Jesus, the Hebrew scriptures and #SH2011 – another excursus

Anyway, where were we? Ah, yes. The Bible.

One thing that I have heard a number of times from conservative evangelicals is the argument that, because Jesus apparently believed in the “literal truth” of the Hebrew scriptures, then we should too. They point to the various places in the Gospels where Jesus, in conversation with various groups and individuals, takes Old Testament passages at their face value to make a point. At first sight this seems like a reasonable argument. After all, Jesus was God, the second person of the Trinity. So he should know. Right?

I recently heard a version of this argument from the lips of Krish Kandiah at a seminar I attended at Spring Harvest 2011 in Skegness. I blogged about my (one day) attendance here. The occasion was a seminar on the Tough Texts of the Bible, in this case the Genocidal Texts particularly Deuteronomy 20, where God appears not only to sanction but to command the obliteration of the nations living in the Promised Land. Parts of the seminar were actually quite good, and the problems these texts present were well acknowledged. However I was disappointed to hear Krish bring up this argument to bolster his claim that we should not just conclude that the writers of these texts either misheard God or were pursuing their own agendas.

At the event there was not the opportunity or the time to argue the toss with Krish – there were several hundred people present, and judging by the nodding of heads when he said this, and the few responses that made it to the microphone, many of them were in agreement with him.

However, regardless of one’s view of the historicity of the Hebrew scriptures or of one’s position regarding infallibility or inerrancy, I think that there are a number of weaknesses with this argument. I would say that there are two broad areas where the argument falls down – the first theological, the second rhetorical.

Firstly, although I agree with Krish that Jesus Christ was God incarnate, he was also fully human. Paul in his letter to the Philippians outlines this process:

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. (Philippians 2:5-7 NRSV, my emphasis)

Now I will be the first to admit that what this emptying exactly means in practice has been the subject of study, conversation and dispute among theologians and Bible scholars for centuries. But there is agreement that Jesus was in some way limited by becoming human. He learned his (Hebrew) Bible in a human way (we get a glimpse of this in the childhood incident recorded in Luke 2:421ff.). Jesus is nowhere presented as possessing the omniscience we often ascribe to God. Indeed, at the Ascension it appears that there may be things that even the post-resurrection Jesus may not know – the times and seasons that will bring in the fullness of the kingdom of God (Acts 1:7) – certainly things he is not at liberty to disclose to the disciples. Furthermore, in the Gospel narrative, what Jesus does know about other people (the secrets of human hearts) could easily be the result of a highly developed, Holy Spirit-guided intuition.

To argue then, as many do, that Jesus necessarily had a greater understanding of the historicity of the Hebrew scriptures than his contemporaries seems simply to ignore the kenosis involved in Jesus’ incarnation.

Secondly, we come to the rhetorical point: namely, what was it that Jesus was trying to communicate to his contemporaries? Even if we were to allow that Jesus DID know that much more about the historicity of the Hebrew scriptures, would it have been helpful or profitable for him to begin arguing this particular point with the Jewish people (whether the intellectuals or the common people) of his day? Would this not have been a distraction to his primary teaching and purposes which was to give them a clearer understanding and experience of the Kingdom of God/Heaven? Given the reluctance of some to embrace what he did say, wouldn’t teaching that the Hebrew scriptures were not what they appeared and were understood to be have given the excuse for more widespread rejection of the core of his teaching?

When Jesus teaches, he does so from what he and his interlocutors have in common. The wise Christian missionary has always worked in this way. Within the NT writings, Paul looks for things he has in common with his audience – the Hebrew scriptures with his Jewish and “God-fearing” audiences, pagan philosophers and poets with Gentile intellectuals, creation with the populations of Iconium, Lystra and Derbe. Today, it would be unwise for, say, a missionary to Muslims to begin by attacking their understanding of the Qur’an. There are far more important issues at stake. So with Jesus, the historicity of the OT is not an issue germane to his purposes. Indeed, it is unlikely that his audience could have understood him at all had he approached the issue the way we might do so in the early twenty-first century.

Nor, to my mind, does it make a significant difference to the points he does make. Take, for instance, his use of the story of Jonah. Does it make a difference to his point if the story is not history? Preachers often use imaginary stories without an historical foundation to convey truth, indeed Jesus’ own parables are prime examples. Jesus’ reference to the story of Jonah to draw parallels with his own suffering, death and resurrection do not rely on the story’s historicity but takes something that is well known and uses it to illuminate their understanding and expectation of what being Messiah actually involves.

