[An interview with]

Michael Coogan

Aug 13, 2011

“I’ve had emails saying that I’m from Satan, and that I’m doomed to hell, but that goes with the territory.”


The Bible is one of the world’s most popular, and controversial books. When you decide to dedicate your whole life to analyzing, interpreting, and drawing new conclusions from its text, you can often find yourself in hot water.
Michael Coogan is a scholar, author, and teacher, who specializes in the study of the Old Testament. He has taught courses on the subject at Harvard University, written books on it, and led archaeological excavations across the world because of it; needless to say, he knows the books well. Currently, he continues his work on interpreting the Bible at Stonehill University in Massachusetts, USA.

In emphasizing the Old Testament in his research, Michael Coogan is responsible for tackling some of the most complex, and difficult debates in the Christian world. The Old Testament is full of laws, and ideals that many Christians, and non-Christians often find very hard to swallow. For example, issues such as the extreme patriarchal nature of the Bible, a violent and wrathful God, and numerous inconsistencies on rules throughout the different books, all make the Bible a work of literature that is constantly being abused, and misused.

In his latest work, God and Sex: What the Bible Really Says, Michael Coogan is attempting to set the record straight on a lot of these issues. In ambitious style, Coogan systematically, and carefully tries to underscore exactly what the Bible says, and does not say.  It was this book that caught my attention when I was browsing for current books on religion. I hadn’t heard of Michael Coogan, but the title fascinated me, and I decided to read the book. Although the book centers heavily on the overt sexual nature of the Bible, and seeks to dispel many misconceptions on what the Bible says about sex, it also attempts to take a broader look at the Bible itself. Some may call it heresy, but Michael Coogan believes the Bible should not be viewed as a divinely inspired text, and instead advocates that we must understand the human nature of the Bible, and interpret it as such.
Several choice quotes from the book help highlight exactly what Michael Coogan is advocating:1) “These books were written over the course of many centuries, and like all other books, they reflect the presuppositions and prejudices, the ideas and ideals of their authors (almost entirely men) and of the societies in and for which they were written.” 

2)  “People still maintain that the Bible is God’s word, plain and simple…If God wrote the Bible, he is a forgetful writer….If God wrote the Bible, he is also a terrible writer – over and over, the same story is told and retold, with many changes and in wildly divergent styles.” 

3) “Very few would accept every biblical pronouncement as absolute and absolutely binding. The messy details of the Bible itself – especially its inner contradictions – and the subsequent history of the interpretation of the Bible…require thinking of the Bible in a more nuanced way than simply as the literal word of God.”

For many Christians the book may come off as being unnecessary and foolish, but I believe the work that Michael Coogan is doing is essential. The Bible is far from being understood, and in fact, being used constantly to wage hateful, and harmful campaigns across the world. Problematically, the Bible can be directly quoted to support many of these groups. As such, scholars like Michael Coogan are doing a great service in attempting to unpack the cultural context of the Bible, and the biases of those who were responsible for writing and putting together the Bible. As Coogan emphasizes at the end of his book, “the Bible must be interpreted critically to ensure that its underlying principle of love of neighbor does in fact apply.” Therefore, searching through the heart of man, to illuminate the heart of God is the ultimate purpose, and one Coogan has graciously dedicated his life to helping us see more clearly.

There is much I WANNA KNOW from Michael Coogan, and I had the pleasure of speaking with him from his office at Stonehill University.

From sex in the Bible, to the authority of scripture, to the historical accuracy of the Book of Mormon, to the possibility of polytheism, to the critics of this work, we cover it all. 

Ryan Kohls: What initially compelled you to write “God and Sex”? 

Demonstrations in Massachusetts. 2004.

Michael Coogan: Well, I wrote it for a couple of reasons. One is because I was teaching for many years, and kept getting many questions from students. Also, as a resident of Massachusetts, when same sex marriage was approved, I was both amused and troubled how both sides of the debate, and other issues of so called family values, were able to quote the Bible in support of their contradictory positions. So, I wrote the book, in a way, to set the record straight, and lay out for a non-specialist audience exactly what the Bible says, and what it doesn’t say, and set out the larger issue of what kind of authority the Bible should have in such contemporary social discussions.
RK: When you began compiling this book, and doing additional research, was there anything you discovered that surprised you, or caught you off guard?

