values of its framers, but...underlying the Constitution is a profound ideal, and I think underlying the Bible are a number of profound ideals as well....In my view...the underlying message of the Bible as a whole is loving the neighbor as oneself.

IDEAS: Some might disagree with the premise of that analogy.

COOGAN: The point I’m trying to make is...that everyone, whether they are aware of it or not, uses the Bible selectively. And I think it’s important to reflect on and articulate criteria for saying, “This part of the Bible I will continue to accept, [but not] this part that talks about women as property or not wearing garments made of [both] wool and linen.”...If you are not going to accept that, why? Perhaps it’s not consistent with the higher ideals everyone finds in the Bible.

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