So can we, perhaps, agree to stop trying to use this as a killer argument? The premise may or may not be a valid one, but if it is, it is so on quite other grounds and this argument does little or nothing to advance our understanding of the Hebrew scriptures.

What the Bible means (to me) – a brief excursus

Here is a brief question as an aside to the main posts:

In the light of Paul’s words in 2 Timothy 3:16-17 (“All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching…”), and assuming that Acts can be understood to be now included in this category, consider this verse from Acts 17, where Paul is preaching in Athens and quotes two pagan poets, Epimenides and Aratus:

For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we too are his offspring.’ (Acts 17:28, NRSV)

My question is this – at what point, exactly, were the words “In him we live  and move and have our being” and “For we too are his offspring” inspired by God? Was it (a) when the poets wrote them? (b) when Paul quoted them in his address? or (c) when Luke made the editorial decision to include them in his book?

What the Bible means (to me) – part the first

For some time now I have felt that I wanted to post a series about the Bible. We read the Bible a lot in our churches. In the Church of England, not only do we read an Old Testament portion, maybe a Psalm, a New Testament reading and one from the Gospels at the Eucharist; we also read an Old Testament reading, one from the New Testament as well as one or more Psalms and canticles usually drawn from Old and New Testaments at Morning and Evening Prayer. That is a lot of Bible.

In addition, classically, we use Scripture along with tradition, reason and experience to determine doctrine and praxis. Synod papers and reports will (if we are lucky) have considered what scripture has to say about the principles relating to matters under discussion. And the theological formation and training of our clergy and lay ministers will have included some elements of Biblical Studies.

However, it is clear that when we talk to each other, especially about the more controversial issues that face the church in our times, that there is a wide divergence of opinion not only about the issues themselves but about the part that our reading of scripture should play in our attempt to come to a common mind. It becomes clear the Bible means different things to different people. Not only that, but groupings have coalesced around these differences of approach, which can then lead to talking past each other as the lack of shared assumptions makes itself felt. As an example of one extreme, take this comment from a recent blog discussion relating to the State of Israel:

The Bible is a book that was written to be taken literally. To read it with your clever eyes and your education is to adapt it for your own end.

Christian Zionists see what is there and interpret all things by the light of the Biblical prophecies, numerologies, and modern prophetic utterances.

For this commentator, there was little or no doubt that the Bible is the word of God, and should determine our attitudes and actions today. But I have lots of questions about the assumptions behind the statements. At the other extreme, of course, are those for whom the Bible is at best a collection of interesting ancient documents, but of little or no relevance in determining how one should live life today. And I have questions about that, too.

So in (some of) the next few blog posts here, I want to consider what the Bible is, how we read and interpret it and what place it should occupy in the life of the individual Christian and the church.

I should perhaps add that my views on this subject have changed considerably over the years – as will no doubt become clear. Comments will be very welcome if they contribute to a fruitful discussion.

Interest in question

You know what it’s like – sometimes you are in a conversation with someone and suddenly their response seems out of all proportion to what you thought you just said. Or the conversation takes a weirdly unexpected turn and you wonder, “Where did THAT come from?” The answer of course is that we never know exactly what is going on inside someone else’s head, what connections our words make, or what buttons are there just waiting to be pushed. Sometimes it can feel as though Jason Bourne (eponymous hero of Robert Ludlum’s trilogy) had been triggered to action by hearing a particular word spoken.

I hope Revd Lesley will forgive me if that happened to her in an exchange we had yesterday when the subjects of usury and homosexuality came up. What probably seemed to her a relatively uncontroversial analogy in a genuine, though hypothetical, question about homosexuality led to some thoughts I’ve been having about our relationship with our banking and financial systems.

The issue of usury turns out to be an interesting one in relation to the sexuality issue that threatens to divide the Anglican Communion today. The Hebrew Bible gives a clear prohibition to the Israelites against lending “at usury” to their “brothers” – taken to mean any other Israelite. The Hebrew word used indicates any form of interest (as does the Arabic word used for a similar prohibition in the Qur’an). It suggests that charging interest was considered to be a form of exploitation which was not conducive to good social relationships in Israelite society.