MC: There were several issues that surprised me in a way. I’ve been doing this stuff for a long time. One is that it’s possible to interpret the Garden of Eden story with a sexual component. The man and the woman eating the fruit of the tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil were at some level, and since it’s literature it’s capable of several different levels of meaning, having to do with sexual activity. That surprised me.

Also, I think as I started going into it I was intrigued by the notion of “divine sexuality.” People think of God as an abstract, ethereal being, but for the Biblical writers God is described often in very sexual terms, and I found that somewhat surprising.

RK: The idea of God as a sexual being seems highly controversial to me, but yet the evidence is explicit in the Bible, and we are also said to be created in his image. Why do you think this idea has been in large part rejected by the church?

Creation. Michelangelo.

MC: Well, that’s a great question. I think that when both Judaism, and especially Christianity, began to adopt Greek philosophical ideas, they began to understand God in more abstract, and in some ways, less personal ways than the Biblical writers described him. I think as philosophical theology developed you don’t want God to be too human because that means he shares our foibles and limitations. So, God became more removed from this idea that we are, like Genesis said, made in the image of God, and if we look at ourselves we can see what God is like. That metaphor became a little uncomfortable for theologians.

RK: What do you believe is one of the biggest misconceptions Christians have towards sex? 

MC: I think that based in part by what some biblical writers say, many Christians think that sex is something bad, dirty, and not good. I think that has been a sorry part of Christian interpretation, since the time of Paul at least, who’s own attitudes towards sex are less than positive.

RK: In “God and Sex” you seem to be advocating that the Bible should not be viewed as a complete authority on life, and should in fact be re-interpreted. Do you think it is essential to amend the Bible?

MC: I don’t think we can amend the Bible. We’re stuck with the Bible we have for better or worse, but I think we need to interpret it. In interpreting it we’re doing what the Biblical writer’s themselves do. One of the examples I use in the book is God punishing children for the sins of their parents down to the fourth generation; that’s enshrined in the Ten Commandments. Yet, the prophet Ezekiel disagrees with it strenuously, even though it’s in one of the most important legal texts. So, the Biblical writers themselves were always interpreting, and trying to apply older words to their own changing circumstances. I think that’s what Jews and Christians have been doing, not just when the Bible was being written, but since these assorted books became the Bible.

RK: The vast amount of inconsistencies in the Bible tend, in my opinion, to stunt constructive theological debates. How can we best mediate this problem, in your opinion? 

MC: I think we have to recognize that the Bible is not a single book by a single author, but as the bible itself makes clear, a collection of books from writers who lived at different times, and had different points of view. It’s too easy to find something in the Bible that supports a position you’ve already arrived at. I’m trying to argue against that. I think you need to take the Bible as a whole – in all it’s messiness, complexity, and inconsistency – and try to go behind the individual words and see if there’s a more compelling message.

One of the analogies I use at the end of the book is the American Constitution, which is a foundational text. It was a product of the time, and it has since been amended, and interpreted, and applied to very different situations of which its writers intended. Some legal scholars argue that it’s not what the words say, but the ideal behind words, and I would argue in a similar way for the Bible.

RK: You allude many times in your book to the overwhelming patriarchal nature of the bible; those who wrote the Bible, the inferiority of women, etc. Do you believe that this bias is then essentially created by man, and not in fact, as some would argue, a divine order?

MC: I wouldn’t presume to know what God had in mind, but I believe that many of the Biblical writers, mainly men, were reflecting the values of the society in which they lived. Until relatively modern times those values were accepted by societies at large. I think what’s important is that in many modern societies, in the West especially, we have gone beyond the teachings of the Bible, and rejected the subordinate status of women. There are still some conservative Jewish and Christian groups that would argue that women are subordinate, and so forth, but I think the vast majority of people would say that’s no longer true. It may have been the way people thought two or three thousand years ago but we don’t have to think that way anymore, and in fact, we shouldn’t think that way.

RK: Many of the conclusions in your book were controversial in relation to a large part of contemporary Christian thought. How have your friends, and peers reacted to your book? Have you had much negative feedback?

MC: (laughs) My friends all like it.

I have had some critical reviews. I had an opinion piece done by CNN, and at time.com, and there were a lot of negative reactions. I’ve had emails saying that I’m from Satan, and that I’m doomed to hell, but that goes with the territory.

RK: You talk about polygamy in your book, and refer to the Mormon church. As a Biblical historian, I was wondering what your take was on the Book of Mormon. Do you believe that the claims of the book – Jesus came and lived with the Indigenous people of America – have any historical probability?

MC: I think that the fundamental thesis of the Book of Mormon, that Jesus came to the New world, and that the Garden of Eden was in Missouri, is historically impossible. That being said, Mormonism is now a major world religion, and though from a non-Mormon perspective you may think of it as a cult, all major religions were started in a way that we may call a cult; that’s true of Judaism and Christianity as well.

RK: So, the ‘truth’ aspect of the Book of Mormon is something you wouldn’t be willing to put your confidence behind?

MC: Truth is a difficult word. I think Joseph Smith thought it was true, and was able to convince other people the revelation he received was true. I don’t find it compelling, but much of the Old and New Testament are not historically accurate; they’re not history books. So, I think to interpret it as such is a bit misguided. What makes a book inspired is whether it inspires people. The Bible has done that, but so has the Book of Mormon.

RK: You often refer to the “foreign culture” of the Bible, and alert readers to keep these different circumstances in mind while reading, and trying to understand the books. Historically, when does the schism occur between the “foreign culture” and the recognizable cultures we see, and can better understand today? What is the changing moment?

MC: That’s a good question. I wouldn’t say there’s a moment where that happens, it’s a continuum. The farther away we get from the original culture, the more foreign, and alien the culture seems, especially in regards to language, and vocabulary, and in terms of values. We have that experience in travelling as well, cultures are different.

RK: You speak of a divine council in “God and Sex,” the biblical notion that perhaps there are more than one God. Is there evidence to suggest that Jesus himself spoke of other gods? If so, what is the insinuation of this claim?

MC: By the time the New Testament was written, Judaism had become a very formally monotheistic religion. The idea that there were other gods was emphatically rejected by Jews, and the first Christians. There’s a debate in New Testament circles whether Jesus ever thought of himself as divine. I think it’s unlikely, and I’m not alone in this position.

I should point out that lurking behind the monotheism of Judaism and Christianity is a form of polytheism, expressed in the form of angels, devils, and especially Satan. Who is this Satan? Why does God give him power? If God is all powerful, why doesn’t he squash Satan once and for all? There is a kind of polytheism that arises from a fundamental problem in monotheism, which is how to explain why bad things happen to good people. In a polytheistic system the world is a kind of arena in which good forces and bad forces are constantly battling. Sometimes the good forces win, and sometimes they lose, and you can explain natural disasters, and disease, as at least, a temporary coming to power of the bad forces. When you have a strict monotheism where there are no other God’s there’s a kind of inconsistency: if there’s only one God who is all powerful, he is responsible for all kinds of bad things. You want the all powerful God to be all good, so in order to resolve that dilemma, Judaism, followed by Christianity and Islam, came up with this idea of another force in the world: a Satan who is responsible for all the bad things. To my view, at least, that undercuts a strict monotheism.

RK: Considering the vast amount of Biblical inaccuracies you write about, what keeps you optimistic about the overall character of God? Moreover, why do you remain a Christian?

MC: I’ve devoted my life to studying the Bible. I’ve found it immensely challenging, but immensely rewarding, and inspiring. The more I study it, the more I learn. It gets me, in a sense, closer to the divine I suppose. I also, through studying other religions, recognize that the Biblical way of thinking of God – is God male or female? personal or impersonal? – are all metaphors. No single metaphor should be thought of as exhausting the meaning of God.

