What Are Biblical Values?

What the Bible Says on Key Ethical Issues

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John J. Collins
  • New Haven, CT: 
    Yale University Press
    , August
     296 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In What Are Biblical Values?, John Collins explores “what the Bible actually says, what values the Bible actually affirms, on several key issues” (2). Collins begins by interrogating definitional assumptions in an introductory chapter, “What are Biblical Values?” For Collins the Bible—whether the Hebrew Bible or the Christian Old and New Testaments—does not “say” anything at all; rather, people say things with the Bible. However, while interpretation is not “timelessly valid,” grammar and context prevent it from becoming “simply indeterminate” (5). “Ethical [biblical] interpretation” should arise from a combination of historical work and modern advances in the struggle for human rights (18). Such a historical approach delineates at least three broad “biblical frameworks” used to address ethics: creation, (the Mosaic) covenant, and eschatology/apocalypticism (20–39). As Collins points out, these three interpretive lenses stand in stark contrast to starting points for modern human rights work.

The first cluster of ethical topics relates to individual human rights (chapters 2–4). Collins begins by addressing biblical stances on issues surrounding the value of human life, including human sacrifice, capital punishment, and abortion. When he reads the Bible against the U.N.’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the author questions the value in the Bible’s prioritizing God’s justice, which leads to child sacrifice and repeated advocacy for capital punishment. Likewise, while the Bible nowhere prohibits abortion, concern for God’s justice in Numbers 5:11-31 does seem to prompt the use of abortifacients in a priestly ordeal for women accused of adultery (51–52). Collins then shifts from the value of life to how that life exists in relationships, initially focusing on same-sex relationships in Greek antiquity, the Hebrew Bible, and the New Testament.

For Collins, “the explicit biblical condemnations of homosexual activity are confined to narrow strands of tradition in both Testaments” (81). Yet these values are not uniformly shared across the Bible, as the relationship between David and Jonathan in the books of Samuel would seem to suggest (70–81). Next, Collins turns to the status of women in marriage and family. While the Hebrew Bible is not “consistently patriarchal in a technical sense,” it nevertheless remains “consistently androcentric” in its concern for controlling women’s sexuality through practices like polygamy, bride-price, reparation for rape, and divorce (94–95). The author also unpacks Jesus’s devaluation of the traditional family unit, Paul’s preference for male and female celibacy, and the Pastoral Epistles’ return to Roman patriarchal domestic ideals.

The second cluster of ethical topics focuses on issues relating to corporate life, including care for the environment, slavery, violence, and social justice (chapters 5–9). For Collins, the Hebrew Bible shows more concern for the preservation of the earth than does the New Testament, which is largely distracted by early Christian beliefs that this world would soon literally pass away. Yet, Collins makes the argument that Jesus’s own ethic encourages carefree lives of detachment from the human acquisitiveness that has depleted the Earth’s non-renewable resources (125).

Next, Collins turns to biblical values related to slavery, introducing the reader to liberation theologies and abolitionist hermeneutics along the way. While the Bible generally opposes abuses against slaves, it never criticizes the institution, which even Jesus and the Pauline corpus tacitly support (134). The author broadens from slavery to violence, including Jewish notions of “a virtue of hate” and its reckoning with zeal (essentially a subset of violence because of its intolerance) (see 154–57). This chapter also tests connections between apocalyptic thought, violence, and modern terrorism. Collins concludes his treatment of the topic by revisiting the teachings of Jesus, which he understands as essentially nonviolent compared to a largely violent canonical New Testament.

Finally, in light of the violence used to (mis)manage the land, Collins addresses social justice in the Hebrew Bible, primarily understood as opposing the strong’s oppression of the weak, typified by widows, orphans, and resident aliens. For Collins, “this vision is not of a distributive justice but rather of a right order where both rich and poor have their obligations” (182). The apocalyptic focus of the New Testament largely diminished a sense of urgency for social justice. Nevertheless, Collins argues that for at least some early Christians, the expectation of an imminent end of the world “lends power to the denunciations of Revelation, just as it lent power to the protests of the Hebrew prophets” (194).

The book fittingly concludes with a chapter entitled “The Authority of the Bible,” in light of its “apparent endorsement of positions that now seem reprehensible” (214). As a way forward, Collins emphasizes the biblical value of criticizing received tradition (i.e., the Bible itself) and society (e.g., the prophetic critique of Israelite and Judean society), along with his contention that the Golden Rule should always predominate, and that the ultimate aim of reading the Bible for today should be to enhance life rather that harm it.

Readers looking for clear-cut answers to (or even Collins’s perspective on) key questions of morality will be disappointed because the book focuses on “what the Bible says” about key ethical issues without issuing a moral judgment on the biblical text (58). Yet, in my estimation, this level of restraint, along with its clarity and utility, make What are Biblical Values? the best book available on biblical values/ethics.

The book was beneficial in an upper-level undergraduate course last fall on the Bible and contemporary ethical issues. My students and I found the book refreshing for its circumspect restrain and focus on historical analysis. Collins’s own religious commitments are also, as far as I can tell, left out of the book’s argument, which helped students outside of Jewish or Christian traditions feel included and modeled a laudable limited “objectivity.” Finally, I appreciated the book’s constructive tone, since some religiously conservative students found much of this book challenging.

What are Biblical Values? should be required reading for anyone interested in exploring the nature and extent of the relevance of “biblical values” for our modern world, whether in upper-level undergraduate, graduate, and divinity school courses.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Michael R. Whitenton is Lecturer in the Baylor Interdisciplinary Core at Baylor University.

Date of Review: 
August 6, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

John J. Collins is Holmes Professor of Old Testament Criticism and Interpretation at Yale Divinity School.


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