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Reading the Bible Again for the First Time: Taking the Bible Seriously but Not Literally

Reading the Bible Again for the First Time: Taking the Bible Seriously but Not Literally

3.9 26
by Marcus J. Borg

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One of the vital challenges facing thoughtful people today is how to read the Bible faithfully without abandoning our sense of truth and history. Reading the Bible Again for the First Time provides a much-needed solution to the problem of how to have a fully authentic yet contemporary understanding of the scriptures. Many mistakenly believe there are no


One of the vital challenges facing thoughtful people today is how to read the Bible faithfully without abandoning our sense of truth and history. Reading the Bible Again for the First Time provides a much-needed solution to the problem of how to have a fully authentic yet contemporary understanding of the scriptures. Many mistakenly believe there are no choices other than fundamentalism or simply rejecting the Bible as something that can bring meaning to our lives. Answering this modern dilemma, acclaimed author Marcus Borg reveals how it is possible to reconcile the Bible with both a scientific and critical way of thinking and our deepest spiritual needs, leading to a contemporary yet grounded experience of the sacred texts.

This seminal book shows you how to read the Bible as it should be examined—in an approach the author calls "historical-metaphorical." Borg explores what the Scriptures meant to the ancient communities that produced and lived by them. He then helps us to discover the meaning of these stories, providing the knowledge and perspective to make the wisdom of the Bible an essential part of our modern lives. The author argues that the conventional way of seeing the Bible's origin, authority, and interpretation has become unpersuasive to millions of people in our time, and that we need a fresh way of encountering the Bible that takes the texts seriously but not literally, even as it takes seriously who we have become.

Borg traces his personal spiritual journey, describing for readers how he moved from an unquestioning childhood belief in the biblical stories to a more powerful and dynamic relationship with the Bible as a sacred text brimming with meaning and guidance. Using his own experience as an example, he reveals how the modern crisis of faith is itself rooted in the misinterpretation of sacred texts as historical record and divine dictation, and opens readers to a truer, more abundant perspective.

This unique book invites everyone—whatever one's religious background—to engage the Bible, wrestle with its meaning, explore its mysteries, and understand its relevance. Borg shows us how to encounter the Bible in a fresh way that rejects the limits of simple literalism and opens up rich possibilities for our lives.

Editorial Reviews

Harold Kushner
This welcome book removes many of the barriers that separate thoughtful people from the wisdom of the Bible.
Peter J. Gomes
Borg is one of the very few New Testament scholars of our age whose learning is so lucid that it takes the Bible back from the specialists and makes it in all its complexity and splendor available to the thoughtful reader: nothing short of a blessing, even a miracle!
Karen Armstrong
In a literal-minded age, when people read texts only for information and have lost the ability to read scripture in the traditional way, this book will make an invaluable contribution. Borg's analysis is profound, challenging and engrossing; it will enable readers to use scripture creatively once again and truly make it a bridge for the divine.
Lawrence Kushner
Marcus Borg's Reading the Bible Again for the First Time is an easy, wise and deeply spiritual stroll through the Mother of all Books. Borg deftly guides the reader-Christian and Jew, conservative and liberal alike-around the landmines and toward the treasures strewn over the biblical landscape. Here is a superb introduction for the beginning and intermediate student. Borg's teaching resonates with the counsel of the ancient rabbis that eachperson standing at the foot of Mount Sinai heard a revelation uniquely tailored for his or her own level of awareness and life-situation.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
The title of this book comes from the author's experience of "unlearning" his literal reading of the Bible from childhood in favor of a "historical-metaphorical" reading derived from his 35 years of studying the Bible as an academic. Borg, an Episcopalian who teaches at Oregon State University, is a member of the Jesus Seminar, author of The God We Never Knew and the counterpoint to evangelical N.T. Wright in The Meaning of Jesus: Two Views. Borg offers a highly readable and succinct introduction to biblical criticism, outlining the kinds of cultural, theological and historical lenses through which people read the Bible and explaining how those readings affect their relation to God. The historical-metaphorical reading that Borg presents includes both the "historical illumination of a text in its ancient context" and a metaphorical approach that "enables us to see and affirm meanings that go beyond the particularity of what the texts meant in their ancient setting." He applies this approach to the Bible in sections, wending his way from the creation stories to Revelation even as he advocates a journey from "precritical naivete" (the acceptance that the Bible is literally true) through "critical thinking" to "postcritical naivete" (accepting again that the Bible is true even if that truth does not depend upon factuality). The book is copiously footnoted without being in the least stodgy, and is open about Borg's own spiritual journey without being didactic or disrespectful of the tradition he has left. (Mar.) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Borg (religion, Oregon State Univ.) initially understood the Bible as the authoritative word of God and later saw it through the lens of modern critical thinkers. Now he has moved on to see the Bible with a postmodernist perspective. Reading biblical stories, he finds the truth in events to be the truth of metaphors; in this, he has discovered a path free from "spiritual bondage to the lords of convention and culture." Readings become a "sacramental" and "relational" experience of the presence of God, affirming that, as in the sacrament of communion, the Spirit of God addresses us "in, with, and under" the human words of the Bible. The book provides many excellent metaphorical readings of biblical accounts, which unify the Bible's stories. Borg's thinking and judgments are highly subjective, however, and the themes he chooses to promote are freedom and political correctness. In doing so, he completely ignores the Bible's dominant, redemptive theme that culminates in Jesus Christ. Recommended for large public libraries. George Westerlund, formerly with Providence P.L. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Christian Century
“[A]n accessible book, almost entirely devoid of scholarly jargon but filled with scholarly insight.”
Christian Science Monitor
“Borg writes passionately about the enduring values of the Bible. The engaging historical details he includes make familiar stories read like new. Whether you read the Bible religiously or rarely, this book is thought-provoking.”
Spirituality and Practice
“Borg… has a knack for clarifying difficult theological issues and writing in a pensive style that is extremely accessible to Christian laity and seekers of all stripes. Almost single-handedly, he opened up new avenues of thought for lapsed or nonbelievers interested in re-visioning the Christianity of their childhood.”
Rabbi Harold Kushner
“This welcome book removes many of the barriers that separate thoughtful people from the wisdom of the Bible.”

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Chapter One

Reading Lenses:
Seeing the Bible Again

The key word in the title of this book -- Reading the Bible Again for the First Time -- is "again." It points to my central claim. Over the past century an older way of reading the Bible has ceased to be persuasive for millions of people, and thus one of the most imperative needs in our time is a way of reading the Bible anew.

Reading and seeing go together. On the one hand, what we read can affect how we see. On the other hand, and more important for my immediate purpose, how we see affects how we read. What we bring to our reading of a text or document affects how we read it. All of us, whether we use reading glasses or not, read through lenses.

As we enter the twenty-first century, we need a new set of lenses through which to read the Bible. The older set, ground and polished by modernity, no longer works for millions of people. These lenses need to be replaced. The older way of seeing and reading the Bible, which I will soon describe, has made the Bible incredible and irrelevant for vast numbers of people. This is so not only for the millions who have left the church in Europe and North America, but also for many Christians who continue to be active in the life of the church.

The need for new lenses thus exists within the church itself. The older lenses enabled Christians of earlier generations to experience the Bible as a lamp unto their feet, a source of illumination for following the Christian path. But for many Christians in our time, the older lenses have become opaque, turning the Bible into astumbling block in the way. Yet not all Christians agree about the need for new lenses. Many vigorously defend the older way of seeing the Bible. For them, what seems to be at stake is nothing less than the truth of the Bible and Christianity itself.

Conflicting Lenses

Conflict about how to see and read the Bible is the single greatest issue dividing Christians in North America today. On one side of the divide are fundamentalist and many, conservative-evangelical Christians. On the other side are moderate-to-liberal Christians, mostly in mainline denominations. Separating the two groups are two very different ways of seeing three foundational questions about the Bible: questions about its origin, its authority, and its interpretation.

