How to Read the Bible

by Harvey Cox (2015), reviewed by Vern Ratzlaff

Cox muses on his personal history of reading the Bible, identifying three stages in his life with the Bible.  The first stage saw the Bible primarily as stories (e.g., the Christmas pageant, daily readings in public schools).  The second stage was the historical-critical, where questions such as the multiple sources of the Pentateuch, or how many Pauline letters had actually been written by Paul, were raised.  The third stage was the spiritual, where Cox was involved with civil rights issues, and saw the bible as a living link in the long history of liberation movements.  The Bible “is an invitation, a living record of an open-ended history of which we can become a part.  It is a still unfinished story” (p. 8).  He quotes Krister Stendahl, who said that the two great questions about any biblical passage are, “What did it mean then?” and “What does it mean now?” (p. 10)  Interesting—this is the basic hermeneutical approach—peshar—of the Jewish community, especially of the Esssenes.  Cox adds a fourth step in biblical reading and interpretation, the “history of interpretation”, which brings in people who studied the Bible at different times and in different circumstances (p. 15).  (This reflects the Anabaptist emphasis on community-based and tested interpretation, and the prayer that the Ephesian congregation “may have the power to comprehend with all the saints” (Ephesians 3:18), what the Apostles’ Creed calls “the communion of saints”.)

Cox then applies these stages of enquiry to the major classifications of biblical material (the Pentateuch, the prophets, the gospels, the epistles, Revelation).

The book is a good read making for a better understanding of the essence of biblical literature.  “My hope,” Cox concludes, that in reading this book “you may come to know both G-d and yourself a little better, since in the end the two cannot be separated” (p. 231).

Vern Ratzlaff is a pastor and professor of historical theology at Lutheran Theological Seminary in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada.