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) – 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.