The first group, who sometimes call themselves "Bible-believing Christians," typically see the Bible as the inerrant and infallible Word of God. This conviction flows out of the way they see the Bible's origin: it comes from God, as no other book does. As a divine product, it is God's truth, and its divine origin is the basis of its authority. As a contemporary bumper sticker boldly puts it, "God said it, I believe it, that settles it." The sticker may be unfair to many who hold this position, but it was created by an advocate, not by a critic.

For these Christians, the Bible is to be interpreted literally, unless the language of a particular passage is clearly metaphorical. From their point of view, allowing nonliteral interpretation opens the door to evading the Bible's authority and making it say what we want it to say. They typically see themselves as taking the Bible with utmost seriousness and often criticize moderatete-to-liberal Christians for watering it down and avoiding its authority. They also commonly see themselves as affirming "the old-time religion" -- that is, Christianity as it was before the modern period. In fact, however, as we shall see, their approach is itself modern, largely the product of a particular form of nineteenth-and twentieth-century Protestant theology. Moreover, rather than allowing the Bible its full voice, their approach actually confines the Bible within a tight theological structure.

The second group of Christians, most of whom are found in mainline churches, are less clear about how they do see the Bible than about how they do not. They are strongly convinced that many parts of the Bible cannot be taken literally, either as historically factual or as expressing the will of God. Some people who reach this conclusion leave the church, of course. But many continue within the church and are seeking a way of seeing the Bible that moves beyond biblical literalism and makes persuasive and compelling sense.

Their numbers are growing; never before has there been so great an appetite for modern biblical scholarship among mainline Christians. They are responding strongly and positively to a more historical and metaphorical reading of the Bible. At the grass-roots level of mainline churches, a major de-literalization of the Bible is underway.

Though these Christians know with certainty that they cannot be biblical literalists, they are less clear about how they do see the origin and authority of the Bible. They are often uncertain what it means to say that the Bible is "the Word of God" or "inspired by God." Though they reject grounding the Bible's authority in its infallibility, they are unsure what "biblical authority" might mean.

Thus it is not surprising that even within mainline denominations, there is conflict about how to see and read the Bible. At the national level, most of these denominations have vocal minority movements protesting what they perceive to be the loss of biblical authority. At the local level, some congregations are sharply divided about how to see the Bible. The conflict also divides families. In many conservative Christian families, one or more members have either dropped out of church or become part of a liberal church. The reverse is also true: many liberal Christian families have seen one or more of their members become conservative Christians. Some families have been able to negotiate this conflict with grace. But in many, it has been a source of division, grief, and hand-wringing.

Reading the Bible Again for the First Time. Copyright © by Marcus J. Borg. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Meet the Author

Marcus J. Borg (1942–2015) was a pioneering author and teacher whom the New York Times described as "a leading figure in his generation of Jesus scholars." He was the Hundere Distinguished Professor of Religion and Culture at Oregon State University and canon theologian at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Portland, and he appeared on NBC's The Today Show and Dateline, ABC's World News, and NPR's Fresh Air. His books have sold over a million copies, including the bestselling Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, Reading the Bible Again for the First Time, Jesus, The Heart of Christianity, Evolution of the Word, Speaking Christian, and Convictions.

