What does the Bible really say about gays, abortion and other hot-button issues?

By Richard Elliott Friedman and Shawna Dolansky

By Elaine K. Alexander, Special to the Light

The Jewish or Hebrew Bible (which includes the five books of the Torah and other “Old Testament” books) matters: as world literature, as history and—even though its oldest texts probably date from 1100 B.C.E., for Jews and Christians everywhere—as living scripture.

Scholars Richard Elliott Friedman and Shawna Dolansky have collaborated on “The Bible Now” (Oxford University Press, 220 pp., $27.95) as an informed analysis—beyond popular conception—of what the ancient laws, prose and poetry of the Hebrew Bible say about five issues that are controversial in the current moment: homosexuality, abortion, gender equality, capital punishment and care of the Earth.

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Friedman, who has a Ph.D. from Harvard University, tested his chops for presenting contemporary biblical scholarship to lay readers with the 1987 publication of “Who Wrote the Bible.”  Both authors are in a distinguished line of scholars as former students of Frank Moore Cross and the late David Noel Freedman, who were in turn, students of the notable biblical authority William Foxwell Albright.

Nevertheless, “The Bible Now” is disappointing in its style and organization. The authors’ jokes and humorous asides may keep things lively in the lecture hall, but here they usually derail the discussion. Consider this sentence: “The Bible’s oldest prose was written when Herodotus’s great grandmother was not yet in pre-school.” That may evoke a smile and questions more than answers about Herodotus, the Greek known as the father of history, and the date of the oldest historical writing in the Hebrew Bible.

The book also suffers because Friedman and Dolansky lack a talent for well-crafted argument. They reach rational conclusions by irrational routes and are inconsistent, minimizing the importance of text in one place because it is poetic metaphor and later presenting metaphor as evidence of our responsibility to the environment.

In the introduction, the authors are emphatic about their scholarly mission: impartiality rather than imposition of a political or social agenda. But their apology for the Bible’s unevolved stance on gender equality and their concern for the environment make it no secret that Friedman and Dolansky are on the liberal part of the spectrum with regard to social issues.

The authors intend to be “useful to both traditional and critical, religious and non-religious readers.” But they ignore basic differences about how different groups approach the text, as some take a more expansive view and others take a more literal one.

Overall, Friedman and Dolansky do give the reader an appreciation for the tools of their trade. They consider traditional religious interpretations, information from archaeological discoveries about ancient Israelite and neighboring social and legal systems, comparisons of primary translations (the Greek Septuagint, the Latin Vulgate, the English King James version) and interpretations by other scholars going back to Julius Wellhausen (1844-1918)—who is to modern “bible-ology” what Darwin is to modern biology.

The book also includes textual interpretation which examines other occurrences of a word or phrase, i.e. do the multiple uses of a particular preposition suggest that Deborah was a mother in Israel or, a mother of Israel? (Although, it is a lapse in presentation for lay readers that for Hebrew words the authors use a universal system of phonetic spelling without providing the single-page glossary for the pronunciation of specialized, phonetic markings.)

The text is laced with complaints about contemporary personalities or factions who quote scripture to exploit it for their personal politics. It’s a quirky aspect of the book that the authors devote so much attention to uninformed interpretation by people who are not biblical scholars.

Ultimately, the authors conclude that the Bible has little to say about abortion, is against male homosexuality, is for capital punishment, and was progressive for its time about the status of women. The authors also contend that the Bible encourages us repeatedly to be caretakers of the Earth.

As an introduction to critical (meaning academic) reading of the Bible, I recommend “The Bible Now,” with a caveat that despite their stated intentions, the authors can’t quite prevent their own political leanings and interpretations from slipping through unnoticed.