RK: Many people, Christian and non-Christian, are put off by the seemingly violent nature of God in the Old Testament. How do you rationalize this murderous behavior?

MC: I think from the perspective of the Biblical writers, he was their God, and on their side, so from a very simplistic ethics, whatever he did to their enemies was fair enough. I should also point out that the New Testament is not absent of violence, and the God of the book of Revelations is extraordinarily violent.

I think it’s an over simplification to say that the God of the Old Testament is a God of vengeance, and the God of the New Testament is a God of love. Both aspects of God appear in both parts of the Bible.

RK: Many Christians seem to focus their energy on learning, and living through the example of the New Testament. How do you think the Old Testament should be viewed, and used currently?

MC: I think they should use the whole Bible, because the whole Bible is for Christians the inspired text. I think it is all too easy to take parts of the Bible that you find comfortable, and ignore the rest. If you take the Bible seriously, you should read and study the whole thing, and not say “this is the Old Testament and it doesn’t work anymore.” The Old Testament was the Bible of Jesus, and Paul. Christianity adopted the Old Testament as part of its Bible, so it’s a terrible mistake to think it doesn’t apply anymore.

RK: If you could ask God to clarify one thing in the Bible, what would it be, and why?

MC: Here’s a provocative question: if God had a plan to save the world through his Son, as the New Testament suggests, why did he wait so long? Why did he have to wait thousands of years? Why couldn’t he just solve it immediately?

RK: Is that a question that particularly bothers you?

MC: I think the Christian understanding of Jesus as God’s ultimate plan for redemption raises the question: why is the plan really drawn out? If God wants people to be ‘saved,’ to use theological language, why doesn’t he do it sooner?

RK: When did you become interested in Biblical studies, and why did you decided to devote your life to this?

MC: That’s a biographical question. I was raised Roman Catholic, and was a Jesuit for 10 years. Like many Biblical scholars, I became interested in the Bible because of my belief system. I also had a facility for languages, and enjoyed learning them; I learned Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic.

My beliefs have changed dramatically since I first began studying the Bible, but I have, like I said earlier, found it to be a very challenging, and rewarding book to devote my time to. Most people have to carve time out of their schedules to think about the important issues of the human condition, and their relation to God. I spend everyday reading about what great writer’s have said about those issues, and I consider myself extremely fortunate.

RK: During your time at Harvard, did you find yourself engaged in many heated theological debates?

MC: Well, when I teach, I try to teach without persuading people to believe something, or stop believing something. At Harvard especially, I have people who come from different religious backgrounds, and I want to speak to them all. After teaching a course one year, a student at Harvard asked me, “So, are you Christian, or Jewish?” I took that as a compliment because I had not been trying to insist on one particular perspective.

1) Pick up his book God and Sex: What the Bible Really Says
2) Check out his Stonehill University profile at http://www.stonehill.edu/x9176.xml


  1. michael checkley

    In the 1970s Dr Michael Coogan was one of my profs at University of Waterloo (St Jerome’s College) and he was among the most learned – the brightest. I appreciated his biblical studies classes and he created for me a life long interest in things biblical. For that I am grateful. I appreciated reading this.

  2. Leonard E. Campbell

    Mr Michael Coogan, hello from a former classmate, at saint Raymond’s catholic School,in East Rockaway, New York. I also remember you at the Boy Scout Camp, Baiting Hollow Scout camp.

    I live in Red hook NY, married 47 yrs this August, with three grown Children. Served in South Vietnam and West Germany 1968 to 1971. Retired Chef/ Teacher of culinary Arts.

    I read you background, I sort remembered you studying for the prietshood; also I met your parents on Shelter Island, NY many yrs ago.
    my email is: ratzeputz76@gmail.com

    • Leonard E. Campbell

      Michael are you from East Rockaway or Lynbrook, New York?

      Did you attend Saint Raymond’s catholic School?

  3. John Doe

    Really useful interview. I’m glad to have read it. Thank you! I was wondering about this guy, having noticed his name as the main editor for the New Oxford Annotated Bible. It’s interesting to see his thoughts and views on things.
    (I will note there are a couple typos in the interview which could be fixed)


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