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Reading the Bible Again for the First Time: Taking the Bible Seriously but Not Literally 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 27 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The Nook version has no endnotes available. I have read this as a paper version and assumed the endnotes woukd be there when I purchased the Nook edition. What a disappointment!
Guest More than 1 year ago
In many ways this book has the feel of a history of social and political protest in the ancient world. Borg's emphasis on what he refers to as 'opposition to systems of domination' is repeated often and he points out in his chapter on Paul that Christianity is the only major religion whose two most influential personalities were put to death by established authority. The clear implication then is that the messages of Jesus and Paul may be very threatening to systems of domination.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Borg repeats some of the opinions he has given in previous books. Most important is that being Christian is not about believing in the Bible or about believing in Christianity. It is instead about having a relationship with the God to whom the Bible points. The Bible itself contains a combination of history and metaphor. Critical thinking allows the reader to integrate the Bible stories into a larger whole. Although the Bible speaks with many voices, a major theme throughout is the conflict between the royal theology of pharaohs, kings and caesars on the one hand and the prophetic protest against it by Moses, the prophets, Jesus, Paul and John of Patmos. Borg never fails to provide an uplifting experience for me. It helps that he writes with so much clarity.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Dr. Borg's insights are what is needed for a new and revitalized understanding of the Judeo/Christian scriptures.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I am so relieved to find a book that allows me to use my mind and still be a Christian.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I've read several of Prof. Borg's books and this one, along with 'The Heart of Christianity,' is my favorite. Borg offers a progressive view of the Bible. The Bible, he says, isn't an infallible text about God, the world, and human beings instead, it's a sacrament or a window through which we see God. The scriptures are a purely human response to the reality that Jews and Christians call 'God.' What do we learn about God? That God has a dream for the world, a dream shown to us by the Hebrew prophets and Jesus Christ. Other topics covered by Borg are creation myths, literal vs metaphorical uses of scripture, the experience of God, and the meaning of Jesus. This is a great book with a ton of information, and I highly recommend it for 'Introduction to the Bible' classes. It will also provide students with an alternative to Fundamentalist/conservative evangelical readings of the Bible. One criticism: Borg is often unclear about his view of God. Is God something like a person? Or is God beyond personhood? Does God interact with the world in any literal sense? Sometimes he speaks like a process theologian, sometimes not, and other times I'm not sure what he believes (he's definitely not a supernaturalist, though). But perhaps this shows the difficulty of theology, and Borg may still be wrestling with these issues. Whatever the case may be, Borg is a fine scholar and writer, as well as a good Christian man. I will look forward to his next book.
Woodhand More than 1 year ago
I find Borg's book very helpful: He shows the different ways the Bible can be interpreted and leads the reader through the pluses and minuses of these different ways. He helps the reader decide for him/her self.
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This book contains so many new and fresh ways to read and understand the Bible. it is changing how I read, understand and apply the Bible to my daily life.
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JosephNicholas More than 1 year ago
Reading The Bible Again For The First Time is a life changing and soulful masterpiece! The author tells of his own personal spiritual journey as a biblical scholar, and reveals the history and facts of the Judeo Christian scriptures. It's fascinating and heartfelt. Thank you for this book!
Guest More than 1 year ago
To think I thought I was alone with the thoughts I had on the bible. This book really helped me to understand exactly what's going on and to see things in a new light. Nothing like corrective lenses. Can't wait to read 'Meeting Jesus Again For The First Time'
Guest More than 1 year ago
According to Borg, the bible is metaphorically, not literally, true. Evidently, we are to understand that accounts of miracles, given as testimony in the Bible, do not hold up to an enlightened, modern stage of critical thinking. In order to see the truths in the Bible we must be led to a state of 'post-critical naivety' in which we read again taking account of their historical context and therefore see a different kind of 'truth.' Borg's concept seems to require that the believer enter a special state, receptive to special understanding. The trouble is, it is never quite clear what it is we are to understand. Faith is basically our assent to what others have said or written. What is not so easily seen is that almost all 'truth', even Borg's ideas, are dependent on the faith we have in what others teach us. He comes across as almost Gnostic in his thoughts about humanity requiring a special understanding. He seems to dismiss all those who have the historical context right but nevertheless have simple faith in the Bible's testimony as historical events. The logical consequence of Borg's thesis is that the majority of souls who never learn to enter Borg's 'post-critical naivete.' are simply victims of a 3000 year old deception.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book discredits every miracle of the Bible. Borg, who wasn't there when Jesus walked the Earth in the flesh, seems to think that none of the biblical miracles actually happened, but were just the authors' way of writing in parable. I would not suggest this book for anyone who has faith or anyone who is without faith in Jesus Christ. I am very disappointed.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This along with everything else that is happening in the world today, has all been predicted in the very book Borg is discrediting. Man(this includes Woman)want to hear what they want to hear to suit their own needs. The Bible is not just stories but the Son of God, Jesus Christ, as the Word became flesh, to take on this sins of the world. This book is a tool of deception that will lead many people away from the truth.