During the medieval period, the Western Christian Church maintained a prohibition (based on a reading of the Hebrew scriptures which replaced Israel with the Christian Church) on Christians charging other Christians interest on loans. During the twelfth century this was enshrined in English law. Of course this made things rather difficult for kings and rulers who wished to wage war but didn’t always have the required cash at hand to pay the troops. No pay, and they began to drift back to their own lands to carry on feeding themselves. Solution? Borrow from the Jews, who could charge interest to Christians. No ecclesiastical or civil laws broken, people able and persuadeable (if not always entirely willing). Job done. No sins committed on either side.

Except, of course, that this charging of interest fuelled a certain amount of resentment against a people who were already branded as “Christ-killers” by then-current Church teaching. Financial and economic resentment was stirred into the theological antisemitism that has remained a toxic mix over many centuries.

Skip forward a few centuries, and interest is everywhere in the financial landscape and no respecter of religious or ethnic groups (with the exception of Muslims, which I will come to in a later post). What has happened? No, seriously, because I’d like to know more.

First, we find that during this period theologians (no less) have identified a number of situations where it is (apparently) OK to lend and borrow at interest. So people start doing it. By the mid sixteenth century laws are passed in England restricting the amount of interest that may be charged. This is not to say that it is immediately accepted as a Good Thing. The Merchant of Venice shows that in Elizabethan England, most people still regard interest as a Bad Thing. But the stage has been set.

Secondly, we find that terminology has changed, in the English language at least. That good old word “usury” has now come to mean not simply (any) charging of interest but the charging of “excessive” interest. So when people hear or read the Bible (Authorised/King James Version at any rate), they may hear or read the same physical word, but what they now understand by it is different. One might say that sin has been redefined. What was once considered unacceptable – an affront to Christian society and to God – has now become acceptable.

So where are all the sermons and articles railing against Christians who take and pay interest on their savings and loans? Where are the placards and picket lines outside General Synod protesting at the way the Church Commissioners do their business? Why aren’t we bothered any more?

Sex, marriage and texts

I had planned to write yesterday about the story of St. Nicholas, Sevenoaks and their teaching about marriage and the place of women in society and the church. The story has been covered, from different viewpoints, by the Church Mouse, Maggi Dawn and Peter Ould among others.

In the event, time ran out for me and I abandoned the post part way through writing.   However, this from Bishop Alan reminded me again of an important point in relation to the story.  He wrote:

A theologically based point of view cannot be validated merely because it uses God-talk and Scripture, appeals to conventional understanding from former ages, or is passionately and sincerely held.

No doubt some would disagree.  But at the heart of the matter is the question of how we use texts, particularly biblical ones. No matter what the texts may once have meant to those to whom they were originally addressed centuries ago, we cannot ignore the use and abuse to which those texts have been put in the intervening period. No matter what Matthew and his audience understood by his narrative of the trial of Jesus, here in the 21st century we cannot read the chilling words of Matthew 27:25 without being aware of the way in which these verses were later used (by Christians) to stir up antisemitic hatred and violence. So any preacher using this text today needs to work extra hard to overcome these negative connotations and to help her audience engage with it appropriately, both theologically and ethically.

The verses from 1 Peter 3 at the heart of the Sevenoaks controversy also need careful treatment, along with Ephesians 5 and various other texts dealing with both marriage and women.  Again we have texts which have been abused to prop up a highly patriarchal view of both the church and wider society, and have been used to justify everything from the expectation that a man’s dinner will be on the table just when he wants it, to physical abuse and even rape within marriage. The texts themselves, of course, do not teach this, but when coupled with a particular worldview and a particular culture can be used to support the unsupportable.

Mark Oden seems to be aware of at least some of this.  His sermon is peppered with phrases like, “I’m NOT saying that…”  Nevertheless, the overall message of the sermon seems to be in support of a viewpoint that many would say was outmoded.  Jesus berated those Pharisees with whom he was in conversation for thinking that by simply studying and sticking to the letter of scripture they had found eternal life (John 5:39). [And yes, I am aware of some of the connotations of speaking about this passage!] Jesus clearly expected them to apply some thinking that took into account both the nature of God and the needs of real people – what we might call compassion, in the true sense of the word.

As St. Paul put it, “[God] has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant—not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.” (2 Corinthians 3:6).